Old-School Knowledge Management is Eating Away at your SMEs’ Time, Productivity

Imagine, for a moment, that you are involved with an important update. Maybe you were an engineer or coder on the project, or perhaps you were a product manager charged with seeing the update through. Consider:

  • How do you announce the update to the rest of your organization?
  • How do you field the dozens (maybe even hundreds) of potential questions, once that announcement is made?
  • Most importantly, how do you make that information “top of mind” when the sales team is out in the field?

In a previous post, we discussed the disconnect that often occurs between sales teams, on the one hand, and subject matter experts (SMEs), on the other. In that article, our focus was on how this disconnect affects sales productivity. Sales reps often rely on sales enablement and product/technical marketing to provide them with technical information about product features, capabilities, solutions, and roadmaps; searching for that information can eat away at reps’ valuable time.

It is also worth exploring how various SMEs—including product experts, engineers, project managers, and even marketing specialists—are affected by this gap. As it turns out, SMEs are often hindered by outdated methods of knowledge management. It’s time for modern enterprises to fix that.

Every Subject Matter Expert Deals with These Hassles

Speaking with SMEs from a number of industries, one finds some common threads in the kinds of problems they identify as hindrances to their productivity. Here are the top four we discovered:

#1: Repetitive Requests for Information

Based on conversations with SMEs, we estimate that more than a third of the requests for information that SMEs receive on a daily basis are requests for redundant information—that is, information the SME has already made available. This could be because:

  • Multiple sales reps all ask the same question separately,
  • The information is readily available in an electronic document or wiki, but the rep did not have access or know about the resource,
  • A question was answered in a previous conversation, but there was no easy way to uncover the answer, or
  • Any combination of these.

Huge amounts of SME time are occupied with responding to questions that have already been asked and answered, and providing documentation that is readily available. Knowledge management tools might help organize and centralize this information, but distribution is still a problem. Sales and customer service reps need this information at their fingertips, in real time—a luxury that produces an undue burden on SMEs.

#2: Documentation Woes

SMEs are often called upon to create content that is, in turn, consumed by many others in the organization. In many large and enterprise-sized organizations, those SMEs will use wikis and other content management systems to make information available. Uptake and use of these systems varies by company and is largely affected by the company culture, amount of training on the system, and comfort with the technology.

Indeed, many sales and service reps are unaccustomed to using the tools that are the bread-and-butter for SMEs. This means that they often cannot (or will not) get the most up-to-date information.

This has a subtle but large impact on the effectiveness of sales messaging. Indeed, 55% of organizations claim that they fail to communicate their value effectively because reps fail to find and utilize tailored content. In essence, all the documentation that SMEs are creating becomes wasted effort if not used in a timely manner.

#3: Lack of Quality Checks on Content

Even when SMEs create content and make it available, sales teams will still create their own. For example, an engineer might develop dozens of technical documents and sales sheets, but the sales team will still create their own PowerPoint deck.

The problem with traditional knowledge management systems is that there is no good mechanism to check the accuracy and quality of that non-SME-generated content. Information tends to flow from the experts to the frontline employees, but there is no system in place to flag content for expert review and facilitate feedback.

This creates a huge amount of frustration for SMEs. It also causes problems for sales teams, who must often “walk back” promises made or qualify information they have given customers, all of which negatively affects the brand.

#4: Frequent Training Might Not Be an Option

One common solution to the above for many organizations is training. Companies will attempt to bring their frontline employees, as well as their SMEs, up-to-date on the latest product and market information.

This is becoming less and less of an option. Larger organizations could well be dealing with thousands of products, all of which have frequent updates and expert-generated content. Sitting everyone down in a room for an afternoon soon becomes unscalable. Providing training for older content management systems only exacerbates the problem.

#5: Much Information is “Long Tail”

The information needed to address a customer’s question or complaint can often be highly specific, and not general at all. In content circles, this is known as “long tail” information. With traditional knowledge management, that information might be buried deep down in some faq or spec sheet. The more bits of such “long tail” information there are, the worse the problem becomes. SMEs often end up spending huge amounts of time trying to organize this long tail information, and yet those across the organization who need it still cannot find the specific bits they need.

Getting SMEs Productive Again

We’ve found that the above complaints have a common, core cause. SMEs are generating large amounts of information, both formally and informally, that are highly “consumed” across the organization. But, as much of this information includes smaller pieces of highly specific (long tail) knowledge, it is virtually impossible to structure and manage this information without creating huge burdens for someone.

This means that one must be willing to abandon the older model of disseminating information within an enterprise organization. Modern technology can then be used to automatically build the needed structures on the fly.

For example:

  • Product updates can be handled in real time without the need for a centrally managed database.
  • APIs allow for seamless integration of existing systems such as CRM, sales enablement, customer service, and more.
  • Data-driven (vs. algorithm-driven) search tools allow for real-time search of unstructured data, including not only wikis and databases, but email conversations, chat channels, and more.
  • Better user interfaces put relevant answers to questions right at an employee’s fingertips, at the moment they are needed.

Solutions that bundle these technologies, like our own Nimeyo, often go under the label of knowledge automation. Knowledge automation makes the dissemination of information faster and more seamless, allowing SMEs to focus on their primary tasks and without the need for extensive training. Nimeyo, for example, automatically builds structures from SMEs contributions and dynamically disperses them to the right individuals, addressing the above complaints in an elegant and scalable manner.

And in the end, is this not the goal? To keep information accessible, useful, and relevant without overburdening those tasked with creating it in the first place?

The Top 3 Ways AI Is Reducing Onboarding Time for Sales Reps

Employing new sales reps usually involves an onboarding process. But the typical onboarding process is getting longer and less efficient as time goes on. While there are many ways to improve onboarding for sales reps, organizations can get the most “bang for their buck” by incorporating knowledge automation into their onboarding program through the use of AI.

Proof That Sales Onboarding is Stuck

An eye-opening report from Qvidian in 2015 surveyed hundreds of executives and sales leaders from various industries, markets, and company sizes to assess their objectives and challenges. What they found was that sales organizations were struggling with getting the right information into their new sales reps’ hands, and doing so in a way that led to success. Noted in the report:

  • 36% of organizations mentioned “ramping up new sales reps takes too long” as one of the top reasons why their teams were failing to make quotas.
  • Indeed, onboarding of sales reps took an average of 7 to 9 months (measured as the time until a sales rep becomes fully productive). (Note this is an average: 1 in 5 sales reps take over a year to reach this level of performance!)
  • Sales teams were not meeting quotas largely because they were failing to personalize the buyer journey for their customers and effectively communicate value.
  • 55% of the organizations surveyed indicated that part of the reason they failed to communicate value was that reps were struggling to identify the tailored selling content among all the materials they had.

This inefficiency carries a steep price tag, to say the least. Not only does slow and inefficient onboarding mean lost productivity, but it also leads to higher turnover, added expenses for recruiting and training, lower employee morale, and a net negative impact on clients. By one estimate, it costs approximately $115,000 to replace a sales rep…and about 28% of sales reps, or more than a quarter, turn over in a given year.

Indeed, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is well known for completely restructuring his company upon learning that bad hires were costing him well over $100 million a year.

Why Sales Onboarding is Failing

That sales onboarding is failing across industries is not a secret. Why it is failing, though, is something that makes sales managers scratch their heads.

That’s because the issues do not stem from the onboarding program itself. We have identified four main reasons why traditional onboarding is failing in today’s sales environment, and they all have to do with the flow of information:

Reason #1: Distribution. Sales reps are scattered across the country, and even across the globe. They are often not located in the same places as the subject matter experts and marketing teams that they need to engage with for information.

Reason #2: Product Evolution. Products are evolving faster and faster. While the innovation is great, what was true of a product line a few months ago might not be true today. Sales reps cannot rely anymore on a single “information dump” at the start of their tenure.

Reason #3: Customer Expectations. Customers and prospects expect faster responses in the digital age. The amount of onboarding needed to keep information fresh in a sales rep’s brain is mind-boggling.

Reason #4: Increased Competitive Pressures. Yes, products and expectations change. But so does the competition. Knowing the competitive landscape and the target market takes much research and study. When sales reps are given this task, they are expected to do more, in less time. When it is given over to marketing, the information too often remains “siloed.”

The Top 3 Ways AI Can Reduce Onboarding Time

Sales is a uniquely human endeavor. How can AI help sales reps become more productive more quickly? We see three main ways that AI can reduce onboarding time:

1. By eliminating the need for “perfect” product information.

If product information is always changing, perhaps the best approach is to stop trying to frontload that information into the onboarding period. By using a knowledge automation tool like Nimeyo, organizations can ensure that sales reps have the right information at the right time, without the need for extensive search or periodic training.

2. By finding tailored content for sales reps in a timely fashion.

Remember, sales teams are, by and large, failing to communicate value because reps struggle with identifying tailored selling content within their own organizations. Wading through large amounts of content is something AI is now really good at doing. Sales reps can use knowledge automation tools to identify specific pieces of content that will help enable sales teams, even down to the level of the individual customer. This cuts down on the time that sales reps need to become familiar with sales materials and helps facilitate their researching the market.

3. By gaining insight into success and failures in a timely manner.

Many organizations struggle when it comes to gaining visibility into the sales cycles. And when they do not have visibility, it can lead to bad decision-making—or no decision-making at all. This is especially true when employees who are not a good fit are allowed to linger in an endless onboarding process.On the other hand, proper sales analytics can identify patterns, allowing organizations to duplicate successes and minimize failures. This can feed back directly into coaching efforts.

And, with less time spent on product information updates and search, more time can be spent on that kind of coaching during those first formative months.

So will AI fix everything that is wrong with sales onboarding today? Of course not. Crucial elements like mentorship and processes that follow best practices will still be needed. But knowledge automation systems can fix the element that is causing the onboarding process to balloon in modern organizations: The sheer amount of knowledge needed to be successful. Cut this bloat from the onboarding process, and your sales reps will become productive much more quickly.