A growing tech sector in Atlantic Canada is spurring demand for computer science and computer engineering graduates. But those new companies and products won’t go far without world-class sales techniques.
“Sales is a science and an art form. And let me tell you, it is one of the most in-demand skills in Atlantic Canada right now,” TechImpact CEO Cathy Simpson recently told an audience of entrepreneurs in the region.
“You can have a great product, but if you don’t know how to talk about it and if you haven’t figured out how to go global over time, then it’s probably going to be your biggest inhibitor to growth,” Simpson told Atlantic Business Magazine in an interview expanding on her presentation.
Based in New Brunswick, Simpson has over 30 years of experience in the tech sector, including work as vice-president with T4G Limited and as co-founder of PropelICT. She has sat on the board of Enterprise Saint John, is chair of the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF) and founded Up+Go in 2015. The latter connects young women in high school to entrepreneurship and mentorship opportunities in STEM.
Simpson is wholeheartedly focused on building on the tech capacity in Atlantic Canada and says sales are a weak link.
“Your customer-facing team needs to be able to talk to clients about their problems. The salesperson and the team with him, or her, needs to probe into the impacts, needs to position how the solution’s going to help and then needs to make that sale,” she said.
“They need to ask questions, they need to build rapport, they need to understand the business case, but they also need to understand how the solution works and then how does it work for the customer. That’s really important work. That requires a lot of skill and discipline to do that,” she said.
Modern salespeople, described by Simpson as “solutions architects,” are a far cry from the stereotype of the travelling salesman. “You need those people who can translate between the business speak and the technical speak,” she said.
The shortage of sales skills in the region has been much-discussed in recent years. As Entrevestor reported in 2015, Gerry Pond – co-founder of Mariner and East Valley Ventures – stood up at an Association of Atlantic Universities conference and offered $500,000 to anyone willing to set up a new institute to teach sales, with a focus on international sales.
“Nobody did. Nobody answered the call,” said University of New Brunswick MBA program director Shelley Rinehart. Rinehart had been a dean, then spent some time with government, before a more recent return to academia.
“I had lunch with Gerry one day and he said he was doing some things with a couple of other organizations because no school was interested and I said well I’m interested if you’re interested, let’s talk about it,” she said.
With the help of a few others, including Chris Weir at Mariner Innovations in Saint John, a pilot course in professional sales was developed for UNB. “We put it on and our alumni came back to take it. We were shocked at the number of people who were interested in the course,” she said, adding inquiries about the course came through just word of mouth.
Following that success, a new “Business Development and Professional Sales” stream of study within the MBA program was officially introduced three years ago. There has also been demand for sales-related elective courses, Rinehart said.
The MBA program as a whole, targeted to graduates already with six or more years of work experience, brought 93 international students to Saint John last year, she said. According to promotional materials, 71% of UNB MBA students are coming from Asia and Southeast Asia collectively, but 80% of all program graduates stay in Saint John. Those international connections represent a significant foot in the door for tech firms intent on conquering global markets. And companies active in the tech sector are indeed knocking on the door of UNB.
“The interest is certainly there and it’s there enough that we’re contemplating some kind of professional development offering or even maybe micro-credits in that area, where people can just come and do the sales component as opposed to the whole MBA piece,” she said.
Sales and marketing are closely linked. Both Simpson and Rinehart mentioned the recent work of David Alston, who has founded a chief marketing officer (CMO) accelerator called Marketswell Solutions. Its role is to build marketing talent that can help local start-ups and tech companies sell their products. “When you look at the talent gaps that are holding tech companies back, sales comes up all the time and a real good chief marketing officer was right up there too,” Simpson said.
Marketswell launched with its first cohort in September 2020, with selected professionals offered masterclass sessions plus weekly one-on-one coaching sessions and discussions with fellow members specifically to build skills and explore areas of growth for their companies. A new cohort will begin in the fall of 2021.
Though she cheers the efforts to date, Simpson says much more needs to be done in the sales and CMO space in order for regional tech firms to reach their full potential.