Should you hire sales people or train your technical people to sell?

How sales has changed

It will come as no surprise to you that the world we now sell our products and services to is vastly different to what it used to be.

What people buy and how they buy has changed beyond recognition in the last 5 years alone.

Firstly, what your audience buys has become more complex, often requiring a degree of technical ability to use, understand or implement successfully.

Things aren’t as simple as they once were and buyers have many more options than ever before. It can get complex, overwhelming and feel risky for them to make a decision.

Secondly, how an audience buys has clearly shifted.

No longer do we just rely on what the sales person says. In fact, often we don’t even need or want to interact with a sales person until we are ready to buy. (A recent surveyby InsideView said that more than 90% of C-Level execs said that they “never” respond to cold calls.

And, if we do engage with sales people, we tend to only open the door when we’re much closer to making our purchasing decision. In fact, according to Sirius Decisions, we typically make 67% of our decisions before we contact a sales rep. Note: This does not mean that sales people should sit back and wait. Intercepting buying decisions so you can align and assist in the right ways at the right times is paramount – This is a life skill that you can learn, rather than something that we have been led to believe is an innate ability.

We now have access to the same information that sales people previously used to control and deliver selectively to us, thereby controlling what and how we buy.. In fact, 75% of B2B buyers now use social media to find information on vendors before making their decision, according to research by IDC.

Purchasing decisions are also made in groups more than ever before – A survey from CEBsuggesting that, on average, 5.4 people are typically involved in today’s B2B purchase decisions, adding to the complexity of the buying process.

These groups often include multiple buyers from financial to technical, through to strategic and operational. Now, that’s a lot of qualification and convincing to be done!

So, as buyers we can take ourselves much further along our decision-making process than ever before. However, with the complexity of the products and services we buy, (certainly in B2B), we still often need, and eventually even crave, help to navigate the rest of our buying decisions – And we usually want that from a helpful, intelligent human being, where possible.

The inescapable fact is, that in 2017 we still buy complex products and solutions from other people – But not just anyone. According to Corporate Vision, 74% of us choose to buy from the sales person that was first to add value and insight to our decision. Now that is interesting; be first to help and you give yourself a much better chance of arriving at the finish line with the customer.

Delivering that valuable insight requires a deep enough understanding to diagnose and understand the buyer’s requirements and buying drivers (technical, commercial, operational, strategic, logical and emotional) and then help them to understand important considerations to make the right decision. You may just need a technical expert in your sales team mix.

I hope at this point it is clear that the buyer holds more information, more choice, and potentially more control over how they buy than ever before. And therefore, marketing and sales simply must update their approach accordingly, to add clear value to the buying process.

So, how do we as businesses reach, engage and connect with our market in the most effective and efficient way, to help our target customers buy what they want to buy, in the way that they want to buy it – with trust, clarity and confidence?

How do we create the best ‘sales’ teams for our businesses?

Given the nature of our increasingly complex solutions, products and services, how do we create the right ‘go to market’ team?

Do we hire (and train) sales people to become competent at the technical side of things?

Or do we hire (and train) technical people to become competent at the sales side of things?

Well, it won’t surprise you that the answer is ‘It depends’. And, understandably, the answer you’ll get from most people with an opinion is influenced by the ‘side’ they are more familiar with themselves!

It depends on the complexity of your solutions, the size of your business, your target market and the capabilities you already have in your teams. But I’m not going to just leave you with that ‘cop out’ answer! I’m going to help you think this through for your own business.

And to acheive that, let’s explore five main scenarios of organising your ‘go to market’ sales teams:

5 team scenarios to consider

1. Traditional sales people

2. Technical experts

3. Next generation sales people (of any age or experience but with the capabilities required for today’s buyers)

4. Next generation technical sales people

5. Your preferred mix

For each I’ll define who they typically are, their strengths and weaknesses, and what action you could take if your sales team consisted only of these (which is unlikely but we’re using the framework for communication purposes here).


1. Traditional sales people

By ‘traditional’ sales people, I mean the stereotypical sales types that perhaps once performed well a few decades ago and beyond. But, let’s cut to the chase, these are the sales people most buyers have lost trust for.

I’m aware I’m at risk of taking out good people here, amongst the bad eggs. So, don’t get me wrong, many traditional sales people are good people and were once high performers. But many of their approaches and ways of thinking are simply out of date, have become over-used, are unnecessary or are simply perceived as untrustworthy – whether the person has honest intentions or not.

Your traditional sales people may still have a mind for ‘hunting’ or opening new doors, networking, and making things happen. They are often better big picture, strategic and commercial thinkers (and better, therefore, at talking to C-level buyers) – but they may also present a risk to have on your team.

They may have acquired old-school sales tactics through nature or nurture (and so can be young or older). But the very fact that they haven’t adapted to the changing times to become ‘next generation’ sales people, should be a warning signal to you for their longevity and potential in your sales team.

I’ve worked with many. You’ve dealt with many in the past. The bottom line is that they haven’t demonstrated that they’re aware that buying behaviour has changed – or they haven’t adapted yet. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in this category.

Suggested action:

Be wary of hiring them into your team. If they’re in your team you might want to consider training them to change how they sell, but unfortunately many will be unwilling to learn or change.

To remain a ‘sales professional’, they should shift from a ‘sales’ mindset to a ‘help people buy’ mindset. To achieve this, they must acquire a whole new set of capabilities and behaviours. They are unlikely to change their spots, but they can tone down the old behaviours and learn some new ideas to progress their career as “next generation sales people” (see number 3).


2. Technical experts

If your team consists of all techies with no sales capability, you’re in a dangerous position (but one that can be rectified).

Techie’s tend to perform best across the middle of your sales pipeline. They can advise strong technical solutions, and they may not have the undesirable traits of your old-school sales person, which helps.

But there are major downsides. They don’t perform well typically at either end of the sales pipeline. They don’t tend to open doors or network so well.

They’re usually thinking less about people, business/commercial value, and making connections.

They’re in love with their technical solutions – And it gets worse, as they often tend to fail on the empathy side of things, pitching and pushing the solutions or features they are passionate about (or stubborn about) onto customers. It doesn’t take long for customers to sense this and to feel that they’re actually being pushed just as much as they would be by the old-school sales person.

Once techie’s have finished pitching and educating (something they often under-perform at, for the simple reason that they don’t diagnose, listen or seek to understand the specific and unique needs of their customers – Just indicate your interest in a technical product to a techie and you’ll see what I mean, when they simply demo all the features they love, to you, rather than asking you about your specific intentions for use!) They often don’t know how to progress the sale and they’re not always sure how to help the customer move the decision forwards to a close. And worse, they often avoid asking for business altogether.

The technical problem (and manipulating products and features) is on their radar. The sale (empathising and influencing people) is not.

But, let’s remember, techies are usually smart. They can learn. They can usually learn to listen (especially the introverted types who do this well) – They’re often curious too, coupled with what I call ‘belief in cause’. They’re often passionate advocates of their technical solutions, which, when miss-directed is damaging, but when aligned and targeted, is magical. These are all traits we want in our sales teams. If they’re willing to stretch themselves a little they could contribute a lot more to sales.

Suggested action:

Train and coach them to develop the right sales capabilities, using a learning provider who relates to these people well and understands how they can shift their mindsets and behaviours towards those of ‘next generation sales professionals’.

Some of the best sales people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last 15 years come from a technical background.

3. Next generation sales people

These people are professionals at helping people to buy. They don’t market ‘to’ people. They market ‘with’ people. They earn the right. They earn the buyer’s permission. They develop strong enough empathy and rapport with their buyers. They know when to lean in and when to step back. They understand how their buyers think and decide. They meet them where they are at, rather than getting customers to meet them where they are at. They know how not to be pushy and instead be, what I call, ‘pully’.

They are masters of all types of relevant questions, curious, expert listeners, and quickly develop trust and respect – and maintain and grow it every step of the way.

Some people have a head start on these capabilities. But just about anyone can learn to improve them. And, once their eyes are opened, around these new approaches, they are highly desirable to learn too. People become switched on as they realise they’re not just career and business skills, but life skills too.

Next generation sales people perform strongly across the whole sales process, or rather, ‘buying process’ and the only area they need some help with is making the ‘technical sale’.

Suggested action:

If you’re lucky enough to have a team of next generation sales people, you could consider training them up on the technical aspects but it will depend on the complexity of your solutions.

If they’re too complex, you’re going to need some technical sales people in your team.

4. Next generation technical sales people

These people have acquired (whether nature or nurture) the sales capabilities of a next generation sales person AND they have sufficient technical expertise to understand the technical needs of their buyers, and to fit and present technical solutions, acknowledging and removing risk to the buyer and earning their buying confidence.

True next generation technical sales people can operate at all levels in the sales process or pipeline. They are different to standard technical sales types who specialise in making the technical sale and then hand the reigns to the sales person or account manager to close. Next generation technical sales people operate from opening to close of their opportunities. They’re revenue-generators.

Suggested action:

As Richard Branson said, “train them well enough that they could leave you, but treat them well enough so that they don’t want to”.

Steve Jobs mentions in this video that his Apple engineers “are all getting calls to get paid three times as much to work elsewhere – and none of them are leaving.”

Keep your next generation technical sales people happy, productive, engaged and confident. Hang on to them. Don’t get complacent and assume that they don’t need to learn or grow further. They will want to push their capabilities, so help them continuously grow these.

You should continuously nurture them with the right level of training or coaching to provide them with the tools they need so they can get the job done – and so they value their role and your support in your business. Invest in them and you’ll see an increasing return to your business.

5. Your preferred mix

I’ve included this as the most realistic scenario and to make one specific point.

You’ll want to create a mix that works for you to deliver on your strategic objectives. However, the mix alone won’t cut it. It’s essential that you get a ‘bonding agent’ in your mix!

One of the biggest challenges, as you’ll know, between these different personality types, is developing the right level of team work, communication, synergy, mutual trust and respect.

Those with stronger sales traits often struggle to relate to techie’s and vice versa (In fact, in my experience, they often just don’t get on at all). It’s costly.

This is usually because they don’t understand each other and don’t speak the same language. And it’s fixable. They can each learn more about how the other operates, thinks, make decisions and acts. They can each learn to expect and even respect how the other operates (and leverage this learning to understand and relate better to their customers too).

Then they can use a set of tools, rules and processes to collaborate with each other highly effectively, efficiently and in total sync.

They can operate with clarity, opening opportunities together, passing the baton when appropriate, organising their client interactions with clarity and intelligence, and creating a professional impression. But you’ll need to create a team that is organised at this level. If you just let them just ‘do their thing’, there will likely be issues between them that will limit the sales results of your team.

Suggested action:

Work out who you have in your sales or ‘go to market’ team. Work out who you need to hire and which capabilities need developing. Support your team to navigate the high pressure, changing buying environment with the right level of tailored training and coaching.

Approached correctly, support like this will help them embed and compound their capabilities over time.

It’s an investment that pays dividends, optimising your sales team, engaging and retaining your talented employees, keeping your customers happy and repeat-buying from you, and ultimately, meets your purpose as a business – to acquire and retain customers (as defined by Peter Drucker), thus increasing certainty of growth and the equity value of your business.

If you would like help organising your sales team and technical experts, understanding their capabilities and where they must develop, and creating a tailored and measurable training and coaching program, contact me here.