Selling for Researchers

Selling is a skill like any other – with some frameworks, training and practice, most people can become much more competent. But isn’t it sad that manipulative sales techniques have tarnished the image of selling so that many people avoid it like the plague.

So Marcel Dissel began his most recent sales course with an exploration of manipulative selling – the tactics associated with the most unscrupulous of second had car salesmen. Including sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD), hurrying for a close, ‘limited-time offers’, and many of the other ways to destroy a constructive relationship.

Marcel introWith that out of the way we moved on to explore consultative selling and the creation of working relationships that can underpin collaborative research between academia and industry

A harsh reality of selling is the number of rejections (just ask anybody who writes grant applications!). But the “no” messages can be useful feedback about how to adapt your research ideas to make them more valuable or understandable, more relevant or useful.

What about the “yes” answers? Well these may not be good news either. Have you got the right partner? Do you really understand them and they you? Have you got the basis for a good partnership? Or is this going to go wrong, foundering on a mismatch of expectations? So a good sales process will help you to get best value from both the “no” and the “yes” responses.

And if you have very few target customers then the process by which you focus in on a shared project becomes even more important. But don’t forget that within a large organisation you may have many different opportunities to sell.

Discussion roamed far and wide – the value of Cambridge as a brand, whether people prefer to be hunters (finding new business) or farmers (cultivating valuable relationships), and how different national cultures appreciate different points on a spectrum from “building a relationship” to “just get the deal done”.

There are two basic strategies (according to Harvard strategy professor Michael Porter); differentiate yourself or focus on cost. So you need to understand which your customer uses and see if you can tie your research to supporting their core strategy. How do they differentiate and so how can you help? Or how might your research enable them to reduce costs relative to their competitors?

Then Marcel showed us a sales process that provides a map for what to do and how, the outcomes sought and a way of tracking progress.

The first step of this (“identify the technology-problem combination”) was covered in detail by Clare Farrukh in April of this year ( and we will invite Clare and her colleagues to do a rerun in the second quarter of next year.  Then on to selecting and targeting the potential customers…

When you go to a conference do you check out the attendees, their organisation and their role? Do you set yourself an action plan of the people you want to see, why, and how you’ll go about it?

Maybe you run seminars and conferences in Cambridge (a nice destination for your audience). Do you use these to develop and cultivate a network of people interested in your work from a number of companies and a number of positions in the company?

All this is part of the 5P mantra – “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”.

And that applies to your elevator pitch – how do you concisely tell people what you do in a way that is engaging and interesting. And if you want something from them then your elevator pitch can lead to the specific request.

So we then embarked on the elevator pitches to sell research ideas to an audience – and as ever heard a fascinating set of propositions, for example; mathematics as a tool for industry, distributed sensors that cut the cost of inspecting big civil engineering structures, “a supercomputer under your desk” enabled by clever algorithms, growing artificial organs, a plug for a book (, managing the trade-off between service and privacy, predicting when concrete will need repair, the Maxwell Centre as an interface between academia and industry.

And arising from the pitches we discussed topics such as:

  • A general pitch or a tailored pitch? Answer – have a couple of elements and assemble them depending upon the audience
  • Finding and choosing the engaging example that your listeners can empathise with
  • Remember the call to action – what do you actually want? (if anything)
  • Insert a few words to establish your personal credibility – why are you the best person to be doing this?
  • Body language and how close you stand?
  • How do you decide which keywords will excite your audience and which begin to sound like “buzzword bingo”?

Role 1About the importance of practice – Marcel sends his professional salesmen on training courses every year to keep them fresh and to provide them with the opportunity to practice their skills. So the role plays that the teams then embarked on provided just such practice and taught both participants and observers some useful things:Role 2

  • How to keep control of a meeting – and how to regain it if you lose it,
  • How to open up a discussion to gather the information you need
  • How to manage expectations
  • How to manage the risk that you may have misunderstood
  • How to open up the options so there’s more opportunity to agree a way forward
  • How to avoid getting cut off in mid-flow because you misjudge the timing
  • How to negotiate and spot the traps
  • How to avoid getting trapped by a pushy industrial negotiator
  • How to ask for what you want and close the deal

role 2aAnd the role plays helped bring it all to life.

Finally, Marcel provided his usual one-page summary of the course. Dissel summary 151130

Frank Stajano and Nicky de Batista have used Marcel’s approach for real, and on Monday 14th December we will run a one-hour a seminar in which they will discuss what did and didn’t work and what they found most helpful in practice. So come along and hear about real selling of research. Contact Holly Shaw ( ) to reserve your place and free lunch.

If you’d like to practice your elevator pitch and receive coaching from the Visiting Professors of Innovation, then come along to the Engineering Department on the afternoon of 20th January. We’ve had about 40 people through the elevator pitch practice sessions now and most people find it really helps their research and the way they sell their ideas – again, contact Holly Shaw to reserve your place.

And if you’d like a copy of Marcel’s notes then contact



Author: innovationcoaching

I consult and coach in innovation and its management, based in the UK but working nearly anywhere. This blog is just a few musings, observations and evolving thinking. I look forward to your comments

One thought on “Selling for Researchers”

  1. I’m glad I had the chance to attend this event. Marcel Dissel’s a great speaker, and the very practical approach worked well.

    While I definitely learnt new and useful stuff, applying it in practice still seems pretty daunting though.

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