Product Knowledge is Overrated


Everyone knows that product knowledge is important and makes a difference in making sales. I’ve come to believe, however, that it is overrated. This is especially true in the beginning of selling a product or service and building a new customer base.

As a salesperson, you need to bring in new customers and move into new markets. In order to do this, you need to identify markets, then companies, and finally the individuals in these companies who are the decision makers and are ready to buy your product.

If you are talking to people who are buying what you are selling, then your chances of making a sale are a lot better.

Obvious, right?

So the question is, how much product knowledge do you need to build a good list of people buying what you are selling? The truth isyou do not need that much. A limited amount of product knowledge is useful when you begin this process so you can explain to people in very simple terms what you are selling. With just this simple explanation, your contact can begin to direct you to the people in their organization who are involved in the products you are selling.

Organizations are complicated and unique. Every organization makes decisions in their own way. People who are involved in buying decisions might be senior management, supply chain individuals, engineers, manufacturing folks, or the quality people. Excellent sales people bring in highly desirable new customers  by being exceptional at understanding how an organization works and identifying the key person or people who are involved with the product or service. Many people you talk to as a salesperson will tell you they make the decision, but that doesn’t always turn out to be true. It can take months and sometimes years to fully understand how an organization works.

Product knowledge is important. In an ideal world, I would love my salespeople to have a very deep understanding of the product. Of course, most organizations have people who understand their products very well. Where many businesses fall short is they do not have the tenacious salesperson who will go out and identify the list of companies and build a list of buyers. Salespeople who spend an inordinate amount of time in the beginning building their product knowledge—at the expense of getting on the phone—are avoiding the most difficult part of the job: building their list. Many salespeople will find numerous things to do to avoid picking up the phone and doing this hard work. The secret most of these salespeople do not know is that consistent prospecting for 18 months will give them a viable and well qualified list of companies and buyers. From there, the need for cold calling and research will drop dramatically.

When my company begins working for a client, we are on the phone identifying buyers quickly. Why? Because this is the hardest, most difficult part of bringing new customers. At some point a more comprehensive product knowledge will become useful, but that’s not until you find someone who is buying what you are selling!

Although product knowledge is very important it sometimes is overemphasized while salespeople procrastinate in completing the difficult work of identifying people who have a need for what we are selling.

I tell my clients sometimes that my job is to find the companies and the people in those companies who are buying what we are selling, get them all in a room, and have them clearly articulate exactly what they are looking for. It is my client’s job at this point to sell them on why they can meet their needs and be an excellent supplier. Now a few things have become evident to me about this approach.

  1. First of all it works. I do very little selling as I figure out which companies are buying and who the people are inside these companies who are making these decisions. People who are busy and are making key decisions in an organization appreciate simplicity and initially are not interested in getting caught up in details. They want a general overview and the basics to determine whether they have any interest in meeting with you. Your enthusiasm, clarity, and directness will sell these people on meeting with you.

  2. In the initial conversations with the buyers, a good salesperson has to qualify the company. We do not want to spend a lot of time developing a relationship with a company/buyer who does not buy enough of what we are selling. Sellers have to ask tough questions.

  3. When meeting with companies identifying a need is a lot more important than telling people about your company. People reveal their expertise by asking good and insightful questions not by telling people how smart they are.

  4. When you have the key decision makers in the room asking tough questions and challenging people’s assumptions is a lot more effective than trying to get people to like you.

  5. Sellers need to have realistic expectations. Overt interest may not be expressed initially. Sellers need to identify where they can help the buyer. When the seller does this and can make a good business argument for addressing this area of need, it is just a matter of time before the buyer becomes interested.

  6. Sellers need to be patient. Well run companies already have a solid vendor base. It takes time to nurture interest.

Product knowledge is important but it only becomes important after the companies/buyers have been identified, qualified, and thoroughly questioned. Now no buyer is just going to sit and answer someone’s questions. There is a give and take while doing this where a good salesperson is revealing the basics of his/her offering and a background of their company while they are qualifying the buyers and understanding what some of their needs are or could be. Specific product knowledge and expertise in the industry becomes important at this point.

Again product knowledge is important but not until a good foundation has been put in place. Putting this foundation in place is what many salespeople/companies avoid doing when they set out to grow their customer base or move into new markets.