This summer I acquired a 710 page book titled “Model-Based Systems Engineering” from Dr. A. Wayne Wymore, who holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin (Go BADGERS!) and is Professor Emeritus of Systems & Industrial Engineering at the University of Arizona. The first chapter made me immediately see the strong parallel between sales and systems engineering. On page 1 Wayne writes:

“Before the definition of systems engineering is given, it is appropriate to discuss what systems engineering is not. Here is a short list of disciplines that systems engineering  is not: applied mathematics, computer science, simulation, system theory, software engineering, civil engineering, industrial engineering, manufacturing engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering.

… Some have insisted that systems engineering is management. This is partly true, but systems engineering is more than management. Each discipline in the preceding list deals with some aspect or aspects of systems engineering and systems engineering uses most of the tools represented in the above list, yet systems engineering is not the sum of the disciplines in the list. If one were to ask practitioners of any discipline in the preceding list, they would characterize themselves as problem solvers.

Systems engineers, in contrast, are problem staters.

Now, that’s when the first lightbulb in my sales-engineer brain went off:

For all of us sales people out there, how does that sound? To me it sounds pretty much like sales training 101 revisited for systems engineers: selling is FIRST about the CUSTOMER PROBLEM, then, and only then, it becomes about how your Solution can help solve this PROBLEM for them.

Call it Consultative selling, call it SPIN Selling(R), call it Solution Selling(R), call it Challenger Sales(R), call it what Stephan Schiffman calls it:

“Selling is finding out what your customer does, when he does it, how he does it, who he does it with, why he does it that way, and then, and only then, showing him how to do it better, faster and cheaper.”

I personally like to call it what Sharon Drew Morgen calls Buying Facilitation,(R) which is the best description I know today of what sellers should be doing when working on complex sales.

(Everyone in my CATIA Sales team is strongly encouraged to invest in her ground breaking sales book “Dirty Little Secrets” where she also talks about “SYSTEMS THINKING” by the way for all of you systems engineers, you will love it too…).

Sharon Drew writes: “Choosing a solution, solving a problem, or managing a need is only a small part of a buying decision. Buyers cannot take any action until they figure out how to manage whatever problems in their system ‐ the tangle of people and policies and relationships that influences and determines the status quo‐ created the need, and make certain that change wouldn’t hopelessly disrupt the work environment…

In other words, selling  is not so much about sellers mastering the technical knowledge of their solution as it is about their capacity to help buyers understand:

  1. That they have an identified problem (without their awareness of a problem, no sale)
  2. That they can’t fix it themselves (customer’s status quo will forever remain sales people’s main competitor)
  3. That the benefits of your solution being potentially introduced in the customer’s existing system will overweigh (at least 10 fold…) the disruption it will bring to their current status quo

Therefore, our job as sellers is to help our prospects figure out 1, 2 and 3 by focusing 2/3 of our time facilitating them to acknowledge their system problems from THEIR perspective, then by helping them accept that they cannot solve these problems alone, and finally 1/3 of our time by positioning how our solution and our outside’s view can solve these problems without creating uncontrollable new issues to their existing SYSTEM ( because we were not originally part of it and will now become an integral part of their new System).

Skip the first 2 phases of your customer’s buying cycle and jump directly to your solution’s features and benefits presentation and you will – at best – win some sales but mostly on price – which means low margins because your solution will be way less differentiated and thrown among many other competitive offers, and -at worst- waste a lot of time doing “catch up” with the fact that your solution might be connected to some generic customer problems, but certainly not to the unique customer problems that they identified and led them to consult outside vendors, with having probably already one vendor in mind, the one who helped them through their first 2 phases…

Going back now to the Systems Engineering perspective, this is exactly what would happen if you jumped too fast into the solution domain space before you had clearly specified the problem domain space first.

This is actually one of the main reasons Systems Engineering emerged as a new discipline first in the defense space, when the growing complexity of multi-disciplinary systems made it more and more costly to discover design mistakes late in the product development process. By investing more time working on defining clear and non- ambiguous systems requirements, systems engineers were able to anticipate issues that would otherwise have occurred at a later time in the product development process and which would have cost a lot more to fix then.

Now what is the ONE problem that both sales people and systems engineers help their customers solve? We’ll cover that in part two of this series…

Philippe is the Worldwide Sales Leader for CATIA, the leading Brand of DASSAULT SYTEMES.  Prior to joining 3DS, Philippe held various consulting, sales and sales management positions at  FRAMATOME, DASSAULT ELECTRONIQUE, SOPRA, DIGITAL, COMPAQ and EMC2. His past experience has helped him transform businesses across various business units, languages and cultural boundaries.  

Philippe is the author of “1+1+1=4 !® : the Art & Science of getting 100% of your Reps @ GOAL”. He is the creator of the Lion Tamer Sales Manager® System. Philippe is a graduate of engineering from Ecole Centrale-France, and holds a Master of Science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.