Engineering-driven companies and their sales challenge

When computers were room-sized mainframes, Ken Olsen introduced DEC mini-computers, a more affordable alternative to mainframes that ushered in an era where computing grew to dominate back-office functions even in small businesses. Reaching the computing industry’s pinnacle, DEC’s decline in the early 1990s came as minicomputers were squeezed by powerful Unix and RISC servers and low-cost PCs.

Although a walk down memory lane, the DEC story still rings true. Just take a look at the BlackBerry®; many see market share squandered.

Two lessons can be drawn for engineering driven companies. First, while historically a differentiator, a superior product alone no longer is sufficient, nor is being first to market. Companies such as Research in Motion (a/k/a RIM – the BlackBerry® folks) – have engineering prowess, but have trouble operating in fast-evolving industries with changing target audiences and growing competition.

Second, when it’s acknowledged that gaining market share takes more than products alone – then marketing is usually embraced, albeit sometimes begrudgingly. However, marketing troubles aren’t unusual for companies like RIM (and DEC before it) which operate an institutional environment driven by engineers not used to dealing with ambiguity, like fuzzy customer preferences.

An additional weak link is often the sales effort. For example, DEC took the opposite approach from IBM regarding its sales force. DEC sales reps were salaried engineers who received no commissions. Their preferred audience was the software-minded scientific, engineering, and process-control community. Commercial data processing departments were avoided because it was assumed they were bureaucratic and biased in favor of IBM.  We all know where IBM is today – on the other hand DEC was purchased by Compaq and later became a part of HP.

While the DEC example represents one extreme on the sales force continuum, we’ve often heard company senior management say “We just need our sales force to take our great products and show them to our clients.” Or, “They sell themselves – it’s more about coverage, not selling.”  

We can’t disagree more – investing in the marketing message and training the sales force is critical for every company’s success – and even more so for engineering-driven ones, where marketing and sales are “outside their wheelhouse”.

Check out other posts on sales effectiveness at the Sales Training Connection. 

©2011 Sales Horizons, ™ LLC

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