Can Technical Experts Sell?

In general, business people with a technical expertise (scientists, engineers, lawyers etc) do not make natural salespeople, but some are better than others at using similar skills to grab customer attention. Having worked with many business owners with that technical ‘slant’ over the last eighteen years, we have come across several different approaches and viewpoints when it comes to selling their services to new and existing customers. Throughout this time we have found that they tend to fit into one of four categories:
  • There are those who sell well – a group whose numbers are increasing
  • Those who sell badly – and unfortunately the number of those is also growing
  • Those who can’t sell – or think they can’t
  • Those who really don’t want to sell.
In helping people to sell managers first need to understand each type. In this article, we focus on each group and consider how best to help and support them. Those who sell well In order to understand who truly does sell well, management analysis should not be focused purely on results. Whilst outputs are important, the way in which business is brought in and the activities that lead to the results are equally important. Some business developers’ successes lie more in them being in the right place at the right time. Alternatively, they might have won several customers but then not formed long-lasting, profitable relationships. Whilst everybody is different, there are certain ways of winning business that can be defined and held up as best practice. Role models in this context are those that seek to build trust with their clients and demonstrate the ability to truly understand their clients’ businesses.  Once we are sure that they can build long-term, profitable relationships, these sorts of people can be invaluable role models and coaches for others. Those who sell badly Some would say it’s the income generated that indicates how good or bad individuals are at selling. We would suggest that, what on the surface look like good results could be masking the real reasons behind them. Being in the right place at the right time or winning a single order from a customer does not necessarily suggest these people should be held up as role models. Some of the individuals in the ‘those that sell badly’ group will feel they are successful and will be resistant to change. Others may be less successful and come across as defensive. This group often proves the greatest challenge, as it is often more difficult to ‘unlearn’ behaviour than it is to learn new skills from scratch. There is likely to be some resistance from those that see their clients as their own and/or feel that “my way has always worked in the past, why shouldn’t it work now?” Any training, coaching or development of these people needs to focus on the organisation’s long-term goals and take into account the sensitivities of the individuals concerned. Those that cannot sell/do not think they can It is said that there are those born with the ability to sell and those that are not. This may be true to a degree, as there are probably some people who you would not want in front of customers. Their ‘talents’ would be best used back at the office. Some individuals are, however, condemned as inadequate when it comes to selling because they do not fit the stereotype of what a good seller is like. People sometimes believe that there is a correlation between extroversion and selling. We believe there is no such correlation. Limiting our selling resource to the people who do it ‘naturally’ misses out on those who could be very effective with the right development. When we hear business people saying “I simply can’t go into a room full of people I have never met and engage them in witty banter” they are probably right. However, this does not mean that they can’t develop their own, highly professional way of entering into dialogue with prospective customers. Many of those who say they cannot sell a are really saying ‘I cannot do it like my extrovert colleagues’. Once they understand who has the potential, managers can provide the necessary support that will give every person the chance to use their own personality to best effect when developing business opportunities. Those who don’t want to sell We have yet to work with someone with a huge technical bias or love of what they make for instance, in order to become a great sales and marketing practitioner. Some see selling as something they would rather not do. Images of used-car or other salesmen form in their minds. Selling strikes a fear of being unprofessional or ‘tacky’. Those who are good at selling know that any kind of pressure selling or ‘trickery’ is likely to be counterproductive and not work. People in this category therefore need to be convinced of two things:
  • Selling their services well is a very professional and ethical thing to do
  • They do have the capability to sell well.
Getting these people to build their capabilities in this field relies on managers adopting the approach we described for those who cannot sell/don’t think they can. To overcome the first issue, individuals need to be introduced to a rigorous and effective method of winning business. This should be based on building:
  • a strong reputation and excellent relationships
  • added value and trust
  • an understanding of the customer
  • credibility and the ability to demonstrate a genuine interest in the client
  • the client’s motivation to buy
  • at the right time and in the right way
Some individuals straddle more than one category, however very few do not fit in any of them. The key to getting people to sell (and to sell well) is to establish who sits in which category. It is then a matter of clearly defining best practice in building relationships and selling; and providing the appropriate input to develop each individual’s capabilities. Then and only then, can new business performance measurement systems achieve success. Any system that forces an individual to do things they do not like or do not feel good at will either be setting them up to fail or test their creativity in ‘working’ the system.   This means making selling important, something people are good at and something they enjoy doing.