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My Treatise on Certification for Sales Engineers (site moved)

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My Treatise on Certification for Sales Engineers


Please connect with us via the following:
Blog URL:
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LinkedIn: (includes blog updates)
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Last Post at TSE – Announcing OPTAM

March 27, 2008 marked the inaugural post at The Sales Engineer. In the 8 years I have been writing here I have been afforded the chance to broaden my relationships and understanding of my profession through my interaction with some great people I have met through this site.

The practice of being an SE matures slowly but steadily. During this time I have seen some excellent developments in the resources SEs and SE managers have at their disposal to increase the capabilities of themselves and their teams. One thing has been missing though… Let me explain.

About 2 years ago I was catching up on email. I had received a note from a reader asking if I knew of any certifications on presales. Normally I would reply with an answer I’ve used before which is “No, but I wish there was!”. This time, however, it happened to be the 3rd such request in a week. In that moment I (finally…) decided to do something about it. So I started having some discussions with other like-minded SEs, and we agreed to pool our experience to launch the first ever SE certification!


You would think putting together a few hundred questions based on experience you already knew and publishing it on a website would be easy. It wasn’t.

It took us over two years to develop, refine, sign vendors, QA, beta, revise, and publish our results. The result of our effort was the Certified Technical Sales Professional exam. In order to manage the credential and establish an independent organization to manage this project and others, we created the Organization for Professional Technical Account Management–OPTAM for short.

Transitioning The Sales Engineer

I will now be writing at OPTAM instead of TSE, mainly because I don’t have time to write for two sites. I will keep this site here indefinitely for reference purposes and may cross post for a month or two, but my efforts are on OPTAM moving forward.

Please connect with us via the following:
Blog URL:
RSS feed:
LinkedIn: (includes blog updates)
Twitter: @OPTAM_Online (includes blog updates)
Email: If you are an email subscriber, your subscription will remain intact, though you may want to ensure is whitelisted. For new email subscribers just visit the blog URL and enter your email address.

This has been a great journey and I’m looking forward to the next chapter. Having your viewership is an honor and I sincerely hope you’ll join me (and other contributors) at our new home!

– Darrin Mourer, CTSP

What can you (SE’s) stop doing in the new year?


If you’ve seen one too many posts on resolutions for the coming year like I have, I’m sure the last thing you want to see is another list of things to add to your growing stack of todo’s. So I wanted to take the opposite frame and list out some things you can safely stop doing to gain some much needed time back to focus on things you want to start doing.

In no particular order:

  • No first discussion calls – Stop attending calls where it’s the first interaction your sales team has had with a prospect. If your rep or inside guy hasn’t spent at least 20 minutes gathering basic qualification information, don’t get on the phone
  • No RFP responses! – UNLESS you helped create it with the prospect in the first place
  • No support calls – Spending time on support calls with existing customers is not the best use of your time
  • No unqualified demos – If the prospect won’t agree to a brief needs analysis call prior, they are sent to your weekly webinar and not a 1:1 demo. Don’t have one? Create it.
  • Stop writing redundant emails – Take the time to create exceptional email templates
  • Stop responding to after-hours emails – Unless a customer’s systems are down, it can wait until morning
  • No agenda, no meeting – If that internal meeting has no detailed agenda which involves you personally, skip it. Some companies like Apple, Google, and Visa have mandated this company-wide
  • No defined budget, no POC – Unless there is a specific budget amount the prospect has assigned to your project and you know what it is, do not proceed with a POC
  • No buying criteria, no POC – If the prospect won’t work with you to define their buying criteria, do not proceed with a POC
  • Forget the roadmap – Stop worrying about where your product is going outside of some high level objectives. Instead, use roadmap questions as an opportunity to bring product managers in to qualified opportunities

While there are exceptions to any rule, the benefit of this type of review is to see how far you can push these principles in your own situation to free up time for more productive activities.

As an aside, this will be one of the last posts on The Sales Engineer. There are many developments afoot, so look forward to an announcement next month on newer and bigger things. I wish everyone a very happy and prosperous FY17!


Creating Situational Awareness in the Technical Sales Process

I recently came across this blog from Gartner Group’s Hank Barnes on the subject of creating situational awareness inside the sales organization. This plainly has a direct corollary inside the SE organization so I thought it would be good to think about how we could apply that to our own deals.

In order to keep this a manageable amount of information, I decided to list out the top three questions to ask yourself for each step in the technical sales cycle.


  • What are the top three most important data points you need to qualify a customer? Some customers may be very open and willing to describe all aspects of their pain points and buying process, others will hold that information very close to the vest. Try having a question or two at the front end of your 1st meeting to determine how much information you can obtain. Something like “Can you tell me about how you’ve been accomplishing xyz today?” If you get a great response, perhaps you continue with a few more well rehearsed questions.
  • How can I incorporate qualifying questions into my pitch? If and when you meet the brick wall, go into your material, but have strategic checkpoints during your pitch where you may be able to pull out some related qualification material. For example, if you’re talking about network architecture or sizing, a question about how many potential users they would have seems like a very appropriate question to ask, and one that would likely be answered in that context.
  • What are the top three red flags that you could help uncover during your first meeting? Is there a specific use case you’re weak at or is a key buying center not represented? Figure out what these are ahead of time and make sure you’re seeking these out immediately.


  • Would slideware or a whiteboard be more effective? Most customers do not mind slideware as long as it’s interesting. Others are put off by the very nature of slide- based presentation. Think about asking the question before you delve into presentation: “I have some slides that are already complete that I can put up to talk through, or we could take a bit longer and do a whiteboard session that would be more specific to your organization, do you have a preference?”
  • Who in this meeting am I addressing the most? The least? Asked another way, you’re simply prioritizing attendees and the specific content likely to be most important to them.
  • What objections do I need to spend time addressing right now and which ones should be dealt with offline? There are likely certain aspects to your product that come up repeatably as objections. Determine which ones are most important to your prospect and which ones are tangential that can be safely taken offline.


  • What are the three most interesting elements to this prospect I need to ensure are included? Make sure you’re showing the most relevant aspect up front (ala Great Demo!)
  • Do you have the minimum necessary information required to provide a customized demo? If not, make sure you ask those final questions up front before you begin.
  • What are you closing for? Sometimes multiple demonstrations are required. Oftentimes the POC is the next logical step. In others, a reference sale may be appropriate. Understand what you’re closing for so that 1) you cover just enough ground to set yourself up nicely, and 2) you incorporate your close as part of demo meeting.

Proof of Concepts

  • What other solutions are going to POC? Competitive angles can be used throughout the sales process of course, but at this stage it is imperative you factor this into planning. This influences the testing below.
  • What are the pertinent use cases for my prospects business pain point? Rarely does a prospect really need all that product does (or every feature within it). For each POC at least have a mental list of what is needed to cover. Leave out everything else to avoid scope creep.
  • What test cases accurately demonstrate the use cases? An important component of every POC is figuring out how you recommend a prospect test out a particular use case. I say recommend because a prospect may have their own plan, which is fine, but you should always try to influence this. It will save both of you a lot of time and effort.

Are there others you’d recommend for this list? Comments here.

Do Customer References Matter More than Product Features?


I was recently pointed to this WSJ article entitled The Secret to Turning Consumers Green. The topic of the article is irrelevant, but the techniques documented inside paint a very interesting picture about how individuals make decisions. These findings should not be ignored by Sales Engineers when designing a pitch.

Let’s look at one of the experiments from the article:

The second paper described a study involving public-service messages hung on the doorknobs of several hundred middle-class homes in San Marcos, Calif. All urged residents to use fans instead of air conditioning, but they gave different reasons for doing so.

Some residents learned they could save $54 a month on their utility bill. Others, that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month. A third group was told it was the socially responsible thing to do. And a fourth group was informed that 77% of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning, a decision described as “your community’s popular choice!”

Meter readings found that those presented with the “everyone’s doing it” argument reduced their energy consumption by 10% compared with a control group. No other group reduced energy use by more than 3% compared with the control group.

When attempting to influence, the (lesser seasoned) SE’s primary staple has always been the Logos approach. It’s the easiest and most familiar given our backgrounds. We talk about how feature x is unique and how our feed is 25% faster, etc. But as we present up the food chain the dynamic of a technology or featured-based decision erodes quickly in favor of a more Pathos-based set of criteria.

You might be thinking at this point that I’m suggesting you eschew your technology roots when presenting up the chain. Not so. I think there is a nuanced way you stay within your area of expertise while providing additional social proof.

A couple examples:

Customer: Your competition says they deploy in 3 months and you’re telling me you deploy in 1 month, why is that?
You (Before): We have a learning algorithm that  profiles your users activity to help us auto-configure the business logic before we go into production.
You (After): We had two early-stage customers of ours, Proctor and Gamble and General Electric, where they were desperate to get our product deployed quickly. Our product and consulting team worked with them to develop a capability to quickly learn about your users before deploying. Since then, our customer deployments that I’ve personally been involved in like AT&T and Chipotle have been completed in just a couple weeks, and they are so happy about the process they are all willing to talk to other clients of ours about the process.

Customer: Tell me about your data retention capabilities.
You (Before): We can store up to 1TB of data at a time, which has proven to be more than sufficient for other large customers.
You (After): We currently up to 1TB of data at a time. To put that into perspective, our largest customer General Motors has been using our software for 4 years now they have only reached half of their allotment. I also happened to be working with Exxon the other day and I was shocked they were only requiring a tenth of that amount. Since they are in your industry, would you anticipate having similar usage?

What you are subtly communicating with these answers is that your prospect will be in very good company if they select you as their vendor. You are also demonstrating your credibility in being able to address the business issue. There are many places you can work in these “micro-references” into the conversation including presentations, demos, competitive showdowns, etc.

The hardest part of this approach is that it requires a certain type of company culture. SEs have to be exposed to other accounts, customers must be publicly reference-able, recorded pitches and demos need customer anecdotes built in. Without this cultural aspect, it can be very hard for an individual SE to internalize enough reference points to reach critical mass. Thus it is essential that an SE or SE manager work up the organizational food chain to instill some of these elements where they might be missing today.

The final result is not that features become irrelevant in the conversation, they just will oftentimes become far less relevant than the reference points you provide.


Comments here.

Should You Demo on the First Customer Meeting?

cdc0514a3a3cd5fe11a267cc816935a1I recently got into a discussion with a colleague about whether it’s appropriate to do a demo on the first call with a new prospect. This SE was frustrated because there is no qualification work being done prior to jumping on the call with a customer. This is resulting in qualification and demo-customization on the fly.

My position is that it can be perfectly acceptable to do a demo on the first call–assuming a couple caveats. Without going through the full dialog, we arrived at some common ground:

  • The first call the SE does with the prospect is almost never the first touch point with the customer
  • Reps should minimally be attempting to gather 3-5 technical datapoints that will assist your demo prior to the call, ideally a few days ahead of time
  • The SE should write down and prioritize the top ten technical qualification questions so the rep doesn’t have to guess
  • The SE should put the time in to develop a scripted demo for each major use case of the product. This allows for a lot of perceived customization of the demo on the fly, even if it is fairly rehersed. I’ve sold some very complicated and open-ended solutions before and even then most use cases could be covered by 10 major variations of a demo–something easily learned by a seasoned SE
  • Requiring a separate, dedicated qualification meeting prior to the demo can get your company perceived as “hard to do business with” or “overly complicated” especially if your competitor says “sure we can show you a demo, how about tomorrow”

You can argue that if a propsect won’t agree to a demo, that prospect must be a tire kicker. That’s a good rule to live by. Time permitting, I have no problem demoing to tire kickers. Worst case you’ve better educated a potential future client, best case they see something so compelling that it converts into a real initiative.

The higher the ratio of reps to SEs means that more qualification is needed to prevent demo fatigue of your SE team. More than 4 demos a day can be very mentally draining given the concentration and precision demanded of the SE.

If you are in a situation where you find yourself (or team) doing a high volume of “harbor tour”-type demos, your company should host an open weekly demo you can offer to poorer qualified prospects to ease the burden on field staff.

I’m curious if any of you have implemented other guidelines to help streamline this process?

Comments here.