Take it from someone who’s been there: A subject matter expert, or SME (sometimes pronounced “smee,” like Mr. Smee from Peter Pan), is the person with the answers. The disconnect is that sometimes it’s surprisingly difficult to sync up those who have questions with those who have the answers.
As a product manager, I spent 20 to 30 percent of my time responding to RFPs. I knew there had to be a better way for me as a subject matter expert to share my knowledge with the proposal and all other teams in the organization. That’s actually the driving force behind why I helped found RFPIO.
In this article, I want to delve into what subject matter experts do, how to become one, their importance in the sales process, and how knowledge sharing can help scale their expertise.
What is a subject matter expert?
A subject matter expert is the person that sales, proposal, and marketing teams rely on for their abundant knowledge and experience within a specific practice, process, technical method, or piece of equipment, according to Indeed’s career guide. They’re the specialist. They exist in every industry and discipline. They come by their expertise through either education, experience, or a combination thereof.
In addition to the product-side expertise, SMEs also possess expert insight into the prospect base. They may not necessarily know the details of every buyer persona, but they’ll understand the pain points of the prospect business case better than most in your organization. In many cases, they amassed their expertise working for one of your prospects or customers. They may have even used your product while working for a customer and became such an evangelist that they either sought you out, or you recruited them.
The EF Hutton television commercials in the 1970s and 80s are the epitome of a subject matter expert’s impact. In the ads, whenever someone utters the phrase “EF Hutton” everything around them comes to a halt, and people in the area unabashedly cup their hands behind their ears to listen in. The voiceover drops the tagline, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.”
In the sales process, you want to enable open access to a subject matter expert when the prospect or customer is ready to listen. In an enterprise sale, there are likely multiple touchpoints where there’s a listening opportunity that can be seized by a subject matter expert.
How to become a subject matter expert
Learn, study, synthesize, experiment, test, and do. Subject matter experts are self-driven to become authorities in their chosen areas of expertise. Nevertheless, the strongest SMEs recognize that problem-solving is less about dictating expertise than it is about sharing expertise when the opportunity arises.
Subject matter experts need to develop superior listening skills so they’re able to absorb a client’s problem, synthesize it quickly, and respond in a fashion that is enlightening, while avoiding any hint of condescension. In other words, it’s not enough to be an expert on a particular subject matter and prospect base. SMEs must also be experts in sharing their expertise.
Colleagues may recognize them as an authority on specific areas and topics, but they may not know how to access them or their knowledge. SMEs need to be proactive in their involvement with RFP responses, sales and marketing strategy, customer support, and any other initiatives where their expertise is warranted.
Why SMEs are essential to winning new business
Sales and marketing may be the influencers, but SMEs are the experts…it’s in the name, right? According to Adweek: “Expertise is how someone reacts to your knowledge, whereas influence is how someone reacts to your status. People who have true expertise are inherently more influential, based on the power of that expertise.”
Responding to RFPs is one of the key opportunities for winning new business. They are a team effort on the grandest scale, requiring an organization to work closely together to submit a compelling deliverable.
The best proposal writer in the world won’t have the necessary expertise to fill in every detail. Even with attractive branding and the most driven sales team, a sales proposal still needs technical and strategic heart and soul. When it comes to response management, subject matter expertise holds the power to influence the entire deal.
Like the first whispers of a meme stock, once momentum starts, there’s no stopping it. When colleagues learn about SME availability, they’re going to find new ways to capitalize. Because buyers are more comfortable talking to SMEs; they know SME answers are the best answers, unfiltered by relationship-building concerns of sales or branding concerns of marketing. If a buyer is at the stage where they want to hear from an SME, then they want to be told rather than sold.
How to integrate SMEs into the sales process
Subject matter experts are the new rainmakers, with specialties that hold high value throughout the sales process. When SMEs are surrounded by support and resources, they can drive increased revenue goals.
It’s becoming more popular for presales teams to hire SMEs, illustrating a high priority on implementing subject matter expertise throughout the sales lifecycle. In the presales stage of the sales process, SMEs can act as solutions engineers or sales strategists. When preparing a demo or proof of concept (POC), SMEs are invaluable at uncovering pain points and feedback, which can then inform what to include in the demo or POC.
Presales SMEs can straddle relationship roles, taking the perspective of both the prospect and the provider. From the prospect’s perspective, a SME can be seen as an ally who truly understands their need and will fight to make sure the solution is the right fit.
Even if they don’t have a direct line to a sales team, top-performing SMEs see revenue support as an important function of their job. Other optimal sales process integration points include:
- Handoffs: Even if the SME is not on one of the teams involved in the handoff (from security and compliance to CSM, for example), their presence may be a comfort to the customer. Again, the trust they’ve built during the sale can be used to engender long-term loyalty.
- Account management check-ins: Periodic review of customer feedback helps in two primary areas. One, it helps close the loop on any concerns brought up during the presales stage of the process. Two, SMEs approach upsell or cross-sell opportunities with different eyes. Their experience with the customer as a prospect, overall experience with the industry, and interaction with the customer’s competitive landscape can lead to revelations an AM or CSM might not be privy to.
- Implement a comprehensive knowledge sharing solution: While the subject matter expert may not always be available every time you need them, their expertise can. With a knowledge sharing solution like response management software, you can absorb and centralize subject matter expertise, and make it searchable from anywhere.
Knowledge sharing leads to viral expertise
Any subject matter expert will tell you that there’s far more to them than the sum of their extensive knowledge. Their demeanor, patience, and ability to establish rapport are vital to ingratiating trust with prospects and customers. In a perfect world, they would be available for every question, demo, or emergency that crops up. Since that’s not possible, making their expertise available 24/7/365 from anywhere is the next best option.
In response management, the Content Library is the engine that drives knowledge sharing. That’s where question-answer pairs and other content created by SMEs are captured, curated, and shared with the rest of your organization. While building proposals, developing responses, creating new content, or trying to answer client questions in real time while you’re on the phone with them, you can tap into the subject matter expertise in your Content Library.
In addition to daily sales process operations, the Content Library is also essential to onboarding and training. As you hire new employees, they can reference the Content Library to expand their understanding of products, capabilities, and your customers in context, making it a much more efficient learning experience.
Another advantage of knowledge sharing is that when subject matter experts move on, their expertise doesn’t walk out the door with them. Unfortunately, in this situation, you’ll have to find someone else who can pick up the subject matter expertise mantle and service prospects, customers, and the colleagues they need to support. But the transition will be easier with knowledge preserved from other SMEs who have come before them.
Knowledge management by response management
A response management platform like RFPIO has many benefits for organizations, yet only 43% use RFP-specific technology. One of the main benefits of RFP software is streamlining the knowledge sharing process for everyone. Not only does it help you capture subject matter expertise, it also saves time, according to 82% of RFP software users, by providing:
- A searchable information hub for all of your organization’s content called an Content Library.
- An AI-powered content recommendation engine that uses machine learning to always surface the most relevant answers.
- Integrations with the most popular CRM, communication, cloud storage, and browser applications in use today.
- Organization-wide accessibility through RFPIO LookUp, which allows you to search, select, and store Content Library content from the applications where different users work.
An SME’s time is extremely valuable, second only to their expertise. Response management software is the ultimate solution that helps you get the most out of both.
Find out how to capture and use all of your organization’s subject matter expertise by scheduling a demo today!