If you’re looking to become a sales engineer, or have been one for a little while but struggle with your role as part of the sales team, I think it is beneficial to step outside yourself and gain broader insight into how you approach your business.
Having worked with dozens of sales teams and a few different companies, I have thought a lot about the role we play as part of a larger sales organization, and my definition has changed an awful lot over the years.
As an inexperienced SE, and having come from an IT background, I always fell back on my strength and assumed it was my job to be a technical expert. That is to say I was supposed to know everything about the product. My job was to spit out these facts with dizzying efficiency in front of the customers my reps lined me up to speak with. To be honest, because I was so well honed from a technical perspective, it did in fact move my career forward, though to be fair it was more because of my abilities and desire to share this information with other engineers than my success with accounts. The reliance on technical abilities is usually the biggest indicator of a beginning SE, especially from those that come from technical backgrounds.
In a follow up I’ll go into greater detail about some typical career paths both inbound and outbound from the SE role.
An SE moves into the senior (or intermediate) level once the realization sets in that you, as the SE, are not being paid to simply understand all the technical aspects of the product(s) you support. You are being paid to leverage your deeper level of understanding to actively sell that technology to your customers. Succinctly: You are primarily a technical sales expert, not a product expert. It is the realization that you don’t just recount what you know, but in that you have the ability to leverage those skills to move the sales cycle forward. You become attuned to how your customers buy and what they are looking for in a solution and tailor your message and actions accordingly.
The pinnacle, principal, distinguished, etc. SEs to me are defined by two factors. The first is a high degree of proactively. Senior SEs are likely to anticipate objections and plan accordingly, but the most senior of SEs are proactive about the sales cycle itself. They seek out decision makers, build consensus within the account, and the most skilled even become trusted business consultants. This takes a lot of effort and is its own skills domain, but one that should eventually be mastered. The second factor to me is that the SE makes those around them better. They can mentor junior SEs. They have translated their own success into documentable and repeatable process. They can convey this information to others. In short, these are the SEs that are ideal to step into management roles if that is the career path they seek.