Yes, Engineers CAN sell! In fact, engineers can make some of your best salespeople. However, there are two problems: 1) engineers think sales is beneath them; and 2) geeky engineers will blow it in selling.
Myth #1: Engineers Are Too Smart to Sell
I studied to become an engineer. I loved and still love engineering and problem solving. Early in my career, my specialty was control systems. I was interviewing for jobs for the top controls companies: Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Siemens, etc. I had a successful interview with a human resources representative from Honeywell, and she said that I was a top candidate for a position they wanted to fill. She said that she wanted me to interview with the local branch manager in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She then handed me a green sheet of paper and said, “Your first interview with the branch will be a sales call role play.” I hope I didn’t show it; but my heart sank. My excitement about a great interview was dashed because I learned that the job opportunity was in “sales”. Nevertheless, I prepared for the interview and hoped that this sales position would be an opportunity to do “real engineering” in Honeywell. In the sales call role play, I was supposed to sell A1 Cleaning Services to a hotel owner. I did the role play and then participated a few more interviews with salespeople and other executives in Honeywell. I got the job. The first thing that was apparent was that my salary was lower than I desired. This was until I received my first sales commission check.
I learned a few lessons in my first year selling for Honeywell: 1) Selling is a vital role for any company that takes a high degree of intelligence; 2) Selling is not deceiving prospective customers, but it is educating them; and 3) Selling is the one way to increase your compensation beyond salary and wage ceilings.
Selling is Important: Every business has what is called a “top line”. This is also known as “revenue” or “sales”. From this “top line” everything else follows. Overhead, direct costs and profit come from this top line number. If a business doesn’t have a top line, they fail; or they lose a lot of investor’s money. Neither of which is desirable for any business. If you’re an engineer and you want to succeed in any sort of business, you must learn to sell.
Selling is NOT Lying: My previous experience in selling was peddling calendars, candy bars, popcorn, and Christmas cards to my neighbors and family to pay for band trips in high school. Each time I’d have to convince a stranger to pay 4X the going price for a cheesy trinket or food. Add to this the statement that “a good salesman can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo.” I was convinced that salespeople had to deceive their prospects into buying useless stuff. I learned that ethical salespeople do exist. And those ethical salespeople educate their customers. They educate customers on their problems and how their company’s products and services can fix those problems. In these situations, a salesperson is a hero, not a scam artist.
Selling Builds Personal Wealth: If you’re an engineer and you come up with an innovative design for the space shuttle, you will be paid your regular wage. In fact, you may get laid off the following year, when the space shuttle program loses its funding. In the sales profession, you get paid for the results that you produce. If you produce no results, you will be disappointed with your paycheck. If you solve your customer’s deepest problems and earn your company great profit at the same time, you will personal benefit from those results. My focus in college was robotics and aerospace. I was disappointed when I failed to land an aerospace engineering position when I graduated. This was until I realized that aerospace engineers would get laid off each year. When they did have employment, they made half as much as I did in the sales profession. Money isn’t everything. Although, if you want financial stability, being successful in selling is a great path to take.
Myth #2: Engineers Can’t Sell
Let’s face it. To sell, you must deal with people. Engineers are great with numbers and science, and terrible with people. Right? In some cases, this is true. However, half the engineers I’ve encountered in my professional career are the best salespeople I’ve known. In fact, if your company is in the solutions business, engineers will be your best salespeople.
Engineers can innovate on their feet. When a customer articulates a symptom, engineers can quickly connect a cause to the symptom.
Many engineers are introverted. Introverts tend to be the best listeners. Listening is one of the skills sales professionals must possess to apply the best solutions to their customers’ problems.
Engineers can quickly do math which means that they can quickly negotiate prices with customers. This allows engineers to be flexible while their math challenged counterparts are at a loss.
Engineers can dig deeper than non-experts to solve far-reaching problems experienced by their customers. In the solutions business, this far-reaching problem-solving ability helps engineers create more impactful solutions for their customers and higher profits for the companies they represent.
Engineers tend to understand their products better than non-experts. Especially, if these products are rather technical. In some cases, technology companies will only employ engineers on their sales teams to sell a highly complex product or service.
Engineers have built-in ethics that may be lacking with non-experts. An engineer will understand limitations of their product or service and rarely over-promise. An engineer is automatically trusted by customers… especially if they possess a professional engineer’s license.
Engineers are more accepted by technical buyers. A technical buyer has a high degree of technical expertise. If a non-technical salesperson tries to convince a technical buyer of a technical benefit that they don’t understand, they are walking on thin ice; and it’s tough for the technical buyer to take that non-technical person seriously.
Engineers are naturally curious. This curiosity helps them ask the best questions of their prospects to better understand needs and propose the best solutions.
That’s quite an impressive list to justify hiring engineers instead of non-experts in your sales force. Wouldn’t you agree?
With all these benefits, you may wonder… What prevents employers from hiring engineers in their sales teams? Here is a list of typical challenges:
Engineers tend to believe Myth #1, and so they rarely strive for sales positions in the first place. If they are considered for a sales position, they may show a lack of enthusiasm when comparing sales to a purely technical position.
Engineers are not people-people. Yes, engineers can and do learn to work well with other people. However, people tend to suck the energy out of a true engineer. Engineers love science and numbers. As a rule, engineers feel people are less predictable and therefore, not as comfortable as science and numbers.
Engineers are not the best conversationalists. Because an engineer would rather spend time with a spreadsheet than a person, they attempt to keep conversations as short as possible when talking with others. Their conversations are also quite efficient. They use as few words as possible; and are frustrated with others who ramble.
In some instances, engineers are short sighted. In other words, they cannot see the forest through the trees. They are great with detailed calculations when they know the formulas but fall short when it comes to intuition on grander problem identification and problem solving.
Engineers feel uncomfortable in non-technical settings where they must build customer relationships. Believe it or not people trust other people based on factors other than technical knowledge. When engineers fail to pick up on these social queues, they fail to build trust relationships necessary in the selling profession.
While these issues can prevent engineers from being successful in the sales profession, each one of these challenges can be overcome through coaching and training.
If you’re an engineer, I hope that you gained some insight into how you can be successful in the sales profession. If you employ salespeople in a company that provides solution-based products or services, I hope you can see how adding engineers to your sales team can be an asset.
About me. I have been actively engaged in the energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy conservation industry all my professional career from 1987 until now. I was a licensed Professional Engineering in six states and a Certified Energy Manager (CEM). I worked as a sales executive, energy engineer, sales manager, and entrepreneur. I started, grew, and sold an Energy Service Company (ESCo) called Ennovate Corporation (1997 to 2013). I now coach business owners, engineers, and business development executives in the energy efficiency industry.