Birth of a Salesman

By Edwin Colyer

"you have to tell people what you have and persuade them this is exactly what they need"

I hate shopping. Even when it is something I really want (a holiday in the sun, a new kayak…), I find the whole purchasing process – from weighing up options to parting finally with my cash – too intimidating. Rather than an empowered consumer I feel like a victim as competitors go to war over my wallet.

But despite my distaste, every day now find myself trying to convince scientists to become sales people. “You have knowledge! You have skills! You can make the world a better place!” I cry, “But you have to tell people what you have and persuade them this is exactly what they need!”

The so-called “impact agenda” is creating a new industry: science sales or research marketing. It is not enough for researchers to do what they know best i.e. ask interesting questions and come up with clever ways to answer them. I suggest to my researchers they should spend time setting impact goals and contributing to stakeholder analysis. Before they even contemplate filling in a funding application I want them to know how they want to change the world with their discoveries. I want them to schmooze with industry, use social media strategy and keep in touch with policy-makers.

Of course, they aren’t left to sink or swim. Like all universities, Manchester Metropolitan has a great team of professionals in place to support all the steps from writing research grants to technology transfer. Personally I’m enjoying working with academics on a host of projects, including some creative public engagement (watch this space).

I do what I can to provide support and follow through my ambitious, zany plans. Despite my distaste for sales I’ve contacted museums, funders, civil servants and businesses to pitch ideas and highlight how they would benefit from exploiting our research. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that most people are keen to find out more – after all, I’m offering to solve problems and make life better. Perhaps sales (or “stakeholder engagement” as I prefer to call it) is no bad thing when it matches buyers with suppliers.

So I’ll keep sending out the emails, cold calling and finding my target contacts. But am I asking too much of my academic colleagues? If I’ve had to learn the tricky art of selling, shouldn’t researchers do the same? Should training on sales and marketing techniques be integrated into PhD and early-career development programmes? I would argue yes, but don’t trust me, I’m now a salesman!

Edwin Colyer is the Impact and Engagement Manager at Manchester Metropolitan University