While my background is as a chemist, and my first role in industry was as a bench chemist, for the past 13 years, I’ve been handling business development, sales and marketing for a number of different organizations.
I am often asked what I think the most difficult part of the transition from the lab to sales / business development (BD) has been, and usually, I’m at a loss to provide a single incident that I considered the most difficult. As you can infer, this simply means there are a large number of factors that I considered to be difficult when I made my own transition to a role that focused on selling.
In large part, your focus must shift when you move into a sales or BD role. To start with, in academia, we tend to focus heavily on the science, and while we’re often trying to convince an audience of our point, we do this by presenting our research, data, and the underlying science we’ve spent years working on and developing.
When you’re working in business development / sales, you are presenting your company’s products or services to a client, and the vast majority of the time you’re competing with multiple other organizations that offer identical or very similar products or services. In some cases you may be able to use science to make your point, particularly if you have a new product or a novel technology that differentiates your capabilities from the competition. However, most of the time your competition will have similar capabilities or products, and you have the unenviable task of convincing the client that they need to choose you and your company regardless of the competition.
Notice that I say they need to choose you, because in the world of business development, a client’s first impression of your company, is often going to be their interaction with you. They need to trust and respect you as an individual in order to trust your organization. This means that simply focusing on the facts or the science often won’t sway a potential client, even if you have an advantage in that respect versus your competition.
As mentioned above, the shift in focus from a strictly scientific approach to a more relationship-oriented approach can be difficult when first shifting out of the laboratory. It can both be difficult because you must focus on developing a more personal relationship with a potential client (as opposed to your point being made strictly by your scientific research), and also because selling doesn’t always come natural to those of us who’s primary role was in the lab. While we may be used to scientific confrontations, dealing with a contractual confrontation can be an eye opening experience.
My point above regarding the shift from science to relationships is a difficult leap for many scientists to make, and there are several things that go along with this that tend to increase the difficulty.
As you first transition into a sales / BD role, you’re unlikely to have a large network of potential clients at your fingertips. This brings us to the importance of networking, and the ability to initiate a meaningful dialog, quickly and effectively.
Starting this dialog with a potential client can take many different forms, from a chance meeting at a conference to cold calling a new contact. It’s important to remember that your end goal is to sell this new contact your company’s products or services, so while it is important to develop a personal rapport if possible, the end result should be in determining if there is a need for your products/services, and if so how do you best position your company to win the business.
This can be difficult for so many of us that are strong scientists and have focused on lab work because we may tend to be introverts, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with being introverted, it can make it difficult to initiate a meaningful dialog during a first meeting with a new potential client. I will discuss first contacts in more depth in the future, as there are a variety of approaches that can be used even for something as straightforward as cold calls.
The reason I continue to mention developing personal relationships with clients is because it can be a major differentiating factor for you versus your competition. This doesn’t mean to imply that you become best friends with your clients, as this typically is not a recommended approach, but it is quite helpful if you are able to connect with them on a personal level.
Particularly if you are selling service packages, where a more consultative sales approach is needed, it is critical for a client to learn they can trust you as an individual. For now, the final piece of advice related to this topic is to be honest with your clients! Don’t mislead them, be upfront if your company is having problems with a project, and be willing to send them to a competitor if your organization cannot effectively handle their project. This level of honesty will pay dividends in the future, because as your clients learn to trust in your integrity, this will translate to a stronger relationship and increased business in the future.