Want to Sell More? Become a Subject Matter Expert

In all the years I’ve run companies and managed sales forces, not a single prospect ever asked me to send out my best salesperson. If the prospect had an issue, he/she wanted the most knowledgeable person available to solve their problem—a subject matter expert (SME).

When consulting on revenue growth, clients often asked for advice on how to turn their sales teams in more effective salespeople. My advice:

Before you can learn a sales process, you must learn to ask better questions, uncover client needs and become a subject matter expert.

Most prospects see products and services as commodities. However, when a salesperson brings to the prospect a solution others overlooked, he stands out as a subject matter expert.

An SME is an authority in a given field. You earn recognition as an SME with a career-long commitment to continuing education, relevant experience, and creative marketing. Someone who sells is an ideal candidate for SME status. What’s more, SME status makes selling less difficult.

Ian Altman in a Forbes article, The Most Valuable Subject Matter Experts Do This, says “There is a major distinction between your average subject matter expert (SME) and the top-performing SMEs. While SMEs have specific knowledge that makes them valuable to the organization, the most valuable subject matter experts do this: they sell new business.”

Prospects do not see SMEs as salespeople; they see them as go-to authorities on particular topics related to solving their problems. So, what makes one an effective SME?

Right Credentials Impress

Remember, three areas can establish you as an SME: education, experience, and marketing.

The right credentials fulfill the education component, and they are field-dependent. For example, an SME working in healthcare must likely hold a bachelor, master, or doctorate degree.

An SME working in the human resources (HR) consulting sector may not be required to hold an advanced degree. Instead, she may offer years of industry experience as former head of HR for a major company.

Sometimes you can offset limited knowledge or experience. In my early days of executive benefits, I wanted to become an SME in the field. I read every bit of literature I could find. I took courses on taxation, accounting, and law. When I met with CPAs, I knew as much, and more, than they did about the accounting treatment of executive benefit arrangements.

Every salesperson must determine and complete the credential requirements for your field to earn respect and SME status. Review the LinkedIn profiles of current SMEs. What specific degrees and certificates do they hold? Read their blogs and papers to understand industry context, challenges or trends.

Even if you lack a certain credential, you can still deep dive into expert territory. It’s a tougher road to SME status. That’s all. Compensate for it in other areas.

For example, a salesperson focused on selling HR software need not possess an HR degree. You can compensate by earning a subject certificate from a respected HR organization, like the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) or consider a degree in a technical field.

Ask Questions. Uncover Needs.

Research studies have proven that prospects don’t like sales pitches nor pressure to buy.

In a perfect world, it is the SMEs who uncover the real problem, the need, the need behind the need and identify solutions. SMEs build deep and wide knowledge of their products and services.

But they do not lead prospect conversations with that knowledge. Rather, they develop an incisive question process, leading their prospects to their solutions—not with their solutions.

SMEs know the specific problems their expertise solves. They create a list of existing and potential clients/customers who might be facing one or more of those problems and use this research to open up new prospect conversations. They lead with what is important to the prospect and discuss issues.

If you want to develop this skill, look at the CAVP formula for opening more doors under favorable conditions by downloading my eBook, How to Secure Executive Appointments Under Favorable Conditions.

Authoritative Content Builds Reputation

Google a subject you want to learn about. Often, you’ll find an authority on the topic. Top-level SMEs build a reputation for valuable knowledgeable in their field and share it with the public.

A prospect with an issue doesn’t immediately go to the Internet to search for his solution, especially in the early stages of the buying process. He searches to better understand the issue. An example with a wealth of valuable information: “How can we retain key people?”

SMEs develop content strategies. They’re sought out by the media, valued for their opinions, which results in being quoted on the subject. Begin to read articles that address concerns associated with your knowledge.

Learn the identity of the best writers on your subject. Put together a brief press kit and send with your contact information. Then, reach out with stories ideas their readers care about. Let them interview you and be the expert quoted in the piece.

Other ways good content leads to good reputations:  Write a blog. Create white papers. How-to guides. Distribute to editors and your resources, including referral sources. For instance, if you sell financial services, reach out to lawyers, accounts, consultants and other centers of influence.

Time and the 10,000 Hour Principle

So, how much time does it take to become an SME?

For some time now, thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, we’ve accepted the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to achieve mastery of a given subject.

Depending on where you are in your career, you may have already reached this pinnacle. Ten thousand hours working full time is only five years (2,020 hours x 5).

A new Princeton study obliterates this principle, claiming mastery is more than a matter of practice by sharing data examples in sports, music, education and other fields. Then, what else matters?

I’m going out on a limb a bit (supported by decades of field experience) when I say besides knowledge and scholarship, these attributes matter, too:

  • Character
  • Confidence
  • Curiosity
  • Empathy
  • Generosity
  • Intelligence
  • Motivation
  • Purpose

Frankly, the broader list of attributes to master a given subject is nearly inexhaustible.

Knowledge in the age of IoT will soon begin to double every 11 hours.

Fasten your devices.

See you on the upside,


For more information, go to www.pleinairestrategies.com
Or call William L. MacDonald in San Diego at PleinAire Strategies LLC at 760.340.4277 or 213.598.4700

News Alert

MERGE 2.0, read my latest book, now released by the publisher and available on Amazon to purchase.  Learn everything you need to know to book revenue in the new realities of B2B professional selling.

And, if you’re not a reader and prefer interactive learning, take our MERGE 2.0 online learning course.  Go here for more info.

Thoughts and Comments

Copyright PleinAire Strategies, All Rights Reserved

New online training course, B2B Complex Sales Success Course for the MERGE 2.0 sales process is now available! Learn more