Geeks Gone Selling: Sales Training for IT
Martyn Lewis once worked as a technologist in a computer company. He was often frustrated at what he saw as bone-headed customers who failed to recognize the superiority of the company's products. One time, he even lost his temper.
"I said to the customer, 'This is absolutely stupid!" Lewis recalls. "'If you can't see this, I don't have time to explain it to you."
"I honestly didn't know what I'd done wrong," he says now. Thankfully, his boss at the time kept a level head. He said, "We're not going to talk about this right now, but I'd like to have a beer with you after work," Lewis remembers.
Over the beer, Lewis's boss was direct. "You must understand, you're going to have to work with a lot of people who are stupid in your eyes," the boss said. "They may not see things the same as you, but you have to be able to work with them, and help them understand what our product can bring to their world. If you can't do that, you need to find another job."
Years later, Lewis, now CEO of Market-Partners, Inc., is still grateful for that advice. "It was so eye-opening," he says. "I really hadn't seen the world that way." His company now provides sales training in the technology field to help others who might be as clueless as Lewis once was.
Stopping geeks from queering deals
Stories of geeks messing up sales by saying the wrong thing are depressingly common -- and that's just one reason why technology people who interact with customers can really benefit from sales training. It can also help dispel some of geeks' most common misconceptions about the sales process.
For instance, Lewis reports, most technology people believe their companies' products to be hugely superior to anything else on the market. "I was typical," he says. "I knew my product well and I was very enthusiastic. It was staggering for me to hear a customer say that it wasn't that different from the competition."
A related mistake for many techies talking to customers is to focus on the product in the first place, rather than on customers' needs. "I thought we were on first, because we were educating the customer about the product," Lewis says. "But the customer is on first because that's who's in charge of the selling process. We really have to understand the customer and how we can help."
Techies thirst for training
Surprisingly, technology people are more receptive to sales training than you might expect, often more so than their sales colleagues, reports Mike Scher, president, FRONTLINE Selling. "Technical people tend to like structure," he says. "Salespeople typically want to be left alone. They'll come to sales training kicking and screaming, and they'll get the benefit, but they don't think they need it. Whereas people who've come from a technical role just thirst for a methodology that they can use."
Thus, sales training that teaches sales as a process is particularly helpful for geeks. "A lot of sales engineers leave sales classes saying, 'Wow! You've taken something that I thought was very esoteric and given it a process and a structure. You've made it very predictable and repeatable," Scher says.
That process approach, he adds, can help prevent having a techie from saying the wrong thing to a customer. "They won't say the wrong thing if they know what's expected of them," Scher says. "If a technical person is working with a salesperson, and the two are a team, then they'll have a common language, and a consistent way of interacting with customers."
Boosts effectiveness up to 17 percent
How can you tell if sales training for tech people is working? "You should see sales effectiveness going up," Lewis says. "I'm not talking about slightly up. It could be up by as much as 15 to 17 percent, if resources are lined up right."
First, he notes, effectively trained salespeople can help shorten the sales cycle, whereas ineffective ones may lengthen it, for instance by confusing customers with information on features not relevant to them. "You should also see average order size increasing," he says. "Tech people are in a very powerful position to recommend additional products or to suggest training so customers can take full advantage of the products they already have."
Perhaps best of all, sales training for geeks can make a big difference to customer retention. A few years ago, Ascent Healthcare Solutions sent all its field personnel for sales training. Ascent cleans and certifies what are normally single-use products for hospital re-use. Since the training, retention has been stellar -- churn was down to 2 percent before a recent merger with Ascent's biggest competitor. The competitor's field personnel hadn't had sales training, and its churn rate was 10 percent, reports Rick Ferreira, Ascent's COO.
Because of the training, he says, "Everyone, from the customer service rep on the phone to the service technician in the field, is following the same plan." The result: "When we look at our business in a same-store comparison model, our numbers are off the charts."
MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.