If you're selling engineering, architectural, or environmental services, you're obviously selling expertise. So clients naturally favor working with sellers who have some expertise of their own, who can talk knowledgeably about the relevant technical issues and solutions.
is it possible that expertise could be a liability in sales? The
evidence suggest it often is. That's because expertise is not the most
important thing you're selling—it's trust. And experts commonly struggle with the interpersonal dynamics of trust building.
Charles Green is perhaps the foremost authority on the role of trust in the professional service industry. His book Trust-Based Selling
is highly recommended. He proposes four principal attributes that
comprise one's trustworthiness: credibility, reliability, intimacy, and
self-orientation. His research
finds that experts characteristically exhibit high levels of
credibility and reliability, but come up short in the trust attribute
that most contributes to sales success—intimacy.
What is intimacy in his trust equation? Green describes it as the "safety or security that we feel when
entrusting someone with something." In other words, it largely
comprises the emotional context of selling. Yes, it's important to know
what you're talking about and to consistently follow through on what you
promise. But buyers want to feel that you care about them. They want to
feel comfortable in choosing to do business with you.
consulting group Huthwaite, which has probably conducted more extensive
research on selling than anyone, comes to a similar conclusion. They
break trust into three elements: concern, competency, and candor. In one study,
they asked clients what percentage of professional service sellers they
would rate as adequate or better in demonstrating each of the three
lowest score? You probably guessed it—demonstrating concern. Only 35%
of sellers of professional services were rated at least adequate in
showing they cared. That compares to 66% who demonstrated they were
competent and 83% who came across as honest.
the way, Huthwaite also surveyed buyers of large capital products,
asking the same questions. You would expect capital product companies to
employ more professional sellers, whereas professional service firms
would rely more on practicing experts (what we often call seller-doers).
Which group showed more concern? Over half (53%) of capital product
sellers were rated adequate or better in this trust element.
is it that experts fare so much poorer than professional sellers in
showing they care, which is not an attribute we typically associate with
salespeople? My guess is that experts are often more
focused on the work than the client. They may be less inclined to
really listen because, well, they're the experts. Many of them lack
strong communication and interpersonal skills.
So how can you overcome the shortcomings that befall many experts when selling? Below are a few suggestions:
Cultivate the skill of empathetic listening. Green concludes that listening
is critical to sharpening your intimacy skills. He notes that listening
is partly a skill and partly an attitude. If you don't care what the
other person has to say, you're not likely to be a good listener. I'd
also add that it's important to go beyond just listening for
information, but to listen for identification—seeking to understand the
person and not just the associated facts. That's at the heart of
Why is listening so hard for many of us? In a previous post on this topic, I suggested two main factors: ego and expertise.
Ego is reflected in our tendency to spend most of our time in
conversation either talking or thinking about what we're going to say
next. We like being the center of attention. Being an expert means we
have a lot to say and often find it hard not to share what we know.
Isn't that how we provide value? Not necessarily. Remember the old
axiom: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you
care. Really listening conveys caring.
Use your expertise to formulate great questions. Being
a strong listener, of course, involves asking effective questions. As a
technical expert in a sales role, give particular attention to two
lines of questioning: (1) asking open questions that reveal the client's perspective and needs and (2) asking alignment questions that influence the client to be receptive to what you have to say.
first line of questioning is straightforward; you simply want to learn
how the client sees things. You don't want to bias or influence the
responses in any way. In the second line of questioning, however, you
want to bring into alignment how the client sees things and how you see
them. So your questions seek to gently influence the client's
perceptions and nudge him or her toward certain conclusions.
noted earlier, it's natural for you as an expert to want to share what
you know. But in an age of information overload, expertise as measured
only in facts and knowledge is a commodity. What people want most are
insight and discernment, and those outcomes are better shared
between the two parties. So rather than just telling the client what you
know, try asking questions that help the client discover it for himself
How? Start by planning your sales questions
in advance. Consider what advice you'd like to give, then determine
what questions you can ask to help lead the client to the same
conclusions—or least move in that direction. Of course, you can't always
anticipate what issues may come up in a sales call that warrant sharing
your expertise. So practice the art of framing advice initially with
questions such as, "What if...?" or "Have you considered...?" Don't be
afraid to pause momentarily before speaking, giving yourself time to
consider how you might ask rather than tell.
See the big picture.
Experts, especially in our business, are often analytical thinkers.
Analysis involves breaking down complex problems into their constituent
parts, ferreting out underlying causes and defining targeted solutions.
That's a valuable skill in a technical profession, but it has it's
limits. Usually the problems you tackle are part of an integrated whole,
involving dimensions that have little to do with your area of
add value to what you do by being able to connect it to the big
picture. This is especially important when it comes to seeing the
problem from the client's perspective. This comes more naturally for
some than for others. So the recommendation is to collaborate with
colleagues who are stronger at synthesis (putting things together) than
analysis (taking things apart). This includes working with such
individuals in planning your sales calls, developing your capture plan,
or partnering on sales calls.
Beware of always being right.
Another common axiom in the sales profession is, "The customer is
always right." Of course, that's not factually true. The point is that
what the customer thinks is what is true from his or her perspective.
This often frustrates expert sellers, to the point that they may push
for their point of view rather than persuade.
That perceived inflexibility is a key reason why buyers often complain
about professional service sellers not listening or showing concern.
also the distinct possibility that you're wrong. What may be the ideal
solution from a technical point of view may not meet other criteria—such
as cost or convenience—that matter more to the client. We don't sell
products in our profession; we sell customized solutions. That means you
need to ply your expertise not just to come up with the right answer,
but the answer that's right for the client.
expertise is critically important in our profession. But on its own,
it's often viewed as a commodity. The real value of your expertise is
when you can use it in such a way to better serve the client. And that
requires skills outside your expertise—relationship skills,
communication skills, collaborative skills. Master these if you want to
be a true expert.