Can Engineers Sell?

Today I am pleased to welcome Olivier Rivière, who I had the pleasure to meet a the BtoB Summit in France this summer. In the last 25 years Olivier has held positions in R&D, marketing and communications, business development, global account management, client service, and general management. In this article Olivier is sharing with us his answer to the following question: “Can Engineers Sell?”. 

During a conversation focused on Marketing or Sales, have you ever heard one of these two statements, or something close, before? “Oh, he/she is an engineer, you know” or “It is a company made of engineers”. I bet you have.

In a commercial context, these statements are almost always slightly to strongly negative. The first one depicts an engineer as a sort of autistic person locked in his own world and unable to communicate with others. The second one usually refers to a company culture that neither understands nor really values Marketing and Sales. Do you recognize some people and companies? You probably do. But is this the whole story about engineers, technology companies and Marketing or Sales? Hum.

I was trained as an engineer, started my career as a scientist, got a Dr.-ing degree, and then worked in Marketing, Sales and Business Development for 25 years before becoming a consultant. I always worked for technology-driven companies. Based on my experience, do I agree with these two statements? Applied to specific persons and companies, yes. As a generic rule that describes most of the engineers and technology-focused companies, surely not! What about you?

So, why these strong binary statements on the selling skills of engineers? Are people who studied in (so-called?) Business Schools systematically better? Are people who work in corporate finance or in M&A, less autistic to the rest of the world? Developing this line of thoughts would take us rapidly to a quite polemic debate.Olivier Rivière, Founder, OR Consulting

So, let’s leave it here and take another route. Let’s explore how the elements of an engineer education and of a technology-oriented culture can influence the taste for Marketing and Sales and the associated skills of people and of companies.

How the engineer’s thinking fosters or hinders selling skills

Let’s consider first the elements of an engineer’s education that equip the person for a job in Marketing or Sales. Engineering studies require and develop analytical skills, the capacity to structure thinking and actions while taking into account all  parameters. They also develop a systemic type of thinking (although usually not applied to human elements). These elements are very useful in Marketing and in Sales.

Second, what about the elements that might hinder the development of sales skills? Engineers need to be thorough and exact and leave no parameters unexplored. In addition, the subjects they work on leave little to no place to interpretations; there is no need to manage ambiguities and even less to consider emotional factors. This leads some (many?) engineers to use a “dry” form of thinking, very mechanical, with little place left to intuition and instinct, which is a handicap for a sales job. However, that type of engineer-like narrow thinking can be counterbalanced by the personality and the life experience where ambiguity is the rule and emotions the salt of life.

The above leads us to an observation that we could have used as an introduction; talent for Marketing and Sales job is strongly dependent on the personality and on how the life and career path shapes a person’s potential into skills and capabilities. With this in mind, it is no surprise that some engineers can be quite good at Marketing and Sales if they have something in their personality and in their career path that triggers and fosters this evolution.

Engineers with a feeling for sales are good at complex sales

Engineers whose career has evolved towards Marketing and Sales tend to work in companies with a complex offering: sophisticated products, services and solutions. Consequently, they live in a world where the context and needs of the customer must be explored, a lot of stakeholders are involved on both sides and the final offer must be highly customized. In such an environment, what you have to learn and practice is usually described as complex sales or strategic selling. You also have to work as a team and not as a lone fighter.

On the contrary, naturally born sales people, or people who have learnt sales in Business School (does this really exist? This could be an interesting topic for a debate. ..) or in sales academies and sales schools of any type, are usually focused on selling products or standardized services. When such classic sales persons, because of a change of company, have to learn the techniques of complex sales, they often struggle because they have to deprogram themselves: stop pitching the value of their product early in the sales process and, instead, spend sufficient time exploring the needs and motivations of the various stakeholders involved in a purchase decision. Not all, not even a majority, of experienced classic sales people manage this transition successfully.

This explains why, across the world and independently from the sector, you will find so many people with a technical background in Marketing or Sales at technology-driven companies. Part of them moved towards Marketing & Sales positions on purpose, driven by a motivation that was there early in their career. Another part, moved more or less by accident, starting by providing technical support and discovering how much they enjoy the commercial and social component of their job. Both kind of persons can do extremely well in Marketing and Sales.

So, what about hearing more often? “Oh, he/she is an engineer you know which means he/she understands very well how the solution works, but he/she is also a brilliant salesman/woman”.

We have just concluded that yes, (some) engineers can sell. But what about the engineer’s culture of companies? Is it really a collective handicap to understand and value Marketing and Sales? Or are we again in a space of beliefs and prejudices from non-engineers?

Valuing Marketing and Sales at company level: a matter of culture

It is difficult to deny that many companies driven by an engineering culture do not really value Marketing and Sales  which they consider as a necessary evil and therefore despise.

This is especially strong when the company has been successful for a long time thanks to its technical innovation capabilities and to the quality of its offering. When customers come to you to buy your leading technical products and services, you usually don’t develop a sales-oriented culture and strong marketing capabilities unless you are very special.

But the world changes,  and in an increasing number of sectors, what was once a  supplier-driven market becomes a customer-driven one. This is where companies who do not value Marketing and Sales can find themselves in a difficult situation. In the best-case scenario the board of the company sees the danger and starts an initiative to develop a more sales-oriented (and customer-driven) culture. This is a long-term intense effort, like a marathon rather than a sprint because it is about changing the culture and making this evolution a lasting one. On the contrary, in the worst-case scenario, unable to build a competitive marketing and sales capability, the company fells behind and ends-up being acquired or just dies. This has happened to a lot of once great companies, famous or not.

There also other situations. Some technology-driven companies do also manage to develop a Marketing and Sales culture early in their development process, instead of being forced to do it in a reactive mode, once under pressure from the market. Audi is an emblematic example. This company was a small marginal player in the car industry in the early seventies. Through innovation – especially with the focus on the four-wheels drive – Audi radically changed its offering and managed to build a strong image, for example through its rally racing activities. Since that, Audi has been on the leading-edge of marketing practice in the car industry while keeping its focus on great engineering and superior product quality.

The case of Audi is interesting but one could say that developing a focus on Marketing & Sales comes naturally when  you sell your product to consumers. Let’s take another example in a space this is almost invisible to consumers: semiconductors. The British company ARM is a worldwide leader in semiconductors for mobile platforms. Most mobile platforms use components built on the ARM architecture. Founded in 1990, the company has built its success first on a fabless model: it design processors but does not manufacture them. The company owns the Intellectual Property of the design of products and sells the license to other companies who want to manufacture and use the processors. The second pillar of ARM’s success is that it has managed to develop a global ecosystem of companies who use ARM software tools to develop their own products on top of ARM’s products. This did not happen by accident but was the outcome of a deep analysis and exploration of possible strategic scenarii. ARM realized it had to develop a brand that would be special to a global community of developers. With this in mind, ARM has developed very specific Marketing, Communications & Sales skills and has been extremely successful doing so. A lot of excellent technology-driven companies are just light-years away from such a strategic thinking and capacity to turn this vision into reality but some are and can outperform their competitors.

Success factors for technical companies willing to develop a true Marketing & Sales culture

What are the key success factors for technology-driven companies willing to add the Marketing and Sales components into their culture?

  • Be able to hire new blood, people with a different background (non-engineers), at all level of the organisation,
  • Accept to have non engineers contribute to – or even lead – the development of new strategies and tactics and new ways to talk about the company’s offering,
  • Truly value good Marketing and Sales professionals and offer them compelling career paths,
  • Leverage the willingness and capacity of insiders (employees who have been around for a while) to move to Marketing & Sales positions,
  • Explore and implement the required changes in the organisation to give enough autonomy to the teams chartered to develop Marketing and Sales (this can be a very complex matter).

These factors seem obvious but making them come to life in an engineer’s organisation, large or small, is nothing but easy. In the past, among companies who tried it, some have failed, some have succeeded, and it will remain so in the future..

And the conclusion is…

All in all, yes, engineers can sell and engineering-driven companies can be good at Marketing and Sales, as long as they have the right culture.  This should be no surprise.

Therefore, enough with stereotyped judgments from non-engineers please. Let’s just cope with the reality of each company’s and person’s specifics: it is far more interesting.

About the authorOlivier Rivière, Founder at OR Consulting
Dr. Olivier Riviere is a Consultant focused on Sales Effectiveness, Key & Global Account Management, Complex Sales, Solutions Marketing and Influencer Marketing. His consulting approach leverages a long experience in multiple functions, including General Management, in global technology and consulting companies. Trilingual (French, English, German), he lives in Munich and Paris and operates, alone and with partners, across Europe and worldwide. Find out more:  

Written by Aurélien Gohier