An old joke defined experts as “people who know more and more about less and less until they know all about nothing.”

If that joke were ever funny, it isn’t any more. That the word has become an almost meaningless communications cliché is bad news. Real-life experts are no joke because they’re critical to our well-being today and tomorrow. They deserve respect and gratitude. And salespeople who work with subject matter experts (SMEs) know that firsthand.

When SMEs and sales people team up to call on prospects together, things often go swimmingly. In fact, when using a sales process they’ve created together, a skilled consultative sales rep and an SME make up the most powerful sales teams we see. But when they don’t, sales calls can drown in a flood of misguided communication that results in frustration for prospects, sales reps, and SMEs alike.

What can go wrong? Decision-makers think in terms of implication. They are in “So what” mode about whatever you’re selling: “If I buy this product or service, what will it mean to my business?” Subject matter experts think in terms of “Here’s how” because that’s what they love and what they’re good at. Unfortunately, too early in the process, SMEs too often tend to tell prospects, “Here’s how our product works. Isn’t that great?”

Bridging the gap are the sales reps . If they have well-developed consultative selling skills, they are in discovery the moment they walk in the door, if not before. They don’t tell; they ask. They want to know what a prospect’s objectives are in connection with their product or service so they can answer the all-important “So what?” question.  Then, if a sales rep can help the prospect appreciate the value their product brings to the table, a technical expert can be indispensable to sealing the deal. An SME reassures the prospect with detail: “Yes, our product is extremely effective—here’s how and why.”

Over the years, I’ve sold with nuclear power-plant engineers, lawyers, real estate developers, software designers, and other highly talented and knowledgeable SMEs. There’s nothing like the success that combines a strong sales process and consultative selling skills with great technical information.

How can business developer-SME teams achieve that success? We’ve found that three things come into play.

  1. Customized Sales Process: The most important factor. Years ago we taught consultative selling skills to business developers at a utility and created a sales process tailored to them and their industry. When the salespeople first understood the basic principles of our program, they insisted that their SMEs—engineers, in this case—receive the same training. Their rationale, paraphrased, was that “otherwise [the SMEs] will jump in and undo everything we are doing in the sales process.” An effective sales process must draw intellectual property from the SMEs that sales reps can use in specific ways to  learn a prospect’s objectives and issues and to build trust. But this approach goes way beyond simply identifying of  needs or “finding the pain.” It involves an inventory of potential issues the solution addresses, the implications of  those issues, rules of thumb to gain perspective, and stories to help educate on the issues.
  1. Skill Level and Clear Roles: Once the sales process is in place the sales rep-SME team has to decide how to execute it.  Effectiveness here depends on the relative skill level of both the seller and the SME. At the beginning they may want to make calls together at the front end of the process. Later it may be possible for the sales person to work alone until the sales process has been advanced to the point technical expertise is needed. In that model, the SME takes center stage near the end to answer final questions and help close the sale.

3. Pre-Call Planning and Practice:  The sales process should be reviewed before the first calls so that decisions can              be made about who goes along, who is the lead, what role a second or third person plays, and so on. More pre-call    communication among the team members improves effectiveness. A few minutes of role playing can work wonders.

Two other important factors also influence sales rep-SME teams: the compensation system and the level of trust within the team.

Trust with sales-SME teams can take years to develop. If new people rotate in and out too often, trust simply cannot be in place. It can, however, be accelerated by experts in building trust, either from inside a company or outside. Our popular consultative sales-training course, FOCIS® uses a process that builds trust not only with prospects but also among sales team members.

The compensation system must establish who makes initial contact with the prospect, who helps sell the product or service, and who performs the work—that is, supplies the deliverable—once the sale is made as well as  how each role is weighted for compensation and incentives. If this breakdown isn’t standard, team members should negotiate splits on their own with each other. SMEs, especially, will come to value the sales rep’s ability to speed up the sales process without calling on them until necessary. End result: SMEs can do more of what they love to do—implement the solution!

While we’re not experts in sales compensation, we can point you toward proven professionals we know who are. Just ask us if you are looking for that kind of assistance.

Sales rep-SME team members can be extremely productive if they know their roles in the sales process and how to perform them. What we are describing here may sound complex and difficult to implement. But we’ve found that in practice the opposite is actually true. Our FOCIS® workshops are designed to upgrade skills, transfer intellectual capital from experts to beginners, and create unique sales processes that both the salespeople and the subject matter experts are comfortable with. We know this is also true because sales reps, SMEs, and other business developers who have completed our course have told us so—and because they’ve backed it up with five-star Google ratings.

Please tell us about your experiences  and ideas at 847-446-0008 X-1 or We’re always learning, too, especially from the marketplace.


Comments are closed.