As a frequent presenter on matters related to marketing and sales, I am often asked for advice on how to become a more effective salesperson. My first words are always the same, “become a subject matter expert!”
Unless the product or service is one-of-a-kind, most salespeople work in an extremely competitive environment. Most companies have at least one competitor. The majority have many. As such, no matter how great the product or service, at the end of the day, most salespeople are selling a commodity!
That’s where recognition as a subject matter expert, or SME, comes in. A subject matter expert is an authority in a particular field. Recognition as a subject matter expert is achieved through a combination of education, experience, and marketing. The role salespeople play every day makes them ideal candidates for SME status. And SME status makes selling less difficult.
People do business with people. Buyers of products and services, whether they are consumers or purchasing agents, prefer to work with someone they know and trust. Subject matter experts, over the course of developing their SME status, have the opportunity to develop the reputation and trust that places them top of mind with buyers. They are top of mind because they are considered the best in the business. And people want to work with the best.
Salespeople that have worked in a particular field for some time likely possess the skills and experience that qualify them as subject matter experts. While these individuals may already consider themselves subject matter experts, many of these individuals fail to position themselves as an SME in the eyes of buyers. As such, they lose sales to others that have proactively promoted themselves.
Philosopher George Berkeley proposed in his 1710 work, A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, an argument with which we are all familiar. Berkeley asked us to imagine trees in a park and no one there to “perceive them.” According to Berkeley, “the objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden […] no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.” In other words, and by mashing up Berkeley with philosopher René Descartes’ 1637 argument, I think therefore I am…but only if there is someone in the garden next to me while I think!
Is someone truly a subject matter expert if no one recognizes that person as a subject matter expert? I say no. Becoming an SME requires a strategy to create a personal brand that results in subject matter expert status.
THE FIVE STEPS TO SME-DOM
Five steps must be taken in order to achieve SME status and rise to the top of mind. None of these steps are new nor are they rocket science. Further, each step requires continuous attention. Each step comprises a portion of the foundation upon which an SME’s reputation is built.
- Networking: Salespeople live and die by their network. A robust network can provide a lifetime of leads to salespeople. A network is an SME’s best friend as it is the members of the network that vouch for and recommend the SME.
Much is said about online networking through platforms such as LinkedIn. While LinkedIn and other social networks provide tremendous benefits, salespeople should not abandon the old school face-to-face networking. Many buyers still prefer connecting a face and handshake to an online profile before making a buying decision.
Salespeople should view their network as a garden. A garden that is well maintained through continuous attention will produce beautiful flowers, fruits, and vegetables. A salesperson can make a good living by properly maintaining a network.
- Credentials: Three elements are required to establish oneself as a subject matter expert: education, experience, and marketing. Having the right credentials fulfills the education component.
The nature of the credentials is dependent upon the field. For example, an SME working in the field of materials science must likely hold a bachelors, masters, or doctorate. On the other hand, an SME working in the professional soccer industry may not be required to hold an advanced degree but instead may be required to hold an advanced certification from a local, regional, or international coaching organization.
Every salesperson must determine the credentials that will be required to earn the respect and SME status of the community. A useful technique for making this determination is to review the LinkedIn profiles of current SMEs. Are there certain degrees and certificates that they hold?
The lack of a certain credential may make earning SME status a bit more difficult. However, it should not deter a salesperson from continuing with the plan to earn SME status. All it will require is compensation in some other area.
For example, a salesperson focused on selling human resources software need not possess a degree in human resources. A compensating factor may be possession of a certificate issued from an HR organization or a degree in a technical field.
- Ambassador: Maintaining a robust network and holding the appropriate credentials goes a long way in earning SME status. However, salespeople who are serious about elevating their status must continue down the path by becoming ambassadors of the industry in which they operate.
There are many ways to act as an ambassador. One technique is volunteering with a local, regional, national, or international trade organization. Salespeople can volunteer to assist with membership drives, conferences, and other activities undertaken by the organization.
This type of activity enhances the salesperson’s network, informs the salesperson of emerging challenges, and provides access to other tools such as best practices. This knowledge increases the salesperson’s value to clients and prospective clients.
- Accolades: There is nothing better than independent confirmation of SME status. Most industry organizations, as well as business journals, recognize experts and high achievers through some form of accolade. These accolades include the typical “30 Under 30,” 40 Under 40,” Top 10 CEOs, Top 10 CFOs, or some other similar designation bestowed by an industry organization or business journal. An additional source of recognition can be an alma mater.
Those seeking SME status should research the various accolades available and develop a plan to become nominated for an applicable award. While winning such an award can help solidify a salesperson’s role as a subject matter expert, in many cases a nomination can be just as beneficial. During the Oscars it is not only the winner for Best Actor that benefits. Other beneficiaries include the runners-up.
- Influencer: The final element on the path to SME status is establishing oneself as an “influencer.” Becoming an influencer is easier if progress has been made on steps 1 through 4 above. However, it is not a requirement.
An influencer is essentially anyone who has the ability to affect a decision. Influencers have historically been mass media personalities with broad followings. Personalities such as Fox’s Sean Hannity, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and CNBC’s Jim Cramer are typical influencers due to their ability to affect opinion and decisions.
In today’s world, influencers include less-recognized individuals such as bloggers, self-published authors, and others. The social media-enabled world we live in today has democratized the influencer industry. Now it is possible to develop a reputation as an influencer from a living room, local coffee shop, or park bench.
Becoming an influencer requires one basic element…relevance. Examples of influencing activities include the creation of a blog or podcast that provides valuable information, writing and sharing books, e-books, and whitepapers that address technical issues, responding to questions posed on social networks such as LinkedIn, and any other activity that highlights the salespersons expertise.
A bit of advice: do not focus on the sale. Focus on helping. People do not want to hear the pitch. They want to hear the solution. To the extent the solution is of value they will reach out and begin a dialogue, creating a warm lead for a sale.
Salespeople that follow these five steps will develop a reputation as a subject matter expert. The process does not take place overnight. However, the sooner a formal plan is developed and implemented, the sooner the salesperson will earn the benefits that come with being a subject matter expert.
It is true, selling is difficult. But with this five point plan it can be made less difficult. Happy selling!