A software tester must have and use many skills to be effective in their work. The one that is most underutilized, or not used at all, is the skill of selling. This is a communication skill that has profound impact on a tester’s ability to do their job and get support for it. It also has impact on the project and company as a whole. Ineffective communication on a project is one of the main failing points identified time and time again. A tester will be better able to convey important information and get buy-in to what the testing group is doing by learning to talk in the same language as the target audience.
Why is it the secret skill? Because most test people are introverted/thinking types. Sales is not a common skill to possess or use. Only a few understand how selling can be used as a method of communication and collaboration.
What is the secret skill? It is using sales techniques in communication and in collaborative situations to effectively speak to a person or group. Using it increases a tester’s ability to explain what it is they need to do their job and get buy-in from other people. Use it to gain support from management for the testing function. Remember to speak in their language in order to get the correct message across.
Why sell testing? At its core it is a service; an internal one for detection, prevention, information gathering and dissemination. And it’s an external service of representation and validation for end-users. Often it’s considered a nonessential function in the software development world. Testers need to better explain the benefits of testing, and do so in the correct language of the target audience to get support and buy-in. Testers need to understand who the buyers of their services are and how best to convince them to spend money on it. They have to sell it.
” …not everyone is cut out to be a salesperson, but we should all learn to think like one.” “…getting budget allocated is a sales process, whether we realize or admit it.”1
Perception Is Everything
Current perceptions of testing, and testers, vary. We’re seen as a necessary evil, a bottleneck, quality gate keepers, people with big sticks, aliens who cannot communicate, and a costly immature function that is not needed. The current perception of sales, and salespeople, also vary. They are seen as deceptive, slimy, slick, pushy, liars, and only worried about their commission. For either group the general perception isn’t that great.
But another perception that isn’t as well known or thought of is that testing is the center of a wheel. It is a hub of activity and information.
As such a lot of information flows through it and needs to be communicated to the appropriate groups, at the appropriate time and in a way that is easily understood. It needs to be in the correct language.
One or the Other, or Both
So when do we as testers need to be one or the other? Let’s look at the focus and makeup of a tester vs. a salesperson to help us decide.
Basically a salesperson wants buy-in for what they are selling, and a tester wants understanding of the information they are relaying. Both want commitment too. But the stumbling block for a tester is typically the introverted personality; the inability to get their point across due to insufficient social skills. It comes down to being able to flip the switch on certain characteristics, to combine them and use the strengths of each. It is learning how to leverage the extroverted speaking and communication skills of the salesman to work with the tester personality. Push the introvert to engage with outside groups and people to gain buy-in and commitment to the testing effort.
“Skills in communication isn’t just for testers, but for everyone involved in an organization.” “… it is quite important for them (testers) to build good communication skills and maintain them.” 2
A tester has to be able to sell testing to the organization.
So What are We Selling?
Foremost testing is a service. Testers provide information of our findings from executing tests. This provides insight into the product’s readiness for use and its acceptance for use by the customers. This information is used to determine perceived quality. Second, testing is “preventative medicine” or insurance for a company. In the first situation it is a smart thing to do, and in the second it is good to have when you really need it. Either way testing is one of the best ways to help a company reduce rework and minimize the loss of money during a project or after release. It minimizes the effects of the cost to- fix curve. Finally, testing provides “soft”dollar benefits to a company and allows it to keep more of its revenue.3
Who are We Selling To?
Who are our buyers per se? Who is it that we provide information to? Typically testers think it is only development, project management and the end-user customer. But testers also provide information to marketing/sales, technical support/customer service, IT/infrastructure, senior management and the C-Level. Testers have to understand the buyer profile they are selling to. Testers need to understand the motivations and key business issues that drive change. Be aware of internal and external business problems that are deemed important enough to assign people, money and time to resolve.4
What is the selling process? It’s convincing a buyer to purchase, negotiating a deal, agreeing to work together for mutual benefit and getting buy-in. It’s about identifying prospects and opportunities, understanding pain points and suggesting solutions; it is communicating value to the buyer.
Hey, sounds great right? All a tester needs to do is push hard and close that sale now, right? Nope. Hard sell tactics don’t work well for testers. Instead use soft sell tactics. Explain benefits, seek cooperation, and agree to meeting at a later date to come to a decision. Don’t be pushy. Know when to stop talking and listen.5
Part of the selling process is dealing with objections. Key phrases that can be used to get beyond an objection are “What concerns do you have, if any, about…” or “Are there any other concerns you have or things I need to clarify for you?”6 If there is strong opposition you can soften it by saying “I know we disagree on this. Are you willing to work it out with me and come to a solution we’re both happy with?” Objections are not rejections, but opportunities to clarify and alleviate concerns. Don’t fear them, but be prepared and know they will be coming.7
You still have to close the sale though. Work towards a commitment of some type; get your audience to decide. Ask for agreement using statements like “Great! Do we have a deal?” or “Are you ready to move forward?” Then follow up afterwards via status updates. Keep the communication channel open.
The key though is preparation. Practice and role play to improve speaking comfort. Anticipate questions and have answers ready. Prepare a clearly written proposal, if needed, with details and summary. Consider your audience, speak in their language.
Being able to speak in their language means a tester needs to have very good communication skills, both verbal and written. Speak words clearly and slowly so people can understand what is being said. Be sure to breathe while speaking and at key points pause to allow a person to both understand and ask questions.6 Keep the message short and to the point, be succinct. Speaking too fast or slow with a lot of gibberish will cause the other person to tune out.
Writing needs to be clear and to the point. Emails need to be spell checked and reviewed before sending. PowerPoint presentations need to be readable in both text size and backgrounds. On whiteboard’s write slowly and in large type, don’t have it look like a doctor’s prescription.
Listening is important too. Testers need to be attentive in conversations by listening to the other person. Be sure to understand their major concerns before moving on, seek to understand things from their point of view. To help, repeat what they say by summarizing it to show you heard them and understand. This is active listening; being able to listen to the entire thought of someone else rather than impatiently waiting for your chance to respond. Doing so allows a tester to better formulate their next question or response.
Always push for clarity in communication. Testers need to communicate clearly so that they can understand and be clear on the other person’s points.
Speaking Their Language
Earlier, the different types of buyer profiles were mentioned; now let’s go further regarding them. Buyer profiles testers need to know about are:
- Project Management – They want to know whether the project will make the date and are there any issues that will cause delays.
- Development – Wants to know how good the system is, what problems need to be fixed, and are we done yet.
- Marketing/Sales – Wants to know can the system be sold and how soon.
- Technical Support/IT & Customer Services – Wants to know if the system is stable and what customer service issues to look out for.
- End User – Wants to know does the system meet their expectations and if it is usable.
- C-Level and Senior Management – Wants to know the cost to company, before and after shipping. Will the product generate revenue?
For project management, testers need to sell them information and insurance for the project. The language to use is risk management. Explain how using completion measures and issue tracking helps to determine how things are progressing.
For development, testers need to sell them on information and protection. Testing is the partner of development and not its enemy; both sides need to cooperate in order to succeed. The language to use is collaboration. Explain how using test execution metrics and defect resolution rates help determine when things are working right and when they are done.
For marketing and sales, testers need to sell them on benefits for revenue generation. The language to use is money. Explain how perceived quality aids in increased sales and customer satisfaction.
For Technical Support, IT, Customer Services and End Users, testers need to sell them on being their advocate and providing information regarding the stability and usability of the system. The language to use is test execution results. Sell the test coverage for both functionality tested and the platforms it was tested on by providing the outstanding issues to know about.
And finally with the C-Level and senior management, testers need to sell them on cost containment, not cost savings. The language to use is money. Explain how early detection can reduce rework and the need for service packs post release. Explain soft dollar benefits such as higher perceived quality that increases customer satisfaction, and how it can improve new and renewal sales. Sell them on how testing allows a company to keep more of its money.8
In conclusion, using selling techniques can lead to better communication and relationships with other groups outside of testing. It provides clarity in communication, and improves focus on things that really matter for the project. Selling improves collaboration and cooperation with other groups. It allows testing to be seen as an integral part of the project cycle. This leads to more involvement in earlier stages of the project cycle. Using selling techniques can increase buy-in from other groups, specifically senior management and the C-Level people. This ultimately leads to testing having increased ability to be effective and contribute to the revenue stream.
Recommended Reading List
- “It’s About Communication”, Randall Rice, April 16th 2010 blog entry
- “CIO Says Communication is Key to Buy-in”, Stephen Lawson, Computerworld.com, April 14th 2010
- “Selling to Your Buyer”, Scott Sehlhorst, pp. 14-15, Better Software Magazine, March/April 2010
- “Benefits of Networking”, Lynn McKee & Nancy Kellen, pp. 8-9, T.E.S.T Magazine, June 2010
- “Motivating Investment in Testing”, Tomas Schweigert & Dr. Kai-Uwe Gavlik, pp. D6-D7, T.E.S.T Magazine, June 2010
- “What Management Thinks About Testing”, Rick Craig, SQE Training eNewsletter,
- “Proving Our Worth”, Lee Copeland, pp. 32-36, Better Software magazine, July/August 2006
- “Don’t Sell Your Test Team Short”, Theresa Lanowitz and Dan Koloski, pp. 32-35, Software Test & Performance magazine, September 2007
- “9 Tips to Encourage Collaborative Testing”, Lanette Creamer, pp. 28-29, Software Test & Performance magazine, January 2010
- “Make It Personal”, Robert E. Lee, pp. 24-30, STQE magazine, Sept/Oct 2003
- “Manager to Manager”, Dorothy Graham, pg. 64, STQE magazine, Sept/Oct 2003
- “An Elephant In the Room”, Jeff Patton, pp. 18-22, Better Software magazine, January 2004
- “No More Second Class Testers!”, Johanna Rothman, pp. 24-32, Better Software magazine, January 2004
- “Bridging the Gap Between Disciplines”, Jeff Patton and Brian Marick, pp. 12-13, Better Software magazine, July/ August 2005
- “Bulking Up: Strengthening Your Soft Skills”, Fiona Charles, pp. 16-20, Better Software magazine, January 2006
- “From Invisible to Invaluable”, Elisabeth Hendrickson, pp. 42-43, Better Software magazine, May/June 2004
- “Channeling Your Inner Salesperson”, Linda Hayes, Stickyminds.com, June 28 2010.
- “Communication Chameleons”, Selena Delesie, CAST 2010 Conference, 2010.
- “SQA – Possibly the Highest Return Technology Investment that Executives Can Make”, Bob Burley, Ajilon Labs, http://www.aclabs.com/SQ A_return_wp.pdf
- “Selling to the C-Suite”, Nicholas A.C. Read & Dr. Stephen J. Bistritz,
- “Perfect Phrases for Sales Presentations”, Linda Eve Diamond, McGraw-Hill, 2010.
- “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”, Richard Carlson, Ph.D., Hyperion, 1997.
- “Attitude is Everything”, Keith Harrell, HarperCollins, 2003.
- “How to Talk to Them”, Bob Burley, QAI Conference 2002 Proceedings, 2002
About the Author
Jim Hazen Jim Hazen is a 25+ year veteran of the software testing trenches. He has experience testing applications on the PC and web platforms. Jim has been involved with the startup of testing groups at multiple companies and has multiple years of experience working with test automation and peformance tools & methodologies. He has worked as a consultant for the last 15 years.