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.
But is it possible that expertise could be a liability in sales? The evidence suggests 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 professional services. 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.
The 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 trust elements.
The 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.
By 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.
How 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 empathetic listening.
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.
The 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 (as, of course, you are doing in response to the client's answers).
As 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 or herself.
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 its
limits. Usually the problems you tackle are part of an integrated whole,
involving dimensions that have little to do with your area of
You 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.
There's 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 and outcomes. 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.
Yes, 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.