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Engineers Learn to Sell Differently

Engineer sales

The 3-part framework of the challenger sale model (2011) is to teach, tailor, and take control of the buying journey.  The idea of teaching during the buying experience is not new.  However, the days of buyers learning about your product or service directly from the sales representative are practically over.  In the 1970s, buyers would travel to local dealerships to learn the latest features about the car they were interested in purchasing.  The sales rep was the teacher.

With the invention of websites and our preoccupation with learning information on our own, seventy to eighty percent of the buying journey is online.  We research before buying or validating what the sales rep tells us by searching for reviews and other information about the pending purchase. This reality has increased the need for sales reps to become more knowledgeable.  They must provide information beyond what someone can research on the web. 

Buying has changed at a faster rate than the sales profession due to the advancement of technology.   Moore's Law is a computing term that originated around 1970; the simplified version of this Law states that processor speeds or overall processing power for computers will double every two years.  The pandemic accelerated the use of technology in sales by six years in a matter of months.  In other words, what would have taken place in years happened in less than a year.

Buyers do not want to get sold.  They want to learn about the product or service to make an informed buying decision.  It is logical to employ engineers to help buyers learn before they buy. For complex purchases, the engineer has the depth of knowledge to explain why something is the way it is or why it functions the way it does.  This depth of knowledge is not easy for a buyer to learn or understand on a company website. 

The tactic of using non-technical sales reps to sell complicated solutions is a challenge.  The typical sales rep is not a technical expert and often lacks the knowledge to answer complex questions.  In other words, they cannot teach an informed buyer something they do not already know.  This problem is more challenging when the buyer is an engineer or technician.  A non-technical sales rep will struggle to teach this type of buyer.  As a result, many companies attempt to make engineers into sales reps.

Giving an engineer the title of a sales rep is not enough.  Historically, relationship builders who are friendly and relational dominated sales.  Sales training systems fit the typical sales stereotype.  With some exceptions, engineers tend to be introverted and rational. However, teaching an analytical thinker is different from teaching a relational person.  Assuming both people (relational and analytical) will learn the same sales concepts the same way is the problem.  The relational person is more intuitive, and the rational person is more process-oriented.  Training must fit both archetypes. 

The sales profession has become more complicated due to more complex technology all around us.  Technical minds are suited to understand how things work.  Non-technical people are quick to embrace the utility of something they may not understand.  A modern mobile phone is a good example.  A technical person can tell you how your phone works.  A non-technical mind can use the phone to solve problems independent of how the phone functions.

This dichotomy in sales provides the opportunity for engineers to be successful sales reps.  However, they must develop skills and follow processes for dealing with irrational (relational) buyers.  A simple skill like leaving a proper voicemail may seem simple to a relational person yet complex for the rational mind.  Engineers must learn skills most relational sales reps take for granted because they see the same world differently.  In my experience, assuming one method of training fits both populations is a mistake.

You can understand something at a deep level and not be able to teach the concept effectively.  I had some brilliant college professors who were horrible teachers.  In the challenger sale model, buyer learning is essential.  The creators of this model believe the sales pitch itself should be worth paying for by the buyer.  You cannot assume the technical sales rep can teach the technical concept so that the buyer becomes compelled to close the deal.

Furthermore, each step in the buying journey training must break down into skills the rational mind can learn, practice, and apply.  Segregating prospects into target groups at the beginning of the buying process is a skill.  Closing the deal at the end of the buying journey is a skill.  In between are many skills that get learned—for example, learning when (what time of day) to make outbound calls is different depending on who you are calling and what industry you are selling.  Regular sales training is practical at what you should do to close a sale.  It is ineffective with performing the skill because it assumes you know how to do it already.  There is a simple skill to accept a prospect's business card that gets mastered with practice.  I have not found this skill in any sales book so far.  The assumption is that you already know what to say when someone gives you a business card.

Engineers need the entire blueprint for the sales journey with logical steps (skills) along the way.  Leaving a step out of the process is like omitting a sign out of an equation.  The rational mind sees the equation as impossible to solve.  They get stuck.  The relational thinker will insert something randomly to get to the next step of the buying journey.  If you give a relational seller the Challenger Sale book, they will apply the concepts irrationally until they find success or failure.  An engineer will attempt to make the book into an equation to be solved.

Different does not mean good or bad.  The sales skills gap (SSG) exists in both types of sales reps.  However, if more profound knowledge is required to close complex deals, engineers have a distinct advantage when utilizing the proper skills.  Technical minds have an advantage when deploying the challenger sale model.  They have a disadvantage when functioning as relationship builders. For example, they may opt for the utility of an email over the time it takes to pick up the phone and have a conversation.  Relationship builders have an advantage when it comes to discovery skills.  Engineers are at a disadvantage when discovering emotions that can later be used as leverage when it is time to close.  The bottom line is relational and rational minds learn to sell differently.