How to Schmooze Propellerheads

Last Updated May 25, 2007 11:54 AM EDT

Solution selling means working with engineers. At customer sites, the "propellerheads" influence buying decisions. In your firm, they're key resources to help you make a sale or keep a customer. Alas, most sales pros are utterly clueless when it comes to motivating engineers. And that can result in lost sales and lost customers. Here are seven rules to convince engineers to help you sell:

Rule #1. Understand the differences. Engineers don't think about work the same way that you do. While they expect to be paid fairly (i.e. similarly to their peers), they're less motivated by salary than whether the work they're doing is inherently "interesting" and whether they get to use cool tools and technology. They don't want to be managers. Most engineering groups have "master engineer" positions that command executive-level salaries, but no direct reports. For an engineer, such a role is not a consolation prize but a victory, because engineers see people issues (i.e. management responsibilities) as both distracting and boring. To net it out, most of the "handles" that you use to communicate and build rapport with customers (e.g. bottom line, risk avoidance, career advancement) aren't going to work with engineers. You need to take a different approach. Read on--

Rule #2. Dress down. To engineers, all suits are empty suits. The semiotic implication of a tailored Armani is completely lost on them. If they knew that you spent $5,000 on a suit, they'd just think that you were insane. In fact, to them, merely wearing a coat inside a climate-controlled building shows a lack of common sense. Similarly, your pricey Rolex doesn't impress; it tells them that you're willing to waste money on something that is expensive but marginally functional ("What? No calculator?!?"), so they'll automatically assume that whatever you're asking them to do is equally stupid. No need to pander; you don't have to wear Birkenstocks or a pocket protector. Just take off the coat, slip the Rolex in your pocket, lose or loosen the tie, undo the neck button of your shirt, and roll up your sleeves to your mid forearm. You'll fit right in. (Note: Female sales pros can wear whatever they like, since male engineers only notice female clothing when it's absent, and female engineers don't care one way or the other.)

Rule #3. Admit your ignorance, intelligently. Engineers believe that all non-engineers are failures, even billionaire CEOs, unless those CEOs were once engineers (like Bill Gates). To them, a sales job, or indeed any people-oriented job, is a hellish prospect, so they assume that, if you were intelligent (i.e. technically competent), you wouldn't be working in sales. The only way to gain their respect is to admit that you don't understand as much as they do about whatever technology they've mastered, and (here's the important part) that you'd like to learn more. In other words, position yourself as a wannabe engineer and they'll go into "helping and mentoring" mode, which is how engineers cooperate. Warning: the worst thing you can do is to admit your ignorance in a way that closes off the possibility of learning more. Say something like "Aw, shucks, this stuff is all Greek to me" and you'll be permanently on that engineer's list of hopeless dopes.

Rule #4. Communicate praise, lavishly. Authors want their books to be read and appreciated, artists want their pictures to seen and appreciated, and engineers want their products to be used and appreciated. Unfortunately, the nature of R&D is that engineers don't often hear from customers and, when they do, it's generally a complaint. And that's even truer with the Internet, because user forums (which engineers frequent) are clock-a-block with rude criticisms and disparaging comments. However, since you're in the business of solving customer problems using the products that the engineers have created, you're in the perfect position to explain how those products are really helping your customers. To engineers, that kind of praise is both rare and addictive, and they'll be more than willing to help you out, simply to get more of it.

Rule #5. Bring them interesting projects. Engineers don't like low-tech work and obsolete tools. If you're dealing with your customer's engineers, and they'll be participating in the solution-building process, provide quantitative proof of the quality of the tools they'll be using. (With the emphasis on quantitative; if you start spouting meaningless crap like "state-of-the-art" they'll just roll their eyes.) If you're trying to get your own engineers to participate in a customer engagement, figure out how to land a fancy piece of customer equipment or advanced piece of software on the engineer's desk. At all costs, avoid positioning any solutions-building work as a "one off" to close a deal. Engineers resent such work, because they know it's usually a dead end and will probably come back to haunt them later.

Rule #6. Respect their geekiness. SciFi is the soul of the engineering subculture. If you doubt this, please observe that every high tech gadget that you're using to do your job today (cell phone, PDA, laptop, GPS, remote database access) made its popular debut in original Star Trek series. Almost every engineer has a favorite SciFi genre, easily identified by the posters and doodads displayed in their offices. (Note: to an engineer, so-called "fantasy" genres like "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" are simply SciFi with alternative technology.) Engineers love and trade SciFi brummagem, so if you want an engineer to know that you appreciate his (or, less frequently, her) help, keep an eye out at yard sales or eBay for inexpensive items in that genre as "thank-you" presents. Don't get phony about it. Don't pretend that you like Star Wars when you don't know wookie from a wombat. Just keep an eye out for cool stuff that the engineer might like.

Before I get to the seventh and final rule, I suppose I should explain where I got these rules. Confession time. I started my career as an engineer (Birkenstocks and all) and in fact, am kinda famous among software engineers as the author of "The Tao of Programming", long considered something of a classic inside the programming subculture. While I left that role years ago, I've continued to write about engineering firms, and many of my friends remain died-in-the-wool engineers. So I know whereof I speak. And so--

Rule #7. Never, ever call them "propellerheads." But you knew that already, right?