Brent Adamson and I were having one of our normal conversations, by which I mean, it wanders all over the place, a good part of this discussion is making each other the victim of our bad jokes, and we go deep on 2-3 issues about selling, thinking about new ideas and approaches.
One of the things we were talking about was AI and how it can be used most effectively in selling. Brent had been reading some of my posts, he had been talking to a lot of people and experimenting himself. He said something to the effect, “I just saw something new, people are hiring “prompt engineers” to help refine how they are using these AI tools. I hadn’t heard that before, is that a ‘thing.'”
I saw the opportunity to tease Brent, “Oh, that’s so yesterday! That’s been a thing for at least 3 months, probably longer…..”
Prompt engineering is something we are learning about. In any use of AI, prompt engineering is critical. While we didn’t call it that, one of the biggest challenges the AI company I co founded in 2002 was helping our customers understand prompt engineering. We were focused on AI applications in process based manufacturing and prescriptive maintenance. While our software provided our customers massive insight on things they could have never seen before, they struggled with how to apply that insight and make use of it. We could show all sorts of things they might change in their manufacturing processes that would improve output, but they didn’t know which would be best for them.
What we discovered is they didn’t know how to think about the problems or the information we provided them about their problems. They didn’t know how to evaluate alternative courses of action, assess the risks. They didn’t know how to tweak the reports our tools were providing, to provide alternative perspectives. It wasn’t because they didn’t know how to make the tool do this, they didn’t know the questions they should be asking.
At the time, helping our customers do this was very resource intensive. I found we had to ship an expert with each license we sold, and the expert would work with them for about 6 months until they learned how to leverage the insights our tools were providing. While the customer was paying for them, those people were coming from our development team and slowing our development. It was unsustainable, we had to find something new.
At the time, things like Six Sigma, Agile, Lean were very hot. We found, for example, Black Belts, were very good at interpreting and leveraging the results, so we focused on customers with active Six Sigma initiatives. The skills these Black Belts brought to the process were curiosity, critical/disciplined thinking, and great problem solving skills and tools. That “hack” made a huge difference in the ability of our customers to exploit the insights provided by our tools. It helped them think about their business and the information we were providing differently.
As we look at Prompt Engineers today, those are the basic skills underlying great prompt engineering.
So after this long preamble, what does all of this have to do with selling?
We know prompt engineering is critical to many of the new programs we want to leverage these AI tools. Whether it’s automating parts of the work we do, providing information in meaningful ways to our people and customers, or helping tune our business processes.
But, we’ve actually been leveraging prompt engineering in selling for decades. It’s what high performing sales people have always done in engaging their customers in change and buying processes.
In a sense, the best sellers are simply great prompt engineers.
They help customers discover the questions they should be asking, understand the problems/opportunities they face; learn who should be involved; assess/manage the risks; how to develop and execute plans to drive the change/buy. They help customers make sense of all the information available to them and help the customer build their confidence in what they are doing and the choices they are making.
It’s this bespoke prompt engineering in helping customers confidently navigate their change management/buying process that separates great sellers from everyone else.
What skills are these great sales prompt engineers displaying?
It’s really comes down to deep caring/empathy for the customer and what they are facing. Obsessive curiosity in understanding what the customer is facing, what that means, how they might address this. Critical thinking/problem solving skills are the means by which they help the customer structure their process and manage it effectively.
As we look at complex B2B buying and change management, we need to prompt our customers in their process. We need to help them understand, pose the right questions, build their confidence. Each of these situations is unique and constantly changing over time. The concerns of each individual in the buying group are unique to them and change through the process.
Great sellers recognize this and helps them through all these issues.
Prompt engineering is not new, it’s something great sellers have always done. But it’s done one on one.
Maybe we take the basic concepts of prompt engineering, starting to train our sellers in them, and coaching them in how they might help prompt their customers through their process, we would change both the results our customers and we realize.
Afterword: There are some interesting “free” courses being offered on prompt engineering. I just took one for software developers. My purpose was not to develop my coding skills, but to learn how to apply these principles to more effective critical thinking/problem solving in skills. You might consider doing the same–just do the “global change” in how you apply it.
Afterword: As I had a fascinating conversation with ChatGPT on developing a great prompt engineering course. I wasn’t surprised with what it returned: Develop curiosity skills, critical thinking/problem solving skills, deep understanding of the business/problems, the ability to look at the issues from a variety of different perspectives. Again, this is what great sellers have always done.