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Educating Your Sales Force for a Successful Product Launch
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By Alan Houser (a contributing writer for the Product Strategy Network)

Transferring knowledge from Product Management and Development to Sales is critical to a successful launch. How do you win the hearts and minds of the sales force? In this idea-filled article, a panel of product and market strategists exchanged best practices, tips and techniques.

Unless your sales force really understands a new product, they won’t be able to sell it. But effectively transferring that sort of in-depth knowledge from the company’s product management and development organizations to its sales force isn’t an exact science. At a February 12 Roundtable event, product and market strategists exchanged ideas and experiences preparing sales personnel to support a new product launch.

Picture this: You're a technology product manager, and you've managed to keep your development and marketing organizations working together throughout the torturous development cycle. Now, it turns out, that was the easy part. Because as your launch date approaches, you must prepare your sales force to promote that product in the field. Your success as an educator may ultimately determine the success of your product launch.

At a recent Pittsburgh Product Strategy Network roundtable "New Product Rollouts: Transferring Knowledge to Sales," product strategists from technology companies throughout the region shared their experiences transferring knowledge between their development organizations and sales forces.

Mike Bauer, vice president of marketing with TimeSys, observed that effectively transferring knowledge to a sales force could spell the difference between having a product that's ready to go, and one that's actually succeeding in the marketplace. "You need to win the sales force's hearts, minds, and souls, and get them engaged in telling your story correctly," he said.

How? Of course, conventional sales tools remain important: marketing collateral, competitive analyses, sales guides, demos, and price lists. You are also likely to provide some sort of formal training. However, that's not enough, Bauer noted. To really succeed, you need to establish effective communication between product developers and sales representatives - cultures that don't always speak the same language - so they're fully prepared to present your product to customers.

Colin Higgins of Solutions 21, moderator of the event and a veteran technology sales executive, reiterated how important the sales force can be to a successful product launch. "You may have a well-developed marketing strategy, a well-developed product, an outstanding engineering team, a sharp sales force, and good customers," he said. "But unless you can get the sales organization to validate what you're doing, your product launch just won't go."

Is timing everything?

But when should you start engaging your sales force in the knowledge transfer process - especially when the sales force is physically separate from the product development organization? Some product managers only begin around the time of the launch itself. But this can be a mistake. "A launch is not a point in time, it's a process," observed Rich Haverlack. "You need to keep your sales force involved in that process."

"Sales has to be involved long before the traditional launch," concurred Mike Capsambelis, a product manager with Confluence. "Don't start the training three weeks before your product comes out. Bring sales in at the beginning of the development cycle." He also cited several other advantages of keeping your sales force in the loop: "You can use the sales force to test the market, prime your customers for the launch, and identify potential red flags," he said.

Tuning the training

What's an appropriate level of sales force training? And how can you keep them from getting bored?

Delivering training at the appropriate level is challenging, considering the likelihood of different levels of experience and market knowledge within your sales force. According to Anthony Como, director of marketing with CombineNet, a danger of setting the training level too high is that sales persons are "afraid to express how little they know about the technology or the customer." If the level of training is set inappropriately, the information may be beyond the grasp of your audience.

Colin Higgins proposed that organizations deliver each training session to the lowest common denominator. "Go as deep as you think they can comprehend," said Higgins. If possible, segregate training audiences into different background and skill levels so that you can deliver appropriate information to each group of sales persons. Bauer stressed the importance of offering truly engaging training sessions. PowerPoint presentations just don't cut it, he said. Fortunately, there are more appealing and engaging alternatives. Hands-on and role-playing exercises, which help sales people learn to demonstrate the product and engage prospective customers, are much better options.

Higgins suggested that you incorporate natural proponents of the product into the presentation. Making your sales "stars" part of the training, or including an early adopter, can make the training more credible and engaging.

Finally, don't assume that your training is over after your formal sessions. According to Gary Rosensteel, CEO of DigiBrix, repetition is key for successfully transferring your message to the sales force. Consider regular Web meetings as a way to continue to engage the sales force and fine-tune their training.

Tips and Techniques
  • Bring Sales personnel in at the beginning of the development cycle
  • Make use of hands-on and role-playing exercises to help sales people demonstrate the product and engage prospective customers
  • Create two documents - a plan of record and a plan of intent - to share with the sales force. The plan of record includes information that can be shared with customers. The plan of intent, on the other hand, cannot.
  • Identify a ‘key contact' for the sales force. If they have questions or concerns, this is the person they need to talk to.
  • Demonstrate competitors' products for the engineers. And bring in customers to tell the engineers what they like about your product.
  • Help sales managers develop an incentive plan that encourages early-stage sales of new products.
  • Use case studies; they can be a more powerful sales tool than demos.
  • Train your sales personnel to the lowest common denominator and segment your training audiences. Capture your sales stars and incorporate them into your training program.
  • Repeat the key messages over and over to your sales staff, including through Web meetings.

Too much? Too little?

Just as telling your sales staff too little can be hazardous, saying too much can also be risky. Many organizations struggle to find the right balance. If they share too much, the sales force may over-commit the company to future features, which can be particularly troublesome when a product's schedule slips or its feature set changes. "If I say anything about future releases, the next day the sales force is selling them to customers," Randy Quinn complained.

At the same time, however, your sales people should be able to communicate authoritatively with their customers - not surprise them when your product strategy changes. "Sales people don't want to hurt their customers. Sales people may have a long-term relationship with their customers. Those customers will still be around; the product manager may not be," Mike Bauer observed.

One solution, according to Andrew Fuhrling, product management vice president at CoManage, is creating two documents - a plan of record and a plan of intent - to share with the sales force. The plan of record includes information that can be shared with customers. The plan of intent, on the other hand, cannot.

Managing communications

But making sure your sales force gets a consistent message can be difficult. A sales force typically has multiple touch points within the company and gets information from multiple channels. "Mixed messages can undermine the confidence of the sales force," Jennifer Ireland of Solutions 21 noted. She recommended identifying a ‘key contact' for the sales force. "If you have questions or concerns, this is the person you want to talk to."

Controlling messages to the sales force can be particularly hard for smaller companies where product managers, engineers, and sales personnel all know one another, according to Mike Bauer. Knowing that a product still has bugs can cloud a sales person's judgment, even if the engineering team is on-schedule to fix them and release the product on time. As a result, Andrew Fuhrling discourages developers from talking to the sales force. "The sales force must be trained to go through appropriate contacts, not back channels," he said.

Mike Bauer agreed. "The problem is that the sales force doesn't understand the context that the developers may be complaining about." Sometimes those engineers are so close the product they don't appreciate its benefits. One possible solution, according to Bill Gaussa, director of product management for TimeSys, is to demonstrate competitors' products for the engineers. "They may say ‘Wow! Ours really is a great product!' " Customers can also help engineers. "Bring in customers to tell the engineers what they like about your product. Your customers can tell the engineers what a great job they did," Fuhrling added.

Encouraging early success

Early sales are especially valuable in new technology product launches. An early reference sale can catapult a product into greater success than would have otherwise been possible. That's why it's important to work with sales management to craft incentive plans that increase the success of your product launch. "The key to motivating sales people is showing them the money," Rich Haverlach said. "Help sales managers develop an incentive plan that encourages early-stage sales." A bonus to the first person that closes a new product deal could help, Andrew Fuhrling noted.

And don't forget about case studies that, according to Michael Guidry, Director of Product Development for American Textile, can be an even more powerful sales tool than a demo. "If you can tell one bank the success you've had at another bank, you've really caught their attention", he said.


This article appears courtesy of the Product Strategy Network, a Pittsburgh-based professional network of product strategy and management practitioners, and a sponsor of the BPMA.

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