We’ve all been there.
With a Zen-like focus you are meticulously setting up a sensitive test apparatus, inspecting a crash dump caused by stack corruption, double-checking a 50 tabbed cross-linked spreadsheet to find an inconsistency, or analyzing multi-variate simulation results. Then…
RING! DING! BING!
An interruption. Another annoying call, text, or email alert from a technical salesperson just when you were about to make some progress. The momentary distraction disrupts your train of thought.
Now where were you..?
Whether they represent a manufacturer, a component vendor, a distributor, or a reseller, technical salespeople are the bane of engineers. They’re always calling at the most inopportune times, leaving voicemails, and persistently cluttering your inbox with inquires to set up meetings for only 10-15 minutes to demonstrate the latest technologies. They pry for details of upcoming projects and to try to sell you things that you don’t need or want.
Salespeople are wasting your valuable time!
Why don’t they understand?
If you need them, you’ll call them, right?
At mid-career, I had the opportunity to change roles from embedded software developer to business development manager (a.k.a. “The dark side”). At the time, none of the component reps or distributors knew who I was. In fact, many asked if I had recently joined the company although I had been there for over eight years.
So I made a point of meeting with every rep who called and wanted a meeting. You want to meet early for coffee? Great. Do lunch? Sure. Come talk to me. Give me your line card. Tell me what the companies you represent do best. What is their competitive position in the marketplace? What are the emerging technologies?
In a few months, I was able to rapidly extend my network of potential electronics components suppliers and compile a virtual rolodex of who represented whom and what technologies each offered. Through these meetings I learned who really knew their stuff and who didn’t.
If you don’t trust them, why did you even let them in the door?
Execute NDAs (“Non-Disclosure Agreements”) with those suppliers with whom you trust. Mark relevant document confidential. Remind them of this obligation at the start of the meetings. Write confidential in the subject line of all email communications. Don’t sign NDAs with people or companies that you don’t trust. Remember, basically an NDA is a written legal promise not to share your information with other 3rd parties. The unscrupulous will not honor these agreements.
Clearly, some technical salespeople are better at solving problems than others. You should be seeking only trusted advisers who know their products, capabilities, and markets. Then build solid relationships with these people before you need their help.
Those that are not responsive or don’t bring solutions to the table you should exclude. But, do them the courtesy of telling them upfront that you will not be doing business with them. That way they won’t call on you again.
Then you will receive fewer calls and emails requesting status updates; you’ll avoid requests to schedule unnecessary catch-up meetings. But when you do receive an inbound sales inquiry if you don’t have a current or upcoming need for their products or services, provide them guidance as to when there might be a future opportunity and when they should check back.
Do take advantage of convenient opportunities to meet for coffee, lunch, and occasionally drinks or dinner.
Also, if a technical salesperson is traveling with a high level executive or principal in his region, carve time out to meet with them. Not only does it help your local salesperson build credibility within the organization, but it is a great opportunity for you to increase the visibility of your company and its products. Establishing direct relationships early can be beneficial, especially if you use the meeting as a launching pad to network deeper within the organization. Then you’ll have internal advocates with more clout when you need to ask for a favor such as access to hard-to-get samples, expedited orders, and even preferred pricing.
Share information. The more, the better.
Stop playing mind reading or guessing games that transform technical salespeople into detectives or worse, mentalists.
While you should always be cognizant of the appropriate level of information to share, too often companies use extreme measures to conceal information. Unless you’re working on a DoD (“Department of Defense”) type project where it’s necessary to compartmentalize information or on a project that is subject to a more restrictive covenant by your end customer, hiding information from your partners is unnecessary and unproductive.
ENGINEERS DO WHAT ENGINEERS DO
When assigned a project, many engineers put their heads down and immediately start researching solutions. These are the types that prefer to download and read hundreds of whitepapers, data sheets, and application notes from the web instead of actually talking to a live person. They prefer to work by themselves or to confer with a few trusted, technically astute peers in the lab. They create intricate Excel decision support spreadsheets that are parameterized for every permutation.
Although this research process is stimulating for the engineers, with the high cost of design engineering resources is this really the best approach to start developing your product?
Do you really want your engineers spending weeks and weeks researching to compile copious lists of options?
How can you be certain that they’ve covered every possible option?
Many hands make light work.
Two heads are better than one.
What if you had 50 people working on solving your design problems instead of just your engineering team?
If there was no direct cost for these people would you take advantage of their help?
Would you like list of pre-screened solutions based on your product’s requirements for your engineering team to evaluate?
Technical sales people are the conduit to access a worldwide network of market knowledge and technical expertise. Alleluia!
The first benefit to working with technical salespeople is that they have broad market awareness.
Because technology evolves at a rapid pace, it is impractical for busy engineers to keep up with all the latest developments. They are also reticent to meet with salespeople just for a technology briefing. Even if they did perceive some value in the presentation, management usually dissuades them from spending any unnecessary time on meetings that are not directly relevant to their current assignments.
Technical salespeople have a much more expansive view of the current technology market than most engineers because they have dedicated marketing and sales support teams that focus on emerging technologies and vertical market applications for those technologies. They receive detailed market and competitive analysis briefings. They are fully up-to-date on the latest industry press releases. They can cut through the media hype to candidly share insights into what technologies are really taking off and which technologies are merely vaporware. Most significantly, they engage daily with many potential customers with diverse product requirements.
The second benefit to working with technical salespeople is that they provide access to technical expertise.
As soon as the high level product requirements are specified, you will want to facilitate direct engineer-to-engineer communication between your team and the suppliers to quickly assess which components and solutions will work and which ones will not.
Commonly, technical salespeople will bring in a FAE (“Field Application Engineer”) first to review component options for your product design. Through the FAE, your engineers can get access to an internal applications engineers with highly specialized product and/or vertical application knowledge who understand the lessons learned from previous experience with other customer designs. Most importantly, they have the tribal knowledge from their internal design teams that may not be generally available.
They can provide recommendations for optimal component selection based on your product’s technical requirements and perform design reviews to help catch any problems early. And, once they become familiar with your design, they can be invaluable to help resolve difficult issues that may arise later in the development or early manufacturing process.
MANAGE THE PROCESS
As soon as you’ve established a high level architecture, bring in any supplier that has a component that is critical to implementing your system design. Bring in competitors, separately.
Give an overview of the product. Provide background and context. Show a top-level schedule or at least a basic timeline. Provide the system architecture. Be clear about the performance and cost targets. Point out technical or business obstacles that your team is seeking to overcome. Share the expected volumes, the initial launch plan, and the production build plan.
Ask for candid feedback.
Because electronics is an exceptionally competitive business, all suppliers will attempt to meet or exceed the cost targets. Being secretive about your targets is counterproductive and will result multiple, time-consuming quote iterations. While unrealistic targets will be challenged, they may produce novel solutions from ingenious suppliers.
Once you have committed to an architecture begin to bring in other suppliers to help fill out the rest of the design. Share a high-level BOM (“Bill-of-Materials”) without MPNs (“Manufacturer Part Numbers”) that includes a generic description as well as performance specs, cost targets, and standard package sizes. Identify solutions that require less parts or less expensive parts to implement. You may be surprised that a low cost component may require more ancillary parts to implement than a more integrated, expensive component whereby the lowest cost solution is actually the one with the more expensive component.
Review the BOM with your distribution partners since they have the most comprehensive view of the market. Seek alternate, equivalent parts to build a large AML (“Alternate Material List”) to extend the product lifecycle, to improve component availability, and to drive component costs lower.
Before making a final selections share technical or other deficiencies with the salespeople. Challenge them to find a solution. You’ll be surprised how many times they can bring innovative solutions to the table, especially at the final hour. In fact, if you’ve invested time building a strong relationship, they may be able to get you access to solutions that are not generally available to other customers.
After you make the final selections, tell the winners where the product will be built so that they can use this information to ensure that they get credit for the design wins and parts registrations. Communicate clearly to the losers why their solution was not selected for cost, performance, or other reasons. Thank them for their help and keep them apprised of when the next opportunity will arise. Again, not only is extending this courtesy professional, but it will stop the losers from persistently calling you to check on the status and enable them to mark the opportunity closed in their sales funnel so that they can move on to other opportunities.
Former engineering colleagues always ask if I miss designing embedded electronics.
The engineer inside me just desires to solve customer problems on a different level that relies on developing relationships instead of code or electronics.
Be smart. Build relationships with technical salespeople before you need them for your next project.