Finding new ways to solve problems is tough. As an engineer, we’re fed a lot of resources for becoming better technologists. Unfortunately, we aren’t trained to become more persuasive.
As you grow into senior roles, you’ll have to do more wrangling. You’ll be expected to persuade people to work together, to challenge themselves, and to make the team successful (which can require personal sacrifice).
I found inspiration in sales. Specifically, I looked at how sales trainers turned salespeople into successful persuaders.
Authors Jeffrey Gitomer, Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglar, and Jeb Blount have published numerous books on the subject of persuasion, rapport-building, and sales. It’s thanks to these folks that I have this list to share today.
The primary inspiration for this post is from Grant Cardone’s Sell or Be Sold because of his straightforward language. It’s easy to put these principles into action immediately.
Some might say this is manipulation.
I see the practice of persuasion working one of two ways. You can trick people into doing what you want, or you can work hard to overcome your biases and truly help folks. I urge you to read these with an open mind, and adopt the mindset of a leader.
The 8 Sales Secrets for Engineers
1. “Always Agree with the Customer.”
“You can’t get someone to agree with you while you’re disagreeing with them”, says Cardone. This isn’t a blow-off, but rather an acknowledgement of their point of view.
🛠 Here's how it might look in an engineering scenario. I could propose we add a new WYSIWYG library—which I’m completely sold on. Someone says “Pete, we shouldn’t add more dependencies, let’s use a barebones framework and customize as necessary”.
In my head I’m thinking “custom code! no way! This lib is batteries-included and will offset 3 months of engineering effort.” However, it would not help anyone if I attempted to invalidate their point of view with a disagreement.
Rather, I’d say “You’re right, we do have a lot of dependencies, and by customizing a framework, we stand to own every aspect of the experience. I think this is an opportunity for us to focus on higher-level customer problems rather than (for example) rebuilding HTML encoding/decoding logic that’s been vetted by thousands of users. We could have solutions to those low-level problems and a limited API for customizing the experience in one day.”
Validate their point of view, and then frame the opportunity. The best time to master this is as an entry-level engineer. The second best time is now.
2. “Price is not your buyer’s biggest concern.”
There’s a hidden list of reasons people will not buy what you’re selling. Price is rarely at the top. More likely this is an issue of trust, which could stem from a lack of confidence in you, or even from you.
🛠 To build trust in your engineering team, do visible work and deliver on your commitments. There’s no shortcut.
Don’t weaken your confidence by frequently comparing yourself to other engineers.
3. “People over products”
Simply stated, if your process becomes more important than the people you’re working with, it will fail.
You can’t will a process into existence, and you can’t force people to get excited about the way you do things. You must be interested in what problems people are trying to solve, and help them solve those problems.
🛠 This isn’t as much a sales secret as it is a forgotten engineering principle. Remember that your team is human. "no matter what the problem is, it's always a people problem"—Gerald Weinberg
4. “People believe what they see, not what they hear”
You need to make it so easy for people to buy into your idea that it seems idiotic not to.
Write down results, features, lists, benefits, cons, assumptions, and so on. The written context makes your message easier to understand, and provides the evidence they need to finalize their buying decision.
🛠 Show data! show results! It makes your ideas much more agreeable. In the engineering world things like design documents, proofs of concept, or benchmarks help sell (and prove) your ideas.
5. “The essence of selling is not getting the sale but the sincere desire to help”
If your only focus is the sale, you’re going to miss out on actually helping people. Giving to people is the surest path to getting back. You have more than money to work with here. Give more attention/presence, give high energy, the best attitude or a high level of service.
🛠 In engineering terms, this is about the importance of being right. It means nothing to be right if you’re not helpful. You are not going to contribute meaningfully to a team if your only concern is how right or wrong you are. You must approach every problem with a goal to help others succeed. It will pay you back in dividends as you become an influential individual as well as an accomplished engineer.
6. “A great attitude is worth more than a great product”
“People want to feel good. People are moved by positivity and confidence, more than by great products” says Cardone. Think about the last time you tried to talk to someone in a bad mood. Was it easy to convince them of anything?
It’s OK to bring energy to a conversation, but keep it positive, and you’ll find folks more amenable to your ideas.
🛠 Engineers fall back on technical correctness and forget that this isn’t a free pass to treat people any way they like. Leaders leave people feeling smarter and better than they found them. You can be positive without being a pushover.
7. “Be sold on what you’re selling”
Cardone states that to be a good salesman you have to be SOLD on your product or service. That's the key. If you weren’t willing to put up your own money for this product, and justify it, then you’re way less likely to succeed in selling it.
🛠 For engineers, this can completely change the way you lead engineers. For example, when you do a 1:1 with someone on your team, are you completely sold on them as the next generation of technical leadership, or do you look at them like a pebble in your shoe?
No one is going to grow into a successful engineer while their peers or direct manager sees them as a problem instead of a potential success. Practice framing their opportunity to succeed, and you’ll find yourself becoming a better coach and role model.
8. “Take massive action”
This can be intimidating for anyone, in any field, but it’s a key to enormous growth and change if you’re game.
“I was treating success as my duty, obligation, and responsibility, and massive action was my ace in the hole. This level of action will be considered by some to be borderline insane, well beyond the agreed-upon social norm—and will always create new problems. But remember: If you don’t create new problems, then you’re not taking enough action.” — Grant Cardone
He posits that if you want to achieve anything meaningful, it requires 10x more action than you anticipated in order to guarantee results.
🛠 Let’s say I'm in a software engineering role, and I have a bug where customers are unable to connect their calendars in certain circumstances.
I could do nothing.
I could hand off the issue.
I could investigate and solve the immediate issue.
Or, I could commit to 10x my actions here (aka "massive action"). Solve the issue, review related tickets, look for other sources of customer pain related to this part of the product, learn more about the APIs we’re using, add UI to smooth out the experience, refactor the class, improve error messaging, logging, or operational data.
The secret here is that this massive action must go above and beyond normal expectations. This is not your job. You’re not just cramming 10 days of work into 1. If you truly want to grow, you need to create a foundation of stable output and make opportunities to take MASSIVE action to grow yourself, your team, and the success of your customers. It's uncomfortable, and can be scary, but it's a working strategy for rapid growth.
If you're interested in becoming a persuasive engineer, then you should absolutely work sales literature into your repertoire. Here are a few titles to get you started:
These should provide analogs to our persuasion issues in engineering. Start learning to sell people on your ideas, get them to commit, and build a strong foundation of trust and confidence in yourself. Let’s go!