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Why Engineers are Lousy Salespeople

It’s been about 6 months since I moved back to the Bay Area. Since then, I’ve been attending various entrepreneurial meetings and trying to network with people. I’ve noticed that there are two types of people at these meetings. The first type have an idea for a product and “only need” a team to build it. The second type of people are those who’ve built a product and “only need” to sell it (I’m in the second group).

The first group tends to be non-technologists while the second group tends to be people with engineering backgrounds (or at least technical personalities). This leads me to believe that engineers are lousy salespeople. Here are some reasons why:

Emotion sells

According to Jeffrey Gitomer (he’s the guy that writes that little red salesbook), sales are first made emotionally and then justified logically. A good salesperson appeals to your emotions to get you excited about buying a product.

When you think of someone with a technical background, a person like Spock comes to mind. Engineers strike people as either passionless or (after you push them far enough) very angry (just like Spock).

If emotion sells, engineers are clearly at a disadvantage. The only time engineers make sales is if the customer already realizes they need a solution–when the customer is past emotion and justification and is willing to pay for something that works.

Getting Past No

Engineers take things at face value. If an engineer says, “Would you like to try this product?” and the client says “no”. The engineer will say “ok” and then stop talking. Engineers don’t get past no. We assume our clients are rational and that after we’ve presented our case, they make their final, irrevocable decision.

I have an 8 year old son who (I’m pretty sure) won’t be an engineer. He’s never taken “no” for an answer. In the morning he might say “Can I play Doodle Jump?”, and I’ll say “no”. A few minutes later he’ll say, “I haven’t played Doodle Jump for a while. Can I play Doodle Jump?”, and I’ll say “no.” At breakfast he’ll say, “Did you know that one of my favorite games is Doodle Jump?”. This level of discourse goes on throughout the day until I am finally worn down and wearily say “yes”. (Maybe in a few years, he can sell for me 🙂 )


Engineers Don’t Socialize

I think it’s fair to say that most engineers are introverts. We aren’t energized when we talk to new people. It’s quite the reverse. At the end of every networking event, I am very tired. It’s hard to maintain and keep track of so many conversations. It’s hard to remember who you’ve talked to and what they do.

Unfortunately for us, making connections is how you make sales. By networking, you can build a reputation. You become more visible. You become more trustworthy.

This tends to get easier over time, but I think that’s because you start recognizing people. The conversations start being more about “how are things going?” rather than “so, what do you do?”

Pursuit of Perfection

Engineers don’t like to be wrong. We don’t like to make mistakes. We’re trained to get the right answers (and that there are right answers!). When building medical devices and bridges, this is a great attitude. When dealing with people and potential customers, it’s not.

We need to be willing to accept failure. We need to expect failure. We have to keep trying different things until we find what works. There is no formula or algorithm that can avoid this. As a group, engineers have a hard time tolerating failure. When selling, failure is a big part of life.

The R in R&D

One thing that we should leverage more as engineers trying to sell something is the “research” aspect of our background. Research is all about trying something, understanding why it didn’t work, and then using that information to try something new. This is something engineers can relate to, and I think it’s the best way for us as engineers to figure out how to sell our products. It’s not straightforward or rational, but if we work at it, we should find something that works (I hope!)

We’ve been trying to figure this out. It’s been a slow process. I believe we’ve been doing the right things, so we need to keep finding new things to try. I think we have to give up reading about how to do this and actually talk to someone who’s done this. We need to find someone who can show us the ropes of growing a business and marketing and selling. We don’t need help writing software; we’re great at that :-).

I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have any thoughts or recommendations, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks!