After ~20 years in research, I made the leap into a commercial role. For the past nine years I have functioned on the dark side – selling equipment to scientists who are pure of heart. As a postdoc I did most of the ordering for years. Tips, tubes, plastics, media, microfuges, all the consumables and minor equipment. I know how disruptive it can be to have generalists and account managers walking in and out of the lab trying to sell you stuff.

Now, I am often the person walking through the door and the most common interaction I have had with customers is:

Me (walking into lab): Hey, how you doing, I’m Rob from GE. 

Customer: GET OUT SATAN! GET THEE OUT!!!!

Alright, that might be a slight exaggeration, but scientists are wary of salespeople and jealous of their time. What they do not realize is that they might be losing out on advice that could improve their chances at funding.

Wait, did I just say that? Some salesperson is going to improve your chance at publication and funding? Yes.

Through my time in science I did reproductive biology, cell biology, neuroscience and developmental biology. I have used (to some degree) human tissue, mouse, chicken, zebrafish, sharks, rays, and urchins. My techniques were pretty broad from IEF to Sanger sequencing, from oocyte isolation to cutting brain slices. I won’t be walking in and telling anybody how to do any of this work. The closest I come is to enjoy watching and chatting about it on Twitter. But, I have been doing microscopy for 25 years and in that area I can offer some advice.

I might never walk into a cytoskeleton lab and tell them how to perform their TIRF or a neuro lab and tell them how to image living, moving mice. There are a lot of world experts who don’t need to hear from me when it comes to techniques. On the other hand, I have trained hundreds of people and I have done trouble-shooting on an equal number of systems. More importantly, I have seen the mistakes your labbies are making that might be costing you time, money, and results.

As a salesperson I walk into a lot of imaging facilities or labs. I have walked into high-end cores and seen incredibly poor standards. I have seen people imaging samples for HHMI investigators with oil on dry objectives because if it works for one objective it must be good for all of them. One of my favorites was a user doing “DIC” on a scope without DIC. Labs who explain their lasers are out only when they look through the eye pieces and not when they actually scan their samples. There are a number of labs I know who have published questionable data based on manipulating images and not knowing what they are doing. It is a good idea for researchers to guard their valuable time, but wasting it using bad techniques is worse. Every time someone in your lab makes a mistake on a piece of equipment it costs you money and time, which you can never recover and which your competitors might not be wasting.

In every one of the cases above, the faculty probably paid a lot of money to someone for their microscope system. Why not create a relationship with those microscope companies and ask them for help so these basic mistakes don’t happen? Most of my colleagues come from the same background as I do, PhDs who have run labs, cores, or published good papers before deciding they wanted something different. Use us, that is what we are here for. Ask us:

  •  Do you have a training manual we can use for our own training?
  • Do you provide a special training for the person in our lab/core that will be training others?
  • Can we get an initial training and then follow-up at 30/60/90 days as new questions arise?
  • Would you be willing to provide a formal/informal user group meeting every year so everyone can get up to date on new software or hardware changes?
  • Can I have your cell phone number, the apps support number, and the local service tech number?

I don’t know about you, but I feel like anyone who buys a piece of equipment should have as good a relationship with that company as they do with their local barista or cashier at their regular grocery store. Yes, we can provide insight into doing TIRF and multi-photon, but we can also help your lab run more smoothly and efficiently. Try us.

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Last time, I added that title as a joke to my blog post on how to keep people from breaking your equipment. The take home message was to make people feel comfortable coming to you with questions or concerns and to let them know that this stuff can be complicated so it is okay to forget and need help. So, the obvious joke was "okay, now how do i get them to stop asking me for help!"

That's an honest question to a real problem. Any of us who have run cores or who do training for a commercial product have had those users/customers that just won't learn the system. They come to rely on the core director/manager/product specialist to answer any and all questions. These users quickly wear on you because before long the questions start repeating themselves. If you are working with someone that is exploring new functionalities each week, then you can excuse continuing questions because, again, this stuff can be complicated. But, about the third time someone asks you how to save data or export files or put in a sample – you can be excused for getting annoyed.

So, what to do with users that keep asking for help.

  1. Ask yourself, why aren't they valuing your time? First, you need to be clear whether or not it is your job to be on call for every little thing. If the answer is no, then why do they think you are on call and how do you make them realize your time should be valued as much as their own. One possibility is that you haven't made your role clear.
  2. Clarity is king. If you are in a commercial role, did you clearly lay out what the process would be after the sale and install? Did you include the words "independence" in the description? If you are a core director, did you start out your training session by explaining what you would be doing over the course of several sessions and how the final goal was independence? Be clear up front, let the user know what will be expected of them or better yet what they can expect – understanding and independence.
  3. Be honest with yourself, your training might suck. At some point, if this is a recurring problem then you have to ask if you are doing a good job teaching. Being a core director, assistant, or an Application Specialist is not the same as being a scientist, just as being a good postdoc is not a guarantee to be a successful PI. Are you teaching users how to become independent or are you just dumping information in their general direction?
  4. Charge them. When all else fails and someone refuses to value your time, then you have no choice but to charge for your time. This should not come out of nowhere, there should be an open and calm discussion with the user concerning the expectations you laid out and that hands-on time requires a fee.

These are my thoughts. What are yours?

y-u-no-who-broke-the-spectrometer

A couple months ago I was at a core facility with one of our account managers. This was not a microscopy facility, but I still saw the one thing that many cores have in common – angry warning signs. “DO NOT LEAVE THIS EQUIPMENT ON ALL NIGHT” or “DO NOT TURN OFF THIS EQUIPMENT!!!” or “IF YOU BOOK TIME ON THIS EQUIPMENT AND DON’T USE IT, YOU WILL STILL BE CHARGED!!!”

Not all cores have these signs, especially those that offer services for hire, but many of the cores I have visited have posted warnings in the facility or on sign-up pages. Why? Well, because users tend to break stuff. On my first day as a core director at UNC Chapel Hill I was shown the 63X oil immersion objective on our Zeiss 510 NLO confocal. It had weird striations around the barrel and I asked what they were. “Oh, it wouldn’t come off and someone took a wrench to it. We don’t know who did it.”

I think the second sentence of that conversation is the more worrying one. I think the fear of  the core director finding out you don’t know how to use the equipment and that you then broke something is the reason why so many things are destroyed. Everyone makes mistakes and if we keep this in mind when training our users, making it clear that there is a correct way of doing things but that we understand mistakes happen, then they are less likely to feel the need to hide those mistakes. If we make it clear that none of us are perfect and there is a lot to learn and a lot to remember, then maybe more people will come to us before making an error to ask for help. I say “us” even though I am now on the commercial side because we get the same calls you do as core directors, only they are usually from angry core directors instead of users.

Perhaps the only signs or rules that really help avoid equipment damage are those that make it clear how complicated systems can be, that we all need help, and that asking for help will never be punished.

Next time – what to do with those users who KEEP asking for HELP!!!

First off, I don’t think I have blogged two days in a row since those halcyon days of political blogging in the late ’00s. Maybe this will start a new habit for me, maybe not. Yesterday, I wrote about the satisfaction that one gets from making eyes pop with a new and better way of doing something. There is no better feeling when you are working on the commercial side of science. I thought it would only be fair to treat the other part of this emotional roller coaster and one that is much harder to deal with – making your customer’s eyes burn with anger. Here are three examples that are somewhat specific to equipment sales, a brief description of mistakes made, how I handled them at the time, and lessons learned.

  1. We don’t do that anymore.” Early in my sales career I found that our organization promised a manual tweak to an instrument for our customer. Once the system was delivered and installed and it was time for the tweak, those of us in the field were informed by the office that we didn’t provide that service anymore because of the implications of new FDA regulations. There was anger and righteous indignation. We did as much of the work ourselves that was allowed and then found a third party vendor that would finish the tweak. Lesson Learned – try to ask for clarification internally about any process or promises with which you are not familiar and that are not written out clearly in the quote. If you are a customer know that anything quoted is under contract, but anything promised is possible or probable, but not certain. Priorities change. Economics change.
  2. What do you mean it won’t scan that fast?” I walked into this situation where a previous sale had been completed without a demonstration – not my sale. It was insinuated that the system would scan a sample at a certain frame rate. The system arrived and it would not do that frame rate under normal conditions. Eyes burned with hatred, venom was throw, spittle was spittled. At me, because I was the guy who showed up. After walking through what they were looking for, I showed them a super-secret hidden feature that could be activated in the .ini file that would allow for faster scanning at a lower resolution. They were only looking for intensity data and not images so this fit their needs. Hugs were exchanged, backs were slapped. Lesson Learned – try to know your product inside and out and if you don’t, then have some good people on speed dial. If you are a customer, see the result you want or talk to someone who is doing the same type of work.
  3. He doesn’t work here anymore.” The downside of having a great support person is that they don’t always stay with the same company. People want to recruit them away. In one case, we made a sale that was at least partially based on an awesome application specialist, who then left the company before the system was installed. It happens, but it is never a fun conversation. There isn’t much you can do except to put the customer in contact with whoever will be filling in the gap while a new person is hired. Lesson Learned – the goal for company and customer should be a clear path to independence with some occasional technical help around complicated experiments or analysis. Don’t ignore the technical expertise of the company that is selling you the equipment, but don’t rely on it long-term either.

Going through this list reminds me of an article at HBR about character traits shared by top salespeople. One key trait was conscientiousness. Make sure expectations are clear on both sides. Don’t risk confusion after the sale because you don’t want to rock the boat during the sale. Rock the boat, make sure everything is in the open.

There is nothing better, when you are in a commercial role, than teaching someone a new way to do things and watching their eyes pop. Recently, I had the pleasure of watching a senior faculty member experience some eye-popping results, but how it came about was different than what you might expect.

I have waited awhile and won't mention names, but this lab was doing what I would call "grad student grinding" experiments. Here is the protocol we have used for 20 years, it involves a lot of manual microscopy and even more manual analysis. Each experiment, from the time you put it on the microscope, will take you at least a full day to do correctly. We ran a Proof-of-Principle experiment on a high content system and gave them results to analyze in a few minutes. We then showed them how to automate the analysis and get those results in a few minutes as well. Here is where things were unexpected.

During our initial visits we discussed this with the graduate student doing the work and they had no interest whatsoever. Later, we ran into the faculty member behind these studies and mentioned what we were demonstrating, without realizing the above-mentioned graduate student was from that lab. The faculty member was very excited and from there the demo proceeded. So, contrary to the jokes many of us post on Twitter, in this case it was the senior faculty that saw the advantage to changing methods and the grad student who was stuck in "this is how we have always done it" mode.

Are you questioning "this is how we have always done it" in your organization?

 

The volume of the gas is considered equal to the volume of the container…Gas particles are far apart and will fill a container of any size and shape.

So, gas will expand or be compressed to fill its container. I find the time involved in raising kids to be the same way. It doesn’t matter if you have 1 or 4, they will fill your time. All of it. 

Likewise, for me the amount of parental freaking out I do it inversely proportional to the amount of freaking out already happening. More freaking out by someone else, I’m good. Kids acting crazy and there is no one else around? Prepare for me to fill that container. 

I was reminded of this during our second trip to the beach this morning. Kid4 was being whiny and not having fun. But, I found myself feeling pretty zen. Then, I realized there was a grandparent behind me that had been flipping out at her grandkids over small things. They seemed to be well behaved to me, so I guess subconsciously I felt the freak out container was full so my potential freak out level was zero. 

You know that line from the Hulk? Maybe the key to less freaking out for me isn’t to try and be zen, but to try and empathize with everyone in the situation. Feel their stress, internalize their stress, be less stressed myself. 

In my field, we do a lot of large group sales. I am currently working on a sale in which there are at least 10 to 15 stakeholders. How do you satisfy that many different people? In my own life, I just recently switched to AT&T fiber. I felt like it was a good decision because I would save some money and get faster Internet speed. But, it hasn’t worked out that way.

We still have our Time Warner Internet and router running. I’ve been using various website speed tests on a bunch of different computers in a series of different locations. The result is that I get better Internet connection through the AT&T fiber and router when I am near their location, but as I move away it gets worse. But, my wife’s new MacBook Pro gets much better connectivity through the old router. If she comes within site of the routers, then the new router works better. But, she works for an online education company and needs fast Internet. There are places in our house where we used to get connectivity and now don’t. The router placement was suggested by AT&T.

What do you do when one of the buyers in the deal is unhappy after delivery?

  1. Take an honest look at your assumptions. Whether a buyer or a seller, it’s important to be honest with yourself about the assumptions you made during the sale. I had spoken with my neighbors and they raved about how great their connection speed was with fiber. I assumed that we all had equal connectivity at the time. Maybe that’s not true. I might’ve had much greater connection speed before AT&T fiber, than they did.
  2. Ask for a service visit.  Life isn’t perfect and neither are products. It might be that some settings are incorrect or some other changes could be made to improve the speed. Ask the company to come in and make sure everything is working properly.
  3. Determine if there are modifications they can be made to solve the issue. When I was selling for a previous company I walked into a situation where a past sales person had made some promises that the new equipment didn’t meet. But, I was able to show some other functionality isin the system that met their needs. It wasn’t exactly what they had been promised, but it delivered nearly identical results. Do you have a better router AT&T?
  4. Have a non-emotional discussion about returning your item. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. If that’s the case then you have to think about returning the item that you purchased or taking back the item that you sold. He doesn’t have to get emotional

I was a selfish scientist. Now, at the time I did not know I was a selfish scientist but instead a person who wanted to surprise others with a completed package of results. That did not happen very often, but what did happen was that I locked people out of my day-to-day science. Collaboration was not something I valued, instead I was “independent”. Starting with my postdoctoral fellowship at Duke I began collaborating mentally but not physically. There were many long and interesting discussions about what interactions might take place during embryogenesis, but no collaboration on experiments to prove it.

My first real experience with collaboration came at Coastal Carolina University when I co-taught an MAT course on Reproductive Biology. It was fun, thinking and planning out how to teach this course, what materials to use, who would teach what lessons. Not long later I ended up at UNC-Chapel Hill as Core Director at the UNC Neuroscience Center. This is where  my interest in collaboration really grew, but in a unique direction. I was writing and spearheading equipment grants and in the process of finding new grants I came across several opportunities that weren’t right for me, but were for two or more faculty members at UNC. I found great joy in connecting faculty members to these grant opportunities.

After my transition to sales, I have found that collaboration is the norm. If you are a customer and you are not collaborating with your sales professionals then you are missing out on an opportunity. If you area sales person and are not collaborating with your customers to find the best solution, then you are doing it wrong.

When you can’t go to the beach, do your best to bring it to you. 

Mushroom Coffee

About to have my first @foursigmatic mushroom coffee with cordyceps and chaga. Will post any positive or negative effects in comments. 

I am quickly becoming a shroom convert, the legal kind! My next task will be to make my own mushroom logs.

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