From Dud to Stud in 90 Days – Part III: Account Management and More

I hate to say it, but if you can’t establish yourself as a valuable technical and industry resource to your customers, you have no business speaking with them. That’s why it’s so critical to establish a minimal base of product and industry knowledge before you start engaging with your new accounts.

Now, that’s not to say you can’t listen in with your account manager or shadow your SE-mentor. Actually, that’s the fastest way to learn. Just don’t jump in and insert yourself in to the lone-SE role before you’re ready. As they say about first impressions…

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Enabling Your Channel – Part I

For most SEs, part of your responsibility includes supporting your channel partners. These partners are a direct extension of your sales coverage. In large companies there are teams of SE’s dedicated to these functions. For most, however, this responsibility falls to the local territory account team and SE. In this two-part article we’ll first explore ways to manage this organizationally and secondly how to manage this locally.

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Dude, where’s my SPIFF?

As SEs we often get left out in the cold when it comes to the almighty SPIFF. SPIFFs are easy to manage and measure when it comes to the sales rep. SPIFFing SEs has it’s own set of unique benefits and pitfalls and can certainly be tougher to gauge success. While it’s been increasingly common to tie an entire account team to the SPIFF where the inside rep and SE can benefit, this watering down effect does not often drive SE activity. I think it’s time we devote some attention to driving SE-focused SPIFFs.

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Are you missing out on bonuses?

I regularly receive questions pertaining to bonus splits for SEs. Many want to know what their variable comp should be given their seniority. Others have brought in a big deal and didn’t feel they got a fair shake. In this article we’ll explore some common scenarios and what you’re likely to find as you move up the food chain.

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So, you do what again…?

I’ve had this article in draft state for a long time. I recently got dragged into a discussion between a well-meaning sales manager and Sales Engineer to help mediate a dispute about job responsibilities.
This prompted me to formally address what I consider to be the role of an SE.

Definition

A Sales Engineer is a member of a sales team whose specialty is a deep understanding of their company’s solution portfolio and is adept at positioning solutions to best address prospective client’s perceived needs.

Looking Deeper

There are a lot of carefully chosen words there. Let’s look deeper:
- a member of a sales team – SEs form a partnership with the other sales team members. They do not own accounts though they may be assigned to them. The accountable sales team member is the sales representative
- deep understanding of their portfolio – SEs can be brought in to assist with many complex products and services, and are not necessarily technology oriented
- positioning solutions – SEs refine the company’s marketing and sales message based on qualification of an individual customer
- best address – SEs must overcome solution-specific objections from the customer and showcase the solution in a competitively beneficial light
- prospective client – SEs are engaged “pre-sale”. Post-sales solution design, implementation, and maintenance are handled by a separate services and support function
- perceived needs – SEs assist with the qualification of leads as well as help uncover additional needs that may only be discernable by solution experts
Even with this additional explanation, there is still a lot of ambiguity with regard to what the specific duties of an SE entail. This is due to the varying nature and complexity of the hiring company, product or service, industry, customer base, and sales team. A job description, then, is still required to specify the scope of an SE at a given company.

Roles and Responsibilities

By no means is this complete, but this framework should provide a good frame of reference.

Qualifying

As product breadth or complexity increases, one individual, at some breaking point, will no longer be able to completely uncover new business opportunities from the nuance of conversation between various members of the prospect’s buying center. Often this comes from those who are highly technical and responsible for the eventual solution implementation.
The SEs role, then, is to be able to understand, process, and translate prospect’s highly complex wishes or pain points into potential green field, cross sell, or upsell selling opportunities.
Common SE activities during this stage include:
  • Participating with the account team on early-stage prospect interactions
  • Hosting additional information gathering sessions with technical members of the buying center
  • Assisting the rep with making a go/no-go decision

Positioning

After an opportunity has been qualified at both a business and technical level, the sales rep must make the call whether to engage a prospect or not. Once the go ahead decision is made, the entire sales team embarks on a process to position their solution as one that best meets the prospect’s identified need.
The sales rep, again at some breaking point, may not be able to fully articulate the solution’s capabilities, or—more importantly—overcome specific objections. The rep still owns the company’s positioning efforts such as company reputation, pricing/ROI, capability to deliver, etc. The SE specifically addresses the merits of the specific solution in terms of 1) how it addresses the prospect’s need, and 2) how it does that better than other available solution.
Since any given solution is never technically perfect, there is always competition, even if the competitive solution is that the prospect does nothing. Therefore, both the rep and SE must work together to ensure that the prospect understands the merits of the solution in totality.
Common SE activities during this stage include:
  • Educating the prospect on industry norms and best practices
  • Educating the prospect on solution capabilities. This is typically done in the conference room is presentation and illustrative formats
  • Demonstrating how a product solves the specific use cases for the customer
  • Providing a recommended deployment methodology or architecture
  • Contributing to RFPs

Proving

All prospects require validation of what’s been presented to them by the sales team. This could be as simple as the prospect relating what they’ve been presented to something they already believed. This is a rare case, often this is an active process undertaken by the sales team.
A validation can come in many forms. The rep might have to validate the vendor’s stability by providing publically verifiable accounting statements. The SE must prove that solution matches the prospect’s use case. The rep and SE can work together to provide a neutral 3rd party reference (known as a “reference sale”). The SE can provide a custom-tailored miniature version of the solution. This could range from a detailed presentation (a “conference room pilot”) to a full product deployment in a lab or production environment.
Common SE activities during this stage include:
  • Working with the account team to identify suitable customer references
  • Configuring a solution-miniature that can be shown to the validate the use case
  • Manage a full pre-sale implementation of the product, sometimes involving professional services, product management, and technical support

Transitioning

After a sale is made, it is the SEs responsibility to ensure that the customer now realizes the benefit of that purchase. While the SE will rarely be responsible for conducting the implementation, it remains the account team’s responsibility to maintain ongoing customer satisfaction.
Common SE activities during this stage include:
  • Facilitating knowledge transfer to any professional services organization for implementation including the client’s needs and expectations
  • Introducing the  client to the post-sales support organization
  • Making routine inquiries to ensure ongoing satisfaction and eventual realization of the benefits that were articulated during the sales cycle
  • Cultivating members of the client’s implementation or administrative team that can assist with future customer references

Business Development

While typically less defined than account team responsibilities, the SE organization may also carry a mandate to help with business development. This can be accomplished via participation in industry events, contributing to industry best practice (often characterized by “thought leadership”) and helping maintain an established sales channel (often via partner firms).
Common SE business development activities include:
  • Belonging and speaking to local industry trade associations
  • Staffing booths at trade shows
  • Providing training to channel partners
So far I’ve covered the tactical “whats” that encompass the role of the SE. There is a broader treatment of the role which involves recommended background, experience, education, success factors, behavioral traits, and general job responsibilities not directly tied to account management and business development.
I plan to address those topics in a follow up article. In the meantime, if you have other suggestions please let me know and I’ll to this as I go.
Hopefully this will head off a “gentlemanly discussion” or two in the future.

Why you will be outsourced

You can relax a bit. It won’t be for a long time and won’t be as bad as you think. A more accurate statement is that the role of sales and sales engineering will eventually be handled mostly by firms that specialize in the sales function.

Why have I recently come to this conclusion? The long-term trend suggests that relentless focus on cost reduction will force companies to eventually outsource everything but their value creating operations. Sales can generate additional revenue but is not a value-creation activity–it’s value transference. If you disagree, think of how much revenue you can produce without something to sell. ;)

The marketplace will eventually produce companies that are very efficient at providing sales forces to other businesses. At this point Sales becomes the value-creating activity for these new companies.

Don’t let the slow, monolithic beasts of today’s outsourcers fool you. As businesses become better at measuring their own operations by using correct metrics, we will get better at constructing mutually beneficial agreements. Today’s outsourcing agreements are hundreds of pages and provide each party an outline of the minimum duties they can get away with performing.

We will get past this phase of infancy. It just may take us another 10-20 years. From what I am seeing now, though, I believe economic pressures will exert a huge influence on removal of value transference activities.

[EDIT: note I said outsource, not offshore. No, I do not believe face-to-face sales can be fully replaced]

[EDIT: Reader JP pointed out a great example of company doing just this for SE work - http://pre-sales.com. Thanks!]

How to Become THE Go-To SE

Every SE organization has them. The “go-to” SEs are the ones you turn to when you absolutely need something to go well. I’m certain you can think of several off the top of your head. If you want to be considered as one of them, these are the steps you need to follow.

Choose your niche

THE expert denotes a singular entity. This is true, but only as it pertains to a specific subject (see Ch 17). The go-to SE for one product is almost certainly not the same for a separate product. Or there can be different go-to’s for different parts of the technical sales cycle (e.g. presenting versus proof of concepts).

Find one particular subset of study within your organization where you are uniquely qualified to be the best in the world at something. Like any company competing in a free market, if your niche is too big you can be out-niched, if too small you risk not having the requisite demand.

Become the expert

Expert and go-to status are not the same. You need to have sufficient knowledge before you’re given the chance to leverage it.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes a case for a 10,000 hour practice requirement before someone can be considered a top expert. For broad topics I can definitely agree, but regardless of the time requirement, the key takeaway is that you need to outpractice everyone around you. Expertise is not simply a bestowed genetic legacy!

This means you need to immerse yourself in your niche, reading every book, subscribing to every website, blog, and relevant news outlet. It means you need to actively seek out and connect with other experts pertaining to your niche inside and outside your company.

Even if you haven’t written the book on the subject, you need to be able to if someone asked.

Become the go-to

Thankfully if you’ve reached this phase the difficult part is behind you. Luck is 9/10ths preparation. And if have truly put in the sacrifice to master your subject, SEs and reps will find you with amazing speed and precision.

But, in the tradition of The Sales Engineer, we don’t leave ANYTHING to chance. Here is how you can accelerate your mind share in the sales community.

  • Seek opportunities to help – If you had to remember one this is it. Just like becoming the expert, becoming THE go-to means people can, well, actually feel like they can engage you. So prime the pump for them. Monitor your company bulletin boards religiously for topics meeting your niche. Do the research on their behalf even if you don’t know the answer. Get in touch with Marketing and see if you speak or attend specific events as an expert. Offer to do lunch and learn presentations to your local sales/SE team. This list is only limited by your creativity.
  • Broaden your exposure – Don’t limit yourself to internal advertising. Seek out industry associations to get involved with. Though it may not seem important initially, the difference in being perceived as an industry expert is more directly tied to your external credentials than your internal ones.
  • Advance your niche – The real experts contribute toward the body of knowledge on their subject. Start a blog, write whitepapers, perform original research, etc. This can be very time consuming but also extraordinarily rewarding.

 

Despite what you may hear, there is such a thing as job security. It just doesn’t come from a company. In lean times, the truly helpful and knowledgeable will always have positions.