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Q: Hire salespeople and train them to be scientists - or hire scientists and train them to be salespeople?

(April 1, 2011)

A few days ago I posted this question on a LinkedIn discussion group focused on sales effectiveness in the chemical industry, a market segment that employs many scientists and technical experts as part of the sales force. While this discussion was focused on sales in the chemical industry, the same issues apply across many industries including laboratory equipment, high tech systems, aerospace, alternative energy and more.

Within a few days, there were 31 comments from people representing 15 companies in 5 countries all sharing their points of view. Most who shared their comments were passionate on one side or the other. Each person made a case for the advantage of starting with a scientist and training them to be a salesperson or starting with a salesperson and training them on the scientific and technical aspects of the product.

After about 10 people weighed in, I added:

I strongly agree that solid product knowledge alone does not make someone a great salesperson.

While it is important that salespeople have solid product knowledge, this is a small part of sales success - since most salespeople you are competing against also know their own products well. To differentiate, scientists in sales and sales support roles need to earn customer trust and then get to know their customers' business problems. This gives them the opportunity to add business consulting value unmatched by competitors.

What successes or struggles have you seen when scientists function as salespeople?

Several agreed with me while others shared different views. After about 20 more comments from sales managers, scientists and technical experts from around the world, I jumped back in to the discussion by stating:

How exciting to see all of the energy around the world on this topic.

  • I think each company has to decide this for themselves whether to hire scientists or hire salespeople based on what they sell and who they sell to.
  • For the companies who already have a sales force made of people with a scientific or highly technical background, assistance is needed to help the scientists learn to discover and appeal to what’s important to the customer.
  • While some people wrote that sales skills can’t be trained, I offer an alternative view.
  • Over the past 10 years the people I work with have transformed over 25,000 scientists into salespeople by teaching them a professional approach to sales. The comparison is made to the way counsellors help their clients solve problems. By focusing on the client’s business problems and helping them find solutions, the scientist salesperson becomes a trusted advisor powered by their great technical knowledge. When technical salespeople adopt a counsellor mindset, they become a valuable resource clients turn to for help. There are several different approaches to helping a scientist acquire a counsellor mind set, skill set and tool set.
  • The approaches that seem to be the most powerful in transforming scientists into salespeople include consultative selling skills and versatility skills.

Now I’ll pose a similar question to you: What do you think is the most effective approach in technical sales – do you hire a Scientist or a Salesperson before development begins?

What examples can you share of transforming scientists into salespeople or salespeople into technical experts? What have you seen work well? What approaches seem to stall with lack- lustre results?

About the Author
Carl Eidson

Carl Eidson

Carl Eidson Ph. D., Vice President of Business Development, Wilson Learning Corporation. Dr. Eidson leads and coaches a virtual team of over 100 independent distributors stretching from Toronto to Buenos Aires. To influence and impact results remotely, he leverages innovative communication technologies and virtual leadership skills to create systems for sales-force development, marketing campaigns and client-centred promotional events. With a doctorate in Industrial and Organisational Psychology, he has co-authored articles on selecting top talent published in scholarly journals including Journal of Applied Psychology, Human Performance, International Journal of Selection and Assessment and Journal of Business and Psychology. Eidson is a frequent speaker on human performance improvement research and practices at professional conferences.

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