Finding an Engineering Sales Person is a Catch 22

Finding someone who is both knowledgeable on the engineering industry you operate in, and also shows strong sales skills can be a rare find indeed. It all depends on how you position the job, too. When you put out a posting for such a position, usually you end up with a lot of engineers with no sales experience, or sales professionals that don’t fully grasp the technical aspects of your industry. 

Searching for a salesperson that can tick both of these boxes has driven many companies to distraction. With the high importance of the sales function and the high cost of turnover, the struggle is real. It’s a dilemma that is presented to recruiters time and again, but for those with wide networks and keen eyes it is not an unconquerable challenge. 

The Importance of Partnering Sales Ability with Technical Engineering Knowledge

Locating an ideal salesperson means first understanding the two very different sides of this coin. The popular understanding of the ‘natural salesperson’ is almost mythical in nature. A born ‘people person’, the sales person understands how their customers think and using a combination of charm and psychology can soon have them parting with their money. In reality, these traits are both innate and learned, so while sales experience may not always be completely necessary, it is a factor that should not be overlooked.

A technical mastery of the product line, industry and audience at hand is also valuable to a salesperson. A natural salesperson who lacks knowledge of the category he or she is selling within may understand human psychology, but will lack insight into the unique considerations and challenges shaping their clients’ decision making process.  Possessing deep product and industry knowledge will gain trust from the client, positioning the technical salesperson as ‘one of us’. It’s the difference between being a disposable order taker or a valued consultant. 

Technical mastery without sales skills can be potentially even more problematic. These individuals may lack the ability to close, or to recognize sales opportunities. Their technical nature may cause them to emphasize features as opposed to benefits, to the detriment of their bottom line. 

Finding a Technical Salesperson with Experience in Your Industry

When looking for a salesperson who can hit the ground running, the ultimate prize is an experienced and effective salesperson with direct knowledge of your particular industry. A recruiter with a wide network maximizes the chances of success. Often this will involve poaching a sales person from a competitor. If the salesperson is unhappy with their current situation, they may be enticed to make the switch. Otherwise luring them may engage a bidding war. 

Finding a Salesperson with the Ability to Learn Technical Knowledge

If an experienced salesperson from your industry can’t be recruited, it’s possible that someone from an adjacent industry could prove worthy. As Dave Kahle explains for CleanLink, it’s generally (although not universally) believed that it’s easier to teach a salesperson technical knowledge than it is to teach a technical person sales skills. 

“Technicians invariably work with things, and things have reliable and known characteristics. Salespeople, on the other hand, invariably work with people. And each individual person is an ultimately unknowable combination of thoughts, feelings, values, goals and beliefs – incredibly complex.”1

What’s important to look for in this instance is experience in a similar but adjacent technology, or a similar complexity of technology, along with a demonstrated ability to learn. A salesperson who has previously thrived in distinct technical environments shows a promising ability to learn the ropes of your particular market, especially if training or suitable mentorship opportunities are available. 

Finding a Technical Candidate with Sales Promise

Although many technical professionals lack the ability to transition to a sales role, there are exceptions to this rule. An individual who demonstrates great people skills, attention to detail and the power of persuasion may be a good candidate for crossing over into the salesforce. Sometimes these people exist within your own company.  

Furthermore, there are those who believe that the archetype of the ‘natural salesperson’, and all of their supposed qualities, is overstated. “These abstractions are irrelevant to the execution of business strategy, and they make hiring, in sales and other functions, a classic example of the cloning bias: managers use these slogans to hire in their own image,” opines Harvard Business Review. 2

Finding the Right Mix of Technical and Sales Ability

In the end, determining the right balance of sales and technical ability is largely dependent upon your unique situation. What is the nature of your offering and the market you serve? Does your company have a strong dedicated technical support team? What is your company’s position within the marketplace? Does your CRM system have a steep learning curve? A recruitment agency is uniquely positioned to help you address these questions, maximizing their contact network to find the perfect combination of skills to build your team’s success.

Cited Sources
1 “Hiring Dilemma: Sales Skills Vs. Technical Expertise.” CleanLink. Accessed October 6, 2020.–13647.
2 Frank V. Cespedes and Daniel Weinfurter, and Frank V. Cespedes Daniel Weinfurter. “The Best Ways to Hire Salespeople.” Harvard Business Review, September 10, 2020.