An episode of The Big Bang Theory television show that first aired in 2008 has Penny and Sheldon in an electronics store looking for a gift for Leonard. A customer who happens to be near them overhears their conversation and realizes that Sheldon could help her figure out what she needs to buy for her business. She asks him how she can connect a computer in her office to one in her warehouse, and Sheldon tells her she needs a point to point peer network with a range extender.
Within moments Sheldon is dispensing technical advice to a long queue of customers. Then he is at the in-store computer telling a customer, “We don’t have that in stock, but I can special order it for you.” At that point, the store manager approaches and says, “You don’t work here,” and Sheldon answers, “Yes, well, apparently neither does anyone else.”
It’s funny because we’ve all had the experience of dealing with sales people who don’t understand the products they are selling and are clueless about how to solve our problem. It can be frustrating, and Sheldon’s cutting remark to the store manager gives us a little bit of satisfaction. The lesson, of course, is that truly successful sales people bring comprehensive product knowledge to the sales process.
At the same time, however, too much product knowledge can interfere with the sales process. Just as we’ve all been in the situation of dealing with a clueless sales person, most of us have also suffered through the experience of being drowned in technical specifications by a different kind of clueless sales person — the one who believes there’s no difference between a sales pitch and a data dump.
Why is it so difficult to find the line between offering too little product knowledge and too much? I think it’s because there’s a natural tendency to treat product knowledge as intrinsically important. It’s not. Product knowledge is only useful as far as it connects to a customer’s need. To determine the customer’s need, you must listen to what the customer says. As long as you’re reciting product specifications, you’re not listening.
In Communispond’s sales training, Socratic Selling Skills® and Socratic Selling Skills® for Salesforce.com® Users, we suggest that a sales professional spend at least half of his or her customer interaction time listening. There’s no need to talk very much until it’s time to present the sales proposal, and that doesn’t happen until you have gathered enough information about the customer’s needs to make the proposal. Before that, even if the customer asks you a direct question, the best strategy is to answer as briefly as possible, then follow up with another question: “I'm curious. Why do you ask?” That follow-up question will give you another chance to listen, and it’s likely to elicit valuable, and often unexpected, information about the customer’s situation.
For the professional sales person, comprehensive product knowledge is not an objective to be mastered. It is a starting point — a basic prerequisite to becoming useful to a customer or prospect. When your body of product knowledge contains the solution to the customer’s problem, the sale can occur. The product knowledge that doesn’t relate to the customer’s problem is not only uninteresting to the customer, its appearance in your conversation can delay or even prevent the sale.