As companies like Best Buy add local service and home consultation, direct sales organizations must train distributors on every aspect of the products they sell to remain competitive. The personalized in-home selling trend will reach every corner of the consumer market over the next five to ten years, placing the direct selling one-on-one customer relationship advantage in mortal peril. Product knowledge training is the basis for improved sales, faster product and business process innovation.
But most companies struggle to keep their reps trained, let alone ingest the ongoing feedback from the field that can ignite higher revenue and profits. Too often leadership’s expectations are based on ageing practices that are obsolete in the era of cloud services.
As selling becomes personalized, mobile, and mission-based in the hands of values-driven generations, the tools needed to successfully mine the data created through these interactions are the highest priority for a sales organization. In direct selling, the imperative to gather and analyze feedback from representatives is rising in the face of aggressive retail investment in personalization, not to mention improving distributor retention rates in an increasingly mobile workforce.
Product knowledge is the foundation of customer engagement and trust. “87 [percent] of consumers said they would be unlikely or very unlikely to make a repeat purchase with a retailer that provided inaccurate product information,” according to Shotfarm.com, a Chicago content management company. Each sales rep who flubs a fundamental product knowledge question because they are selling outside their area of competence due to poor coaching runs the risk of permanently losing a customer for the brand.
Combining content management with machine learning to deliver personalized product training to salespeople in the field redefines the challenge of keeping product knowledge up to date. “Smart” tools assist in building product knowledge and coach salespeople toward the products with which they are most likely to succeed. As marketing, training, and sales content libraries grow, machine librarians will be poised to help distributors tell a consistently expert story about products.
Augmenting a sales rep with appropriate content and sales process coaching ensures a brand can deliver the right content to a curious prospective buyer at the right time.
Today, sales and marketing leadership is challenged to rethink the training process to accelerate sales conversion rates while building higher customer retention rates based on distributor engagement in the branded selling process. Every salesperson-customer relationship is unique and companies today must treat them as such. This is a new opportunity, one born of the information era and utterly foreign to traditional sales strategy that uses one training program across the entire company.
Starting with achievable expectations
It is not necessary to try to train everyone in an organization about every product in the same way. Instead, training is conceived as a personalized experience that addresses the specific learning and selling styles of the salespeople in the field. This groundwork lays the tracks to personalization of customer experience.
Tracking sales activity using automation turns organization-wide product knowledge training into a tractable problem. Since direct-selling representatives tend to specialize in niche areas within a brand’s product portfolio, targeted training allows sales management to fine-tune product knowledge investments. Knowing precisely which products a direct sales distributor is trying to sell, machine learning enabled content platforms can identify knowledge gaps and serve up training that addresses the individual distributor and their customer’s needs.
Instead of aiming for 100 percent product knowledge across the company, the platform allows leadership to treat product knowledge challenges in isolation, using the sales coaching process to move distributors toward complete competence in their area of interest. People in the field experience less frustration because they receive more information that is relevant to them, which leads to a higher retention rate among distributors. That product knowledge competence extends to the customer experience as distributors become deep experts who can answer every customer question quickly and accurately.
When great distributors stay, they keep their customers with the company.
Diane Valenti writing for the Association of Talent Development suggests managers develop “return-on-investment” expectations as a baseline for training investments. “Assuming that sales reps are applying what they learned, you can measure whether what they are doing is getting results using sales metrics that you already have in place,” Valenti said. “Don’t invent anything new.”
Direct sales companies can start out with the content and process they have today and modify it, rather than try to reinvent themselves from scratch. Existing training video, audio, and documents can link to assessments of how well a sales rep has learned.
As a starting point, marketing and sales teams in direct selling organizations can base assessments of distributor competence on individual sales success, not just the all-up sales results for the organization. By capturing more feedback from each rep, such as asking them review questions a part of a daily or weekly briefing delivered to their phone or having them record customer interest level after each conversation, leadership can move quickly to refine training programs at the individual content asset level to improve overall performance. This investment leads to improved conversion rates and average revenue per customer as the likelihood customers will become dissatisfied due to knowledge gaps in the organization is reduced because each representative is well trained.
Resisting investment in training is costly. Ignoring feedback from reps can be deadly. The Center for American Progress estimated that organizations with poor training see $13.5 million in costs due to poor skills, employee disengagement and higher turnover. For a direct selling network with 20,000 distributors, the direct costs and lost sales could be as high as $270 million annually.
Product knowledge training based on extensive feedback and personalization is a source of product and marketing ideas, not just a means to sell.
The ideas captured by listening intently to reps responding to customer needs can be used to redesign products and improve the customer journey. Insight at the field level will determine which companies win. Boston Consulting Group research in 2015 found that fast innovators are more successful, bringing new features and categories to market more quickly to generate as much as 30 percent of revenue annually from new products. Survivors of creative destruction don’t eke by, they thrive.
Successful training based on knowing “What’s Next?”
The training process itself is the map to organization-wide improvement. An attribution modelling strategy systematically allows a company to lay out its expected sales journey and compare the resulting training and sales feedback with initial assumptions to pinpoint content and training gaps. The steps in the sales journey become a template for “What’s Next” in the representative’s day long after they have complete product knowledge. The same information used to train a rep can be repurposed to support their selling.
Product knowledge training linked to sales success or the setbacks experienced by reps in the field is also a leading indicator of customer issues. Following up on customer conversations with training material related to the engagement keeps the rep focused on learning and providing even more feedback about a product’s perceived value.
Automation leaves managers more time for understanding feedback, rapid, intuitive analysis of sales data, and improved content programming and product development. They can deliver more of what the field needs: Guidance and better resources. A What’s Next-based sales platform managed by a machine learner can experiment with the content delivery process, analyze the impact of small changes on conversion, and translate the findings into new sales journeys, as well as mine feedback for delivery to the product team.
A content platform with machine learning keeps the information stream to the distributor concentrated on what drives sales success for one person and one product, or an entire brand with minimal human oversight.
By making product knowledge the fulcrum of customer engagement, with personalized training for the distributor to help them move to better outcomes, a direct selling company reinforce its one-to-one relationship advantage in the market. Ultimately, the What’s Next design anticipates the customer’s questions, identifying their needs to give the representative greater insight into what drives the sales decision for each prospect.
The question every sales leader must confront is: “Are you confident that your sales team knows everything about your products that the customer will want to know before buying?” The answer at each step is found in laying out what the expected next step toward a close and measuring for success after each engagement.
The 70,000-ft. view of sales results is no longer sufficient in the personalized marketplace; managers must use automation to move along with their salespeople at the edge of the network.
See You In San Diego
Gig Economy Group and LifeVantage will be presenting at the upcoming Direct Selling Association 2018 Annual Meeting in San Diego, June 17 through 19. We look forward to meeting you at the event, where our team will be exploring critical questions about the future of direct selling. Schedule a demo or reach out to meet and talk at our suite during the event.
We would also appreciate your joining our blog team for a discussion at the event about the challenges facing the industry. We will be writing about direct-selling in the weeks before DSA 2018 and would like to include your thoughts in our reports. Send an email to schedule an interview.