Marketing and the independent contractor

I get emails out of the blue from time to time from people asking me a range of questions about modeling or how to become an independent contractor or what hardware to buy or even software options. Recently one fellow asked some questions along this line and part of the answer sounded like something to develop a little in a blog post. How do you get business as an independent contractor?

When I started my business, one of the measures of success I had was that if I was forced into hunting for business, it was time for a different approach. I left a SolidWorks reseller to become independent, and was frankly a little jaded by the sales and marketing aspect. It is my belief and hope that the only thing engineering customers really value that a reseller has to offer is technical expertise, and not sales polish or marketing glitz. If you look at how resellers pay their people, it is obvious that most resellers have exactly the opposite value system, which to me indicates a problem. After being involved in the reseller channel for about 7 years, I believe that most resellers avoid depending on technical expertise to sell product for several reasons: A) they typically hire the lowest bidders who meet the minimum requirements to work in technical roles B) reseller owners tend to be general business people rather than technical, and so want to rely on something they understand – sales, C) good technical people rarely evolve into good sales people D) I have heard a reseller owner say in all seriousness that engineers don’t want to be paid as much as sales people E) the turn over rate for salespeople and reseller employees in general is incredibly high.

From my time with resellers, I have attended some of the training seminars for sales people, and understand to some extent what pushes them. It almost seems that selling has very little to do with the product itself. You are selling yourself and your view of the world, your enthusiasm and confidence, your relationship with the customer, your upscale appearance and the promise of _________ (fill in the blank with a blue sky concept). To be a good salesman you need good contact management, great people skills, and the ability to be rejected time and time again without becoming discouraged. Singles bars are full of practicing salesmen.

Whether it is true or not I have no idea, but I really want to believe that engineers make purchase decisions based on technical capabilities, which is what makes us continually frustrated by salesmen. Salesmen are always trying to turn the decision making toward the emotional, because emotions are more easily manipulated than rational thought. Salesmen in turn get frustrated with an engineer’s insistence on facts and hands on application, and will go over an engineer’s head to the next higher non-technical person. They are trained to do this. They feel they can communicate better and are more successful with higher-ups in the company because they both speak the non-technical business jargon, and because the higher-ups are more susceptible to flattery, which believe it or not is an immense sales tool. Salesmen tell themselves and each other that engineers do not make the purchasing decisions – managers do. To me, this is a bit of a self-flattering half-truth. Managers may sign the check, but they depend on the input from people who use the software purchased.

Marketing in some sense is even worse than sales. If salesmen are passively trolling for the low-hanging fruit, mixophorically speaking, marketing people are actively trying to create a positive perception regardless of its relevance to the qualities of the product. I was included in one and only one marketing survey by SolidWorks. They asked me what I thought of a couple of advertisements. I told them they were both obviously created by marketing people for other marketing people, because neither of them was relevant to my experience as an engineer.

When you are pounded with this stuff all day, it must drive you nuts. I have not owned a television for about 20 years, and listen to public radio or my ipod because I can’t stand the constant and mindless commercial bombardment. I’m a big supporter of capitalism, but I think that marketing and advertisement represent a low point of modern civilization, just above trial lawyers – neither have any idea of what the objective truth is, they both have a value system which is for sale, like common prostitutes. I have also railed against advertisements on CAD forums, blogs and independent websites. Really, the ads give a sense of cheap tastelessness, and at the same time, even on the handful of the most successful CAD sites don’t add up to much more than a hundred bucks a month. It’s a cheap sellout.

This experience with sales and marketing at resellers has led me to the desire to run my business based on competence. If I cannot bring in business based on my skills and my reputation, then I need to improve in those areas. If I have to resort to begging for business or trying to coerce people to send me business, I need to get a different line of work. Actively engaging in marketing seems to compromise your credibility. When I left my old employer, they were concerned that I was going to market to their customer base and steal customers that way. I told him that I wasn’t going to do any marketing. I’m sure at that point he thought I was just making a silly idealistic business decision that wasn’t going to pan out for me in the long run. He’s probably surprised that I’m not back begging for work again.

Some people point to this blog and my involvement with user groups and ask if that isn’t marketing. It may be, but to me these are a combination of an outlet for self-expression and just a genuine desire to help people. User groups are primarily about sharing technical content, secondly about networking, and the pizza is usually a distant third. Anyway, I’m conscious of not using either venue as a blatant sales pitch.

I’m not trying to say that individual engineering/design service providers that resort to marketing are incompetent, just that I wanted to base my business on a different approach.

What do you think about the role of commercial activity in user groups? What is it that you get from your reseller that you value most? To what extent do the sales skills of a salesmen influence your decisions? Something to think about anyway…

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