Review – The Evolving Sales Engineer

In my third book review I turn my attention to The Evolving Sales Engineer by Edward Levine.

The Evolving Sales Engineer
Hardcover: 252 pages
ISBN-10: 1598584146
2 Reviews on Amazon.com
5 star:    (2)
4 star:     (0)
3 star:     (0)
2 star:     (0)
1 star:     (0)

Managing the Evolving SE

The book is broken down into three sections. Section 1 focuses on strategies for SE managers to coach SEs into “evolved” status.

Assessing Current Talent

The first step involves ranking and counting your SEs based on how high up the food chain they interact. The four categories move from technical users to their managers to non-technical managers and finally VPs and above. The result is a broad pattern you can further investigate.

Charting Competencies

In suggesting the creation of a competency matrix, a rather detailed approach is illustrated. This begins with the list and grouping of critical SE skills. Compare each of these needs against their applicability to each of the four groups from the previous chapter. For each group, a separate list of each applicable skill is listed with meets/doesn’t meet checkbox.

Depending on which group you think the SE should be achieving at is the assessment level you use. For any lacking skills, then next assessment is an able/willing analysis. This forms the basis of the manager’s corrective approach.

What I like about this method is that it breaks up the typical 1-5 skill rating into multiple dimensions. When starting out I was pretty good at technical presentations but had much to learn about presenting to CXOs.

The down side is that some people may have the opposite problem. Comparison against the highest group only will cause you to miss blind spots lower on the chain. If you use this approach I recommend you make the comparison for each level to ensure nothing is missed.

Choosing and Developing Talent

After a brief look at the considerations to be made before searching for talent, interviewing styles are introduced. For SEs, situational questions are ideal. There is also a nice tie in to using the skills identified in the previous chapter is the basis for creating your situational questions.

For example if “Dealing with difficult meeting participants” is a required skill, your situational question would go something like this: “Tell me about a time you had a difficult meeting participant. What happened and how did you respond to the situation.”

Next, various types of training are explored. The big take away is the importance behind reinforcing your development programs. The need to continually emphasize and promote the program is the real way to affect long-term change.

I’m not a huge fan of situational questions; I rely almost exclusively on a combination of heavy screening based on references and in-person presentations. Then again, not everyone may have this luxury and may find it useful. I did like the idea of mapping these questions to your desired competency levels. I also couldn’t agree more about reinforcing development goals. I covered it in some detail here.

Coaching

The author makes the distinction that feedback is an event while coaching is a program. The important lesson is that this program needs to have defined goals and an action plan. He then outlines a recommended process of setting the climate, confirming understanding, being specific, co-creating an action plan, summarizing with benefits, and finally committing to follow up sessions.

One tip that I thought important was the need to craft your coaching around the personality of the coachee. I personally thrive on critical feedback and appreciate prescriptive recommendations. Others prefer a facilitative style. To be most effective you need to work within this mindset.

Coaching in general is something I’m a huge fan of, but honestly not good at following up on. I probably need to do some research on the subject. Though the word “SE” was used throughout, unfortunately I didn’t find much information specific to coaching the SE archetype which would have been infinitely more valuable.

Strategic Thinking

The second section focuses on critical thinking, creativity in the sales process, and understanding and dealing with complexities. To me this section is about understanding the motions rather than just going through them.

Being Perceived as Strategic

To condense the chapter, the basic messages are to be able to understand the business, the big picture, and to become trusted. The underlying idea is not to lead with technology, but with an understanding of the customer and being able to solve business problems with technology. Once you demonstrate competency with more than your own technology, you are perceived as being able to add a higher level of value. Assuming you demonstrate tact with confidential data, you then can also become a trusted advisor.

Mapping Client Organizations

Levine provides a three-part criteria model for mapping players in your opportunities. This includes the degree of decision authority they have, how much of a supporter they are, and whether they are threatened by the sale in any way. Using a combination of rating on each, you get a clearer idea about the map of the client

He emphasizes the need for simplicity in the model, which I agree with 100%. If you are without a sales methodology this may be useful. If your company has one, I would stick with that. Rather than doing this yourself, I would always use encourage the AE to manage the document with you providing input.

Reacting to Competition

Competition is a tricky subject. The chapter covers some of the basics including not bashing the competition, being able to position using competitive pitfalls, and not over asserting your knowledge of others’ products.

Of particular importance is the caution provided around contrasting features with the competition. Because you do not work for them you are surely not privy to specific roadmap elements and their own competitive positioning. In my experience this is has been a huge source of lost credibility for SEs that state something that contradicts what a prospect believes about the product, even if the SE is technically correct.

Understanding Office Politics

If there is one thing trickier than dealing with competitors it is dealing with politics. The author devotes significant time to this topic—more than I can cover here. Much of the advice would be found in books such as Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

The key piece of advice is that when you meet customers you cannot be sure of their motivations. Because of this you need to be observant of their corporate culture and personal actions. There are some good example walkthroughs in the text.

In my experience, often when you see someone acting irrationally, it is only because you don’t know enough about the person or their situation. Many times the source is political. I personally detest “playing” politics, but not being aware of reality will make you far less effective.

Keeping Account Managers Happy

This is all about communication. Pre-call planning, not making concessions without prior discussion, and coordinated presentations are the cornerstones mentioned. The first part of the chapter also addressed the “rep envy” comments that arise from time to time. Understanding the ups and downs and additional pressures on an AE demonstrate the counterbalance to the (sometimes) higher pay and higher visibility.

In my experience, if you do most of things outlined in this book well, add good communication and a joint planning process, you will have a fantastic relationship with your AE. This is true even in lean times and even when personalities don’t mesh well.

Tactical Essentials

The third section covers specific elements of “evolved” SEs. Although you could probably just rename this chapter to “Miscellaneous.”  I will briefly highlight the main point of each.

Maintain a Proper Airtime Ratio

Don’t make the mistake of talking when you should be listening. While the correct ratio depends on the situation, a good rule of thumb is 50/50.

If you have a rep with you I would divide your 50 between the two of you.

Tee-Up the Conversation

Define process up front to your meetings. Establish a win/win reason for the conversation, define the steps to follow, and implement timelines.

Ask Thought-Provoking Questions

Ask open-ended questions, but not the same typical questions. Ask questions that generally require thought before answering such as “how do you see your systems evolving over time.”

I know what the author is getting at, but use these techniques very sparingly or you risk sounding contrived.

Look Expensive

You should look expensive because your products are expensive and you want to those perceptions aligned. You can overdue it but you should generally position yourself in the upper end of the spectrum.

Optimize Email Use

Be very careful with the words you use in email because nonverbal queues are not available. Understand the receiver may not interpret sarcasm or emotion in the text the way you meant them. Despite the ease of use, it is not a replacement for most types of conversations.

Plan What Not to Share

Rather than withholding information, this is more about focusing your communication down to the essential. When situations arise where you feel unethical about not sharing specific information, if you cannot work it out with your AE you should involve your manager.

See a Problem, Probe It

Instead of trying to resolve or provide a quick fix to a problem, engage the client and fully probe and understand the problem before jumping to a solution. Not only does this show a greater appreciation of the situation, it also provides more color so that can better target your reply.

Create a Gap

Think of a movie, it wouldn’t be much fun if you just cut to the ending. When presenting solutions, also demonstrate the process of how you arrived at the solution. Not only does it show a more thorough approach, but it builds anticipation for the unveiling.

Keep You, Not your Slides, the Star of the Show

This is a lengthy chapter on presentation techniques. As I mentioned in previous reviews, you’re much better off studying presenting as a standalone art form.

Satisfy Personal Needs

Similar to the chapter on politics, the SE should be aware of the personal goals and needs of clients. When it is mutually advantageous you should seek opportunities to meet these needs.

My Recommendation

At about a $30 price point and 200 pages of content, I’d rate this as a nice to have for SEs, but not essential. I’d rate it slightly more important for SE managers or those senior SEs that feel they have topped out and are looking for new angles to explore.

Pros

I feel Levine did a good job of capturing his experiences as a development consultant working with SEs and SE organizations. Almost all of the chapters have relevant examples and sample conversations which help illustrate the topics. Rather than rehash many of the fundamentals he was able to keep the book more concise by focusing more on the standard deltas he sees between junior and senior SEs.

The first section of the book on development, as well as the chapter on dealing with politics, was covered in greater detail here than in any of the other books I’ve read.

Levine definitely comes across as an experienced and knowledgeable individual regarding the role of the SE. Even senior SEs and managers should be able to find numerous useful bites of information.

Cons

I think Levine’s sweet spot is the coaching and development aspect of his work. I got the sense that other parts of the book were a compendium of miscellaneous hot button tips picked up over a long period of time. A few of the other topics were simply highlights from other disciplines and not related specifically back to the role of the SE which would have been more helpful. I struggle with this myself in my writing.

I think if he expanded on the coaching and development as a book unto itself it could have made an A grade. I don’t think the unique challenges of developing SEs have been fully explored.

He worked in a few subtle plugs for his consulting practice, but I didn’t ding him too much for that since I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same 😉