Expand your sales team to the technical talent
by James “Alex” Alexander, Ed.D.
This is the fourth article of the ongoing Seriously Selling Services series.
Trust drives sales, and your customers most trust your technical talent. My research shows that top services organizations within product companies excel because their technical talent has selling skills.
That’s one reason why you shouldn’t rely entirely on the product sales force to drive services sales. Selling should be everyone’s business, and your technical talent is a critical part of that mix.
Define and implement a selling services strategy that’s right for your organization, and you’ll quickly reap the rewards. This article will show you how to kick-start seriously selling services and unleash your hidden sales force.
Why technical talent should sell services
So why should you make it a top priority to get your technical talent to sell services? Five reasons:
1. There are lots of them. Services providers usually outnumber salespeople. Of course, it varies, but often the ratio is 20 to 1 or more with professional services consultants implementing projects, field services engineers doing preventive maintenance, technical support engineers resolving problems. Tap into just a part of this potential will increase your selling opportunities.
2. They know the customer. Services providers are where the action is. Who better understands the issues and day-to-day realities of customers than the folks who implement, prevent, fix and advise the service technicians who know everyone from the facilities manager to the department head to the CIO? As they walk the office hallways, eat in the lunchroom and meet with technical staff, they become privy to a wealth of information specific to company issues, challenges, problems and opportunities.
3. They have established trust with the customer. Trust is a main driver in decision-making, and your technical talent often has a high level of customer trust, established from a history of doing what they say they will do. When your technical people make suggestions, customers listen.
4. They are not a threat. Technical folks don’t have “sales” on their business card. The BS warning signal that goes off inside customers’ heads when they meet a salesperson does not sound with a technical person. Customers are more likely to share their reality and respond to recommendations from a technical person than with a salesperson.
5. Small investment — big return. When technical talent understands that it’s good for their customers when they influence with integrity, you’re two-thirds of the way there. Because of the previous four points, all you need to do is build on existing skills and give them a road map on what to do. They’ll quickly start positively influencing services sales.
How to get technical talent selling services
Knowing how to positively take advantage of the trust built by your project managers, consultants, support account managers and field engineers makes it easy to sell services (and products) that add value to your customers and your organization. Effectively done, you’ll see qualitative changes in 30 days and quantitative results in three months. Here are four core steps to make it work.
Step 1: Communicate that professional selling isn’t evil
The technical talent often says, “If I had wanted to sell, I’d have gone into sales.” I ask them what thoughts come to mind when they hear “selling.” They give predictable answers: slick, used-car salesman, sleazy, and so on.
The truth is that your technical people aren’t acting professionally if they’re not selling — that is, looking for customer problems or opportunities that your organization can positively address. Selling is servicing. It’s as simple as that. Once they understand that selling, properly done, is good for their customers, most of your technical talent will be open to this important change in their role.
Step 2: Lay out baseline expectations for everyone in the services organization who touches the customer
Figure 1 outlines the six levels of selling expectations for your technical talent, ranging from very passive to very aggressive. Figure 2 spells out these expectations. Establish a minimum level of selling support for each of your services groups (project managers, account managers, consultants) and make this a central part of your expectations and their performance plan. They must view it as a core part of the job, a must-do. For your people who really like selling, you may want to bump up their role a level or two.
Figure 1. Expectations of Technical Experts Regarding Business Development.
Figure 2. Business Development Expectations Example.
As you review the expectations, determine where each of your technical groups are today and where they should be in a year or two.
Step 3: Provide incentives that motivate your people
Recognition is always a strong motivator. Start small. For example, as some of your people attempt to be more aggressive in selling appropriately, acknowledge them both publicly and privately. Feature them in your internal newsletters, buy them lunch —show them you appreciate their efforts. Their peers will quickly try to get involved.
Step 4: Train everyone on how to build relationships and sell services
Find some services industry-specific, high-involvement training that will give your people not only the appropriate skills for selling competence, but also improve their selling confidence. My experience shows that quality training will yield positive selling behaviors almost immediately.
Prepare for potential barriers
Of course, you can expect a few challenges. Here are four that come up most often.
1. It’s not for everyone. Most of your technical people were probably hired with the sole focus of implementing, fixing or solving. We owe it to them to provide them with the tools to make the change. Do realize that a certain percentage (15 to 30 percent) won’t do it. If you’re serious about selling services, you’ll need to find new roles for these people.
2. Sales pushback. Once they understand the program of technical people assuming some responsibility for selling, most top sellers from the sales team welcome the services selling initiative. They see it directly helps them be more successful. Sellers in the middle will be a little leery, but you can win them when they see the results.
Usually, it’s the lower-performing sellers that push back because they most likely feel threatened. Overcoming this mindset requires three things:
- A good relationship with sales management and their support of having services people involved in selling.
- Not taking anything away from the sellers (they get their normal commission/bonus on everything your people sell).
- Clearly defining who owns the customer when. For example, in many organizations, sales’ main role is to find and sell big product deals, to act as “hunters.”
Once the initial deal is sold, it often makes sense to turn the account over to a “farmer” from services (often called a customer relationship manager or services account manager) to make sure the product is used correctly, issues are resolved quickly and new opportunities are uncovered. For this system to work, however, the process needs to be clearly defined, and ownership must be determined at each step.
3. Mixed metrics. If you decide that you want some of your technical talent to be aggressive in selling, they will naturally have to invest more of their time in doing so. For example, you can’t expect a consultant to invest two days a week in some sort of selling activity and remain 75 percent billable. You’ll need to adjust expectations, objectives and incentives to align with your new expectations.
4. Going native. My research on this topic shows that services leadership’s greatest fear is that their technical talent is perceived by the customer as crossing the line from being a technical expert there to help, to being a salesperson looking to sell them something (Alexander, 2007). If this happens, the relationship will never be the same.
The key is balance — driving home the concept that whatever the technical talent’s position or title may be, the talent’s goal is to assume the role, when possible, of customers seeing the talent as a trusted advisor. This takes vigilance, especially for some of your people who really like to sell! The best way to keep this from happening in most situations is to keep incentives relatively small — big enough to get their attention, but small enough so that they don’t go over to the dark side.
Everyone who touches the customer must have a role in selling services, and because of their existing customer relationships, technical people are the logical first choice. Provide them with the knowledge, tools, skills, and incentives to be effective, and services sales will quickly follow.
Read the other articles in the Seriously Selling Services series:
- Why Sell Services Anyway?
- The Executive Role in Selling Services
- Turning Box Pushers into Sellers of the Invisible
- Everybody Sells Services
Everyone sells best practices
1. Get everyone who touches the customer on board. The approach outlined above applies to everyone in the organization. Understand the value of having everyone sell services (and products) professionally and setting appropriate selling expectations for them. Train them on what it takes to meet their selling expectations, and put incentives in place to motivate them to do the right thing.
2. Put an emphasis on pre-sales support. In many organizations that sell complex products into complex environments, technical specialists are an important part of the sales organization. For this purpose, let’s call them solution architects (SAs). Immediately after an opportunity is discovered and qualified (at least to some degree) by the salesperson, the salesperson brings in the SA to “talk tech” with the customer, understand the environment, and if the opportunity appears worth pursuing, takes the lead in creating a proposal.
The role of the SA is to help sell, and they receive compensation just like the salespeople. When it goes well, the SA and the salesperson become a strong team, with the salesperson finding opportunities and building business relationships, and the SA providing technical credibility and the knowledge to create technically appropriate solutions.
However, when it comes to seriously selling services, often the same roadblocks discussed with the salespeople occur with pre-sales support. The SAs are often product specialists, and because of how their selling teammates (and themselves) are compensated, they have been trained to focus on the product and only consider the absolute minimum amount of services when crafting responses to customer needs.
Hence, they need the same change in mindset, knowledge and skills as the sellers. In most cases, it’s wise to train sellers and SAs at the same time so that they can grapple with the change together. SAs that are competent and confident in selling services can be a huge help in bolstering the selling services capabilities of the product sales force.
3. Establish dedicated services sellers. When first making the move toward seriously selling services, bring some dedicated services selling horsepower on board — people who are already competent, confident and credible in selling the type of services you need to sell. Doing this has many benefits:
- It shows your company your commitment to seriously selling services. Bringing in top services sellers is not cheap, and the signal made by your investment is strong.
- You will generate services revenue quickly, helping quell the natural fears that this initiative is not a good one.
- Once the dedicated services sellers start showing results, it will begin to remove the excuses of your product sellers that customers won’t pay for services. Furthermore, this modeling will encourage some of the sales force to try it.
After a few years, when your general sales force has good services selling capability, you may go back to one sales force. However, initially hiring dedicated services sellers is a very good idea.
Alexander, James A. 2004. The State of Professional Services II: An Industry Comes of Age. St. James City, FL: Alexander Consulting.
Alexander, James A. 2007. Transitioning Technical Experts into Trusted Advisors. St. James City, FL: Alexander Consulting.
About James “Alex” Alexander
Alexander is founder of Alexander Consulting, a management consultancy that helps companies create and implement professional services strategies for product companies. Contact him at 239-671-0740, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.alexanderstrategists.com.
© Alexander Consulting