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Most companies spend their marketing budgets generating market awareness, but spend precious little equipping their sales force with the knowledge to sell. And in today's economy, selling is anything but easy.

That's why developing effective sales guides is so critical. A good sales guide educates your sales force on how to position and sell your offerings to the prospects most likely to buy.

It also functions as a reference tool, organizing details for just-in-time access to help sales people take control of the sales process.

An effective sales guide helps to build confidence in your offering so that sales people feel comfortable presenting it to customers and confronting the competition.

And a good sales guide motivates your sales force to sell.

Unfortunately, many companies publish ineffective sales guides that can ultimately cause revenue to slip. Listed below are some of the most common sales guide mistakes, and ways to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Failing to involve the sales force

Many marketing departments develop sales guides with little or no input from their “customers”—the sales force. The result is a document that is disconnected from their real-world challenges and only serves to widen the chasm between sales and marketing.

To develop effective sales guides and tools, the marketing department needs to understand how customers buy (i.e., how a sale takes place) and how sales people sell. Hence, talking with your internal customers before you begin, and throughout the development process, will reap benefits.

Locate a willing cross-section of your sales force, and pick their brains to learn what they consider most useful—and most frustrating—in sales guides they've used in the past. These frank conversations may yield insights that will surprise you and reshape your sales guide strategy, as well as take a huge step toward bridging the gap between sales and marketing.

Mistake 2: Providing inadequate competitive information

Sales guides often paint a too-rosy view of the company's competitive position, or contain outdated competitive information. Look at it from the sales team's perspective—how would you like to go to war with inaccurate data on your enemy's strengths, weaknesses, and position relative to your own? In this scenario, you are likely to feel like you were set up to lose.

So give the sales force what they need to win. You can do this by providing an unbiased summary of their competitors, how your company compares, and how they can win in tough competitive situations. Be honest about an offering's weakness relative to the competition, and explain how to handle those vulnerabilities when talking to prospects.

Positioning your product against a competitor's weaknesses is easy—it's the competitor's strengths that pose a challenge.

Mistake 3: Failing to motivate

Sales people feel tremendous pressure to produce. Their jobs are always on the line, so they naturally seek out the fastest, surest route to achieving their quota.

However, the fastest route may be what's familiar—the existing product line—rather than what's new. Your challenge is to motivate the sales force to sell your new offering.

An effective sales guide “sells” sales people on the new offering by including the revenue potential of various kinds of deals (including a breakdown of solution components and percentages) and customer success stories that help build the offering's credibility to the sales rep, as well as customers.

Mistake 4: Failing to respect the sales force's time

Sales people are constantly bombarded with information about products, changes, upgrades, special offers, etc. The last thing they need is a lengthy, disorganized document that fails to help them find important information when they need it.

So strive to develop a concise, easy-to-use sales guide. Be choosy about the information you include. Organize your content by thinking about the natural flow of questions a sales person would ask about a new offering.

Make it easy for sales people to quickly find what they need. Use charts and tables whenever possible to condense large amounts of information, and ensure that your sales guide is interesting to read.

Mistake 5: Using generic marketing messages

Generic messaging blurs the differences between your offerings and those of your competitors, resulting in a deep-seated confusion that sales people may convey to your customers.

At the same time, generic messages cripple the sales force's ability to position your offering for different industries and audiences.

Sales people need a concise product definition, a unique value proposition, and a succinct elevator pitch, developed with consensus from product management, sales, marketing, engineering, and communications.

If appropriate, tailor the messaging for different buyer profiles. Otherwise, the sales force may struggle to communicate the offering's competitive advantages.

Mistake 6: Choosing the wrong writer

Sales people often complain that sales guides contain too little information to be useful, or too much technical detail to bother reading. Why do so many sales guides fall so short of the target?

The biases and background of the sales guide writers are usually the culprit. When written by marketing staff, sales guides may shy away from technical detail. When written by technical staff, message information may be ignored. Neither group may understand the sales process.

And, the specialized writing and organizational skills that sales guides require are not typically a job requirement for sales, marketing, or technical personnel.

Good sales guide writers can translate technical information into simple, accessible prose, but they're familiar with the sales process and have a marketing bent. They're expert project managers capable of managing multiple drafts, hundreds of comments, and countless details.

And, they're skilled in quickly identifying the most important elements in massive amounts of information, and synthesizing them into tight, clear writing.

If none of your employees have this combination of skills, or if the ideal candidate doesn't have the bandwidth to complete the project quickly, you may wish to consider hiring an experienced sales guide developer.

Avoiding these sales guide mistakes is not guaranteed to increase the corporate bottom line. Other factors, such as the type of product being sold, and the economic and competitive climate, all affect whether an offering fails or succeeds.

But making these mistakes can certainly decrease the bottom line by alienating the sales force and sabotaging an offering's potential for success.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gwyn Finnell (gwyn@hoffmanmarcom.com) is a senior marketing consultant for Hoffman Marketing Communications, Inc., a business and technology writing company specializing in strategic sales guides, white papers, and collateral. For more information, visit www.hoffmanmarcom.com.