Author and sales professional Marylou Tyler never set out to be a rainmaker. In fact, before becoming an in-demand sales expert, Marylou spent her days as a computer engineer building flight simulation software for a think tank. Sales never figured into her career path.

"My whole life was about process and methods and systems, so the thought of going into this gushee-mushy thing called sales was really scary for me," she says.

But it didn't take long for her bosses at a tech startup to recognize that Marylou could do what none of the sales reps could do. She could communicate with clients about disruptive technology because she understood it so deeply. Marylou was a subject matter expert on disruptive technology. She understood it better than anyone and, more importantly, she could communicate the values of it to customers. As a result, she could drive revenue for the company.

In my top business trends for 2017 article, I describe how subject matter experts - professionals with in-depth knowledge and training in a particular subject - are becoming the new rainmakers. It's no surprise to me really that someone like Marylou, who possesses both technical skills and an ability to communicate with customers, would be tapped to a sales role. Why? Because clients today want to interact with specialists who will help them make informed decisions, not salespeople who simply want to sell them something.

Subject matter experts who understand and can help guide the sales process drive growth in top performing B2B companies.

Buying personas

Consider three distinct buying personas: the order taker, the salesperson, and the subject matter expert (SME). The order taker merely takes an order, and provides a price and delivery schedule. That function can be easily performed by powerhouses like Amazon (often with better results).

Of the remaining two personas, which one would you want to encounter as a customer? Would you want the person with the goal to sell you something, or the expert whose knowledge you could tap into?

When I present these options to executives, they often resist the notion of meeting with a salesperson. Yet, they say they'd willingly meet with the SME to gain insight.

Whereas you can hire new salespeople right out of college, SMEs can be harder to scale. However, most organizations have a stable of SMEs who currently do not play a role in growing revenue. The best organizations offer integrity-based sales training to build a sales culture within the organization and empower the SMEs as keys to growth.

Businesses used to throw bodies at sales goals, and accepted that most of the people would fail. With SMEs, businesses place a premium on proper lead qualification and narrow focus on the right opportunities to make efficient use of scarce, yet highly effective resources. SMEs won't tolerate wasting time pursuing bad opportunities.

As Marylou discovered, a company can generate predictable revenue as long as there's a system and process in place to generate qualified leads.

And that's where proper sales training becomes key.

Sales support for subject matter experts

With a shift in subject matter experts (SMEs) to grow revenue, organizations understand that SMEs might not have the ideal professional or interpersonal skills to drive the buying steps for customers. Without proper support and training, SMEs could miss opportunities. However, customers still prefer to work with SMEs over traditional salespeople.

Top organizations recognize that SMEs often have broad roles in the organization. Their time is valuable, and you cannot afford to have them work inefficiently. This means three key components drive SMEs' success:

  1. Build and reinforce skills that help SMEs understand the sales process to better appreciate how customers make decisions and how to "sell" with integrity;

  2. Deploy sales support professionals who manage proposals, track details, and ensure continuity with clients who are primarily serviced by SMEs; and

  3. Implement automation tools to keep important tasks from falling through the cracks and ensure focus on the right opportunities.

Sales departments will evolve to support SMEs. Top organizations surround SMEs with resources and tools to help manage follow-through, assign tasks, and track progress. This support network prioritizes follow-through based on rules, and ensures that the organization can be responsive and proactive at the right times. Tools like Salesforce, Contactually, and Infusionsoft provide dashboards and notifications to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.

Sales is both an art and a science. When organizations can strike the right balance between the two, they can achieve amazing success.

It's Your Turn

How do you prepare your SMEs to drive revenue and hit sales goals in your company? Share your thoughts on Twitter, LinkedIn, or in the comments.

Published on: Sep 26, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.