Applying Selling Skills for Researchers

There was, again, excellent feedback from the people who attended Marcel Dissel’s recent course on Selling Skills for Researchers.

“Ah, yes”, say the cynics, “but what happens in practice?”

And so today, Nicky de Batista from CSIC (www-smartinfrastructure.eng.cam.ac.uk/) and Frank Stajano from the Centre of Excellence in Cypersecurity Research (www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/cambridge-named-academic-centre-of-excellence-in-cybersecurity-research) described exactly that. Nicky described a project that he pitched to a construction company in Malta and Frank described how he used the skills to pitch for a big EU grant.

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Nicky described using each of the models within Marcel’s course, beginning with a surprising opportunity at a family wedding which illustrated the first truth – you need to be able to describe quickly and concisely what you do and explain why it matters. You may have to tailor the message for your audience, but being able to respond quickly and decisively to the question “so what do you do?” may just open up an opportunity. That and going to the right sorts of weddings.

If your audience know your subject then you’d better be ready with the second part of the elevator pitch – your USP. What makes you unique and special? And in Nicky’s case this required him to differentiate himself from consultant engineers.

And then to keep the conversation alive use open ended questions. Asking “so how do you monitor the structural loads in your buildings today?” enabled Nicky to develop the conversation and build the opportunity to apply his structural monitoring research to a new problem.

Finally, you need to be clear what you want – and in Nicky’s case this was an opportunity for a visit to take the conversation to the next step. So reflect for a moment; what might you want? Have you thought about the sorts of things you would ask for?

Nicky got the chance to visit the potential partner and so now it was time for Marcel’s dictum of the five Ps – “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”. Nicky described his preparation, including understanding as much as he could of the industrial partner and the implications of the project they were discussing. And in a precursor to a point that Frank was to make later, Nicky was able to understand the pain that the industrial partner faced – the value and urgency of understanding the structural loads in the building.

During the critical meeting, a CPRone day visit to the site where the partner faced the problem, Nicky was also able to use the CPR model. Importantly, this enabled Nicky and his contact to clarify expectations and goals, which meant that the meeting was effective for them both – and that the meeting was set in the context of how they might build a project together. So now they were well on the way to consultative selling.

ConsultativeAt the very centre of consultative selling is the idea that the solution will be jointly defined and worked up by both parties. And in Nicky’s case, exploring how to actually do the project on-site enabled the industrial partner to see that Nicky’s ideas were credible and applicable and could offer a solution. This is much more powerful than simple assurances of competence – people can see experience at work.

And so finally, Nicky was able to create the formal technical proposal and quotation which he duly submitted. But in this case the proposal was not accepted due to internal debates and issues within the industrial organisation. So then, perhaps a failure? Not at all, in Nicky’s eyes. He’s planted a seed among many influential professionals, he’s demonstrated his capabilities and research area and he’s established his credibility. And, it seems to me, honed his selling skills.

Then Frank Stajano described his experience in winning a big EU grant. In the middle of the process Frank attended Marcel’s course and found it useful – but it needed some serious work and effort to take the lessons from selling and apply it to the situation that Frank found himself in. And Frank emphasised that it is possible to draw out these analogies and so build your skills in selling your research.

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Frank’s key messages were “think about it all from the point of view of your audience” and “explain how your research might (eventually) address their pain”. In the case of a grant committee you may be talking about the benefits for the final beneficiaries rather than that specific committee, but the point remains the same.

Frank advocated following the process systematically. Explore the problem area that your research can address and figure out what might be the solution to an important and significant problem. Then track back to see how your research can be part of that solution. Now you have a line of logic that makes your research relevant and valuable to address a real problem – not just research that you would like somebody to pay for. And don’t forget, this work will stand you in good stead – it will help you to win that first grant and then it will enable you to continue to explain why your research matters, so you can keep emphasizing the importance of what you do. (And there’s the basis for your elevator pitch as advised by Nicky.)

Frank also found it important to create the discipline to get the homework done – despite the fact it’s not as much fun as the research itself. But unless you plan out your time and force yourself to do the background work (finding the calls for proposals, finding out the key issues and pain points, building the arguments for your research) it won’t get done and you risk stalling your career as an academic.

Frank explained also that, although the typical grant committee will be scientists (within the context of EPSRC), they will not be specialists that understand the details of your work. So it is vital to provide overviews and simplifications that enable your audience to understand your work to a level that they engage, get excited and want to back you. If they don’t engage with the promise you hold out then you’ll lose their support. And become just another “no” in the sea of “no” decisions that characterise the world of grant-writing.

Finally, remember that you want somebody to take action. So think hard about what action you seek – whether it be the approval of a research grant or the approval of a PhD. It’s all about persuading people that your research is likely to deliver a way to minimise their problems. So make sure you can see it all from their point of view.

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