How sales became a STEM job

Deals are now closed over spreadsheets more than rounds of golf.

How sales became a STEM job
[Photo: Olu Eletu/Unsplash]

By now we’ve all heard how important science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is for the jobs of the future. But there are certain jobs that are more people than technology focused, right? Well, maybe not.


While traditional selling tactics relied heavily on personal relationships, sales people are now interacting with buyers who have more information at their disposal than ever before. As a result, today’s deals are more often closed over spreadsheets and analytical forecasts than longstanding relationships and rounds of golf.

With more informed buyers to contend with and data as their most powerful sales weapon, sales teams are incorporating more STEM backgrounds within their ranks.

According to a 2017 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the seventh most popular career for STEM graduates in the United States and most popular noncomputer related role is in sales. The study found that 750,000 STEM graduates found employment in computer and information related positions last year–such as software developer, computer systems analyst, and network systems administrator–while wholesale manufacturing sales representatives of technical and scientific products accounted for nearly 350,000.

Related: This Is What STEM Jobs Really Look Like

“We are seeing thousands of jobs across the United States in which sales teams are looking for people with STEM related skill sets,” says Glassdoor community expert Scott Dobroski.


From EQ to IQ

According to Dobroski the job listing and recruiting website has seen a huge spike in postings for positions that blend sales with STEM skills.

“We’re seeing job titles such as sales engineer, technical sales engineer, technical sales representative, and sales data analyst, just to name a few,” he says. “Sales engineer and sales data analyst are the two in highest demand; those did not exist several years ago.”

The demand for STEM skills within sales teams is representative of a seismic shift in sales strategy. This transition has been enabled by technology and the availability of information, both on behalf of the buyer and seller. While the salesperson used to be the primary source of information for their products or services, buyers increasingly have access to specs, samples, and independent reviews.

At the same time sellers are able to access information and insights about prospective buyers that would have previously been only accessible through personal interactions.

“Today’s seller is more about IQ than EQ,” says Byron Matthews, the president and CEO of Miller Heiman Group, a sales training and consulting firm. “EQ is still important, you still have to meet with people, but you also have to have the intelligence to know what content to provide them, and you have to be very sharp in order to inspire them, rather than just informing them.”


Related: We Need More Women In STEM: The Girl Scouts Want To Help

From informing to inspiring

Matthews explains that sales strategies since the 1970s have revolved around asking prospective buyers the right questions in order to understand their problems and concerns, and selling a solution based on those needs.

“It really started in 2008–but it picked up more in 2010 and 2011–where just showing up to ask questions isn’t good enough, because buyers suddenly have information about you and your solutions,” he says. “They don’t want to waste time just answering a bunch of questions, they already know what they want. ”

Rather than informing clients and customers, today’s data-rich sales strategy is based around inspiring them with information they do not yet have. “I’m providing data and content–sometimes analytics, sometimes number, sometimes a case study or a story–that gets them thinking differently, and once they start thinking differently, then they’ll pay more attention to me,” says Matthews. “I’m trying to get them to think about unrecognized problems or unanticipated solutions.”

Furthermore, Matthews says that such materials are helpful in enabling buyers to better present solutions to stakeholders for approval. “They’ll often say ‘now I can take this to my CEO to get the funding I need.’ ”


From managing to enabling

The inclusion of more hard sciences and math skills in the selling process is likely to be unwelcome to those who have held sales positions since before this transition began. Matthews, for example, believes that his father, Heath Matthews, would struggle in today’s selling environment, despite being a highly accomplished salesman prior to his retirement.

“People with STEM backgrounds, they’re comfortable working in a data rich environment, they’re comfortable embracing technology. My dad? Not so much. I’m not sure he’d survive today,” he says.

While Matthews’s father has since retired, the sales force still primarily comprises those who were hired for more traditional sales skills and have spent years mastering more traditional sales techniques. “So now there’s a new discipline called ‘sales enablement,’ and it’s one of the fastest trends in sales,” he says. “Their job is to sophisticate the current sellers and help them transform.”

Matthews explains that the role of sales enablement teams is to formalize the selling process and arm sellers with real time insights and data so that they are more equipped to work with today’s more sophisticated buyers. He adds that the role of front line managers in this new selling environment has similarly changed, from an oversight role to more of a supporting role.

“Front line management is no longer about managing a pipeline; it’s about coaching and deal reviews and helping them be better sellers,” he said. “All these investments are being made at a tremendous pace right now to help the old guard evolve.”

About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker born, raised and based in Toronto, Canada. Lindzon's writing focuses on the future of work and talent as it relates to technological innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, technology, politics, sports and music.