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The Care and Feeding of Clueless Experts

If you're selling a complex product, you sometimes need an engineer or expert to help you explain the technical aspects to your customers. That can cause big problems if the expert doesn't have a clue about how to behave in front of customers. A reader writes:

My client wanted to know who'd be implementing their system so I brought one of top engineers in to meet with them. Every time I was about to close the sale, the engineer, trying to be helpful, would pipe in with: 'or, we could also do it this other way,' thereby reopening the discussion. By the time the sale was reopened for the third time, I could see that the client was getting annoyed, so I ended the meeting without getting the sale.
And that's just the half of it. Here are just a few of the "expert" behaviors that I've seen:
  • Telling the the customer he is "technically incompetent"
  • Laughing at the customer for asking a "dumb" question.
  • Saying that his own company's top management is "stupid."
  • Complaining about the bureaucracy inside his own company.
  • Showing 100 different features in a 5 minute demonstration.
  • Coming to the meeting dressed like homeless person.
  • Refusing to demonstrate the software because "it's not ready."
Fortunately, clueless experts are relatively easy to deal with. Remember: they want you to make the sale, too. They're just clueless about how to help.

Here's what you do:

  • STEP #1: Clarify The Expert's Role. Explain as precisely as possible the EXACT role you'd like them to play in the sales process. If you want them to demonstrate the product, explain EXACTLY what feature you want to demonstrate. If you want them there to answer questions, describe the people who will need the explanation and ask the expert to tool his or her remark to match their expertise level.
  • STEP #2: Set Behavioral Boundaries. Be very clear, up front, about the areas where you don't want the expert to comment. For example, to prevent the engineer from talking about pricing, say something like: "I would never volunteer an explanation about how our product should be built; that's your job. So I need you to shy away from pricing, because that's a sensitive issue in this deal."
  • STEP #3: Specify a Dress Code. If you've got the kind of experts who dress like they're about to attend the Burning Man festival, explicitly ask them to wear a suit or at least a sports jacket. Most experts own one, if only to go to job interviews. However, don't get too anal about this; customers expect experts to dress a bit weirdly; in fact, if they dressed like you, the customer might not believe that the expert is a real expert!
  • STEP #4: Guide the Meeting. Do NOT let the expert "hold court." For example, in the case of the engineer who kept reopening the sale, ask the engineer for his "best" solution, all things considered. Because the engineer was trying to please the customer by blathering alternatives, a request for the "best" solution would return the engineer to his normal state of solipsism, resulting in a clear and definitive answer.
  • STEP #5: Be Respectful of their Expertise. Yes, they can be propellerheads and sometimes funny and weird as all get out, but the truth is that engineers and experts have an important role to play when it comes to making the products you sell -- and sometimes selling the products they've made. Treat them right... and always spring for drinks and a meal if the meeting goes well. It's the least you can do.
READERS: Any other suggestions?
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