Is selling science a dirty word? Or should scientists be embracing it? Peter Fiske, keynote speaker at the Naturejobs Career Expo in Boston on May 20th, tackles this issue of Selling for Scientists with the Science of Selling.
Many scientists cringe when they hear the word “selling.” In our academic culture, we are taught that our technical work should speak for itself. “Selling” implies persuasion and potentially intentional distortion with (heaven forbid!) a monetary (and not an intellectual) goal. As “proper” scientists, we feel that “selling” is not only debasing but also a bit dirty.
As a scientist, I first encountered the need to “sell” when I started my first company. We had developed a novel optical manufacturing process, and I had to meet with customers and get them to buy the our optical components. The life of our start-up literally depended on our ability to “make the sale.”
I approached the process of “selling” like any good scientist would. I researched each potential customer and their application thoroughly. I developed a set of top requirements for their application and I showed them how our optical components satisfied each and every one. I provided ample data to back up each one of my claims. When the prospective customer questioned one of my assertions I brought forth even more data and evidence to support my position. I wrapped up my presentation by asking them how many units they wanted to order.
Often the answer was “zero”. And many times I didn’t even get a call back.
I was stupefied! How could they choose to purchase conventionally-made optical components when ours were better, cheaper and seemed to satisfy all their requirements? Didn’t they understand what I had told them?
Successful “selling” turns out to be much more than marshalling technical arguments like we do in academic research. Not only must you have a valuable offer that fits the needs of the customer, or a process of matching customer needs with your product or service offerings. You have to also satisfy several “psychological” criteria so your offer seem credible.. A successful salesperson must establish authority and trust: the customer needs to believe that you understand their problem and that you have the background and experience to provide a solution.
If you think about it, academia operates on many of the same principals. As well as doing good science, developing a positive reputation and a network of friends and colleagues who believe in the work you are doing and can attest to its quality. Scientists spend quite a lot of time engaged in a variety of strategies to advance their “reputation”, including marketing (serving on review committees, serving on editorial boards), advertising (giving guest lectures and brown bag talks), public relations (giving popular or for-the-public science lectures) and, yes, customer development (writing and submitting proposals).
It’s natural to assume that most of what the customer cares about during the buying process is whether the offer fits their need. The majority of sales professionals in business believe that as well, and spend most of their efforts during sales presentations trying to convince prospective clients that their offer fits the customer’s needs. But a 2008 study of sales managers and purchasing managers by marketing firm RogenSI found something different.
Most sales managers believed that 70% of the purchasing decision was based on the “fit” of the solution. Understanding their customer’s business, personal chemistry, and “politics” were believed to be about a 10% factor each. Yet when purchasing managers were polled about why they chose certain products or services, they revealed a very different weighting of issues. The “fit” of the solution mattered most, but only represented roughly 40% of the total weighting in the decision process. Understanding their customer’s business, personal chemistry, and “politics” were actually weighted about 20% apiece. In other words: the majority of the factors that influenced the decision to buy were NOT about the product, and even experienced salespeople tend to “oversell” the product features and “undersell” the other aspects critical to a successful sale.
Scientists may look as such data and throw up their hands in despair – and conclude that academia may be the only bastion of rationality left in the world. But upon closer inspection, most scientists would have to admit that factors such as trust and reliability, perceived reputation, and general likability all matter in the academic world as well, and can sometimes significantly influence the decisions on who to hire, who to promote, and who to give a grant to.
It is likely then, that these “emotional factors” are actually somehow advantageous – otherwise these processes would have been evolutionarily selected against. So, whether you agree with it or not, “subjective” factors enter into the decision-making process in homo sapiens. And learning about these subjective factors and adapting your content and delivery style to address them, will only serve to make you more successful in the work you do (in or outside of academia).
The Science of Selling
While there are (literally) books written about sales techniques, here are a few key concepts that I find have significant impact in how “sales” efforts are perceived by customers:
- Understanding the customer’s problem. The most successful salespeople actually talk a lot less than you’d think: they get the customer to do most of the talking. By asking questions and eliciting information, they find new insights into how to solve the underlying problems the customer is having. And customers feel heard and understood.
- Establishing credibility. The most successful salespeople have a background and professional experience that the customer believes is highly credible and relevant to their business. Scientists often have a big advantage in this regard: they are generally viewed as highly intelligent, analytical and credible.
- Understanding the “big picture”. The most successful salespeople spend as much time researching the organization as a whole as they do researching the specifics of the customer application. They seek to understand how the organization makes and approves purchasing decisions, what values are important to the organization, and what past experiences (both good and bad) influence how the organization makes purchasing decisions.
You can apply these same concepts equally well in academia as in business. In fact, as you look around to the most successful researchers in your organization, you may be surprised to discover they already use these exact strategies.
Peter Fiske is the the Chief Executive Officer of PAX Water Technologies, Inc. He is also a nationally-recognized author and lecturer on the subject of leadership and career development for scientists and engineers. He will be doing the keynote speech at the Naturejobs Career Expo in Boston on May 20th 2014.
 Perfect Pitch: Findings from the 2008 RogenSI Global Pitch Survey