To understand product training, first you need to understand high school debate.
High School debate changed my life, but one of the things that I reflect back on frequently (and thought about frequently at the time) was that I was not too smart. I would have these debates with people about the economy, but really, I didn’t understand the interaction between deficit spending, inflation, and interest rates. I would tell people things like “anthropocentrism is bad for the environment”, and that may be true, and I may have been able to articulate it well, but I didn’t really, REALLY understand it.
This is not unlike the world a sales person lives in. If she is at a company that doesn’t suck and she is good at her job, then the possibility that she can know products well is very low. I am a product manager and if I thought a sales person could know the product as well as me, it would offend me.
Now let’s bring it back. So when we launch a product, what do we do?
Let’s assume that from a materials perspective, you already have it covered: slides to add to their decks, leave-behind material, whatever.
What is the best format: Multi-format. Different sales people learn things differently – some need the white paper. Some need you to come into the office and sit with them. Some can dial into a webinar. Newsletters? Sure. My feeling is you have to do all of these things to do it well.
When is the best time: Over and over and over again. People need different formats. Also, people tune in and tune out. I have always found that training is 100x magically more effective if the sales person just talked to a customer with this problem. Part of hitting them 20 different ways over and over and over is hoping that it will be at a magic moment when they are feeling exceptionally receptive to the message.
Now here is the secret that brings it full circle:
THE OBJECTIVE: The goal is not to educate the sales people about the product. It is to give them what they need to sell it.
Think about this for a second because this is big. They don’t need to know how the product works or what it does. They need to sell it.
I have found that this is about “giving them war stories”. The products they sell every day in the market are easy for them to sell because they have sold them before. They talk with the customer about how they worked for other customers, what made them particularly effective, and why they would work for the customer. I always called this “patter”: 30 second spiels I used over and over again. I did this in high school debate, I did it in sales, and I do it now today talking about all sorts of things. I tell the same stories again and again to different people as I try to make a point. I tell them the same way, I use the same verbiage, and I have the same cadence. Why? They work. Most sales people do something similar.
Your job as a product manager, when releasing a new product, is to fill your sales people with the stories they need to talk to the customer about the product. Part of this is having a because: “Dove is softer on your hands because it is one quarter moisturizing liquid”. Sales people don’t really need to know how you got it in there if the customer will take it on faith, but knowing that it is one quarter moisturizing liquid makes it sound like it works! Recognize where this boundary is and how much you need to give information. The sales person has to be able to go deeper than the powerpoint slide you gave him, but usually only one level deeper than the slide itself.
They need a voice track that is slightly more sophisticated than the slide, but simplified in a way that is mnemonic.
Finally, they need a success story. They have to be able to relate the customers experience back to a previous experience they had that was good for a similar customer. This is the essence of consultative selling: “I did this for customer X, you have the same problem and I can take care of it for you.” A discussion like that is a critical trust-building activity for a sales person.
You have to give them that success story. This doesn’t need to be a formal case study. It can be anonymous, it can be vague, it just has to be a single talking point in the salesperson’s dialogue. And it needs to sound real.
(Attached is a picture of the legendary Brian McBride, a man I idolized in high school, (although I knew him when he was ~19 years old, so maybe it is a stretch to call him a man in this context) (He also had much better hair at the time). He invented the “kritique”, a philosophical argument used by almost every high school debater in the country today to argue that discussing certain things in the context of debate is so offensive that it should cause him to lose (e.g. For a man to propose a policy to help women is to further repress women by enforcing the patriarchy.))