Have you ever sat in a karaoke bar and watched a group of drunk amateurs attempt to sing Top 40 hits? It can be downright painful — that is if you haven't had enough drinks yourself. Sure, there's an occasional ringer in the group who can carry a tune, but for the most part everyone else that climbs up on stage sounds like they're auditioning for the TV show American Idol. Most of them can't even remember half the words to the song — even though they're on a screen right in front of their face.

Now, have you ever sat through a meeting where a design engineer has been asked to help “sell” a client on his firm's capabilities? Or witness an engineer place a cold call to a new potential client? Witnessing these acts can be just as painful. Why? Because you're asking this individual to assume a role they're uncomfortable with and typically have no desire to fill.

Unfortunately, many design firms are now insisting that project engineers and other technical professionals sell more work. Many firms are telling their engineers it's no longer good enough to be a competent engineer, they must also possess traditional selling skills and be able to generate cold calls for new business. They must be adept at initiating and exploiting new business development opportunities with existing clients. And most importantly, as all good salespeople know, they must be able to close the sale.

Why the change in roles? As the last couple of years have proven, the construction boom of the '90s is over. The good old days of picking and choosing the projects you wanted to bid on, or relying on one or two rainmakers in the firm to bring in all the projects are long gone. In today's business climate selling is on everyone's mind. As our cover story on The Top 40 Design Firms points out, it's a buyer's market.

As traditionally strong markets continue to decline — with no signs of recovery in sight — and new market niches remain elusive or tough to crack, many design firms are struggling with ways in which to remain on top. One of the ways in which they think they can get an edge over their competition is by creating a flock of “sales engineers.” But this is the wrong approach.

I don't know about you, but I haven't met too many engineers who can be easily transformed into salespeople. In fact, I don't know too many engineers who even want to do this work in the first place. They chose to be an engineer because they love to analyze a problem in detail and then methodically crunch numbers and examine multiple scenarios until they come up with the best answer. I know this work can appear tedious to others, but hard-core engineers love it. It's their passion. It's their calling.

Now I'm not that naive to think that there aren't some engineers who want to or are capable of becoming hybrid salespeople/engineers. There are exceptions to every rule. And it's these guys who a design firm needs to latch on to and move into specialized roles at the firm. These are the guys they need to provide sales training for and push out on the front lines. These are the guys who will hopefully pull them through these difficult times. Just don't try to convert the masses. Let an engineer do what he does best: engineer projects.