A subject matter expert, often referred to as an SME, has deep knowledge of a particular topic. Within your business, they’re the authority on the subject. They’re the go-to person if someone has questions. And as such, the SME role is incredibly valuable. But it can also be complicated.
If you’re a subject matter expert, it’s probably safe to say that your time is in high demand. Your niche knowledge is needed by many departments. From sales to marketing to proposal development, SMEs collaborate on a wide variety of projects.
Taking on an SME role comes with both opportunities and challenges. On the bright side, being a subject matter expert means you’ll connect with people from all areas of your business. This is a huge advantage for career growth. Afterall, the more relied upon you are as a subject matter expert, the more visible your value is to the company. On the other hand, due to the number of people and projects they’re involved with, workloads can be challenging.
In this post, I’ll define the term subject matter expert and explore the SME role. From there, I’ll outline the responsibilities, traits and key skills of a subject matter expert. Then, I’ll share how to become a subject matter expert.
What is a subject matter expert?
To start, let’s define a subject matter expert. Simply put, a subject matter expert is the go-to authority about a particular topic. The term is often abbreviated to SME (pronounced S-M-E or “smee”). It broadly refers to any person within your business who has specialized knowledge on a topic and provides that insight to others. SMEs develop their deep understanding of a topic over years of experience, research or study.
Often, the SME role contributes to cross-functional projects as needed, but it’s not their full-time job. For example, a product development manager may be your organization’s subject matter expert on artificial intelligence. However, that’s not their primary job responsibility. Of course, this isn’t always the case. In large organizations, providing insight and specialized knowledge to internal teams may be an SME’s sole focus.
Examples of SME roles and areas of expertise
As you can see in these sample SME roles, the areas of expertise typically align with the person’s title. Because the type of information and depth of knowledge required is different in each business, the number of SMEs will vary widely. Regardless, each adds value with their unique knowledge of a particular subject.
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.
In am SME role, 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
Subject matter expert job description
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 change from business to business and role to role. In most cases, domain experts work with product development, marketing and sales most often. Indeed, an SME may have a hand in the business from beginning to end. You’ll see in the example below how an SME might collaborate to create, market and sell a new product enhancement.
Consult with and advise product development
The specialized knowledge an SME has is 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 offer insight on 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 align with privacy and security best practices. Alternatively, the SME may recommend strategies to avoid risk.
Educate and strategize with marketing
How can you use your domain expertise to drive revenue? Can it be a differentiator between your company and the competition? When you have the right people in SME roles, their knowledge can help you win business. Indeed, the marketing team can use SME insights to create content that attracts new prospects. This expertise is essential to ensure messaging is accurate and appealing.
Using our example from above, the data analyst can help create a blog that explains the importance of data security for target customers. 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 could explore ways to educate prospective customers in the financial, government and legal sectors.
Respond to RFPs and win business 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 manager, you create RFP responses. This RFP content answers client questions, shares win themes and communicates value. As mentioned above, the subject matter expert themselves may become a trusted customer contact or differentiator that helps to win business.
In our final example, the same data analyst — an SME in IT — helps to answer customer questions about the company’s data security protocols. They communicate how their policies are different from the competition, and how they reduce risk.
4 subject matter expert skills
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 information saves a lot of time.
Traits of a truly great SME
The subject matter expert definition will fit a lot of people within your business. However, the most successful SMEs share these common traits.
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 are lifelong learners.
Observant and inquisitive
A great SME continually explores new ideas and trends. They are incurably curious about the matter they specialize in. Their knowledge is always deepening as they seek out blogs, updates and conversations about their topic.
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 other 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. People in the SME role 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 (and easily understood) knowledge is a marker of a great subject matter expert. The best SMEs know how to articulate even the most complicated concepts simply and clearly. Helping others understand is essential.
Precise and principled
From time to time, a business consults with the subject matter expert hoping to validate a specific strategy or approach. While remaining positive and helpful, great SMEs also maintain an unbiased, factual approach. Occasionally, this means they must advise caution about a planned action.
How to become a subject matter expert
If working with colleagues, being a trusted advisor and learning more about different areas of your business sounds good, you may be wondering how to become a subject matter expert. In your role, you already deliver a great deal of value to the projects and proposals you are involved in. So, you can shift to become a subject matter expert by extending that value. Here’s how.
Identify and grow your expertise
The first step to become a subject matter expert is to identify what topic you’re uniquely knowledgeable about. Hopefully this is immediately clear to you. If not, start by thinking about your role. What do people come to you to ask about? Are there any work-related topics you enjoy learning about? How would expertise in a specific area deliver value to your company?
Once you’ve identified your area of expertise, it’s time to dive in. No matter how niche, there’s assuredly a wealth of information about your topic available to explore. With a simple online search, you’ll find free resources, peer networks, forums and more about your topic. As you deepen your knowledge, consider how it applies to your work. Now, share your relevant insights when appropriate with your colleagues. Becoming an SME doesn’t happen overnight. Just be patient and persistent.
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.
Communicate clearly and share your preferences
When you’re brought into a project, be realistic and transparent about your prioritization and workload. For example, when responding to RFPs with tight deadlines it’s important to communicate how the proposal team can support you and when they can expect your input.
In addition, proactively share your work process and preferences. If you handle your primary responsibilities in the morning and prefer to manage your SME role via email in the afternoons, let your team know. This insight will allow your colleagues to better understand how you can successfully work together.
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 always tempting to lend your assistance when you see an opportunity to help. I recommend using a RACI matrix as a guide for project participation.
If you know from the beginning what role you play, you will be less tempted to volunteer for 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.
Offer feedback and be a part of go-no-go conversations
While you understand the excitement of sales, you won’t have time to waste on unwinnable opportunities. When a project or request for proposal is received that heavily intersects with your domain expertise, review it with the sales team during the bid or no bid discussion.
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. 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 often set realistic expectations. If you pursue a new strategy or win a bid by overpromising, it rarely works out well. By delivering accurate information on a project or in a proposal, you set the stage for success. 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.
Do more with a centralized knowledge library
Eventually, you’ll probably field the same questions over and over again. From product development projects to RFPs, it’s wise to have easy access to answers and input you’ve shared before.
While some SMEs use spreadsheets or cloud-collaboration tools, our favorite tool for knowledge management is RFP software.
With an RFP software solution, you can store, categorize, tag and reuse your most common answers. 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 add value to your business even when you’re not immediately available to answer questions.