How to be a better subject matter expert

Written by
Graham McConnell
Graham McConnell
Updated on
  10 min read

If you’re a subject matter expert (SME), it’s probably safe to say that your time is in high demand. Over the last few years, more and more people have discovered the importance of SMEs. Your colleagues need and value your knowledge. From sales to product development, you’re continually asked to contribute and advise. Clearly, the unique perspectives of subject matter experts are essential to success.

With the high demand for a subject matter expert’s knowledge comes both opportunities and challenges. On the bright side, being a subject matter expert is good for your professional development. Afterall, the more relied upon a subject matter expert becomes, the more valuable they are to the company. On the other hand, due to the number of people and projects they’re involved with, SMEs must cultivate additional skills. These skills separate good subject matter experts from great ones.

In this post, I’ll offer the definition of a subject matter expert. From that foundation, I’ll explore the responsibilities, traits and key skills of a subject matter expert. In addition, you’ll learn easy ways to deliver even more value to your business, and how to manage and scale your knowledge across the business. Finally, I’ll explain why it benefits you to be an SME.

What is a subject matter expert?

To start, let’s define subject matter expert. Simply put, a subject matter expert is the go-to authority and domain expert in the business about a particular subject. Often abbreviated to SME, the subject matter expert can be an individual contributor, manager or executive.

Depending on the business, being a domain expert may or may not be the SME’s only responsibility. Because the type and depth of knowledge required is different in each business, you may be one of just a handful of subject matter experts or one of hundreds. Regardless of the number of SMEs in the company, each adds value with their deep knowledge of a particular subject.

Subject matter expert responsibilities

Being a subject matter expert is all about balancing priorities. Not only are you responsible for your primary job functions, but you also contribute to other areas of the business. As you might imagine, subject matter expert responsibilities vary from business to business and role to role. Some expert knowledge may be required by only one department, but expertise from another may be required by many. In most cases, domain experts interact with the product development, marketing and sales departments most often.

Consult with and advise product development

The insights you possess are valuable. As a subject matter expert, your body of knowledge can have a huge impact on the growth and vision of the company. Working with the product development team, SMEs contribute their unique perspective to strategic initiatives and projects.

For example, a software company may have an SME in IT who is a data security analyst. Before building a new release, the company’s development team would strategize with the data security analyst. Together they would ensure that the planned enhancements don’t impact compliance. Alternately, the SME may recommend strategies to avoid risk.

Educate and strategize with marketing

How can you use your domain expertise to the advantage of the company? Can it be a differentiator between your company and the competition? As a subject matter expert, you can help the marketing team create interesting content that attracts new prospects. Your expertise can be leveraged to ensure messaging is accurate and appealing.

Using our example from above, the data analyst can help explain why a potential customer’s data is at risk. And, how the company goes above and beyond to protect it. The IT SME can provide information and strategize ways to attract and sell to specific industries. In this example, the SME in IT can explore ways to approach the financial, government and legal sectors.

Create proposal content with sales

As the authority on a certain subject, the SME plays a big role in the proposal team. Working with sales or the proposal coordinator, you answer client questions and communicate value. In some cases, the subject matter expert themselves may become a differentiator that helps to win business.

In our final example, the same data analyst — an SME in IT ⁠— would help to answer customer questions about the company’s data security protocols. They would communicate how their policies are different from the competition including how they reduce risk for the potential customer.

For more about how the proposal team and subject matter experts can create winning responses, check out this blog.

Traits of a truly great SME

The subject matter expert definition will fit a lot of people within your business. So how do you become the go-to authority on a subject? Or, if you already are, how do you take your skills to the next level?

No matter their field of expertise, truly great SMEs tend to be:

  • Educated and experienced

You don’t become a domain expert by accident. In addition to experience, SMEs have a deep knowledge of the subject through formal education or self-guided learning. Consequently, the best SMEs never stop building their knowledge.

  • Observant and inquisitive

    A great SME continually explores new ideas and trends. They are incurably curious about the matter they specialize in. They read all the best blogs and magazines about their topic and keep up with new developments.

  • Social and engaged

Beyond studying and tracking trends, the best SMEs actively participate in events, forums and social media groups that discuss their topic. They network and engage in conversations with others domain experts who specialize in their area.

  • Freethinking and innovative

Leading subject matter experts explore new ideas. They think outside of the box and look for innovative ways to leverage their knowledge. These SMEs carefully consider common challenges and find creative ways to solve them.

  • Perceptive and cooperative

A great SME must not only understand their area of expertise, but they must also understand how their knowledge impacts the business. They see the big picture and often work closely with other SMEs.

  • Helpful and articulate

Freely shared knowledge is a marker of a great subject matter expert. They are eager to share the passion they have for their area of expertise. The best SMEs know how to articulate even the most complicated concepts clearly to their audience.

  • Precise and principled

From time to time, a business will need to consult the subject matter expert and will hope for a particular outcome. Regardless, a great SME will maintain uncompromisingly high standards. Which may require them to deliver tough advice when necessary.

4 key skills of a subject matter expert

To be successful, a subject matter expert must cultivate key skills outside of their area of expertise.

Subject matter expert competencies should include:

1. Time management

With so many responsibilities, time management is top on the list of required skills for a subject matter expert. Balancing your workload, prioritizing and task management will be an ongoing challenge.

2. Teamwork

By definition, subject matter experts work with a lot of people throughout the business. Teamwork is crucial to success. In fact, a recent survey reported that 86 percent of employees believe poor collaboration is to blame for workplace failures.

SME collaboration

Learning and practicing key teamwork skills will make your interactions more successful. For instance, focus on rapport-building, listening, empathizing, respectfully disagreeing, collaboration and expressing appreciation.

3. Communication

Along with honing your teamwork skills, you must be an excellent communicator. You’re the domain expert, so from time to time it will be a challenge to explain more nuanced concepts to the team. Be sure to take your time, communicate clearly and give context when possible.

4. Knowledge management

Even if you have an excellent memory, you’ll occasionally need to locate your previous work, sources or documentation. Locating the right information can be time consuming. Accordingly, a McKinsey study estimated that workers spend 20 percent of their time searching for information.

SME knowledge management

If your knowledge is scattered among emails, notes and proposals you may be doing yourself a disservice. Centralizing and applying knowledge management principals to collect, catalog and reuse your knowledge can be a huge time saver. More on this later.

Easy ways to deliver more value to your business

As the domain expert, you already deliver a great deal of value to the projects and proposals you are involved in. Even so, there are ways to make your job easier while delivering even more value.

Understand your role

Like many SMEs, you probably struggle with overextending yourself in an attempt to be helpful. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned habit can quickly lead to burnout. It is tempting to lend your assistance to areas of the project outside of your defined role. I recommend using a RACI matrix for exactly this reason.

If you know from the beginning what role you play, you will be less tempted to volunteer or insert yourself into additional tasks. So, as projects come your way, remember and respect your role in the process. Be an expert in your area and trust others to be experts in theirs.

Make yourself available for sales conversations

It’s no secret that getting in the door can be a challenge for your sales team. But for you, a domain expert, it might be a lot easier. Ian Altman, a strategic advisor and keynote speaker, discussed the value of including an SME in the sales process saying:

“SMEs provide a valuable resource to discuss industry trends, share best-practices, and delve into detailed discussions about how one solution might perform better than another. Whereas traditional sales professionals have noticed increased challenges in getting in front of customers, SMEs are welcomed into the room with open arms.”

Your knowledge could open the door for your business’s next big deal. Make yourself available to the sales team when strategic opportunities arise. With this in mind, be ready to talk directly with customers and share your passion for your field of expertise. There’s no substitute for human connection.

Set clear timeline expectations and follow a set process

When you’re brought into a project, be realistic and transparent about your prioritization and workload. Particularly when responding to RFPs with tight deadlines. Clearly communicate when the proposal manager or project manager can expect your input.

In addition, define and share your process to help set expectations with your colleagues. This insight will allow your colleagues to better understand how you can successfully work together.

Offer feedback and be a part of go-no-go conversations

While you understand the excitement of sales, you simply don’t have time to waste on unwinnable opportunities. When a request for proposal is received that heavily intersects with your domain expertise, review it with the sales team.

Use your knowledge to ask questions and proactively uncover problems or concerns. Granted, you might not make the final decision, but your input helps determine if the opportunity is a fit for your business and worth the effort and expense of responding. Your respectful and thorough feedback will go a long way to help educate others for future decisions.

Be the voice of reason

As the SME you must set realistic expectations. If you win the bid by overpromising, the business and client relationship is bound to be rocky. With your guidance, sales won’t be overzealous. By delivering accurate information in a proposal you set the stage for a long-lasting customer relationship. This approach protects the company from risk, establishes a reputation for honesty and builds a foundation for future growth.

Become a mentor

Help others develop their skills in your area. Keep your eye out for colleagues who show a keen interest in your domain. Sharing your knowledge and guidance to create more domain experts can be incredibly rewarding. As they deepen their knowledge, they can put what they’ve learned to work and help lighten your burden.

Scale your knowledge with a centralized knowledge library

You probably feel like you’re fielding the same questions all the time. From the sales department to product development, the demand for your knowledge is never-ending. In addition, you may have recently noticed an increase in the number of requests for proposals. Not only that, but also an increase in the required detail and volume of questions within those proposals. This trend is wide-spread across many businesses and industries.

Knowledge management offers a good way to keep up with the increasing workload. By centralizing information, you can save time as well as track and control how the information you create is used. Most subject matter experts do this in a knowledge library or knowledge repository. While some use spreadsheets or cloud-collaboration tools, our favorite tool for this is RFP technology.

Within an RFP software solution, you can store, categorize, tag and reuse your knowledge. Then, empower your proposal and project managers to use this as a self-service tool. Using the software, they can select and customize your response, but give you final approval to ensure any updates are accurate. Storing knowledge this way ensures you are adding value to your business even when you’re not immediately available to answer questions.

Why be an SME?

Admittedly, being a subject matter expert is a lot of work. So, why do it? There are some major benefits to being a domain expert. In fact, it’s a great way to accelerate your professional development. In the last few years, SMEs have become more valuable than ever.

As a subject matter expert, you can:

  • Raise your profile with peers in your field of expertise
  • Leverage your reputation to become a selling point for the company
  • Increase your worth to the business
  • Elevate your role and be a part of strategic decisions
  • Become a trusted advisor

The importance of subject matter experts cannot be understated. When internal and external teams recognize your expertise, knowledge and professionalism, they will want to work with you. As a subject matter expert, you can play a significant role in the sales process, product development and the business at large.

Graham McConnell

Graham lives in the B2B marketing space. He dabbles in writing, usually about digital marketing, but has other interests like the Portland Trail Blazers, the Portland Timbers, sci-fi films, video games and of course, response management.

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