Best selling advice

Customers trust engineers more than salespeople to understand their needs. Now companies are waking up to this potential. Result: a more useful role for engineers says LIAM O’BRIEN

It is a well established industry maxim that customers will far more readily confide in engineers than they will in salespeople. Engineers are unversed in the slick presentational and deal-clinching skills of salesmen. They are non-threatening and they don’tusually have an ulterior motive when befriending clients.

If you are a manufacturing company, engineers are usually the only tier of management at the supplier likely to understand your needs in detail. Inconsequence, clients often view time spent with engineers as time well spent, whereas time expended listening to a salesman’s presentation or viewing his or her overheads is seen, rightly or wrongly, as time wasted. Customers will confide in supplier engineers and give them sensitive trading information that they would not wish to pass on to a sales representative.

For some time, this relationship has been under-utilised and insights gleaned by the engineering team have been left unexploited. Now, however, an increasing number of companies are looking to gain maximum advantage out of this relationship.

Training courses are even becoming available – used predominantly by first tier suppliers – to help engineers to use their privileged position to gain as much benefit as possible for their employers. They instruct engineers in the art of influencing decision makers, picking up information that will beof use to sales and marketing and in anticipating customer needs.

Ian Raven, senior partner at training company Imcron, says: ‘Sales andmarketing people are always there to get an order, get a new contract, get on the tender list to put a proposition together. They’re seen in that light and are excluded from contact with variouspeople. Engineers are seen as people who contribute, who come with ideas and help.’ The training encourages engineers to take a step back from the CAD screen or the drawing board and develop a broader, more commercial picture of their customer’s business and its needs.

If engineers can handle customer relationships effectively, they can use their technical expertise to position their employers to become crucial to clients’ product development. If the engineer is not effective at handling the relationship, the client will look to other companies to meet his needs.

Companies now hope that their engineers will give their businesses the edge in relation to competitors – especially given that companies cite supplier understanding of their needs as their most pressing requirement.

Brian Jones, engineering and quality director at aerospace company APPH, says: ‘Engineers understand what engineering people on the other side want. Behind the specification there is a lot of detail. What we aresaying is that we have to maximise that contact.

‘We have to focus on the customer’s needs and requirements more than just on the engineering.’ Engineers are not, however, being expected to take over the sales function. The courses are not intended to groom engineers to be salesmen. The fear is that too much of a sales and marketing emphasis could destroy the closerelationships currently enjoyed. Jones says: ‘There is a very fine line here. If engineers are seen as salespeople then obviously the customer’s attitude to them will change.’

The change to a broader role for the engineer is underpinned by radical changes to the manufacturing environment over the past 20 years. While it used to be the norm for design engineers to spend most of their time in the drawing office and occasionally visit clients, it is now more likely for them to spend as much time liaising with customers as in front of the computer screen.

Instead of drawings being submitted for approval on a handful of occasions, CAD and e-mail enables frequent and last minute changes. The development process is quicker and open to more customer input, meaning that engineers have less scope to concentrate on pure design and more need to communicate with clients.

Moreover, the de-layering that has taken place in much of British industry has meant the shedding of tiers of supervision and management which hadpreviously locked the engineer within tightly defined job parameters. Now those tiers have gone engineers are expected to take up the slack.

The rising imperative of cost also dictates that the engineer’s input is needed at all stages. Contract renewal increasingly depends on a company’s ability to cut cost, as it gets better at making that component or product, so engineering expertise has become more important.

The growing use of project teams and concurrent engineering is dictating that engineers who used to be involved at a single stage in the process are now included in many.

But, arguably, the most significant force pushing engineers into the commercial realm is industry specialisation and outsourcing.

The escalating cost of R&D hascompelled manufacturers to give up long-held engineering responsibilities. Car makers that used to design brake assemblies are now leaving that tosuppliers; aircraft manufacturers that used to design and specify undercarriages no longer do so.

A largely prescriptive process, which demanded that the engineer design a component to exact manufacturer specification, has given way to one where the supplier’s engineers have to interpret the manufacturer’s needs and develop the specification themselves.

Geoff Melbourne, business development manager at Dunlop Aviation says: ‘The supplier engineer is now required to listen to the customer, work out what he wants, and then translate that into a solution. Aircraft manufacturers used to be expert at everything, but now they realise that they can’t be. For example, people in these organisations used to have a detailed understanding of landing gear, they don’t any more. They expect it from the supplier.’ This widening job role is moreevident in larger companies. The likes of BAE Systems and APPH admit that once you go down to tier-three level there are engineers still working from design drawings to which they have had no input. Much of British industry has yet to realise the potential of its engineering skill base.

Although still in a minority, the new breed of engineers say more avenues for career development are opening up and, theoretically, pay levels should increase in the long term.

Hassan Aziz’s job specification at Dunlop Aviation fits this broader engineering role. As integrated product team lead engineer he is performing a range of functions not usually associated with engineering.

He admits that the customer interface has grown to become a key ingredient of his job. With the sort of projects Dunlop Aviation is involved in, such as the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft,customer requirements need to be checked constantly by the engineering team. Use of materials and processes have to be agreed by the client to guard against cost overruns and failure to achieve agreed performance targets.

Multi-company product initiatives mean that Aziz can be called to interface with joint venture partners as well as the final customer.

‘The job is changing more and more. I still sit at the drawing board, but the job is constantly diversifying. Other functions do start to impinge on the engineering side but, from my point of view, it does make the job more interesting. You’ve got to know exactly what the customer wants from the start. To work out how the project is going to progress you need strong customercontact. And on top of that you need to take into consideration the finance aspects and know about the costs.’ The downside is that additional time spent on project management meetings and other commercial issues, allied to an undiminished engineering workload, means longer working days. And now they are more focused on making money for their employer.

But as Aziz says: ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way because I like the variety.’ Peter O’Neill, an instructor with engineering training company The Smallpeice Trust, says: ‘The new breed of engineers report that they are having to work longer hours and are under more pressure. There are now so many more issues for them than in the past when they only had to design things. Increased responsibility for some is meaning longer hours for little extra pay. But on the whole I am sure that in the long term it is a good thing.’