Bridging a Gap
One of the most difficult challenges facing businesses today is bridging the “Skills Gap” in IT.
This is a phenomenon whereby a business’s desire to leverage new and expanding technologies is hindered by the lack of available talent and skillsets to architect, implement, and manage these technologies.
Businesses commonly navigate this gap through the use of outside consultants, relying on a team of high-performing individuals holding extensive experience within a specific domain. Engaging a consultancy to assist in the architecture and implementation of desired technologies accelerates adoption and provides breathing room for a company’s own staff to learn and practice the new technologies. This time to practice and learn should not to be overlooked and is essential to the success of any transformative process. The “Building a car while driving” metaphor comes to mind.
This skills gap is not limited to businesses looking to implement new technologies as discussed in our DevOps and Culture series. Ironically, this conundrum has not bypassed IT vendors, and it is fairly common to see the same gap between IT Sales Professionals and the technologies they’re selling.
The Team Approach
IT vendors separate the necessary skills to govern a sales cycle (commercial skills) with the knowledge and expertise of the products they’re selling (technical skills) by partnering a commercially skilled employee with a technically skilled employee. This approach has permeated the market to such an extent that prospective clients now expect their vendors to show up Noah’s Ark style, two by two.
There is still a struggle to find technically skilled people to accompany commercially skilled sales staff. Mitigation strategies have a certain effectiveness; teaming four or five commercially skilled individuals with a single technically skilled employee allows IT vendors to maximize the effectiveness of their expertise. Technically skilled people are not super-human, although some of the most brilliant deserve to be classified as such, and they can only support so many client conversations, differing sales cycles, and solutions. Eventually “Something’s Gotta Give”. This mitigation is merely a stop-gap solution. The underlying issue is still prevalent; all businesses need a certain number of technically skilled individuals to remain competitive. The fight for talent continues.
IT vendors are also trying to address this gap by putting a ‘paywall’ between prospective clients and technically skilled individuals, charging clients for their employees’ time and experience to assess their current needs. This solution lines up neatly with the consultancy approach. If you have something a business wants, don’t give it away for free. This also places more responsibility and pressure on the commercially skilled individual, forcing them ensure they qualify a true need with their clients before requesting a potentially limited resource. When a client opts to pay for the time and experience of a technically skilled individual, they are showing real intent to form a business relationship.
This approach fails when commercially skilled individuals don’t qualify the needs of a client in detail and overpromise on the capabilities of their technical counterparts. Again, these technologists are not superhuman and come with a caveat – ‘Magic Wand Not Included.’
It is now the responsibility of a commercially skilled individual to gain some measure of technical skill.
Without a technically skilled individual in the room when qualifying questions are being asked, commercially skilled individuals can be forgiven for misunderstanding the technical requirements of a client. In these scenarios, sales may inadvertently offer a solution to a client need that their product or service does not solve. This can lead to perpetuating the classic salesperson stereotype– just agree to anything in order to close a deal.
At effectual, our approach to sales, which we believe is shared by the majority of our peers, is to avoid this at all costs. At no point do we want to have a client conversation that starts with “But you said…”. This stems from a desire to do business openly, honestly, and with integrity. Recognizing that not every client is in need of what you are selling is vital.
The Importance of Professional Development
With this context, I’d like to address the crux of how I personally went about bridging the gap. In order to avoid overpromising, underdelivering, and starting a client relationship that is doomed from day one, it is my belief that it is now the responsibility of a commercially skilled individual to gain some measure of technical skill. In fact, I’ll phrase that more strongly: gain as much technical skill as necessary so you can speak with confidence or reply with “I don’t know but I’ll find out.”
Commercially skilled individuals may have raised their eyebrows, adopted an incredulous look, or stopped reading altogether, and that’s fine. Nowhere in a commercially skilled employee’s job description does it state they need to be technically qualified or expected to perform two job roles for a single salary. There is a logical line of thinking that emerges here. If they were hired for the skills they have already acquired, why would should they be expected to develop skills in a different discipline for a role they have no intention of performing.
My argument however is simple: why not? Broadening your horizons is never a negative, and learning new skills, gaining empathy for other people’s challenges, and respecting their achievements is never a bad thing. Meeting your current and potential clients halfway or the whole way is never a bad thing.
With technically skilled individuals being in such high demand, and without enough of them to go around, surely being able to operate without them creates a competitive advantage. I’m not suggesting that the commercially skilled pivot entirely and a embark on a drastic career change, only that a little knowledge is empowering, and a lot of knowledge is powerful. Watch as the atmosphere of client meetings change from “I’m being sold to” to “this person knows what they’re talking about.”
A little knowledge is empowering, and a lot of knowledge is powerful.
You can gain a better understanding of exactly how a product or service can assist a prospective client, identify incompatibility early on, and qualify out with confidence. It takes an expanded skill set to understand when the fit is not right, and it takes integrity to step away.
Earning the Respect of Your Clients and Your Team
Technically skilled individuals who play the yin to commercial individual’s yang will be Sales’ biggest supporters. I know this from experience and have made some wonderful friendships as a result (I hope they’re reading this). Operating with more autonomy doesn’t mean you are trying to replace them, just helping to ease their burden. When you finally do request help, they know it will be an interesting challenge, an opportunity for them to impart some knowledge on someone keen to absorb it, or to get creative with a solution because the standard approaches aren’t working.
How do they know all this? Because they know that when you ask, you’ve already ruled out the most common technical approaches. You’ve met them halfway.
I don’t presume to speak on behalf of my better qualified and more experienced technical counterparts, but I hope they’ll agree that they get the biggest kicks out of solving tough challenges, not answering the same questions over and over.
Yes, I feel it’s important for commercially skilled individuals to bridge the gap between commercial and technical skills. Selfishly, it’s for their own benefit for now, but it’ll soon become a necessity as the market-wide skills gap continues to grow.
Tom Spalding is a Strategic Account Manager at effectual, Inc.