From the first day I took this half research-half business job, I thought of my role as a pair of jobs in two parts. Not too much relevance. However, after I took my first international business trip to China, I knew I was totally wrong.
The major purpose of this trip to China was to meet our Chinese Joint Venture partners and make customer calls. When meeting our JV partners and customers, I think they instantly got an impression of what I do as soon as they saw the “Ph.D” on my business card. No matter what fancy titles I can use, they know you are a technical guy. Have you ever seen a company accountant with a Ph.D? However, what really makes a difference is how you handle their questions/problems, and how you sell your knowledge, not only your products, but also your knowledge. That distinguishes you from a typical Mr. Forever-Bench-worker.
The first thing you have to have is solid technical knowledge. That is not a hard thing for most Ph.Ds. When they are talking about enzymes, you’d better know that’s a macro molecule, right? Your solid technical background is your key to open doors. You are a person with some real stuff, now, let’s talk about what you need and what I can offer you.
Secondly, you need to be a realistic technical problem solver or innovator. You know what your resources are, what your organization’s capability is and also what your customers can do. If they tell you they can’t figure out what caused the deposition on the surface of their blending machine, don’t bother to think or tell them to get a deposition sample and do an XPS analysis! You don’t have the time, they don’t have the patience! You need to use your knowledge and experience to figure out what’s the most likely cause of the problem, try to solve it with your available resources/products/equipment ASAP, or, even just let them try another product of yours which doesn’t have the problem. So, be realistic, who are we kidding, they just want to solve a problem, you just want to sell your product or service, no professors needed here!
Thirdly, you’d better have business awareness and technical sense at the same time. I found that it is more likely to get a business opportunity when having a conversation with technical people from the customer companies than a purchasing agent. Although the purchasing or marketing guys could do a better job conducting a warm conversation, most of the conversation would stay on pricing. Even if I offer different products or service, the conversation wouldn’t be a thorough one. However, when talking to R&D people, they always tell you about the opportunities coming up, and how your product/service could be helpful to their company. That’s very good information to help you to develop your business. This could only be achieved by a constructive and productive technical conversation. If you have enough business sense, when the good information appears in the technical conversation, you will pick it up. What’s more, you still don’t want to be treated as a tech dork when talking business with purchasing or marketing groups, so please at least get yourself exposed to the broader business environment.
Last, but not the least, this is an old old old topic: tech guys, get better at communication. I still see so many smart technical guys having problems speaking in front of people or talking to strangers. Even if you are better at technical communication than social conversation, you will still always be treated as a technical tool. Let me put it this way: if you guys, my Ph.Ds, can play with the business activities and social protocols very well, then this time those people with a business degree will actually become low level tools. Do you want to be a tool, or do you want to be the boss of other tools?
So my fellow Ph.Ds, please sell your knowledge well, and please be proud.