Nearly all sales experts agree that knowing at least the basics about your product is critical to selling it effectively. However, understanding your product is even more helpful. The difference between product knowledge and product understanding? 'Knowledge' is the facts and figures, while 'understanding' is about realizing how those facts and figures affect the product owner.
Product knowledge vs. product understanding is quite similar to the contrast between features and benefits. And just as “features tell, benefits sell,” a salesperson who focuses on product knowledge without product understanding misses the mark. For example, someone who sells cars probably knows all about the latest model's acceleration features, the available paint colors, and whether it comes with a V6 or V8 engine. All of the above come under the category of product knowledge. But the salesperson who understands his product knows what each of those factors will mean to different prospects. He knows that high acceleration will be attractive not only to the teenager who yearns for speed but also for the suburban mom who wants to be able to safely merge onto a busy freeway.
Product knowledge is absolutely essential for salespeople, but by itself it can create a bad case of “expert-itis,” especially in salespeople with a highly technical product or service. The result is often a salesperson who carries forth at length about product specifications that mean little or nothing to most prospects. An addiction to industry jargon is another common side effect. In extreme cases, these aspects of expert-itis can make a salesperson's pitch completely unintelligible. And if your prospect can't understand what you're saying, she's not likely to buy from you!
Product understanding, on the other hand, allows a salesperson to present these technical details in terms that make sense to prospects. So a new computer with dual-core processors and two terabytes of hard drive storage could be pitched to a prospect as “...a computer that has plenty of room for all those movies you like to download, and still runs really fast!”
The best way to make the leap between knowledge and understanding is to use the product yourself. If your company gives you access to your products for free, then by all means take as many as you can and use them as much as possible. If you can also get copies of your competitor's models, so much the better – you'll be able to explain exactly how your product is different and (hopefully) better.
If your company can't or won't give you the product to try for yourself, then the next best option is to do a little market research. Set up appointments with a few of your best customers and ask them to tell you about their experiences with your company's products. Try to make it clear that you want brutal honesty, since there will almost always be ways in which your products are both good and bad and the more you know about both aspects, the better.
In many ways, product understanding goes hand in hand with prospect understanding. The more information you have about both your products and your potential customers, the better you'll be able to fit one to the other... the less time you'll waste with matches that are doomed from the start... and the happier your customers will be.