A key question for any sales manager is how to grow in volume and value. When it comes to business-to-business sales, there are three traditional ways of growing: raise prices, try to attract new customers, or try to make more business with existing customers.

FINN, a Norwegian online classified company in the Schibsted Media Group, has identified a way to grow within both existing and new customer segments. In addition to extensive innovation and communication strategies, there is also a clear sales strategy.

FINN’s ambition was to establish a better and more strategic dialogue with its major customers. The company realised that the only way to get to the table and become a more attractive partner was to understand and handle the strategic challenges of its customers when it came to brand strategy and consumer insight.

So what was the best way to develop that kind of skill among its sales force? FINN realised that there was no “quick fix” or easy way to develop the necessary competence. The answer was to develop a brand strategy programme tailor-made for the sales force.

Working with professors from The Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) in Bergen, FINN has managed to create a high-level education programme balancing both theory and practice in an excellent way. After five gatherings, the company created a practical exam solving one of the customers’ brand strategy challenges. This is serious business — and great fun.

So what about the results? Endre Kolbjørnsen, vice president of corporate accounts and the executive in charge of the programme, is confident that the increased level of brand strategy competence among his sales managers and key account managers definitely is one of the major reasons why FINN has grown so much in the last two years.

From the autumn of 2009 until the autumn of 2010, FINN grew 50%, and that growth has continued in 2011. FINN has achieved a No. 1 position in the Norwegian market when it comes to brand advertising, which means 20% of that market. Being No. 1 and still growing so much is quite an achievement.

“There is no doubt that the fact that our people understand the challenges of our customers — and can discuss their segmentation issues, their brand strategy issues and so on — gives us a unique position as a competent and trustworthy partner to them,” Kolbjørnsen says. “All our big customers welcome this kind of competence, and appreciate the advice and ideas we can give them.”

Magne Supphellen, professor at NHH and one of the contributors to the brand strategy programme, gives FINN a lot of credit for taking the development of brand-building competence so seriously.

“The key account managers at FINN play a central role in the organisation,” Supphellen says. “They are busy people, often occupied with client issues. Still, they managed to concentrate on the programme, delve into relevant theories, and complete the case work. That’s impressive.”

The case work — in which the participants transformed new theoretical insights into practical improvements for major clients — has been a critical factor in the programme’s success, Supphellen says. Participants were able not only to increase their knowledge in brand building but also to develop procedures for working with clients. As a result, Supphellen says, “I believe this has improved the basis for further growth.”

Sharing of best practices is one of the strengths of the Schibsted Media Group. FINN is surely a big inspiration and role model, and it will be no big surprise if this kind of brand strategy competence becomes ordinary among all the sales forces and companies in the group.