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How to transform scientists into salespeople

Technical sales is a challenging career and certainly not for everyone. From the employers perspective there are four key challenges:


  1. Hiring

  2. Training

  3. Managing, and

  4. Mentoring


Each, in its own way can contribute to the success or failure of a salesperson or of a sales team, as a whole. Success lies in having solid processes for all four of these facets of salesperson management. For example if your hiring process is poor then it is likely that you regularly waste time on-boarding people who turn out to be a bad fit and have to be let go, maybe they don’t have the skills or aptitude needed or they find they are not happy in the job and move on quickly. Either way the cost of a poor hire is very expensive. Similarly, if you don’t have well established sales processes for people to follow then each salesperson will be like a lone ranger the the wild west, trying to work out how to sell to you customers. Lack of processes leads to a Ready, Fire, Aim approach with the result that your intended targets are often missed.


I could write for days on each of the above facets of managing a sales team but (and I am sure you’ll be very relieved to hear) I won’t. Instead, today, I am going to look at a particular problem that is common in our industry. That is: turning scientists into salespeople.


Many of the high-end products we sell to scientists require a good understanding of how they may be used in the lab. A direct result of this is that it often seems easier to hire people with a science background to sell to scientists. I say “often” because there are plenty of very successful exceptions but it is fair to say that hiring scientists to sell to scientists is common practice and transforming these hires into successful salespeople is a challenge.

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as following Optimus Prime’s regular instruction in the Transformers movie franchise, “Autobots, transform and roll out!”. Hiring scientists and telling them to go out and sell, just won’t end well. The real secret to transforming scientists into salespeople is to hire very carefully and focus on personality rather than specific technical skills. If your product has been designed to be usable by your customers with some reasonable training then your new scientific sales hires can learn it, too. Remember these people are smart and used to learning new stuff! What I mean is that it is not usually necessary to hire a chemist to sell products used by chemists.


Usually, it is enough to get someone with a scientific background and you can safely expect that they will be able to learn about your particular niche.


So, if we don’t need to hire chemists to sell to chemists then what should we be looking for. The answer is personality traits. We need to know what traits are needed by successful technical salespeople and test for these when we are hiring. So what traits are needed? Well this may vary somewhat depending on the type of products you are selling, your company culture, etc. but I will suggest that there are some commonalities in the behaviors of most successful science products salespeople. These are:


  • Organization: They plan their work, both short term and long term.


  • Assertiveness: They like to win and will do what they need to do to succeed.


  • Need to Finish Tasks: They don’t leave emails un-responded to!


  • Likeability: People enjoy their company from the moment they meet them


So how can we test for the above. Well the last one is easy, if you don’t warm to someone in the first few minutes of an interview then they just don’t have likeability. Watch out for people who grow on you after 30 minutes. They may be nice and might be good in another role in your business but selling is not for them.


Organization is a skill that most people learn early in a degree or even at high school. If they don’t have it by the time you interview them then you will have a fight on your hands getting them to do what is needed to manage your sales pipeline. Ask questions like “How do you manage your time?” and “How do you juggle short-term, and long-term goals?”.


Assertiveness can be found by using simple questions like “When you go out with your friends, who makes the arrangements?” or “Did you ever have a colleague let you down on a project, how did you deal with it?”. Assertive people lead the gang and confront people who are holding them back directly.


Assessing someone’s need to finish things is trickier to test for. Get-things-done-ness is what I like to call it and I sometimes ask people how they feel when they have too much on their plate and can’t finish everything. People who have a strong need to get everything done will describe feelings like anxiety. In a salesperson, a little anxiety about unfinished tasks is good!


Don’t get hung up on extraversion versus introversion. People often assume that great salespeople are extroverts. This is not the case. I have seen many fantastic introverted and extroverted salespeople. Both can succeed equally well but do watch out for candidates who are likable extroverts but don’t have assertiveness. They are unlikely to be able to bring deals to closure but often slip through at interview.


If you can find candidates with organization skills, assertiveness, the need to finish tasks and likeability then you are in a great position to have a star salesperson on your team. Add training, management and mentoring and you can get them producing quickly and happily growing within your organization.


So as the Bowie song ‘Changes’ goes “Time to change the world”. Well at least now it's time to change a scientist into a salesperson.


Happy hiring!


Rory Geoghegan

February 28th, 2023



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Photo credits: Pixabay.com


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