Technologist, husband, father, and Air Force officer; leading a Google engineering team that works with the Department of Defense

There is no shortage of technology vendors who claim they can solve an organization’s workflow, collaboration and data challenges. Adept sales professionals from these firms listen to prospective customers and try to align the solutions they offer with the business needs they perceive. This situation is fraught with risk, though, and the prospect may become a customer with a false sense of alignment between their requirements and the solution being presented.

A sales engineer can add value to the sales cycle by performing technical discovery, evaluating technological viability and mitigating risk through the creation of prototypes and proofs of concept. Sales engineers and sales representatives work together as partners in the pre-sales consultation process, performing the due diligence necessary to properly qualify, and ultimately close, deals.

The role of the sales engineer exists in many industries, but this exploration focuses on the position as it relates to enterprise software.

In the domain of enterprise software selling, a sales engineer is often described as an engineer with business savvy and communication skills. This is to say that a sales engineer has not only a deep technical understanding of the wares they represent, but also the ability to be a cogent storyteller and can empathetically perceive customer constraints, all while also co-managing facets of a complex sales cycle.

In fundamental terms, a sales engineer is expected to advise, instruct and develop (AID). In 2010, I became a sales engineer at Google and had no idea what a sales engineer did. I wish I’d had this guide back then!

Advise

Sales engineers must maintain technical proficiency in the systems they represent but should also possess knowledge of the competitive landscape, industry trajectory and prevailing market trends. These keen perceptions allow a sales engineer to understand and assess customer requirements through a broad lens of suitability and relevance.

Sales engineers must seek to become trusted technical advisors to the customers they engage. Building this type of rapport requires “soft” skills such as empathetic listening and social intelligence in addition to technical competency.

While sales representatives are incentivized to close deals, they ought to be incentivized to close the right deals: those engagements that have the highest probability of success, repeatability and “referenceability.” In this sense, sales engineers are akin to a counterweight productively pulling against the sales professionals in their organization. The goal of this dynamic balance is to deliver the best possible outcome for a customer.

The most important decisions a sales engineer will make are about which deals the sales team will not pursue. In a practical sense, this means that the variable portion of a sales engineer’s compensation will not be as heavily leveraged to a sales quota as that of a sales representative.

The sales engineer is the primary point of contact a prospect should engage with to address technical questions that arise throughout the sales process and advises prospects by persuasively providing context, opinions and recommendations in both verbal (phone calls, in-person meetings, etc.) and written (proposal responses, solicitations, etc.) forms.

Instruct

A major component of any sales engineering role is providing education, training and enablement. A sales engineer should be proficient in the operation, deployment and integration of their solutions and comfortable confidently conveying the value proposition and demonstrating feature functionality to both internal and external audiences.

A sales engineer often prepares and presents product demonstrations in the form of workshops, hands-on labs, small group instruction sessions and conference lectures. In addition to necessitating technical acumen, these activities also require excellent communication and organizational skills for effective delivery and execution.

While traditional enterprise software sales had a clear delineation between pre-sales and post-sales activities, in the era of cloud computing, the sales engineer may play an ongoing role in helping the customer adopt and leverage the solutions they acquire. As new features are released, a sales engineer is likely to work with other key stakeholders, including the support and renewals teams, to demonstrate this functionality to customers and instruct users on how to best leverage emerging capabilities.

Develop

The development responsibilities of a sales engineer are multifaceted and can involve solution development, prototype development and product development.

Solution development often involves participation in whiteboard sessions. Whiteboard sessions are engagements where a sales engineer writes and draws on a whiteboard to convey a reference architecture to an audience. This is a great way for the sales engineer to demonstrate an understanding of what they have learned through the discovery and knowledge capture phases of an engagement, and it also provides an invaluable opportunity to validate assumptions about what the customer is ultimately looking to accomplish.

Prototype development is when a sales engineer builds a functioning minimum viable implementation of a system to demonstrate the art of the possible. The prototype, or proof of concept, is an operational exhibition of a system, often built with a customer’s data or integrated with a customer’s environment. These types of prototypes are not generally end-to-end solutions and are likely not built for scale or production usage. Rather, the prototype is a demonstration of what can be achieved with the proper convergence of data, processes and technologies.

A sales engineer contributes to product development by identifying and refining the use cases they encounter while working with customers and prospects. To influence the future direction of a product, the sales engineer synthesizes the use cases they observe in the field into feature requests. The most compelling feature requests are often those that are accompanied by a convincing business case. To make this business case, the sales engineer must be able to identify an opportunity, articulate the necessary functionality, quantify the economic opportunity and build consensus among product managers and engineers.

Sales engineers are vital stakeholders in the enterprise software sales cycle and can reduce risk in a sales engagement by conducting technical discovery, validation and prototyping. To accomplish these objectives, sales engineers should be technologically savvy, business-minded and capable of communicating with internal and external audiences. By focusing on the three tenets of advising, instructing and developing, sales engineers can be integral contributors to the enterprise software sales process.


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