Saturday, June 12, 2004

How Engineers Should Talk to Sales Reps

A Guide for Software Engineers who are Much Smarter Than Every One Else

If you are an engineer, you have probably had the experience of wanting to get more information or try out a product that you heard about or read about. You found that a sales person from the company bothered you with a lot of small talk, questions, and repeated telephone calls or emails. You deleted the emails and screened your phones calls so you would not have to be annoyed by the sales person.

Having had that experience one time, you have now devised methods of getting new product information and bypassing the sales person. You use a fake name, fake email, or fake telephone number. You slam down the phone if the sales person tracks you down or you yell at the person. You feel this is a pretty good system, but it is perhaps not perfect. Actually, sometimes they won't give you the information you want, like pricing or a trial version.

A Better Solution

There is a way that you can get information or try out the product you want and even get the sales person to work for you. You can do this without lying, faking addresses, and slamming down phones. In fact, it can be effortless and easy and you won't be pestered with repeated emails, phone calls, and more.

Getting Sales People to Give You What You Want and Leave You Alone

In order to implement your solution, you need to know a little about what is motivating the sales person.

Sales people are supposed to follow up on every inquiry from a prospective customer (you). They try to determine three things:

(1) Is the product going to work for your application?

(2) Do you have money or funding to buy it?

(3) When would you be buying the product?

They want to find out the answers to these things very quickly, so that they can properly allocate their own and their company's time and resources appropriately.

If you never want to hear from the sales person again, the best thing to do is focus on your answer to question (2). You should say: "I have no money, no budget, and no funding for this product. The vice president of my group/division has said that we will never buy a product like this."

About 95% of sales people will never contact you again. The other 5% will ask you a follow up question:

"Why is it that you inquired about the product if there is no hope in buying it?"

You should respond: "The purpose of my inquiry is that I want to learn about the product in case there is funding in the future."

With this approach, you are likely to get the information and/or free trial that you requested, and the sales person will not contact you again -- an extremely well organized sales person may contact you in six months or one year, but most will not.

What if there is a possibility that you will want to buy the product?

Since you are a software engineer and are obviously much smarter than a sales person, it is of course insulting when they ask you what your requirements are for the product. Obviously this is a demeaning experience for you and a waste of time. However, there are a number of situations where you might actually want to be honest and tell them your requirements. Here are those situations:

(a) Some sales people are former engineers who wanted to do something new and different after ten years of software design and coding. (I realize that is hard to believe, but you might feel that way one day.) These sales people will understand your requirements. They might actually have some good ideas and insight that would help you. These former engineers now in sales enjoy analyzing how their product can address your problem.

(b) Not all of the capabilities of the product will be contained in the product brochures or free trial. There may be a new product due out in a couple of weeks. Or there might be a partner company that has the product you need. Or the capability is available but not contained in the demo or brochure. Or, there is something like the thing you want but not exactly.

If you express your requirements to the sales person, you will have access to important, unpublished information and other resources. You may be referred to one of their engineers who can talk to you in more detailed technical terms. In most companies, it is the sales person who controls your access to the other information and technical engineers.

You will be able to ascertain very quickly the sales person's technical competence. If they neither understand your requirements nor put you in touch with a technical engineer who does, then you move on. You can say their product does not meet your requirements; they will not be able to judge if it does or does not.

How do I stop all these pestering calls and emails?

The sales person is trying to plan his/her allocation of time and resources based on the timeframe when you would be planning to buy. There are several reasons for this:

(a) the sales people for the company forecast new business, so the company can plan its resources more effectively to meet demand.

(b) the sales person has to judge the level of resources to invest in addressing your needs based on when the payoff may occur in the future.

(c) the sales person wants to make sure that you have a quotation with correct model numbers, descriptions, and prices that you can give to your manager or the purchasing department. Since prices and models can change month to month and quotations are normally only valid for 30 days, the sales person is trying to make sure you have what you need when you need it.

You are probably thinking that you will just hand the last price list you got to purchasing, and they will be able to figure it out. Since you are a software engineer and so much smarter than everyone else who went to business school and claims to have "business experience", it is likely that your manager and the purchasing agent would not be able to understand the configuration you require and the piece parts comprising it. Since your manager and your purchasing department are trying to handle a lot of different things for a lot of different people, it is easier for all concerned if the precise configuration is contained in one quotation document.
Otherwise, they are likely to issue a purchase order for the wrong item, because they misunderstood the price list or the product description, or it became obsolete. Then, products have to be returned, there are delays, restocking, change orders, and so on. This costs your company a lot of money as people are tied up repeating work they thought they finished.

So the best thing you can communicate to the sales person is about when -- what week -- you will be needing the updated quotation to take to purchasing. If you think it will be roughly six months before you get around to needing the product, then that is what you need to communicate. The sales person will then check in with you in about six months. You will not receive annoying emails and phone calls in the interim.

What happens when the six months is up? The sales person will contact you. If you are ready to purchase, the sales person will update the quotation. If you are not ready to purchase, then revise your time estimate for when you think you might be ready. If the situtation is uncertain, tell the sales person in just one sentence what has changed about the situation. Perhaps your project was delayed two months, maybe it was cancelled, maybe it was transferred overseas, or maybe top managment is deliberating about it now and you hope to know something in two, four, or six weeks. You will not get annoying calls and emails when you are not ready if you communicate when you think you will be ready.

What If I Decide to Buy Another Product?

It is really uncomfortable if you have to tell a sales person that you bought another product and you probably want to avoid that whatever it takes. Afterall, the person could feel rejected and get emotional, and you don't want any part of that. Emotions are for the theatre arts and liberal arts graduates, not you, an engineer. As an engineer, you made a decision based on facts and analysis, so there is not really anything personal or emotional about your decision. You do need to communicate that decision for several reasons.

In order to improve product quality and features, suppliers need to understand what was missing or unacceptable about their product. Without your feedback, they have no guidelines or ideas for how to improve the product. Even though you selected another product, there's always a chance that the product you selected will not perform well, or the company will provide inadequate technical support, etc. So, it is in your best interests to keep your options open.

All you have to do is tell the sales person a few things that you liked about the product, and then relate what is lacking in the product or what you preferred about the product you selected. You can use email to avoid the emotional component of the communication.

So now you have a set of guidelines for communicating and working with sales people. You will get the product information and the opportunity to try out a product. By explaining your requirements, you will get access to more detailed help, information, and technical engineering resources in the company. By communicating your revised plans and schedules, you will control when and how you are contacted. You might find that you actually enjoy working with some sales people, since many are former engineers themselves. It may surprise you to consider that there are some really smart people, as smart as you, that are not engineers. Most engineers would not say they were smarter than Einstein. Even Albert Einstein was an office clerk and that is quite a bit lower than a sales person.