Timur Hicyilmaz

The theoretical knowledge burden on salespeople is huge. We expect them to know the products, be conversant in industry trends and also understand customer businesses. So we ask salespeople to spend a lot of time being trained.

That’s especially true when the sale is complex and where translating business requirements into technical specifications will constitute much of the sale. But we also can’t ask our sales people to spend all their time in the classroom. How, then, do we prioritize necessary knowledge? 

What Knowledge should sellers prioritize?

Once again, Challenger’s database of seller attributes provides an answer. The question we set out to answer: how would you expect to perform as a seller if you had to choose among industry, product or customer knowledge (the latter defined as understanding of the customer’s value drivers)? 

Take a look at the graph above, it models the likelihood of a seller being a high performer depending on the kind of knowledge they demonstrate. 

For starters, it’s highly unlikely a seller can be a high performer without either product or industry knowledge (only 9% in this situation are high performers). The probability improves as the seller develops either product or industry expertise or both. A seller with both attributes is a full 88% more likely to be a high performer over someone with neither (at 17% compared to 9% likelihood). 

But what’s fascinating about this data is what happens when you add knowledge of customer value drivers (the orange portion of the line). Just knowing customer value drivers produces a greater likelihood of high performance than having either product or industry knowledge (19% likelihood: a dramatic improvement from our starting point). 

You’ll notice the line curves up as we move right: with the seller’s likelihood of being a high performer going up to 32% once he/she possess knowledge in all three areas. This isn’t just a linear increase, it’s a clear acceleration. 

Finding the right Knowledge focus for sellers

We think this has enormous implications for how you think about sellers spending time learning and for how you would want to support them. First, you’ll note that industry knowledge on its own is always slightly more important than product knowledge.

That’s surprising and counter-intuitiveIn our experience, most companies spend more time providing product training than helping their sellers understand broad industry trends: that’s likely a mistake. 

The fascinating part, however, is that knowing customer value drivers is much, much more important than either product or industry knowledge. At a minimum, that can inform your hiring. If somebody comes to you with a fine sense for how past customers have created value then that person is likely a good hire, even if he/she has no experience with your product. The learning curve for that individual will be steep but the pay-off is likely high. 

More important, however, is what this means in terms of how you focus the sales force: you first need to make sure sellers are true experts in understanding the customer. Added knowledge about the industry and product will support this. In a world where Mobilizers often have to convince internal teams of the value that your sellers bring to the table, you win if your sellers develop deep expertise in how different organizations function and manage this process. 

Timur Hicyilmaz

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.