“For a salesperson to perform well in our organization, they have to be very technical.” “Our top salespeople must have a deep understanding the science behind our drugs.” “Since we are selling finance and accounting consulting services, the best salespeople in our firm are former practitioners – they were accountants before they became salespeople.”
In a profession where trust and credibility are crucial, salespeople must know what they are talking about. Do not underestimate the importance of that core competency in the knowledge work we call selling. But the relevant knowledge is not simply technical knowledge. The reality is that the amount of technical knowledge required to be highly effective in a selling role is significantly over-rated. Further, my experience is that those individuals that are highly technical – and in sales roles – believe that their sales skills are significantly better than they actually are. I call this the myth of the technical seller.
Consider the recent situation facing a global, high-growth pharma business, with hundreds of salespeople deployed around the globe. Prior to the commencement of a competency and behavioral study, the commonly held notion by sales leadership was that the best salespeople in the company had technical backgrounds, and the company spent millions of dollars every year developing marketing, sales and training tools that were highly technical in nature. Intuitively, this makes logical sense. The sales team is selling a very technical product; drugs that are designed to deal with rare and chronic diseases.
Given a sample size of this magnitude, it is in fact possible to do a data-driven statistical correlation of the team’s behavioral competencies and their performance. In fact, the data from the study actually performed with this organization suggested that deep technical expertise inversely correlated with performance; the salespeople with more limited technical background performed statistically and meaningfully better than the others – assuming of course they possessed the behavioral competencies that correlate with performance.
Another recent example is a firm in the consumer insights business. Their clients are global consumer packaged goods firms. Recently, a new CEO was brought in by the private equity owners to deal with issues facing the firm, primarily, sluggish growth. The sales team in place at this company were all scientists. These scientists have deep subject matter expertise, they have high-trust relationships with their clients, and when a need arises in one of their existing accounts, they are highly adept at capturing the needs and architecting a solution for their customer. As a result, this team thinks they are good at selling. The new CEO was not convinced of this.
To this end, initial insight into the personal characteristics of the inherited science background sales team is provided in the chart below. This chart extracts the mean for this team across a number of behavioral competencies. This analysis was possible using a new form of social media analytics that analyzed the authored public social media text for each of the individuals that make up this team (Janz, 2019, HRExaminer). Tom Janz, Founder and Chairman of Talent Analytics Group commented: “Compared to a large sample norm of professionals (N=563), these scientists were off-the-charts low on Positive Outlook and in the top 25% on Calculatedness (numbers and facts oriented) as well as Team Coordination (keeping team members in the loop, overcommunicating). They were in the top quarter of the norm population on placing the team first before self. They were surprisingly extroverted (reverse of introversion). They like to talk and debate, maybe not so surprising.”
Next, we outline where our cumulative knowledge of sales success competencies, as informed by this preliminary finding, suggest we look to find highly effective consultative technical sales professionals.
|1. Resilient Tenacity—Overcome obstacles and demonstrate grit.|
|2. Emotional Stability—Cool, calm, and collected. Will not argue with what clients want/need.|
|3. Openness to Experience – More likely to pay attention to specific client needs.|
|4. Introversion – The extroverts talk too much to be good at consultative sales|
|5. Collaboration—Focuses on common goals and fair deals.|
|6. Influence – Seeks to gain the prospects agreement through positive debate and discussion.|
|7. Steadiness – Can be counted on by clients to maintain a deliver predictably.|
|8. Need for Autonomy – Work well individually with clear goals but light supervision/regulation.|
|9. Positive Outlook – Expect that the value proposition and sales model will deliver results if followed with tenacity.|
|10. Team before Self – Shares information with colleagues in order to maximize the team success as well as personal success.|
This technical team scored very poorly on the competencies that correlate with success in consultative selling roles. The tendency to value technical knowledge more than other competencies is a very common trap. The best sellers, in addition to knowing their product at a technical level, will also be adept at developing an overall account strategy, will excel at asking questions that drive the alignment between their product value proposition to the customer’s strategy. They will also fully understand the buyer motivations.
Best-in-class firms make the effort to do both – they insure they are hiring people who have the innate behavioral competencies to perform well, and then they invest in both training and management support and systems to equip this team to work with their clients in a way that will drive superior outcomes.