Technical Expertise and Commercial Flair
The Best of Both
Mercuri's Iain Harvey describes how to ensure both technical expertise and commercial flair in your sales team - Read the article in the latest issue of Winning Edge - The ISM (Institute of Sales Management) publication
Does this seem familiar?
"My organization sells technical products, often complex and with a long sales cycle. We usually recruit technical experts (internally or externally) into sales because that’s what we’ve always done and we think that’s what our customers expect.
Often these people struggle to adapt because the skills sets required for technical experts and sales people are vastly different, sometimes conflicting.
It is a conundrum we always struggle with. Being methodical and analytical is important for technicians and engineers so expecting them to be entrepreneurial and adaptable, as the best sales people often are, leads to underperformance, frustration and ultimately causes them to leave."
If you recognise this situation then the good news is that you are not alone. Indeed it is one of the most common issues our clients ask us to help them with. We also get asked to advise on future recruitment i.e. who should we employ? Proven sales people or technical experts? Therein lies a central problem, in that it is often seen as a binary choice – to recruit either one or the other.
So why does this happen? Our experience leads us to recognise two main factors:
Firstly, that the kind of people recruited is strongly influenced by the person who is running the business or team. They recruit in their own image, meaning that sales people look to bring in sales people and engineers look for engineers – they seek comfort in the familiar.
Secondly, when complex products are sold, technically inclined business leaders assume the buyers are very often experts themselves. Therefore they fear that if sales people do not demonstrate a high level of knowledge they, and by extension we, will lack credibility and our prospective customers will look elsewhere. On the other hand managers from a sales background fear losing sales because customers will become frustrated and bored by overly complex and technical pitches. So here we have a classic Catch 22 which many organizations fail to tackle.
But does it always have to be this way? The short answer is no. There are some practical steps that can be taken to ensure the optimum combination of technical expertise and commercial flair in your sales team:
5 steps to technical sales success
1. Clearly define roles: Sales Engineer, Applications Specialist, Technical Sales, and Product Support. The variety of job titles in customer facing roles alone is mind boggling and can often be used to justify arguments along the lines of ‘I didn’t realise that was part of my job’. If people are expected to contribute to the sales effort then make sure this is clearly defined with proper objectives and measurements put in place. Make people accountable for their performance and incentivise them properly.
2. Have a trainable, uniform sales process: if you’re looking for common ground between sales and technical people then it undoubtedly lies in following a set of clearly defined processes to solve a problem. So if you put in place a logical, linear and, crucially, trainable sales process then everyone should be comfortable with it, albeit they will be executing it in their own personal style. It also facilitates team selling so you can pair engineers with sales experts in business development and/or account management pursuits and so optimise your talent pool.
3. Get the blend right: the most successful teams are never comprised of people all with the same skill set. Just look at the sporting world for evidence. There is no rule that says you must exclusively employ either engineers or sales experts. Build a team with both and get them working with and learning off each other.
4. Conduct a proper assessment before appointing: Too many recruitment appointments into critical, revenue generating roles are based solely on face to face interviews, often with gut feel as the deciding factor. All too often someone already working for the organisation has a good reputation and is known as being likeable and dependable so gets the nod accordingly. This is clearly not sufficient. Psychometric testing can give a clear indicator of attitude and motivation and a robust competence analysis can give a reliable indicator as to aptitude. Put candidates into a realistic, observed business simulation and see how they perform under pressure. Once you have a clear, objective view of capability and confidence you can make an informed decision on whether someone is right for the role or not.
5. Invest in development: Both technical knowledge and selling skills can be improved by appropriate training, so, if your team is already in place and settled but you are not getting the results you want don’t accept the status quo. The assessment tools detailed in Step 4 can also be used on your existing people to identify skills, knowledge, attitude and aptitude gaps. The results can then be used as part of a training needs analysis and gaps in knowledge and skills can be filled to improve results.