Engineers Are In Sales Too

If you were to get a couple of engineers together and bring up sales, a couple of themes will emerge. The most common complaint I hear is something along the lines of “All they do is fly around the world, expense meals, play golf with customers, and make our jobs harder”. I have participated in this sales bashing conversation as well. Friends in sales, don’t worry, this isn’t a sales bashing article. Unless the circumstances are extraordinary, I don’t believe in outsiders being critical of the way others do their jobs. While I do think there is something to be said about the reckless salesperson promising a customer that their company can provide a unicorn fart powered airplane costing only $12 with a 1 month lead time, I don’t think it is my place to say it. If I am being honest, at least part of my complaint is rooted in a little jealousy. Not necessarily the travel and expense account, I have traveled quite a bit for work and it is nice, but I would rather be in the office working on a design problem. I am jealous of the salesperson’s ability to walk into a room, have a conversation, convince people of something, and everyone has a good time. What kind of a jerk can do that? Certainly not an Engineer.

My natural personality fits nicely in the quiet, nerdy engineering stereotype. When I tell people this, I am usually met with mild surprise. I have learned to play the character of the outgoing, charismatic salesperson in an engineering capacity [I didn’t say I was going to win an Oscar, but I might be good enough to play a supporting character in a middle school production]. It wasn’t easy, but like any good engineer, I spent a long time studying the problem. I learned this by helpful tests. First I reviewed my interactions that didn’t go the way I wanted (this isn’t that hard, those seem to play on repeat in my head) and by observing people that are really good at it.

I need to address the engineering audience asking the question of Why? Why should you learn the skill of sales? Well, if you don’t you will be very frustrated in your career. “But I don’t sell anything” you may object. Engineers sell ideas. We sell them to the companies that employ us, we are asking for quite a bit of time and money to engineer our ideas. Even a modest design proposal that requires four engineers and six months and $100,000 in prototype is approaching half a million dollars in direct cost and we haven’t even addressed the lost opportunity cost. Convincing someone to give you a half million dollars requires sales.

So, what have I learned? These are some lessons I needed to learn in order to sell my ideas. Naturally I assume you need to learn them as well.

Your priorities are not their priorities. Engineers are measured on functional features, robustness, innovation and cost. But that is not what manufacturing, sales, finance or any other part of the organization is measured on. What is the job function and how is the person evaluated? If you don’t know, ask. Learn how the different job functions in your company are evaluated. When selling your idea focus on the parts that will help that person, not how great of an engineering idea it is. Spoiler alert, people will not care enough to take action unless the idea can make them more successful in their job. You need to learn how to connect your idea to the different jobs in the company. Really good ideas will help out the entire organization. If you cannot find how it helps out other job functions then it might not be that great of an idea or it needs more work.

Build a relationship. Sales is not a formula. IF TIME + COST < PROFIT, THEN BUY is not the way it works. Particularly in engineering, ideas are speculative and the decision to commit is not formulaic. Engineers often forget that most people do not have the time or expertise to check the math on a pitch. The decision maker needs to trust that what you are saying is true. Without a relationship there is no trust. You need to get to know other people in your organization. This will also help you with the first point, getting to know what it takes to make them successful in their job. If you ask what a person's priorities are and then immediately turn around and say ‘this will help you achieve that’ comes off as very disingenuous. Build a relationship that is authentic and long lasting, not that gets you what you want in the short term.

Get to the point. Engineers love details. We love them so much more than other people that we don’t even realize what engineers consider high level, normal people consider fine print. I am still particularly bad at this. My wife regularly rescues an unwitting conversation partner that has asked me a question that got me going off into a dull, droning description of the history of a widget starting with the Tiktaalik, the first fish to crawl out of the oceans. Start by writing a description of your idea, covering everything you think is important. Then cut it in half. Read it again to make sure it still makes sense and cut it in half again. Read it out loud and then cut it in half again. This will help with two problems. First, it will prevent the person you are pitching from getting bored. Second, it will help them actually remember the idea. With all this cutting in half don’t forget to include the ask. “I need 4,000 hours and $100,000”

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. Trying again needs to be done carefully. You do not want to become an office bet. “What’s the over-under on when Dave brings up his transmission idea?” Pitch the idea, and if you get a ‘no’ ask for some feedback. Incorporate that feedback into your idea, when the subject comes up again pitch the modified idea and repeat the process until it is successful. I have seen this play out many times when I am trying to sell ideas. Many times it is a situation of a good idea at the wrong time. In large organizations this can take a long time but great ideas cannot be stopped, keep at it looking for improvements, keep pitching it to different people. Eventually you will build enough support to sell the idea.