The Technical Sales Skills Iceberg of Excellence

Ed Marsh | Feb 23, 2024

Tl;dr - Many industrial companies hire sales reps based on technical expertise. That's a fail. Instead, hire great sales talent with technical aptitude. It's far easier to help a 2nd SD sales rep learn your industry than to turn a great engineer into a top-performing sales rep.

The Massive Sales Hiring Mistake Most Industrial Companies Make


That's right. This basic building block of screening and hiring talent.

Put aside resumes' lack of predictability of industrial sales success (only 18%) and the large percentage of misrepresented information.

a technical sales rep may bring knowledge of machines and applications, but without business savvy and broad sales competencies, be unable to drive new businessThe problem is that companies hire the folks they believe have enough history in the industry to be known, respected and have accumulated the extensive technical knowledge necessary to successfully sell complex capital equipment and industrial products.

At least that's the rationale.

What do they get?


Newsflash! There's a reason they change companies every three to five years while staying within the industry. They've got all the terminology and technical language down. They talk the talk.

In the end, however, after the honeymoon is over and the 12-18 month sell cycle comes and goes, they're not selling much. They may make quota some years and not others. They don't walk the walk.

They join companies with fanfare and excitement and leave with disappointing results.

You've probably seen this pattern.

But why is it so common? And why do smart business leaders make the mistake of hiring these folks whose command of the industry and technology so consistently fails to predict sales success?

Because they think they're hiring technical salespeople.

A Practical Example

During a recent pipeline review with a client, we discussed several deals on their "hot list" (deals due to close within one month) and discovered the following situation.

  • several opportunities of varying size from five to seven figures with a single location of a massive multinational and current customer
  • the projects were prioritized from the findings of an engineering audit for which the customer had paid six figures
  • all focused on improving the operating efficiency of a single product production line by >50% (the customer's objective in conducting the audit)

All of this sounded solid. After all, this wasn't some lark. They had paid a material amount for the study, and the efficiency gains would presumably translate to enormous savings that would easily justify the project cost.

The technical sales team had worked with the plant engineer to address all the questions and concerns. Implementation timelines were straightforward. There was agreement on the magnitude and impact of efficiency improvements that would result.

All that remained was the issuance of the POs.

Except......there was no business justification.

As we dug in to understand the compelling reason and critical path date that dictated an immediate decision, it turned out there wasn't one.

The engineering audit was commissioned to collect information that would inform a corporate decision on realigning production locations for a specific product. Would they move production from one international location to another?

Who was making that decision was unknown. The division president? The board of the multinational? Some large consultancy that was brought in to analyze the options?

No one on my client's side knew. And the sales engineer had never even spoken to the plant manager (who probably didn't know him/herself, but might have some insights.)

Nor did anyone know when the decision would be made.

And the plant engineer had gone silent.

There was no compelling reason to buy unless the multinational opted to consolidate production in this facility.

A >50% improvement in efficiency sounded like a no-brainer to the technical salespeople.

Except it didn't make a difference to the plant. They couldn't reduce shifts. There wasn't significant energy savings. There was no compelling business reason to buy.

And there was no way to influence or even learn about the outcome.

Might those projects happen someday? Sure. Could they be "sold"? Perhaps, but not by a technical salesperson, not via the plant engineer.

And having the deals in the pipeline as qualified, much less with imminent close dates, was fantasy.

Technical Sales Isn't Sales

technical-sales-descriptionDon't believe me? Look at how Indeed describes Technical Sales1.

The only things remotely related to "sales" are creating a sales relationship, answering questions "after a sales pitch", tracking sales and meeting quota.

Nowhere on this list is anything about creating and qualifying opportunities, reaching decision-makers and understanding the buying team, ascertaining a buyer's compelling reason to buy and quantifying the financial impact, getting an agreement to invest, closing, territory and account management, or any of a number of other sales competencies.

The reality is that nobody buys based on technical features.

Companies buy because of the outcome that they believe the product or service will help them achieve.

They buy for business reasons.

They commit resources to researching a possible project - for business reasons.

They allocate capital - for business reasons.

Then, they select based on technical attributes and their comfort with one product, vendor, and salesperson over another.

In other words, technical sales really only addresses the final stage - the selection of a vendor. That's why companies that emphasize technical sales often find that their team doesn't create enough opportunities, that forecasts are unreliable, and that large percentages of deals end in no decision.

They're not salespeople - they're technicians.

What Makes a Great Technical Salesperson?


A tremendous technical sales rep is fundamentally a great industrial sales rep, who also has enough familiarity and comfort with technical details to manage that aspect of the sale.

That means they must be able to:

  • reach the C-Suite
  • discuss business accounting, capital investment, and financial justifications
  • ask insightful business questions
  • put engineers, maintenance teams, and all members of the buying team at ease
  • determine budgets and decision making process
  • establish trust and credibility as a business resource
  • create new projects with new logos (not just account management)
  • and also be conversant in the technical aspects of the applications and products, and a capable sales team "captain" who involves (and coaches) the right technical experts at the right points in the process

Very few reps can consistently follow a sales process and predictably accomplish these things in any sales environment. In the world of complex, big-ticket, long sales cycle deals like in capital equipment sales, the number of capable sales reps falls further.

In contrast, the world of salespeople is chock-a-block full of reps with industry experience and technical aptitude. People who can do a bang-up job with the plant engineer as in the example above, and have absolutely no control over the sale (and no awareness of their lack of control.)

People Sell the Way They Buy

How do most engineers buy? They research extensively. They check every detail. They compare many options. They are paid to be risk-averse in their thinking and analysis. They see vendors as resources to answer their questions and double-check their assumptions as they work to implement the solution they've selected for the problem they've identified.

So when you take an engineer and make them a sales rep, that's the way they'll expect their prospects to buy. After all, it's the "right" way to buy in their mind.

That's not selling. It's providing a technical resource. It may simply be a library of details (human Solidworks files, if you will) or a more sophisticated technical consulting. But it's not sales.

Technical Expertise is Important, but It's Not Sales

If reps can't get to the board; if they can't identify compelling business issues; if they can't justify projects in the context of a prospect's corporate strategy and priorities, they're just a technical resource.

Technical resources are important, for sure. And, of course, some engineers are also great sales reps. But they're distinct skill sets.

Don't make the mistake of hiring technical sales engineers if you're hiring someone you expect to bring in new business.

Find a great sales rep who has some innate technical aptitude.

If they're a meme worthy Gen Z who turns to a Home Depot YouTube video on how to start a lawn mower, they probably won't efficiently reach a level of meaningful technical competence.

But if they have worked on a car or some mechanical device, understand concepts like torque and acceleration, and can explain the fundamental difference between a servo motor and a traditional DC motor, they'll likely pick up the technical stuff.

If your idea of "sales" is answering inquiries, preparing technical quotes, and waiting for orders, then hire a technical sales representative based on industry experience and technical familiarity.

On the other hand, if you're looking for accurate sales forecasts, new customer acquisition, predictable pipelines, and consistent growth, then hire a great sales rep and teach them the technical part.

1 - Indeed description of Technical Sales