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‘Mind’ Games

The indispensable – you read that right – test engineer.

“I’ll keep you in mind.”

The salesperson’s equivalent of a Dear John letter. Smooth-sounding, but, in reality, the kiss of death as far as consummating a promising opportunity goes. The quintessential blowoff.

The dreaded “I’ll keep you in mind” from a prospective customer is a comeback no salesperson wants to hear. It covers a host of unforgiveable sins from their perspective: The customer’s mind is already made up to select a competitor’s product or service; they lack the authority to buy, or the whole exercise was conducted for the sole purpose of educating someone previously ignorant about your product and its technology, on the salesperson’s (uncompensated) time. So that fully informed, armed and suitably dangerous, they could then do the right thing and purchase the Other Guy’s stuff. Rarely is the outcome of each of these scenarios a desired one for the eager salesperson. Seldom is the sale made. The poor peddler is somehow supposed to be consoled by that worthless phrase: I’ll keep you in mind.

Sure you will.

The cost of sales is big; being jerked around by an engineer or other management fact-finding emissary with zero authority or intention to purchase is a waste of everyone’s time, money and energy, leaving little but bad feelings and occasionally raw emotions. Voodoo doll raw.

This is not an uncommon trap for a new or incompetent salesperson to fall into. It is the job of that salesperson to determine the potential for a sale early in the process. Some are better at it than others. Typical sales-related due diligence includes contact with high-level management (so-called “decision makers”), probing the financial stability of the prospect company, and last but hardly least, evaluating whether the product or service being sold fits the stated needs and provides an adequate financial return on the targeted company’s investment. Entering a sales campaign without performing the requisite upfront detective work often leads to the end-result of “we’ll keep you in mind.” Or, translated to sales speak, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you (as in never). And what was your name again?”

Often it doesn’t end there. Adding insult to injury, these days the enterprising salesperson may not even make it to “we’ll keep you in mind.” In this era of entitlement and 28-year-old spoiled-child CEOs, many prospects feel no obligation to respond to salespersons’ follow-ups and entreaties for quote feedback. Old pros complain with gathering frequency about the incredible frustration stemming from the unreturned email or phone call, and this from the same individual who stopped at the trade show booth, who clicked the “obtain more information” link on the website, or who even went so far as to call the office, requesting information, a callback, or a face-to-face meeting. This is followed by information exchange, followed sometimes by a quote, followed by dead air. Radio silence. It is peculiar to the strange physics of salesmanship that unsolicited inquiries create a spontaneous inertia; information requests tend to beget immediate action among commission-based types, so it is the ultimate in plain bad manners for the initiator of the conversation to not display common courtesy in suspending their busy, important lives to return calls or emails and deliver the bad news.

After all, how hard is it to drop a cold, impersonal email explaining the sad facts of the situation to the poor beleaguered salesperson? They have to make a living too, and their management typically judges them and their longevity by their hit ratio. What’s so hard about telling them why they lost the sale? Why the radio silence or crying wolf? Afraid of confrontation? Whatever the justification, the widespread habit persists, and its cumulative effect is to reduce the goodwill and civility quotient of our industry, at least what’s left of civility among those still recognizing it.

So what is to be done?

Here’s the Test Engineer’s Perspective: Give them what they want.

Come again?

Sales stiffs, take heed.

Let’s recall, board testing is a non-value-added activity in the minds of some. It is an impediment to shipping in the minds of others. Testing is viewed as a nonrecoverable expense among a third group. (“Just give me good boards; I don’t care what you need to do or spend to accomplish that because it’s your problem to solve.”) Sometimes all three views reside in one person.

So how do we keep ourselves not only recalled in the mind of the customer, but front, center and indispensable?

Three ways:

  1. Do it better/faster than the customer.
  2. Have a capability or a skill the customer needs but lacks.
  3. Be the guardian at the gate.

Let us examine each in turn.

The first is obvious. Situations arise where the customer is shorthanded. Perhaps we share common equipment, but their resident test engineer recently departed,
or has other responsibilities, and they have the urgent need to outsource development work, or their machine is maxed out, and our machine represents the safety valve for the demand spike. Or maybe their people are newly trained on a test system we have years of experience with; a project arises with time being of the essence; tolerance for mistakes and learning curves is near zero, with customer confidence of meeting the deadline using exclusively internal resources nonexistent, resulting in the nod to us.

The second comes about because we have a large, expensive piece of equipment the customer lacks, the people who know how to run it properly and, invariably, a requirement from the customer’s customer that said equipment be used to test their boards. Sometimes requirements such as these arise under duress; customers who a month ago had a flawless manufacturing process and didn’t know they needed us are suddenly, through adverse circumstances, our best friends, sometimes very needy best friends, who actually return phone calls. Perhaps again the customer has some lesser version of our equipment, with a technician to push buttons, but nobody present to analyze and interpret the results, especially when they get fuzzy. Whatever the motivation to contact us, homegrown resources are wholly inadequate for the test, or crisis, at hand. Typically big dollars ride on the outcome. This is a problem, and we represent a solution. It is at those times that we get the call, not uncommonly out of desperation, requesting immediate salvation. Leisure time and weekends are often victims, but in the end, we’re heroes. Sometimes we’re even remembered favorably.

The third results from situations in which the end-customer, typically an OEM, wishes an unbiased third party to pass judgment on the work of multiple contract manufacturers building many of the same boards. In this scenario we become Switzerland; like the banks hiding so much of the world’s ill-gotten wealth, we become the very model of discretion: biased toward none, serving all, but the OEM first and foremost, dispassionately furnishing pass/fail data for their Pareto charts. Nothing gets shipped to the OEM without first receiving our stamp of approval. We are the gate.

Thus we keep our customers’ attention, and thereby make our living.

Imagine that: Timeless wisdom from test engineers to sales professionals. Who’da thunk?

The next time somebody opines that testing is a non-value-added proposition, tell them one thing.

You’ll keep it in mind.