At the request of LAGCOE officials, instances of slander and name calling were limited to a tasteful, professional minimum and, to avoid exciting a growing divide between two heavily-split camps of attendees, the session was moved at the last minute to a larger room. It ended up being the most attended panel of the conference.
The two-man session, “Who Says Engineers Can’t Sell?”, pitted an accomplished engineer vs. an equally accomplished salesperson as they both grappled with the classic sales debate, ‘is selling an art or a science?’
Despite rising tensions leading up to the session caused by dissenting opinions, the two men put aside their differences to produce insightful takeaways covering topics like emotional selling, conditional questioning and Tully’s expensive gumbo tastes. While there was no clear winner during this debate, they agreed that there will be a rematch (so stay posted).
We’ve condensed an hour of footage, which can be found here, and summarized some of our favorite takeaways to help you and your team refine your sales process. Tully, however, was unwilling to share his gumbo recipe.
1. Shouting Facts at Someone Will Not Change Their Mind
When’s the last time anyone ever actually won a Facebook argument?
We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably never happened. These online arguments are the social media equivalent of a nine-car pile up: they’re destructive, they tend to grow in size and there are likely more than a few people at fault.
Clayton comments that these arguments demonstrate that, no matter how many facts you try to shout at someone, you’ll be hard-pressed to change a person’s mind without understanding the power that emotion has in influencing decisions.
Houses of the Holy
Consider the buying process for a major purchase, such as a new home. You might envision that the quest for a new abode starts with building a list of rational considerations like ideal price per square foot, affordable premiums and realistic interest rates. The buyer would then use this list to create, on paper, the ideal prospective home.
But when it comes time to house hunt and narrow down decisions, those facts aren’t doing the heavy lifting—in fact, according to Clayton, they’re not lifting much of anything.
Instead, Clayton argues that emotional ties, like a backyard for your kids to play in or a man-cave to display trophies and signed ‘Zeppelin memorabilia, have more of an impact on the purchasing decision than any logical call to reason. Forget the affordable cost, this buyer would pay a premium to reminisce about the summer of ‘73 while blasting “Houses of the Holy” in his soundproof room of rock.
Facts Reinforce Emotional Decisions
Does the decision to purchase a home really start with creating that list of rational considerations, or did it start someplace deeper? Clayton argues the latter.
Studies have shown that the decision to purchase something is often initially arrived at and decided by emotion. It’s not until after the purchasing process has started that people look for rational, fact-backed reasoning to justify their desire to purchase.
As engineers, it’s tempting to want to answer everything with facts, data and calls to reason. But unfortunately, this just isn’t particularly conducive to the sales process as a whole. While fact-backed arguments have their place in sales demonstrations and responses to objections, the real fact of the matter is that emotional buying plays the most decisive role throughout the process.
If you want to get good at sales, you’ve got to ditch the abacus and get with the times, Newton—emotional selling is the future!
2. Start the Sales Process With the End in Mind
Speaking of facts, here are two simple ones to think about: hot gumbo is best enjoyed on a cold day, and all sales end with the buying decision.
Tully argues that these two laws of nature are closely intertwined. Being that we’re based out of South Louisiana, we’re hard-pressed to disagree with him about at least one of these items.
Gumbo Weather: A Parable
In South Louisiana, the first observed cold front of the year is a near-sacred time for Cajuns that signifies the end of an unspoken fast. Every October, we anxiously watch the news for the first confirmed reports of cold weather with a ladle in hand and a stockpot at the ready, silently hoping for the undefined, but fully understood, ‘Gumbo Weather’.
Once that first report is broadcast, Cajuns everywhere flock to their favorite grocery stores and meat markets to compile impressively luxurious gumbo recipes (Tully willingly admits he’s ready to spend a few hundred dollars at a time on his shopping list).
But what happens when the weatherman gets it wrong and the chilly weather that was promised turns out to be nothing more than a pathetic little breeze? “I’m gonna make that damn gumbo,” says Tully as the entire audience laughs and nods along in agreement.
Hot gumbo is best enjoyed on a cold day, but if all else fails we’ll settle for anything south of 78°F.
Always Push Towards an Emotional Decision
When confronted with the reality of the situation, Tully and countless people who have been in his shoes willingly ignore reason because it doesn’t align with their expected outcome.
This example, Tully explains, perfectly depicts the power of emotion trumping reason. The less-than-cool weather does nothing to dissuade the final decision, because there was a tremendous amount of emotional buildup leading to it.
Tully asserts that it’s important to allow a buyer to live emotionally inside of their pains and struggles. It’s the role of the salesperson to assist buyers in recognizing the existing emotional significance of their problems, and then the buyer must be given space to fully explore their problems from this new perspective.
However, it’s equally important to live inside of that pain with them and establish yourself as their partner—a shareholder of their struggle. By doing so, you’ll offer them a solution for their issues while guiding them towards a decision that feels as natural as it does rational.
All sales end in the buying decision, but you’ll struggle to cross the finish line without significant emotional buildup.
3. To Be Interesting, You Have to Be Interested
Studies have consistently shown that, across all languages, “I” ranks as one of the most common words used in conversation. This isn’t terribly surprising; as demonstrated by Tully, people like to talk about themselves.
How much do people enjoy talking about themselves? Apparently, as much as sex. We’ll let you decide what to do with that last bit of information.
When it comes to securing new business, salespeople have to build rapport and establish trust in a relatively short span of time. To make things even more difficult, buyers are inherently distrusting of salespeople.
So how does Clayton suggest overcoming this challenge? Get the buyer genuinely interested in the sales conversation by getting them to talk about themselves.
To get your buyer talking, you have to ask the right questions to show that you are interested in them. Clayton suggests that the best way of doing this is through asking a series of purposeful, open-ended questions that continuously places emphasis on the buyer’s perception of their situation. In short, you want your buyer to say the word “I” a lot.
To start, these questions don’t need to be particularly complex. You just want to get the buyer comfortable with talking about themselves:
- “How long have you been in this field?”
- “What made you want to get into sales?”
- “What do you like most about what you do?”
While questions like these may seem somewhat trivial, they initiate an emotional conversation that focuses on the buyer. Most importantly, Clayton points out, they are open-ended and allow the buyer to prioritize their concerns.
Once you’ve gotten the buyer comfortable talking about themselves, you should probe deeper and prompt them to explore potential pain points by asking more strategic, pointed questions:
- “What is your biggest problem when dealing with a machine shop?”
- “What is your biggest concern when working with engineers?”
- “What do you look for in an engineering firm?”
Notice how this new line of questioning is asking about business concerns, such as issues the company has had with previous fabricators, but the phrasing of the question is guiding the buyer to frame their answers as their own personal concerns. This prompts the buyer to understand the problems that their business is facing as their own personal issues, thereby creating an emotional urgency to solve them.
Ask First, Shoot for the Sale Later
Clayton is quick to point out that, during this questioning, you don’t want to try and solve a buyer’s problems as soon as they’re revealed. Instead, you should carefully listen to and fully appreciate their responses.
No one wants to be sold to and no one wants to be told what to do. By answering too early, you’re not giving the buyer enough time to reach their own conclusions.
So when a client says, “My last engineering firm could never deliver their products on time,” it’s not beneficial to immediately respond with, “we’ll deliver on time, every time!”
Instead, Clayton suggests that this is the time to magnify a buyer’s problems by asking them to explain themselves further. Unknowingly, your buyer is creating a roadmap for how they can be influenced. Only after we have a fully laid out plan, given to us by the buyer, should we pivot into a sales position, says Clayton.
4. Don’t Tell Your Story
Except for Tony Stark, most engineers aren’t known for their charismatic ability—and Stark had a super-powered suit of armor to help bolster his confidence. He’s also not real.
Tully mentions that he frequently sees inexperienced salespeople try to live up to unreasonable standards, such as engineers who try to force an unnatural charisma to help win over clients (with little success). These people tend to visualize salesmen as having a supernatural ability to lead conversation through dazzling rapport.
But this heavy-handed charismatic approach doesn’t actually work, or even exist, in the world of modern sales because the buying process has evolved and buyers are more informed than ever before.
Just Be Yourself, Man
Tully emphasizes that, above all, it’s important to be authentic during the selling process. If you’re naturally shy, it’s okay to be shy. If you’re feeling nervous, it’s okay to feel nervous. If you’re selling correctly, you shouldn’t have to talk much at all.
A lot of engineers try to combat these emotions through overcompensation and aggressive sales tactics—but in the end, you’re only doing yourself a disservice by drawing attention to yourself and away from the buyer.
According to Tully, this often happens because engineers have a natural-born tendency to view a sale as a closed-ended problem with a single, finite solution. Because of this, engineers often want to treat a sale the same way they would as any other mathematical problem: they look for a solution as fast as they effectively can.
But, to Tully, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of relationship you should be trying to build with a buyer.
Let Them Tell Their Story
You’re not trying to tell your story. You’re trying to get your buyer to tell you theirs.
Storytelling is important because it fosters a space for the buyer to feel vulnerable without feeling uncomfortable. This is an ideal position to have them in, as you’re allowing them to explore and relive their emotional pain in a familiar setting while creating openings for them to see the value of your service or product.
Ideally, this storytelling process will happen naturally as a consequence of the open-ended questions discussed above, but Tully points out that, if you’ve established enough common points of interest (such as working in similar settings or fields), it’s often as simple as just asking: “can you tell me about that experience?”
Asking about a buyer’s story is an easy, beneficial way to switch emphasis onto them and away from you, but it also demands that you work hard to understand their unique perspective. As the buyer answers questions and provides more information, you need to take inventory of what exactly is getting them excited about the buying process.
The longer you spend listening, the greater chances you have of influencing your buyer.
5. Ask For the Sale
Whether you’re trying to win a new buyer’s business or up-sell a service to an existing client, you’re in the room for a reason: to make a sale. Surprisingly, one of the most common mistakes any salesman will make is forgetting to ask for it.
The keyword here is ask.
How You Doin’?
If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve talked a lot about the value of strategic questioning. When it comes to asking for the buyer’s business, you’ll have the most success when you can subtly guide them towards the buying decision while positioning your product or service within their response.
Basically, before you ask for their business, you want your buyer to admit that they need your product to solve their problem.
To do this effectively, you should start by paraphrasing your buyer’s problems:
- “If I understand you correctly, quality is your biggest issue. Am I correct?”
- “If I hear you correctly, it sounds like on-time delivery really matters to you. Is this right?”
Once the buyer has validated the question, you can push them closer towards a decision by positioning a feature of your product or service:
- “If you had the option of buying equipment that has been field-tested to meet regulatory standards, would this interest you?”
- “If you could get your deliveries on Wednesday instead of Friday, would you be willing to pay a premium for this?”
Conditional questions like these are powerful because they don’t put your buyer into a corner, they continually build on themselves and they allow salespeople to gauge how much the buyer values certain features.
Once you’ve confirmed the buyer’s interest in the features of your product, you can pivot towards a more direct sales approach. Typically, this would be a pitch or demonstration followed by a direct call to action:
- “If you don’t have any concerns, we’d love to work with you. Are you ready to partner with us?”
- “If there’s no questions, I’d like to discuss our different pricing options to find a plan that best matches your needs. How does that sound?”
“At the end of the day, we’re there to close a sale,” Clayton remarks.
A Point of Disagreement
“I hate that statement,” Tully fires back, “‘closing the sale’ is the most archaic phrase in the sales world.”
The crowd goes quiet. After 30 minutes of moderated civility, this is where things start to get ugly.
“Bury the damn statement,” Tully says while staring down Clayton.
Holding the mic captive, Tully explains how this statement implies that a sale is a one-time isolated event. Instead, Tully argues that the ultimate goal of sales is to create and foster an ongoing reciprocal relationship with a buyer. You should be opening the door for more transactions, instead of putting all of your efforts into nailing down one definitive sale.
Clayton waits patiently until the mic is passed back to him before responding, “look, it’s not all martinis and fishing trips, Tully. Some of us have jobs to do.”
Then, after a brief moment of tense silence, the two men start laughing. Clearly this is an argument they’ve had before and will continue to have for a long time.
Smart Selling Makes for Valuable Partnerships
If there is any one thing to take away from Clayton and Tully’s panel discussion, it’s that a salesperson should make a concentrated effort to fully understand the needs of a buyer before asking for their business. In doing so, both parties have a greater chance of walking away from the interaction in a better position than they were before.
At Practical Engineering Solutions, we work to develop a comprehensive understanding of the needs of our clients so that we can build mutually beneficial partnerships. It’s what has allowed us to consistently bring value to our partners in business through unparalleled turnaround times, superior quality of designs and an unwavering commitment to satisfaction. Contact PES today to learn how we turn data into decisions and projects into profits.