Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Men Who Learned How To Sell To Engineers

     Yesterday was interesting--

     People in my trade are notoriously difficult to sell to; we poke around at the machinery, ask difficult questions and generally behave as if we could build a better version of the widget ourselves. (Indeed, some of us do; I could point to a half-dozen little companies started when some boffin looked at the available options in disgust and made his own answer to whatever the problem may have been.)

     Tradionally, sales weasels (so-called) solved this by either wining/dining and being best pals, or by bypassing the techies and pitching his widgets to management and creative personnel.  It worked but tended to inculcate resentment.

     These days, woe betide the General Manager or non-technical department head who buys Something Wonderful based on the blinky lights and fast talk: unless it really is wonderful down to the last penny paid and beyond, heads roll. Once bitten (clean off!), thrice shy; they've largely stopped buying on their own.

     That leaves the salepeople back sellin' to my lot, cranky, suspicious, technically-conservative geeks and nerds.  Meanwhile, sales careers are foundering on the rocks of a down economy, a hugely accelerating rate-of-change in hardware and consumer usage, and ever-greater use of software-defined devices.  With that kind of pressure on the genome, something had to give--

     "I'm a salesman and I probably won't be able to help going into a little bit of a pitch here, but the application of (non-exclusive) technology X to task Z  is making huge improvements in quality and cost, and here's an overview of how and why."

     "All our competitors (names a half-dozen) make a good product too, which this box can work as the 'home' end for; it'll talk to all of them."

     "Here's a white paper on the New Widget," handing out a multi-page print-out, walls of text and no glossy pictures, "and you might want a brochure, too." (point to stack of traditional shiny ads).

     "I'm just up here to introduce our design engineers--" (Who proceed to give an informative talk; sure, there's a stack of sales-contact business cards available, too.)

     Yeah.  They're starting to figure it out.  It sure beats the fast-talking but oblivious salesmen I had to deal with way back when, including the guy who made a high-pressure pitch for a particular technology (unflanged rigid coaxial transmission line for high-power RF) he thought was new and amazing to Us Rubes, while standing in the middle of a room where all the high-power widgetry was interconnected with the stuff!  Those days are fading.  I don't miss 'em.

     (On another front, a general-line supplier I otherwise like has continued their trend of sending personable young women to work their table at such events.  I'd like to tell you it's because they're such an unbiased metritocracy; I'd like to, but given the evidence, I suspect it's because they know they're working a crowd 95% male and overwhelmingly geeky.)


Anonymous said...

I had to do the role of field support/technical sales for a number of years and it had its moments.

Yes, there are a percentage of techs and engineers that spend a lot of time telling you how your product could be improved or re-engineered to their personal application. I had one gentleman from .gov tell me that our gizmo could never work even though his own agency used them for years. These folks rarely buy anything so I never wasted my time with them.

The folks who bought our gizmos were interested in doing some activity cheaper, faster or because they had a specific job/mission and we were specified in.

My job was to explain to them how to fit our unit into their existing SOP's, help them modify the SOP if needed and train them on the support side. Mostly they were managers and if they were not technical, they would bring their teckie with them. Many times the teckie and I knew the same folks so that helped. I was they guy who went in the field so it was important they didn't get oversold by the marketing folks.

At a good trade show or conference, we would be happy with 3-5 new leads and to get to talk to our current customers to see if all was well. There would be 25 -50 folks who were literature collectors and SWAG junkies who just wanted to see what they could get for free. Analytical chemist were the worst.

Our sale manager (a woman) would hire some local models to handle the paperwork at the show. The ladies were great to work with and handled literature requests.

Our local salesperson for circuit boards looks like a young Stevie Nicks. We try not to hold that against her, she really works very hard to get us what we need on time.


Dave H said...

Unfortunately, booth babes are going to be around as long as the Marketing department has an expense account. I'm not sure it's a reflection of the customer base so much as a reflection of what the Marketing wonks want to see.

As for selling to engineers, what's fun is to be the design engineer watching your sales drone wilt under the withering glare of a mark at one of these shows.

Grizzled vet walks up, asks a couple innocent question, then starts grilling the sales guy about our features and how Brand Y and Z do things differently. I step in at that point and explain the rationale behind our design and feature choices, and freely admit that we took a different path. We go back and forth a few rounds, then the vet stalks off grumbling. Sales drone is nearly in tears because "he hates it." I reassure him that in fact the guy likes it, because 1) it does what he wants, and 2) he knows we've done our homework. If the guy hated it, he wouldn't have spent so much time arguing about the tech.

Jess said...

T and A sales staff are effective. I work for a gentleman that was so enamored with the large, almost exposed breasts of a saleswoman, he signed a two year contract and was forced to pay for a substandard uniform service.

The sad thing is that I can imagine it happening again. A low cut blouse, plenty of cleavage and hollow words are his weakness.

Eric said...

The other neat trick I've seen is to have someone explain the dingus in a British accent. Makes the target of the pitch feel like he's James Bond - "pay attention, 007!"

A few years ago at an Oracle conference, there was a booth with a Ferrari F1 mock up, a busty blonde and a guy in a lab coat with a British accent. I'll be damned if I remember what the product was!

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

The booth babes I like are the ones who can actually discuss their product in a cogent and competent manner.

There are a few out there in my world. I haven't been to SHARE in about 10 years, but my recollection is that the women shilling stuff there were just as geeky as the guys.

Stranger said...

I am glad to see management is out of the purchase loop. Used to be the rep would move something in, hand the chief cook and bottle washer, the guy with the first phone and endorsements, engineer - so called - the manual, and tell him the demonstration will be tomorrow at noon - and it had better work right or Mr. Bigg would be very disappointed.

Mr. Bigg was seldom disappointed, but turnover was high.


Old NFO said...

Good points all, and one reason I don't waste time going to 'trade' shows. User group meetings tend to actually be worthwhile though...

JC said...

Dear sweet Jesus I am sick and tired of "seasoned sales professionals" who don't know anything about the product.

I'm minded of a loverly woman selling some good LED lighting systems, who did not know what a lumen was, was totally ignorant of Ohm's law, and was equally ignorant of voltages, much less single-v-3 phase.

Then she took 14 months to respond to an RFP.

I spoke with her boss, who told me she was "his best sales rep".

lelnet said...

Pitching credible interoperability as a major feature is a nice touch. 'Cause look, dude...even if I had anything like the authority it'd take to make you my employer's exclusive vendor of $tech_you_sell, exclusive vendor relationships are against my religion. There's only two people on Earth I trust that and my wife, and I'm not 100% sure about me.

Jeffro said...

You'll know you've arrived when some tech company hires Chippendale types to try to woo you into a frivolous purchase.

What good that'll do - not much. But you'd know you had arrived.....