Sales Skills for Engineers

Tips on what it takes to succeed

9 July 2012

A good salesperson and a good engineer both like to solve problems.

“Engineers going into sales find their engineering skills to be extremely valuable, because they’re able to qualify and quantify their clients’ needs and identify the problems they’re trying to solve,” says Paul R. Hutchinson, owner of Hutchinson Consulting, in Boston.

Hutchinson, who specializes in sales strategy, recently presented his “Sales Skills for Engineers and Scientists” workshop to the IEEE Boston Section.

According to Hutchinson, engineers who attend the workshop do so because they want to become consultants, improve their skills as sales support engineers, or understand better how their organization’s sales department works. Or they’re considering moving into sales.

But there are other reasons for knowing more about the subject. Sales skills can play a valuable role throughout your engineering career, especially when you must sell the value of a new idea or project to management or other organizations in order to get it funded.

“If you’re working for a large organization or doing research, part of your job is to get capital for your projects,” Hutchison points out. “Sales skills can be put to good use in presentations, requesting grants, and one-on-one conversations with decision-makers who can give your project the go-ahead.”

Part of sales involves creating trust between the seller and buyer—a vital asset, Hutchinson points out, for anyone working as a consultant. Both salespeople and consultants sell not just a product or service but themselves as well. “That’s the biggest thing about a consultant’s product: his or her own credibility,” he says. “A salesperson lacking credibility ultimately will lack customers.”

No matter the circumstances, Hutchinson recommends several steps for improving your sales skills. Here are a few.

First, educate yourself about selling by reading books, taking classes, or attending workshops. Second, look inside yourself. Understand more about your abilities and whether you enjoy selling or if you’re even good at it; this can help you determine the direction you want to go in and the skills to concentrate on.

Hutchinson advises observing salespeople in action. Learn from what they do right and what they do wrong. Sometimes seeing negative things, such as salespeople who don’t solve problems but keep pitching an inadequate solution, can be as much of a lesson as anything else.

Once you’re ready to get into sales, there are hurdles to overcome. Understanding the problem your potential client wants to solve is key to being successful, Hutchinson says.

The worst salespeople are those who don’t listen. Hence, they don’t offer solutions to clients’ problems, don’t pay attention to their needs, or keep pushing a product or service instead of backing off. Many who might benefit from learning sales skills have told Hutchinson they fear duplicating the negative experiences they’ve had with poor salespeople.

One thing Hutchinson does in his workshop is ask people to think about someone who solved a problem for them. “We often don’t think of the person who solved a problem for us as a salesperson, but they did earn your trust,” he says. “Keep such problem-solvers in mind when you approach a problem.” The problem-solving technique in a sales situation should come naturally for engineers, he adds, because “engineers are all about overcoming obstacles.”

Listening is an important skill inside an organization, where engineers and salespeople must communicate to avoid antagonizing each other, a situation that occurs all too often.

“You need to realize that both engineering and sales are on the same team,” Hutchinson says. “You’re not playing on opposite sides. Your jerseys are the same color.”

The biggest challenge is ensuring that engineering and sales speak the same language. “A common vocabulary for engineering and sales puts everyone at a greater advantage,” Hutchinson says. “Understanding what each side is trying to achieve and the obstacles they face creates more trust and facilitates a deeper dialogue about how to handle issues that arise.”

Hutchinson suggests you pick up new sales skills by volunteering for a professional organization such as your IEEE section or local society chapter, or a business association. He recommends you sign up for the membership committee, where your job will be to sell the value of joining the organization to potential new members. “It’s a low-stress environment,” he says, “and you’ll undoubtedly meet folks who are skilled at sales. You can learn from watching them.”

Whatever you career, Hutchinson says, sales skills can help you. “The world is becoming more and more competitive,” he says, “so the more knowledge you have about the overall business you’re in, the better.”

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