Build Rapport With Your Customer’s Engineers

By Geoffrey James

The relationship between the sales rep and the customer’s engineer often determines whether a software project goes forward when selling software. As with all customer relationships, rapport is the key to building relationships with an engineer. Building that rapport with an engineer can sometimes be challenging, however, because engineers may be introverted and prefer to interact with computers instead of people.

To build rapport with a customer’s engineer you must begin with a strong opening at the first contact so the relationship has a firm foundation on which to develop over time. The first meeting is particularly important because engineers are accustomed to making quick judgments about technical matters and tend to apply similar logic to their interpersonal relationships. Because of this, the first meeting often determines how easy or difficult it will be to maintain and build rapport over the lifetime of the relationship.

Engineers tend to categorize people into three groups. The first group consists of engineers who have technical credibility. The second group consists of what many engineers call empty suits—a large group that includes most sales reps, marketing folks, human resources professionals, managers, accountants and so forth. The third group consists of people who wish they were engineers and have a deep respect for engineering.

If an engineer sees you as belonging to the first group, it probably will be easy to achieve rapport if you can explain why you made the career move to sales. Be prepared for a joke about going over to the dark side of the force. (If that reference doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably not a former engineer.) If the engineer perceives you as being in the second group, you might as well give up on establishing rapport because nothing you say will be taken seriously.

For most software sales reps, the third group is about as good as it gets. The trick is to identify yourself as a member of that third group at the first meeting. Here’s how. Before meeting with the engineer, do some research on the Web or ask around at the customer site to find out what the engineer has been doing recently. Then ask a question at the first meeting that indicates your interest in the engineer’s work, such as: When I was on the Web last night I came across a technical paper you wrote for a couple of years ago. What kind of response did you get from that?

The specific content of the opening remark is less important than what it shows about you as an individual, which is that you respect engineering and are willing to learn more about that engineer’s work. The rapport will develop naturally from there.

The above is adapted loosely from a conversation with Dr. Earl Taylor, a master trainer at Dale Carnegie & Associates.