How ChE Prepared Me for Business (and How It Didn’t): Sales

We are always selling. Vendors sell goods, consultants sell advice, politicians sell themselves, demonstrators who occupy Wall Street sell their cause, entrepreneurs sell new concepts, artists sell designs, and even parents sell their standards. Regardless of the way you describe it-teaching, pitching, proposing, convincing--sales is about getting another person to do something, and we all need to know how to do sales well to get things done.

When I was getting my MBA, our program broke into the top 20 rankings and the school administration and faculty were putting even more focus into the makeup of the students. The dean at the time was impressed with the undergrad business sales students. He remarked that this was a group of individuals who dressed well, knew how to shake a hand, and carry on a professional conversation. He suggested that sales training should be part of the core MBA curricula. I do remember thinking that it would be good training for those MBAs who had never been consultants or in other customer-facing roles. As we described before (link), engineers have high professionalism standards put on them, but there is a lack of formal training in engineering curricula on how to close a deal or make a business pitch. So why make the case to have sales training as part of our core training? Corporate survival.

Corporate Survival

My exposure to sales was initially out of necessity rather than interest. Being part of a satellite consulting office, and having survived a round of layoffs where all of our account managers were let go, we consultants were made responsible for filling our own pipeline. I started by responding to RFPs, cross-selling to existing clients, presenting at user conferences, and then eventually moving into a more dedicated business development role that involved partnering with our direct sales team to co-pitch to potential clients. This experience was immensely helpful and brought relevancy to most of the marketing strategies we learned in B-school.

Glengarry Glen Ross is what we typically think of when we think of sales, but sales is truly about giving people what they need and creating mutually beneficial and profitable outcomes. It is also a marketing tactic and there are different flavors:

  • Direct Sales: Commission-driven and transactional
  • Account Management: Repeat-business-driven and long-term relationship focused
  • Business Development: Partnership-driven and involving strategic evaluation of how and where to build business

At Aspen Tech I was part of a new business development team, and our mission was to drive revenue while helping clients address their needs. It quickly became apparent upon engaging more and more with direct sales teams across industries that there are two major categories of salespeople:

  1. Those who are great at selling themselves. This is the sells-freezers-to-polar-bears prototype; the people who can sell anything to anyone because they get you to like them. The product or service becomes secondary.
  2. Those who are great at fixing your problems. They figure out what keeps you up at night and help you solve those problems to get a good night's sleep.

The second kind of salesperson has to understand clients and have the engineering mind to solve issues creatively with a combination of engineering and consumer behavior.

Leading a Horse to Water

Engineers, like consultants, tend to love frameworks and algorithms. As we highlighted in the last article about human behavior, there is a framework for how people go through decision making before making a purchase, or deciding to change behavior: AIDA

  • Awareness: before I buy a product, I need to be made aware of it.
  • Interest: now that I know about a product, why should I care?
  • Desire: how do I go about getting this product?
  • Action: purchase.

AIDA is represented here with an inverse triangle, as most sales processes follow the same kind of a funnel. You will start with many more targets at the top, and convert a much smaller percentage at the end. The more effective your targeting and the more geared your pitch and value proposition, the greater your conversion. The result is a funnel that looks more like a cylinder than an inverted triangle.

"I am not the customer" is a tenant that explains why engineers forget why we need to follow a process like AIDA for any sales effort. I had the opportunity to work with some young civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers on a clean-tech startup. What I had missed from working with traditional engineers (non-CS) on a more regular basis was that we all "got it." We understood why we were developing our product and for what reasons--we tended to be driven by pursuing sound engineering and science to solve a problem. The most eye-opening for my young colleagues, however, was the concept that not everyone shares the same backgrounds and scientific perspective. Just because we are aware and "get it" doesn't mean everyone else does--and human behavior becomes important again.

The first step in selling is just to create some awareness about your product or service. Why do incumbents have an advantage in politics? They are already a household name and don't have to spend incremental capital to generate awareness. Interest is the next key step, just because I know about the politician, why should I care? What you care about and why is really dependent on who you are and your motivations (see this article). I might be aware and care about an issue, such as healthcare reform, but do I have the desire to do anything about it? If my target doesn't, how do I motivate them? Some politicians use emotional tactics (more on this here) to drive change. Some vendors use coupons, others use rebates, but the best try to use scarcity and suggest that you can't live without them. Ultimately we are all trying to make the target audience take action, whether it be to vote, to buy, or even to read a blog.

We'll wrap up the series next time with some final thoughts.

When has being an unofficial sales person been critical to your corporate survival?

Photo: Robert J.Pennington,
(C)2011 Arkan Kayihan, used with permission