Six reasons why technical people don't sell and one good reason why they can

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 and limited. 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These attitudes are based on an incorrect and outdated view of sales.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’s not necessarily a good thing. Imagine walking into your doctor's surgery and from a distance, the doctor exclaims "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, finally you can ask 

"does it make sense to look at some solution options?"

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. Just say you don’t have the authority - that’s what the best negotiators do.

Now, congratulate yourself! You won the deal!

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). 

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 neuro-linguistic 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.

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.

Step carefully through the Sales Recruitment Minefield

Danger Minefield

How do you find and recruit a good B2B sales person?

A simple question, without a simple answer.

It’s also a question of high consequence because a poor sales hiring decision can be extremely expensive. Even an excellent sales recruit will take sales cycle time plus 90 days to become effective, assuming that your on-boarding process, training and sales readiness kits are in order.

A poor hire can be a threat to your company’s reputation.

There is another factor at play: your chances of finding a good candidate are not good. Over the last few months, we have been surveying buyers and procurement specialists from tier-one and tier-two telecommunications and resources companies about their experiences with salespeople.

The feedback has been uniformly and disappointingly negative. For example, to the question "

Out of ten salespeople that you meet, how many provide value to you and your business?" We received answers between none and two.

To the question "

…of those ten sales people, how many, in your opinion, created a negative impression and damaged the brand of the companies they represented?” The answers were between two and four. 

Is there a good test for sales people?

A normal sales recruitment process at the companies I've worked with goes something like this: a recruitment company is given a brief and presents a couple of ‘qualified’ candidates for consideration. The recruitment company will have employed a testing process often with a secret sauce recipe such as a favourite psychometric test. Short-listed candidates then face a series of company interviews with the various department managers for ‘culture’ fit assessment. Whichever candidate interviews best, gets the job - after the candidate's proposed references are checked. 

This process puts heavy reliance on information sourced from the candidate (cv, references, psychometric tests results) and the recruiter - a person who may not be an expert in your business (or sales). Furthermore, and importantly, there seldom is a perfect candidate for any role; almost every new hire needs development and training in some aspect of the role, and the process just described does not uncover what those development needs might be.

Testing Sales People – it can be done

At our company, we use three objective tests for salespeople that cannot be gamed or side-lined by fast talking. These tests take a bit of extra effort but are extremely illuminating. 

Test 1.

Sales Conversation Skill

.The fundamental sales skill is mastery of the customer conversation and the best way to test that skill, short of observing  actual customer meetings, is to perform and video record a sales  role play simulation.

The video should be analysed in comparison to a conversation model to see whether the sales person is able to establish credibility, probe for the customer’s ambitions and issues, evaluate the business and personal impact of those ambitions and issues and close to a sensible next step.

This is one of the very few ways of measuring real sales skill; it doesn't take more than an 30 minutes per candidate and almost no company does it. The result is a highly predictive of actual sales skill and a poor result is a red flag because there is no guarantee that you can train for conversation soft skills.

Test 2 - Written Proposal

It is also necessary to test a candidate's written skills. Take the same scenario from the sales role play and ask the candidate, under supervision and without electronic aids, to write a one-page sales proposal. This test will show his or her writing skills and whether or not he or she has been trained in proposal writing.

Test 3 - Knowledge Test.

Finally, you should employ a formal knowledge test. Conduct a survey of your best sales people and determine what industry and generic product and service knowledge is required for the role. Prepare a written test that all candidates perform under your supervision.

The result of this test is a good indication of how quickly candidates will adapt to your sales situations and any gaps they may have in their knowledge. A poor result in this test can be overcome with industry and company induction training but be sure that you retest before putting a new hire in front of customers on their own.

Finally, to reference checks: it is fine to ask a candidate for customer and employer referees but you are making an important decision - and you should be looking for independent referees. It is well worth searching your own and other staff member’s contacts and social media databases to see who knows the candidate. Most business people are happy to take a short reference check phone call. Your conversation should focus on the candidates’ integrity, reliability, coach-ability and work ethic.

Hiring a B2B sales person is a risky proposition but you can reduce that risk and home in on a suitable candidate with a thoughtful selection methodology that favours objective tests.


Footnote on psychometric tests

A company I worked for had accumulated several years of psychometric test results covering the majority of their sales force and I thought it would be interesting to see if any aspect of those tests correlated with sales performance. I noted the wide range of psychometric test scores in our sales team and the similarly wide range in sales performance, but unfortunately (for the test) there was no correlation between any psychometric test parameter and sales performance, the correlation factors were close to zero.

It’s not a surprising result. Psychometric tests present information mined from the candidate and rank low in prediction value. If you are considering the use of a psychometric test then ask for evidence of test validation for salespeople from a peer reviewed scientific journal.

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