Tapping Salespeople’s Market Knowledge
During the past few decades, the job of selling has been professionalized. What was once seen as a transaction oriented task best accomplished by hustling, has become a consultative and value-added job function requiring individuals that have the business acumen along with their performance motivation. The time is ripe for the organizations that deploy these professional salespeople to reap the next level of value from their hard work: tapping salespeople’s market knowledge.
Salespeople are in a unique position within the modern business organization. Unlike most other job functions, salespeople are required to be in constant direct contact with end customers. Through their continual customer engagement, salespeople have the opportunity to develop deep knowledge with respect to specific customer needs and values.
With a transactional sales force, the potential to capture customer needs and values in the selling process is small. However professional selling today requires salespeople to create profiles of each individual customer and each individual deal they work with those customers. In engaging customers and creating profiles, salespeople uncover mountains of information. Most of this information has value only with respect to closing a specific sales opportunity, but some of it has value to the larger issue of guiding the direction of the company.
The collective knowledge of salespeople can be used to explore the key marketing variables. For offering management, requirements uncovered or desires expressed in the sales process can be used to develop lists of potential areas to improve the value offering or expand the footprint of the product suite. For price management, salespeople’s knowledge of different customers and the value that they place on the offer can be used to create pricing mechanisms that more closely reflect the customer’s perception of value. For positioning, the salespeople’s familiarity of the reasons customers selected the offer and the variety of the offer’s uses can be used to explore new positioning statements or to expand the body of marketing support material. And also, through the salespeople’s networking activities, new target markets or channel opportunities may be uncovered.
For executives to tap this knowledge, feedback mechanisms are required to pass market intelligence back to the managers charged with decision making. Without a feedback mechanism, most of this knowledge will remain tucked away in salespeople’s minds or filed in an obscure part of the company’s contact management system.
Suggesting a strategy of collecting market intelligence through salespeople can be tactically challenging to implement in organizations that operate as silos. Cognizant of this challenge, we provide two simple approaches that can be implemented.
From the salespersons perspective, information should be collected with each sale then periodically summarized and communicated to the appropriate managers. After each selling opportunity, salespeople can make a note of the new challenges and opportunities uncovered as they relate to product needs, price tolerances, market opportunities, or product uses. Quarterly, this information can be summarized into a management memo highlighting commonalities and unique opportunities. This memo should focus on information that fits into one of two categories: new knowledge that is not known to the rest of the organization and that which informs specific questions that are of current strategic importance to the company. Information that the managers would already know should not be included in this memo if the memo is to have any value.
Two major challenges that salespeople have in sharing information with other managers are the issues of informational biases and territory protection. Any information coming from a salesperson will be suspect of being biased towards making that salesperson’s life easier. Use specific customers and conversations helps to reduce the perceived bias. Communicating market knowledge from the position of a salesperson can be construed to imply that the salesperson is dissatisfied with their job or believes that other managers need their help to do their job. To overcome the reaction to protect managerial territory, the memo should also include a clear disclaimer that the market information contained is provided to share direct market feedback with those who would most value it and that the salesperson is pleased to have the opportunity to engage the market on behalf of the company. Direct supervisors should be made aware that the intent of the memo is to ensure that the company is more in-tune with the market than the competitors are.
From the market perspective, information should be collected from a few salespeople in a manner similar to that executive interview based research. On a quarterly basis, marketing managers can seek discussions with individual salespeople about what they are hearing from their customers. One-on-one interviews provide access to deep insights that group discussions often obscure. In group discussions with salespeople, the discussion direction is most likely to lean towards that of the strongest salesperson or defer to the manager’s approval. Any filter that prevents access to raw data will lower the value of the effort in collecting information.
Although much of the data that the salespeople provide may not be actionable, a sense of the direction that the customer demands are moving towards will be uncovered. Also, data collected from interviewing salespeople can be used to develop a longer list of possibilities when formulating market strategy.
Tapping the Value
Salespeople’s knowledge should prove to be a valuable source of market intelligence that requires little effort to collect. Their role in constantly engaging the market gives salespeople access to customer demands and values that is challenging to uncover. Their experience with consultative and value-added sales methodologies has trained salespeople to listen to customers and capture customer knowledge. Either through the salespeople forwarding periodic memos or the marketing team interviewing salespeople on a periodic basis, the costs to capture this knowledge is that of a little more effort. It is almost as if the value is sitting on the table waiting for someone to pick it up.