6 Effective Ways to Boost Product Knowledge and Sales Power

Product knowledge is sales power. You may have an amazing product, but without adequate training, your employees will do a poor job clarifying the value to your customers.

In the old Bond movies, Q would always guide James through his new gadgets for the upcoming adventure. A weaponized Aston Martin , a booby-trapped suitcase – 007 could always trust Q to be on top of things.

Like Bond, your customers should be able to confide fully in your employees' product knowledge. Especially in a world in which everything can be fact-checked with a few tabs of the thumb.

Having a sales team that can confidently speak to the products or services that they're selling is essential. To ensure that your prospects receive a consistent message from your team, your product, marketing, and sales teams should all be utilizing the same playbook.

Alex Girard, Product Marketing Manager, HubSpot

There are many types of product knowledge:

  • Features and benefits. Being able to turn product features into benefits and answer the question “what’s in it for me?”
  • Competition. How your product fares against competitors’ offerings.
  • Industry. Knowledge of industry trends and updates surrounding your product.
  • Complementary. How your product can be used in conjunction with other systems or products, e.g. data plans for smartphones.
  • Technical. Fixing problems on user interface and hardware levels. Knowledge of customization possibilities, e.g. APIs.
  • Policies and procedures. Knowledge of refund policies, warranties and restrictions.
  • Road mapping. Especially for software solutions, the early innovators want to know which new releases are planned down the line.
  • Price. Information about discounts and special offers.

That's a lot to learn and remember. How do you train employees effectively, so they can speak about these with confidence?

The science of learning

Standard employee training in most companies takes the form of a week-long training program where trainees are expected to sit through PowerPoint presentations and workshops.

Book cover Make It Stick.

The book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning describes this type of "cramming" approach as old-school and ineffective. They lay out the most effective learning techniques, such as temporal spacing , generative learning , retrieval practice , reflection and interleaving .

We build on these techniques with the product knowledge building ideas described in this article. Some of these we use when training new colleagues at Userlike , others we've taken from other companies.

1
Engage with the product

One of the methods ( generative learning ) to embed learning is to give learners a problem to solve before they are taught the new concept.

Brain with neural connections.

When they have to use their preexisting knowledge to find a solution, they are able to connect the dots between new and old ideas. Learning is active, instead of passive absorbtion of information – which has been proven to be ineffective.

Give new hires problem-solving assignments to help them think of the product from a customer point of view.

For example, at Hubspot , new hires are tasked with creating a hypothetical business and its website, using every tool HubSpot has to offer, so that they can speak about them more confidently with customers.

We do something similar at Userlike. New employees get an assignment to set up a Userlike account, integrate live chat into a website and configure it in a certain way. This familiarizes them with the product and with the challenges that our customers face.

2
Contribute to the knowledge base

A knowledge base is a crucial element to a quality support setup. It gives customers and employees alike easy access to answers on frequently asked questions. Getting new hires to contribute to your knowledge base is a great way for them to build on their learning.

At Userlike, new members of our support team are tasked to go through yesterday's chat transcripts and spot gaps in our knowledge base. They use the support rep's answer within the conversation to craft the knowledge base article. A senior member of the support team then checks it before it's brought online.

Elaborating an idea by explaining it in your own words is a form of reflection . It helps you retain information better than by simply memorizing it. By trying to explain the idea, you have to think about and understand the concept – firmly embedding it in your mind through myriad brain connections.

3
Practice hypothetical customer scenarios

Role-playing helps learners apply what they have learned to real-life situations ( reflection ).

Asking learners to think deeply about new concepts helps them to make sense out of them and form new mental models (the way we see the world). This type of learning is more effective than regurgitating facts after a cramming session.

4
Answer asynchronous channels

We learn fastest by doing, failing, and trying again. But you probably wouldn’t to let your customers go through the experience of receiving wrong answers for the sake of employee learning. So letting new employees answer chats or phone calls from day one is not a good idea.

Old-school radio.

That’s why at Userlike, we put new support people behind asynchronous channels like email and messaging first.

When replying to an email, they have the time to do the appropriate research (e.g. check the knowledge base, ask a colleague) to produce an answer. Before sending it out, a senior member looks over it and corrects where necessary.

This approach combines various powerful learning techniques: generative, reflection and interleaving.

5
Test staff periodically

Periodic testing helps learners retain new knowledge by forcing them to actively and repeatedly recall it.

Fitbit watch.

Multiple-choice quizzes are ineffective, however, because they offer the path of least resistance and require little mental effort. When multiple answers are presented, it is easier to recognize the correct answer by eliminating the ones that appear incorrect.

Instead, tests should be based on free-text questions forcing service reps to think of answers without any prompts. After test completion, feedback should be provided straight away so that service reps don’t retain incorrect knowledge.

A test could be based on scenarios from five-star chat transcripts answered by experienced support reps. Ask the trainee(s) to formulate their own answers to customers’ questions and then compare them with those of the experienced support reps. Alternatively, you could base your tests on FAQ sections with the answers removed.

High importance - low frequency questions are especially suitable to be included in such periodic tests. You want your employees to be able to speak confidently about a topic like data privacy, for example, even though it doesn’t pop up on a daily basis.

6
Send employees ‘whispers’

When first joining a company, new hires are so overwhelmed by the overload of information that they easily forget what they were told. This is not due to amnesia but rather science.

Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve demonstrates that most people forget 70% of what they have learned within just one day.

To avoid memory overload, your brain suppresses information so that it can focus on the essentials. For example, you remember the time and date of an important meeting but not where you left your keys.

Temporal spacing has been proven to combat the forgetting curve by delivering information in manageable bite-sized chunks at frequent intervals. When practice sessions are spaced out, learners have time to form connections and work harder to recall information.

One example of this is Google’s whisper courses , a series of emails sent over a period of time, each with a suggestion or a “whisper” for employees to try out in their work.

To keep employees, the same information could be presented in a number of different formats (infographic, video, audio).

The best learners are lifelong learners

Learning is an ongoing process. Your mind will forget information you don’t frequently use. It’s a crucial feature of our brains that helps us stay efficient.

At best, product training should be reintroduced periodically. This certainly makes sense when new products are released or updated, or when new content is added to websites and user interfaces.

The more often staff are exposed to your product, the more familiar they’ll be with its features and the more confidently they’ll be able to speak about its benefits.

What’s more, expertise begets pride and a sense of ownership in your craft. In the words of the legendary Q: “I never joke about my work, 007.”