Exec Summary

The comedy sketch ‘The Expert‘ shows an ‘expert’ that never tries to understand the customer’s needs. Customers are customers because they have problems that need to be solved. Yes, they may have some ideas of their own (e.g. 7 red lines, some transparent), but their real need is to solve the problems that they are facing. Telling a customer why their idea is not possible is time-wasting. Asking a customer what their problem is allows you to offer a real solution. It also raises the credibility of any ideas you may offer because you have demonstrated to the customer that you are listening and that you understand.

Experts are the Best!

By now, I’m sure that you’ve all seen the comedy sketch called ‘The Expert‘. It shows an “expert” (our hero) sitting with “business people” (sales, marketing, project managers: aka – the ignorant villains). The expert tells the others how wrong their ideas are, but those non-experts just won’t accept facts, gosh darn it! And, as an engineer, I laughed along when watching it the first time, recognising the intended comedy derived from “experts are the best” trope.

However, when watching the video for a second time, it really started to grate with me. In fact, it seemed to me that the main villain is actually the ‘expert’.

(For this blog post, I am going to pretend that the ‘expert’ is an engineer. This is because I am an engineer, and I can confidently talk about how they should act. I cannot, for example, talk with credibility about how creative designers should act, because I’ve never been one. But the principles are presumably the same for experts in all fields.)

The Video

The video shows a customer who is asking for all kinds of mutually-exclusive and/or impossible objectives. The salesperson and project manager (PM) on the engineer’s side of the table are both clueless about the engineering fundamentals of the request. The salesperson seems to be a “yes man”, promising the customer that they can deliver exactly what has been asked for (thus “selling what he doesn’t have” – a fundamental error in sales). The PM seems to be cosy with the salesperson, and also keen to suck up to the customer.

Therefore, the engineer has no “allies” – not even on his own team. He stands alone against the forces of ignorance! (insert John Williams score here)

This is quite a common feeling amongst techies who are called upon to deliver products by a disconnected sales & marketing department. In fact, communication between silos (or even between people in the same silo) is certainly a huge problem within companies, failing to keep everyone aligned with the company’s strategy, etc.

This blog post, however, is not about intra-company communications.
This blog post is about the failings in the sales process shown in this video, because such failings are also seen daily in the field.

Nobody Looks for Problems

Fundamentally, no-one is doing any “needs identification” in this video. OK, maybe the salesperson has already had that conversation with the customer, but it’s not relayed to anyone in the room during this meeting. A vague buzzword-laden strategy is given at the beginning from the customer, and there are objectives on the whiteboard (invisible to us). The customer states what it is that they want, and the ‘expert’ engineer says why the customer cannot have it.

Nobody mentions “the problems”.

Being an engineer is all about solving problems. But at no point does the engineer try to figure out the problem that he’s supposed to solve. He simply takes the customer’s request at face value (7 red lines, all perpendicular, transparent, etc.) and tells the customer why it’s not possible. It’s true that the engineer does try to explain to some degree why more than 2 lines cannot be perpendicular (I won’t go down the 3D route here), but he’s not very good at the explanations (I think). The engineer patiently tries to show them all how silly they are with their crazy, impossible ideas.

What grated with me was why he was even bothering to attempt such an explanation.

Not Everyone is an Expert

It’s not that an engineer shouldn’t explain things. The issue is that explaining why something is not possible does not (in this case) move the meeting forwards. It’s just an engineer showing off a bit and acting superior. This is not problem-solving – it’s a lecture.

Furthermore, a real-life engineering problem would usually be a lot more complicated than simple geometry. Therefore, trying to explain why something very complicated is not possible (especially to non-engineers) is probably not going to help matters. In fact, all it does is bring negativity into the meeting, and possibly cause the customer to go on the defensive.

It is always worth keeping in mind that the customer is not an expert in your field. In fact, the customer knows that they are not an expert – that is why they are a potential customer after all – and very probably they do not want to be an expert.

People want Solutions

The engineer should be asking “what is the problem that you’re facing?” Once they have a problem to address, an engineer can offer practical (and, yes, physically-possible) solutions to that problem. This is how to achieve customer success – offering the customer a solution, and explaining how it will solve their problem.

The crux of the matter is that, while the customer is not an engineers, the customer does understand their own problem very well. Therefore, framing a solution in a way that explains how it helps to solve that problem will make the customer feel more engaged and, as a bonus, massively increase your credibility in their eyes. It shows then that you understand them.

In other words, explaining to a customer (i.e. a non-engineer) the details of how a solution works can be far less important than explaining the details of how a solution will help to solve their problem.

So the next time you are inwardly laughing at the silly people asking for “red lines drawn in transparent ink”, ask yourself this – why do they feel that that is what they need? The answer to that question will bring you towards the real problem that needs to be solved.

(Aside: It is very possible that a customer does not yet know their specific problem. This is why it is so important to ask questions – it will help to narrow down and figure out what the problem is and what the customer’s pain-points are. This will (a) force the customer to think about what their real problem is and (b) ensure that any solution addresses the actual problem, thus not wasting anyone’s time or money.)

(NOTE: Any genders used above are based on the people in the video. I am not suggesting that all engineers are male, etc.)


This article from the Irish Times mentions how engineers missed the “marketing boat”.

I firmly believe that this is true. Having completed a Smurfit MBA in order to get away from being “just an engineer”, I found that my transferrable skills were virtually unknown in the working world. Those engineers on my MBA course who wanted to stay in the engineering arena found jobs fairly quickly. However, those that wanted to get away from the “pure” engineering field were destined for a longer job search.

People talk about arts and commerce as “good, general degrees” (which they are), but that is rarely said about engineering. However, the critical thinking and problem-solving skills developed with engineering are applicable anywhere. Moreover, the ability to understand other people’s complex ideas that any engineer must have in order to get the degree is directly relevant to needs-identification in sales and marketing.

Furthermore, while not considered a “creative” discipline, engineering requires more creativity than people generally realise. The ability to break down a problem and then figure out a way to solve that problem is well understood, and the phrase “problem solver” is on everyone’s CV these days. But there is a difference between someone who solves a problem by going through a prescribed approach, and someone who solves a problem in a “creative” manner.

What separates a “creative” problem solver from a “by-rote” problem solver is a deep understanding of the underlying system (usually a very complex system). This understanding is a central point in coming up with novel (“new to world”) or creative solutions that have never been used before. Engineers spend a lot of time examining systems, so the interaction between elements is something that we don’t take for granted.

An example:
Coming from an electronic engineering background, one system that I would be used to are circuits. At the digital level, every element does a specific job, has at least one input (1 or 0) coming from another element, at least one output that goes to another element…and the whole thing creates a system. At a digital level, things can have quite simple causal relationships. But beyond that, an electronic engineer must take into account the real world. Signals that are analogue are not simply 1 or 0. Current flows around a circuit board following certain paths, which can interfere with the inputs and outputs of other elements if care is not taken.

At a Toastmasters meeting yesterday, one of the topics presented was, “Does the pressure on companies to reduce price also reduce quality?”. The answers given were all given by those who thought “Yes – a price decrease must equal a quality decrease”. We’ve all seen the “Project Triangle” at some point. This clearly shows us that it is possible to produce something a low cost and of good quality if we sacrifice time. The time element can, however, be minimised by having good problem-solvers involved, allowing for good, low-cost solutions with a low time-to-market (or at least lower than that of the competition).

In conclusion, the M.O. of an engineer’s brain can be useful in so many non-engineering arenas: CRM – a network of customers is a system; Sales – understanding of customer needs boosts credibility; Strategy – the market is also a system, with cause and effect; Marketing – a campaign is a series of linked occurrences, like a system; Project Management – a project is a system; etc.

Please remember that just because we’re engineers does not make us emotionally unintelligent Dilberts. Additionally, anyone with an MBA has fundamental business/economic/strategy understanding.

And, as I’ve mentioned above, the fundamentals are what really count.

Edit (14th March 2012): This article from the Globe and Mail tells of how engineers have overtaken MBAs in leadership positions. So just imagine what an engineer with an MBA can do. (thanks to Fergus for the link)