Build Rapport with Technical Personnel

By Geoffrey James

Most software sales reps realize that programmers have their own way of looking at the world. While it’s easy to see the more common aspects of what might be called a programmer culture, it can be more difficult for sales reps to identify the more subtle elements of a company’s technical culture, which might be quite different from the technical culture of other companies in the same industry.

For example, programmers at Microsoft and IBM share certain characteristics, but those characteristics are filtered through the larger corporate cultures which are quite different. Microsoft programmers tend to be more aggressive and edgy than their counterparts at staid IBM.

An organization’s geographical location also can play an important cultural role. Programmers in New York City might be categorized generally as abrupt to the point of rudeness while programmers in Atlanta are more likely to preface a meeting with a few minutes of social chit-chat. Sales reps selling to programmers in both regions must adapt their sales approach to fit the dominant regional culture.

Even within a single industry or within a single geographical region, each IT department has unique buzzwords, acronyms and vocabulary. In many cases technical personnel aren’t even aware that they’re using terminology nobody outside their company can understand. Sales reps who don’t know what those terms mean and can’t use them correctly run the risk of appearing ignorant or, worse, technically incompetent.

To reach a state of rapport with IT personnel at any customer site, sales reps need to behave like cultural anthropologists to determine what’s unique about individual customer contacts organizations. The best way to accomplish this is by asking questions and listening. Sometimes this means sales reps have to leave their highly competitive and goal-oriented approaches at the door and take the time to listen and gather information about the organization’s culture.

A good way to get a technical employee talking is to ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a single word. Start your questions by asking how, what or why. All three of these words invite programmers to hold court and discuss what’s on their mind. For example, trying asking: What’s going on with you? How did that big CRM project turn out? Then sit back and really listen to what the programmer has to say.

One reason software sales reps don’t spend enough time listening is that they’re afraid of appearing foolish. Most programmers, however, are happy to talk about what they are doing and are unlikely to object to answering questions on the rare occasion when somebody actually is willing to listen to them. While it might be tempting to zone out, sales reps should continue to listen attentively, take notes on unfamiliar terminology, pause after the programmer has finished talking and then follow up with an intelligent or probing question. That pause after the customer speaks is important, by the way, because it shows the programmer that you actually are thinking about the information that was presented to you.

The above is based on a conversation with Wayne Turmel, director of faculty at Communispond, a leading sales training firm. He can be reached at
800-843-5168 or via