How to Talk Like a Salesman

Short answer: by learning to think like one

PHOTO: Robin Bartholick/Getty Images

Of all the courses I took while earning my three ­engineering degrees, the most valuable one was in marketing management. Every engineer should be acquainted with the subject.

To be sure, there is often chronic tension between salespeople and us engineers. They always seem to promise too much and to want it delivered too fast, and they never seem to care for our input. I imagine the salespeople have equally harsh things to say about engineers. The lack of understanding is the heart of the problem.

With that in mind, here are tips for engineers to ­integrate sales and ­marketing into their careers:

Build a ­relationship with the sales and ­marketing staff. Take the ­initiative to explain your ­product or ­service in layman’s terms. Don’t promise ­features that can’t be delivered at a ­certain price. Give a ­realistic due date. Avoid the ­conflicts between engineers and ­marketing that so often delay ­software releases or send ­products off that have not been ­properly tested for bugs.

Get the ­terminology straight. For instance, ”sales” is often used ­synonymously with ”marketing,” but there are big differences, best understood by placing things in the right order. The first step is market research, which determines what ­potential user groups need or want. Next is market ­planning, which estimates how many users a given product will attract at a given price. Then there’s market development, which addresses strategic problems such as when to enter a market.

Last comes market promotion, the active selling, or ”marketing.” This involves the so-called 4 Ps—the attributes of the product, its price, the place where it can be bought, and the way it is promoted.

Segment the market. Define the potential users who should have the most influence on the design and use of your product, then ”position” your offering for them. A classic success story was General Electric’s estimate that airlines would eventually want quieter, more fuel-efficient engines. The company spent a decade developing such engines, then entered the airline business, shouldering aside such traditional stalwarts as Rolls-Royce.

Use focus groups to study target users. This is where a facilitator discusses product concepts or actual prototypes with a group of people. I’ve gained insights listening to potential customers’ reactions at such gatherings.

Observe how customers behave with new products. I introduced prepaid phone cards into U.S. airports when they were unknown. One day an 11-year-old girl shadowed me at work. I handed her a phone card and told her to call her mother but gave her no instructions on how to use it; she read the instructions and got through on the ­second try using my phone. I later told our senior executives that phone cards were so easy ”an 11-year-old could use them.”

Read competitors’ ads. Advertisements often give valuable clues to how a ­competitor wants to appeal to customers and which customers it is targeting.

Use a venture-capitalist model to develop ­products. Explain the product in plain English so that ­anyone can understand it. Identify real users, and show where the product has ­actually been implemented.

If we engineers can mesh our know-how with sales and marketing, we can better deliver products to markets that will actually use them.

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