The Man (or Woman) Who Knew Too Much

Most businesses need salespeople. Most salespeople need to know what they are selling. This leaves many owners on the proverbial horns of a dilemma. Should they hire a great salesperson and teach him the business, or should they take someone who knows the business and teach her how to sell?

When I have this discussion with clients, they often seek a third way- finding a competitor’s top salesperson; one who knows the business, and whom they can steal away. That tactic comes with a big price tag, which too often translates into big (and immediate) expectations for both parties. Except in the rarest of cases (made even more rare by the prevalence of non-compete agreements) customers don’t shift their loyalty to a new company fast enough to make either the employee or the employer happy.

Putting aside the hired gun strategy, let’s talk about the other two. Which is more important, sales knowledge or technical knowledge? Most owners would say sales knowledge, and they would be right. Then they proceed to over train in technical knowledge, in direct defiance of their hiring logic.

This over-valuation is evidenced in the emphasis on “learning the business.” This ranges from familiarity with the catalog to understanding how the product is made. The owner, who is vested in his own product or service offering, believes that an ability to discuss technical issues competently is a prerequisite for representing his company.

That simply isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is often the case. My Dad sold industrial packaging, first 5 gallon steel pails and later, polyethelene cubes. With the latter, the President of the company decided that all salesmen should understand how the cubes were made. Then they could better discuss a customer’s technical needs.

A secondary objective was to reduce the friction between sales and operations. Like most sales departments, these fellows kept asking for things that production couldn’t deliver. Understanding what went into the manufacturing process would reduce those problems.

Each salesman had to spend several days in the plant, working at every phase of the production process. Within a few months, the results became plain. Sales started to fall, and kept falling.

In a panic, the President hired a marketing firm to talk to the customers. Here’s what came back:

“We love your product, but lately it seems it is just too difficult to get exactly what we want. Every time we ask our salesman for a modification, like moving a handle or putting the printed information in a different place, he launches into a long technical explanation of how difficult that is. He tells us how that part of the process works, and the challenges production would have making the necessary modifications. So we’ve started sourcing alternative packaging.”

The salespeople were summarily barred from entering the plant. Sales went back up. The manufacturing people started complaining about the sales department again.

All your salespeople have to know is what the customer’s problem is, and that your company has a solution. Let the technicians handle the details.

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One Response to The Man (or Woman) Who Knew Too Much

  1. Gerald Gaenslen says:

    As a sales and marketing manager for 30+ years, I couldn’t agree more with your insight. It’s far more important to hire a “salesman” and let him sell than to move a technician or even a marketing person into a sales position. I’ve learned the hard way!
    While it’s often good to have the experience of walking a mile in another’s shoes, the sales to manufacturing doesn’t work, just as the manufacturer to sales wouldn’t work either.
    Thanks, Gerald

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