Subject Matter Experts: The Hot New Sales Tool and How to Use Them

In a recent team meeting, one of our instructional designers noted that one of the recent trends in their observation with clients at Janek is the inclusion of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the selling process, rather than a Sales Agent just learning about services and products to sell on their own. A SME is someone who is an expert in a particular area or field – in the business world, they’re sometimes called technical experts or sales support.

Regardless of their area of expertise, the partnership between a sales rep and a SME is a potentially powerful synergy and fits in with the notion of a collaborative, team-based selling strategy. But it also needs to be handled carefully.

Clearly define the roles before the sales meeting.
SMEs, by virtue of their in-depth knowledge, frequently have an intellectual bent and are passionate about their subject area. This often leads them to taking on a starring role in meetings – particularly internal discussions where their expertise is critical for the meeting’s success.In a sales meeting, however, they take on a supporting role – it’s the sales rep, who has built the relationship with the customer and has the training and experience in the selling process, in charge. Without an established, outlined set of roles, there’s a chance that the SME falls into their natural habits, which is to focus on product and technical information. This may confuse the customer and derail the sales process.

Prepare the SME for the meeting.
Conversely, if the SME doesn’t have their role defined and isn’t aware of the particulars of the sales scenario, they can wonder why they’re there and might feel as if the meeting is a waste of their time. Remember, the subject expert is a highly skilled, highly educated member of your organization and a valuable, scarce resource. Their time needs to be used wisely to maximize the return on your investment in them and to ensure job satisfaction.That means the sales rep and the SME should work together beforehand to develop a game plan. Not only does it include going over the agenda and what types of questions the SME can likely expect, but plotting out relevant and succinct answers to the projected questions. The brevity is key – left unchecked, it’s quite possible the excited expert could veer off into subject esoterica that leaves the customers glassy-eyed because it’s not relevant to the discussion at hand.

Another critical aspect of the meeting preparation – the sales rep sharing with their expert partner the specifics of the selling situation – why the customers are looking to buy, who the major decision makers are, what precise needs have been uncovered during the discovery process, etc. This will give the SME the context and help hone answers to stay on topic.

Also consider having the sales rep teach the SME the basics of your sales methodology and/or include them in your selling skills training process. Due to the baseline intelligence needed to become an expert in anything, SMEs will likely quickly grasp the fundamentals of selling, which will also assist in preparing appropriate answers to anticipated questions.

The sales rep should also learn from the SME.
Just as the sales rep should provide the expert an overview of the most important selling tools, so too should the SME relate some of their expert knowledge to the sales rep in meeting planning. The reason for this is because if a sales rep doesn’t have enough knowledge about the subject, they can become quickly sidelined during the sales meeting – even if everything else we’ve described here is adhered to.Obviously the sales rep won’t even come close to an SME’s depth and breadth of knowledge about the subject but they should have enough information to be able to contribute intelligently to the conversation and seamlessly continue to facilitate the meeting or presentation.

Debrief after the meeting.
After the meeting, it’s a good idea to have a debriefing session. The sales rep and SME can discuss what went well and opportunities for improvement in an open, frank, and judgement-free session. This will be especially helpful to the SME to further develop their own sales and interpersonal skills.On the flip side, the sales rep can learn if they misspoke about a technical aspect during the meeting and perhaps take this opportunity to learn even more about the nitty-gritty, granular details of the subject area.

It’s also an excellent way for sales rep and SME to improve and strengthen their collaborative working and presenting relationship, so that in time they can learn how to play off each other’s knowledge and strengths for even better meetings and presentations – just as playing together more frequently makes a sports team more cohesive and better in their chemistry. Watch a team that’s been playing together for years vs one that’s more talented, but hasn’t played together much, and you’ll see a big difference (one of the reasons why the Lakers edition of LeBron is off to an average start at the time of writing this post – most experts predicted it would take time for the new teammates to learn to play together and figure out the best rotations).

Fostering a relationship of mutual respect, collaboration, and knowledge sharing with carefully defined roles can turn your sales rep/SME partnerships into powerful, dynamic sales team that will address customer needs more comprehensively than a sales rep alone, which can lead to greater client satisfaction and more closed deals.