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How To Incorporate SMES Into A Team Selling Environment

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In a time of war, which would you choose: a soldier or a mathematician?

This question is not a riddle. It’s a reminder that sometimes complex problems require a different type of expert. This was the thinking behind the decision to form the Statistical Research Group during World War II. The group attempted to solve wartime challenges using statistical skills. One member, Abraham Wald, set out to keep more bomber planes safe from enemy destruction.

Before Wald’s involvement, technicians would examine the exterior of bomber planes, taking note of where the bullets hit. Their solution: add armor to those areas. Wald’s approach, brilliant in its simplicity, was the entire opposite.

He put armor on the areas that didn’t have bullet holes. The reason: if planes returned safely with bullet holes in the fuselage, for example, then they could withstand damage in those areas.

Analysts never took note of the bullet hole locations in downed aircrafts because those planes never returned. Soon, more armor went to the non-bullet hole parts of the bomber planes. More pilots lived.

Apparently, winning a war takes more than soldiers. Sometimes you need a mathematician on your side.

Sales professionals, take note: occasionally you need someone on your team who isn’t in sales. Sometimes you need a subject matter expert (SME) to help push the deal through. Here, we look at ways to incorporate subject matter experts into a selling team.

Choose the Right Subject Matter Expert for the Job

Expertise alone is not enough. Though it’s true that a subject matter expert is needed for their in-depth knowledge, sales professionals must also consider how effectively an SME will communicate with the customer.

It’s important to remember that the SME has a different skill set that likely doesn’t involve customer facing activities. Therefore, it’s important to choose an SME that has the time and willingness to prepare. This preparation will be integral to success.

The sales team leader must make it clear that if the SME agrees to help, they’ll need to do more than be present at the customer meeting. Lastly, choose an SME that will be able to advance their goals in some way by participating in the sale. Doing so will help encourage their commitment.

Allow for Extra Prep Time

An SME’s involvement will change the preparation timeline.

That is, SMEs will need more practise. SMEs need to understand the customer’s business, the stakeholder roles, the opportunity and the relationships.

Practise the opening and introductions so that the SME understands their cues and where they’ll fit into the story on the day of the sales presentation.

This is an opportunity for the SME to practise sharing complex information in a concise way that blends with the surrounding content provided by the other sales professionals. The goal here is to tie the SME’s knowledge to the customer’s business challenges in a clear and compelling way.

Cast the Lead and Supporting Roles

In a team selling scenario, the sales professional will be the leader and point person, with the SME acting in a supporting role.

This dynamic may be a reversal of the organisational chart. Therefore, sales professionals need to discuss when and how the SME will contribute to the sales meeting.

For example, customer questions require succinct, direct responses. However, SMEs with a wealth of knowledge may feel enticed to unleash volumes of information and insights.

The sales professional should set intra-meeting rules that prioritise brevity. Ordinarily, the SME is likely the centre of attention and wellspring of insight. In a selling meeting, this is not the case.

Right Size Expectations

A subject matter expert can be an asset to a selling team, but it’s important to remember that they’re still part of a team. The strongest SME cannot compensate for an otherwise unprepared selling team.

Sales professionals must remember that an SME offers a specialised and focused set of skills, but winning the sale requires the team to fire on all cylinders.

Too much focus on the SME will pull time away from other important parts of preparation. Moreover, it’s important to remember that the SME is not likely to share the sales professional’s urge to win the sale. In most cases, the reward of closing is more substantial for the sales professional than it is for the SME.


As business challenges and the solutions that they require become increasingly complex, it’s likely that SMEs will be involved in more sales meetings in the future. Therefore, it’s important for sales professionals to make a regular habit of debriefing after each customer-facing meeting.

Debriefing is a good opportunity to recognise the time that the SME has devoted to the process. It’s also the appropriate time to offer balanced, specific and honest feedback. Even when the meeting has ended, the SME might appreciate updates on the outcome. Keep communication open.

Selling today is characterised by fewer meetings with higher stakes. Customers have less time to develop a dialogue with sale professionals. They need solutions for problems that grow in scale and complexity with each passing day. For this reason, SMEs are more integral to success than ever before.

Sales professionals who take the steps to help focus the SME’s effectiveness will outpace the competition.

To learn more about building effective selling teams discover the book Sell Like a Team: The Blueprint for Building Teams that Win Big at High-Stakes Meetings - written by Richardson Sales Performance Senior Consultant and State Street alumnus, Michael Dalis.

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