People with technical expertise are ideally positioned to help prospective customers but often shrink from sales engagements. The technical archetype is cartoon character Dilbert - engineer and supreme anti-salesman with enough misplaced brutal honesty to make any salesperson (or prospective customer) cringe.
By 'technical' in this article, we mean experts in their chosen field but not an expert in sales. Engineers, scientists, service professionals such as service managers, lawyers, accountants, architects and consultants, all may fit the definition.
Many large technology companies use a buddy system for direct sales engagements, pairing a technical expert with a sales person. The sales person's role is to set-up the meetings, manage the customer engagement and commercial matters and the technical sales role is to "shut up and only answer the exact question when asked". This approach is expensive, limited and smaller firms cannot afford it.
Wouldn't it be better if technical people could sell?
There are six basic reasons why technical people struggle with sales and some of them may surprise you. This article considers each reason and what can be done to improve a technical person’s sales technique.
1. Attitude - Sales is a dirty word
Many people associate sales with underhanded tricks and tactics to lure people to buy - the image of the fast talking used car salesman comes to mind. Technical people may not understand the true role of sales and may not want to be associated with this stereotype. A technical person with a professional customer relationship might be concerned that their relationship will be tarnished by any hint of 'sales' activity.
These attitudes are based on an incorrect and outdated view of sales. Today's customers are better informed about your products and services due to the wealth of information available on the Internet, but for complex products and services they highly value the advice of a technical expert. A technical person's ability to help a prospective customer buy (we call that sales) is a crucial skill.
2. Fear – Uneasiness with social engagement
If you are more fluent in your area of expertise than in dialogue skills then just starting a sales conversation can be daunting. Fortunately, it is not difficult to learn and practise conversation openings. Behind this reluctance to engage is a fear of rejection. You can only be rejected if you propose or ask for something.
Learning how to withhold "proposing and asking" until the appropriate time significantly reduces the chance of rejection and increases the chance of a constructive business relationship. An advantage for technical people is that they carry a business card that confers more credibility than sales people which helps in securing a meeting.
3. Empathy - Lack of diagnosis skills
If you are an expert, you may be able to quickly understand a customer's problem and propose a solution. That is not necessarily a good thing. Imagine that as you walked into your doctor's surgery the doctor exclaimed from his desk "You're really sick, you need this medicine!" You would feel uneasy that the doctor had not properly examined you.
The examination is not just for the doctor's benefit, it also serves to assure the patient that there is a proper level of care and that the doctor is proficient. One of the most important benefits of a proper and careful diagnosis is that it confers credibility on the person making the diagnosis. The customer needs assurance that you truly understand his or her situation before you propose anything.
4. Value - Lack of business impact skills
The customer is not purchasing your products and services for their aesthetic beauty or for you to have fun installing them. As a technical expert, it is essential to evaluate and quantify the positive business impacts of your products and services and determine whether those benefits outweigh the costs.
You need to ask questions that uncover the financial impact of any proposal you might make and you need to make a business case calculation, in your head or in a spreadsheet, to be sure there is value before you propose. This is a skill that most technical people can manage if taught how and when to do it in the conversation flow.
Poor diagnosis and poor estimation of the customer's business case leads to the very common sales problem of proposing more than what is required to solve the customer's issues. This kills trust. The instant you propose something that is not needed, the customer will think "this person is just trying to sell me something" and your credibility is gone.
5. Ownership - Who owns the problem?
You've carefully diagnosed the customer's situation and can see a positive business case, it’s time to propose a solution, right? Not so fast! You must keep in mind that it is the customer's problems - not yours, much as you would love to solve it. It is not safe to propose a solution before asking the customer what he or she plans to do about their problem. "What is your current plan?" is a simple question that uncovers many aspects of a potential sale, including whether or not you are talking with the right person in the customer organisation and whether or not the customer already has a workable solution.
Giving the customer due respect that they own the problem and they may know how to solve it makes them receptive to your proposal. Now you can ask "would it be OK if I proposed something?"
6. Acumen - Fear of commercial matters
Technical people are often worried about financial questions such as "What will it cost?" or "Can I have a discount?”. You may happily leave these matters to a commercial person because if you overcome steps one to five, the main selling work has been done. Congratulate yourself!
We say that because the key to a successful price negotiation is a thorough understanding of the customer's situation, interests and the value they will receive from your proposal. If you would like to also excel at negotiation then treat that as the next learning objective after sales, but the hard work is done.
The one good reason why technical people can sell
Each of these six limitations can be overcome with the right type of training and coaching. Training to cover the "how" of an ethical sales conversation and individual coaching with feedback to displace some poor conversation habits and replace them with more effective dialogue components. It takes considerably less time to train a technical person to sell than to train a sales person to acquire the relevant technical expertise (if that is even possible).
At Growth in Focus we provide individual coaching using a structured sales dialogue framework to teach technical people how to have sales conversation. We use video feedback, sales simulations and neurolinguistic techniques to change ingrained patterns of conversation behaviour.
It is important to appreciate that full-time salespeople often suffer from the same fears and make the same conversation errors as technical people. No one engages in ‘perfect’ sales conversations because no one can read the customer's mind. However, a small increase in selling skill, coupled with deep technical knowledge is a powerful asset that any business manager should seek out.
Your blog author, an Electrical and Mechanical Engineer with a Masters degree in Business and IT, has spent twenty years selling a wide variety of products and services across multiple industries and fifteen years managing teams of sales and technical sales people. The author has seen first-hand what just a small improvement in sales skill can do for technical people and the companies they work for.
We encourage the reader to consider the untapped sales potential of technical people in your organisation because your customers will thank you for the better quality engagement with more business.