Jul 8, 2022 4 min read

the 5 ways that sales training fails engineers

the 5 ways that sales training fails engineers
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP / Unsplash

As I've been exploring my idea around sales training for engineers (whether that's sales engineers, technical founders, or consultants), I've been reminded how traditional sales training fails people from technical backgrounds.

problem #1 - training that assumes the person wants to be in sales

Seriously, most folks who come from a technical background don't really want to sell anything. Usually, they would much rather be doing or building stuff. This fundamental misalignment in priorities makes it nearly impossible for traditional sales training to work for a technical audience.

Okay, sure, if someone's been a sales engineer for a few years, they've probably gotten hooked. But at that point they're going to get a lot less benefit out of it than someone just getting started. And if you're the founder of a startup who needs to learn to sell to keep the dream of your product alive, you certainly will not see yourself as a salesperson. Consultants have the same fundamental problem - they make partner (or go out on their own) and all the sudden have to start "selling" but have no idea how.

I work with a Sales Engineer who's awesome and has really come in to his own over the past couple of years. It's clear that now he sees himself as a seller. However, his first experience with sales training was while he was still in a post-sales (Solutions Architect) role. I remember him getting in an argument with the trainer in front of 200+ people because what the sales trainer was saying didn't resonate with him, and he didn't understand it. This could have been avoided if there'd been some technical sales training that front ended that experience for him.

Oh, and I'm pretty sure the engineer in question thought the sales trainer was a jerk. That may have had something to do with it too.

problem #2 - training that assumes understanding of the basics

Pretty much every decent sales training on the market assumes someone has already started selling before they come to the training. There's jargon, terminology, tactics, strategies, and usually a bunch of garbage all thrown together in a way that you have to pull apart based on your prior knowledge of sales. If you're coming from a technical background, you probably know more about how a computer, or machine, or compiler works than you understand how people work. So you need to back up and explain the very basics.

problem #3 - there's a difference between being a seller and supporting a seller

Most sales training is designed for the person who's running the sales engagement. Most technical sales people (other than maybe a technical founder) are probably supporting someone else in their sales engagements. The difference is enormous - yes, both people are selling. But one is leading the charge, and another is helping push the charge over the line. They're distinct skills, and they each require a different approach. Divination isn't a strategy for success, but it's largely how technical sellers have had to learn in the past.

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problem #4 - how we train & enable technical sellers is stupid

Yep, I said it. We will spend an enormous amount of money on a technical sales organization and then give them absolutely none of the tools required to be successful.

What do I mean? Okay, sure, there are finally a couple of tools out there that proport to help technical sellers do their jobs. We're even trying one out at my current employer (I'll report back on how that goes). But as far as actually enabling technical sellers though, I'll tell you how every SE I've ever met learned sales.

Rep: "WTF was that?"

SE: "Huh?"

Rep: "You weren't supposed to answer that question, the CUSTOMER was! Don't you know anything about sales?"

SE: "You know this is my first time out. How was I supposed to know?"

Rep: "Sigh. Okay, so here're the basics..."

That's right, every SE I've ever met learned sales the most painful way possible - by messing up some reps meeting and the rep taking it upon his or herself to teach the SE the basics rather than try to get them fired. It's the 21st century version of "stupid apprentice tricks".

Side note, that conversation was a reinactment of my very first sales call. Thanks Joe, I owe you one for teaching me the ropes!

problem #5 - technical sales people have unique obligations to the customer and the business

There are some things a technical seller can get away with (and frankly, NEED to do) in a sales cycle that a pure seller never could. And there are things that every sales training on the planet says you should do that a technical seller never should.

There was an SE I worked with early on in my career that has become a very successful enterprise sales rep. But his first engagement after making the transition to rep from SE did not go well. Why? He was still trying to act like an SE and it didn't work, because the customer knew that he was the one who was going to be asking for money at the end. He was no longer the "trusted advisor", at least not in the same way as he was before. It took him a while to figure it out.

Conversely, when a technical seller tries to act like a rep, things very rarely go well. No one wants to take advice from someone who they think is trying to squeeze a dollar out of them.

Did you like this? Please share this with your network and join my list! When you join my list you'll get a free copy of my ebook "Stories Become Sales: How to Turn Simple Stories into Million Dollar Sales" as well as a weekly rundown of any posts you might have missed.

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