Case study: Arming salespeople with effective sales information

If you want to sell more products, you need to equip your salespeople with effective information. When you give them the information they need, they’ll go out and close more deals for you.

I did a bunch of work for one of the world’s largest enterprise software companies to help equip their sales teams. They created massive applications that store information, crunch numbers, and perform all the tasks you need to run a big business… and they sold these software applications to all the other big businesses in the world. Their software applications were mind-bogglingly immense, and complex, and they could be sold into numerous industries.

So when this software company’s sales teams were calling on a prospective client, the sales team had to get up to speed fast on the software they were selling.

That’s where I came in. Not just me, actually. I worked with a team of people including graphic artists, technology experts, editors, and a project manager; I was the writer.

Here’s what we did:

I, and the team I worked with, would get massive amounts of information from the corporation — content that included case studies, technical specifications, brochures, presentations, industry analyses, etc. — and we would distill this information into really sales-specific points. We followed a basic template in which we’d cover topics like the key industries that the software would help, what benefits the software provided, what marquee clients were already using the software, conversation starters that a salesperson might use to talk about the software, etc. Then we’d write this information up into a 20 minute interactive online presentation that covered all the topics quickly but thoroughly, allowing a sales team to get up to speed on the important parts of the sale in a very short amount of time.

It was sales training but not generic sales training — it was highly specific sales training to accomplish a goal: To empower the client’s sales team to get up to speed on their products fast so they could sell more effectively.

Each project would take anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months to build, going through several levels of review and refinement. In total, I worked on more than a dozen of these information products, and was also sometimes tasked with writing content that would be used in customer-facing scenarios.

Even more interesting was that the projects were sometimes fairly standard (hey, it’s enterprise software — how exciting can it get?) but there were times when we were called upon to go above and beyond: When the executives in the organization asked us to help them “sell” a very sensitive price increase, we delivered. And when we were tasked with helping the organization through a complicated merger, we delivered.

The projects were very valuable for me: They taught me to apply sales skills into a multinational organization context, I got to work for a fairly well-known company (as well as their partners, which are just as well-known) and I got to work with a team, which is something I enjoy but don’t always get to do.

And the projects were valuable for the client, too. The content we produced was initially intended for a small, internal audience and they used it to help them to close multi-million dollar deals. And later, our work expanded somewhat beyond that scope and that content was sometimes used to educate the larger organization about their product and even as part of the customer-facing sales presentation.

I’m particularly proud of those projects because they had highly tangible results for a variety of audiences.

Case study: Dealing with the problem of rapid business growth

Business growth sounds good, doesn’t it? But rapid business growth can cause problems — perhaps more problems than you realize. There was a year in my business when I enjoyed rapid business growth. It was awesome! But the next year brought a tax bill that caught me completely by surprise and I spent the rest of that year struggling to make ends meet because most of my income was flowing to the government to pay off that tax bill. I learned my lesson: While rapid business growth is good, you should expect and prepare for challenges.

Rapid business growth brings another problem, as well…

One client in the automotive space had grown rapidly in a very short time. Through new company offices, acquisitions of competition, and a new franchise model, they went from a regional success story to a multinational one in just a few years. Times were good. But one “cost” of rapid business growth is that their customer experience started to falter.

When they were starting out and growing steadily, they were able to train staff and control the customer experience closely, and, in fact, it was that very customer experience that helped them to continue to grow so well. However, once they started opening new offices and acquiring other companies and franchisees, that customer experience was no longer consistent from one office to the next. In company-owned offices, the customer experience might be one way, in franchise offices, the customer experience might be another way, and in acquired companies (especially long-established ones!), the customer experience might be completely different.

This client hired me to help them develop training that could take them to the next level. There were three other challenges that I faced in this project:

  • The company already had computer-based training and web-based training that they delivered to their staff, and that training worked when they were smaller and had more control over each office. But now, their company had grown and out-grown their training, but they still wanted to use some of it.
  • The company was now located in multiple jurisdictions, which changed some aspects of their customer experience based on the laws and business environment of each different jurisdiction.
  • Additionally, they wanted to shore up their income by integrating more sales into their customer service experience.

So here’s what I did to help them…

  1. I outlined the training that their staff needed in order to be up-to-speed with the company’s preferred way of serving customers.
  2. I carefully reviewed the training they had and, when possible, plugged pieces of that existing training in where possible. (Some of it could be used verbatim; some of it needed to be revised).
  3. I wrote extensive new content where their training needs were not being met, providing specific best practices and scripts, as well as integrated sales material.
  4. I worked closely with their team, not only to ensure that it met their needs but also to ensure that the training material was accurate for each jurisdiction they now did business in.
  5. I wrote this content to be deployed in computer-based and web-based training and supported with a manual and workbook.

The company started their training with a single course covering the high-level points that their staff needed to be reminded of. When the project was complete, they had a thorough training package that delivered their must-know information through multiple modules covering different aspects of sales and customer service.

A customer loyalty lesson learned from my friend’s emergency trip to the hospital

A friend of mine works at a Starbucks not too far from my house. I’ve known him for several years and he became a barista at Starbucks maybe a year or two ago.

Well, earlier this week he was rushed to the hospital because his lung collapsed. He’s been at the hospital ever since, sometimes returning home but frequently staying at the hospital overnight for observation. He seems to be doing okay, although we’re not yet sure why his lung collapsed.

Now here’s what shocked me: I just found out today that some of his Starbucks customers came to visit him in the hospital.

That’s impressive customer loyalty! In fact, that goes beyond customer loyalty to a true relationship!

Loyal customers are profitable customers. They buy again and again with very little prompting, and they talk up the business to others.

I’ve found that creating customer loyalty is rarely something that happens at the business level. It happens at the employee level. Customers may become loyal to businesses (and a lot of Starbucks customers are loyal to Starbucks!), but customers more frequently and more easily become loyal to the people in those businesses.

So, are you helping your employees create customer loyalty?

  • Give your employees the freedom to stop and chat with customers. By comparison, a lot of retail-based companies take the approach “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean”, and their staff rush around cleaning instead of pausing for a moment to strike up a conversation with a customer. The downside is that your employees might not get that counter as clean as you’d like it. The upside is higher profitability from customers who feel that they have a relationship with the person behind the counter.
  • Give your employees the tools to strike up a meaningful conversation and build a relationship. Not everyone is socially savvy, so a few conversation starters is a good way to help your employees.
  • Give your employees the freedom to go the extra mile for customers. They do anyway (everyone learns how to game the system to give a little extra to those extra-special customers) so why not help them by giving them lots of ideas.
  • Give your employees the authority to fix mistakes. Nothing takes away from loyalty-building like an employee who says, “I have to call my manager to fix that for you.” Help them know what challenges they will likely face and what an adequate response those challenges might be, then give them the authority to fix it.
  • Give your employees a reason to be proud of the company they work for. Do good things; make a good product; strive for high quality; smile a little and try to brighten your employees’ days.

When you have employees who love where they work and are empowered to fix things and have the freedom to build relationships, they will create massive amounts of customer loyalty.

There’s are risks that comes with this employee-specific customer loyalty, and I think that employers are so afraid of the risks that they skip the loyalty-creating ideas I’ve listed above.

The risks include:

  • Employees who create customer loyalty and are empowered to do so become more marketable and therefore potentially less loyal to an employer.
  • Customers who are loyal to employees may move with an employee if that employee quits and moves to a new business. We see this happening in industries like beautician/hairdressing, where someone moves to a different salon and advertises that old customers are welcome at the new salon.
  • Employees could abuse the additional freedom (intended for relationship-building) or authority (intended to fix problems).

These are risks, but the downside created by these risks can be mitigated with fair pay, empowering management, and an enjoyable work environment. Sometimes you will get employees leaving, customers following them, and employees abusing the system. But more often than not, you’ll get customers who become fiercely loyal to the employees who serve them.

How loyal are your customers? Are they so loyal that they would visit one of your employees in the hospital?

Knowledge centers: Why your growing business needs one and how to build it

Growing businesses face a variety of challenges, from scaling distribution to hiring and training competent staff.

A knowledge center can help to minimize the pain that comes with growth.

A knowledge center is an offline or online area in your business where you capture and store all of your best practices, procedures, processes, and more. It is a single repository of information to enable effective operations.

It’s a place where your staff can go to find the latest and most relevant information and resources to help them do their job. Instead of running here for one thing and over there for another, you can keep it all together in a single knowledge center.

Your knowledge center might start quite humbly, with just a document or two, but as your business grows, your knowledge center can grow with it.

Hiring a technical writer to help you create and/or improve and/or moderate your knowledge center may seem like an investment in a non-core asset. However, with the right structure and attention, your knowledge center can deliver the following benefits:

  • Less time wasted as staff go searching for an answer.
  • Faster redeployment time when you change a process and need to change the instructions, guidelines, and policies that accompany that process.
  • Lower training costs — knowledge centers support training and sometimes even replace it. Moreover, HR can rely on knowledge centers as a starting point for training that they perform.
  • Improved managing: Management moves out of “how-to-do-it” training mindset into a “how-to-do-it-better” mentoring mindset.
  • Processes become streamlined for an improved customer experience and potentially lower costs throughout the organization.

Here are some tips to build and maintain a useful knowledge center:

  • Don’t start from scratch. You probably already have user manuals and job descriptions you can add
  • Keep it simple: Create a blog but make it private (require a sign-in).
  • Train your staff to refer to the knowledge center first, before they go up the chain of command.
  • Record every question you are asked and add it to the knowledge center.
  • Assign on person to be in charge of your knowledge center. Task them with the responsibility maintaining and regularly updating the information.
  • Get your staff to record the procedures they perform and add them to the knowledge center.
  • As your company grows, start dividing your knowledge centers up and give each department their own knowledge center to maintain.
  • Over time, review the content and remove or modify obsolete information.

Role-plays versus case studies: Which is better?

During my career in sales, and during my stockbroker and MBA studies, I encountered both role-plays and case studies as tools for teaching and learning. Later, as a writer who occasionally writes training content, I have the opportunity to use both. I always prefer case studies. Here’s why:

Role-plays are good in theory and they are supposed to give the learners practical experience in a safe learning environment. For example, in both my sales and stockbroker training, the role-plays we had to do were always about elements in the selling process (like how to uncover needs, how to transition, how to close, etc.).

Case studies offer a scenario (theoretical or historical) that outlines the situation and presents a problem that the learner must solve. For example, in my stockbroker studies and my MBA studies, I read numerous case studies where I had to identify the best investment portfolio mix or perform financial analysis or uncover an organizational problem.

The problem is, role-plays are usually conducted by like-minded people for a single purpose and to exercise a single skill or technique. For example, the role-plays I experienced were conducted between two salespeople (one acting as the customer, the other as the seller). In role-plays about overcoming objections, both parties were already convinced of the value of the product and the person playing the customer gave half-hearted objections that were easily countered with by-the-book responses from the seller. Role-plays, you might say, are too neat and tidy. Role-plays become a way to parrot the best practice rather than develop a skills.

Case studies, on the other hand, push the learner to learn. Case studies, especially those drawn from real life, are complex and messy and sometimes there is more than one possible answer… and sometimes there are problems that cannot be solved. Case studies push the learner to go deeper, to get creative, to bring all of their skills to bear on the situation to arrive at a solution. Case studies aren’t “safe” and there is a lot of room for error. But I like them because they require all skills to be used.

[Some of you might point out that role-plays and case studies teach completely different skills: That role-plays maybe teach the mechanics of a solution while case studies might offer a more theoretical application. But I disagree. Most of the occasions that I’ve encountered role-plays and case studies (and I’ve encountered them both as a learner and as a writer) they were used in similar ways: To teach a particular methodology, whether that methodology was breaking the ice, overcoming objections, analyzing a business problem, or performing financial analysis. The occasions when a role play serves a different role is when it is meant to build a skill-set through repetition. In those cases I would use the term “practice” instead of role-play.]

When you develop training for your employees, consider carefully the tools you’ll use to teach them. I don’t believe that role-plays are nearly as effective as case studies.

Identify the skills or methodology you want to teach and create case studies that require those skills or methodology to solve. Add other details — sometimes to act as red herrings and sometimes as a “foothold” for your learners to use to solve the situation. Encourage creative solutions but make sure that they are paying attention to the details of the case study.

Teaching your people in a way that requires them to use all of their skills to creatively solve a problem is the best way to create an effective workforce. Case studies help you do that.