Technical or selling skills?

Most candidates have one or the other

Successfully selling complex products or technologies requires a scarce and unique skills combination. Business-to-business sales management is an especially challenging discipline because there are so few people with strong relationship-selling skills combined with technical-analytical abilities needed in complex, multifaceted business situations.

There certainly are some rare individuals strong in both areas, but most B2B sales candidates will either be engineering or selling oriented, not both. The question becomes which type of person will be more likely to succeed as a salesperson for your industrial- or technology-based company.

Should you go for the engineer type, who can get into the technical details with the prospect’s team? Will he or she have prospecting and relationship-building skills to assure continued growth and new opportunities? Should you go for the outgoing, friendly and sociable candidate who can open doors to opportunity but might get chewed up when the technical qualification questions come up?

Choosing the right sales candidate requires a sound screening and interview process to sort out the candidates worthy of an offer. When hiring a salesperson for a complex product/service solution, you essentially have three options:

1. Recruit a successful salesperson from a competitor or similar supplier who understands your technology and markets

2. Hire a strong technical person from your industry who can be trained in sales

3. Hire a successful salesperson from another industry whom you can train technically

Let’s examine the merits and pitfalls of each option.

Option 1: Peeling someone away from an already successful career position in your industry will require an expensive compensation package. You are essentially trying to buy customers, which can be done, but at high immediate cost, along with some inherent risks.

A successful salesperson with long-term experience in your industry will come with their established habits and try to impose their own system of doing things. That will need accommodation, in addition to the expensive compensation required to win the person over to your firm.

On the upside, training should be minimal and sales results should be immediate. If this is your strategy, watch out for restrictive non-compete agreements which, if enforceable, tend to be deal-breakers.

Option 2: Hiring an experienced engineer/technician or training one from within to be a salesperson can succeed, depending on the individual’s ability to adapt and thrive in the selling environment.

Because sales requires other skills beyond technical, such as communication, relationship-building and negotiating, not every product specialist or engineer will be suited for the job. However, in some small to medium-sized companies in highly specialized fields, an engineer or expert who can speak at the technical-solution level may be the best candidate because their ability to deal with complex technical issues outweighs the people pleasing skills.

Option 3: Hiring a proven sales veteran or “rising star” from outside of your industry, can often be a successful option.

Some highly skilled and experienced sales professionals, for one reason or other, are unhappy in their current job or looking for new opportunities. They are willing to learn new industries and products. They know their selling skills are transferrable across different markets. Experienced salespeople understand business realities and don’t ask for exorbitant salaries. They welcome mutually fair incentive-based compensation plans and won’t cost a fortune to sign on.

Technical and product training – up to the level of effectively selling – is readily achievable for most professional salespeople who tend to be pretty smart to begin with.

From our experience, Option 3 is usually the most preferable situation when looking for the right salesperson in a complex B2B product or service environment.

It’s important to support that person from an engineering and technical standpoint. A dedicated technical support and product demo specialist may need to assist the sales professional in the field on a regular basis.

The ideal candidate could emerge from the other two categories but Option 1 is rarely viable. With Option 2, sometimes a technical expert already working for you or someone else is a natural salesperson, but just hasn’t discovered it. They could be the best person to groom for the position.

Selling a complex solution or technical product can be one of the most challenging, but also one of the most rewarding, career positions in the business world. Success depends mainly on matching candidate skills and career goals with company objectives and sales support commitments. Be realistic about what a new salesperson will bring to the table, as well as the orientation and training needed to succeed.

Kevin Hallenbeck, principal of Sandler Training-Manchester, can be reached at 603-232-1520 or through

Categories: Business Advice