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.

What’s in a Name?

If you’ve been a part of a large sales organization-or several-you’ve probably heard your fair share: sales engineer, systems engineer, customer engineer, (pre-sales) consultant, technical account manager, etc. All of these terms describe a customer-facing member of the sales team that is primarily responsible for recommending a combination of product(s), options, configurations, and services that best address the customer’s business need. This individual often qualifies, proposes, positions, and validates the solution with the customer during the sales cycle.So is one name better than another? Actually, yes.

I have probably heard every argument made for one or the other. Do any of these sound familiar?

“We should use the term system instead of sales engineer so that customers do not associate us with the sales team so that we are seen as more trustworthy.”

“Technically we aren’t engineers at all in the exact sense of the word. We should be called consultants, or sales consultants, or pre-sales consultants. Uh oh, how do we get rid of the sales part without the customer mistaking us for a services role?” Note: In certain countries the use of the word engineer in a business title is restricted to certain fields.

“We need the term sales in the title to show the sales reps that we are truly a member of the sales team and not a glorified tech support team.”

“If we use the term sales, maybe customers will be more likely to stop calling us for support after they buy the product.”

So which one is best? The answer, in my opinion, is the one that best allows you to identify yourself and your role to your customers. Because this differs among industry norms, the best choice may be different if you are selling medical equipment or ERP software. In my field of enterprise software, the term SE is ubiquitous. If you ask customers what this stands for, most will reply Systems Engineer.

We have a winner (in my case).

But that is not to say it is the right answer for every SE in every region of your company. My recommendation is to standardize internally on the most common term to minimize confusion between departments, but always give local SE teams the freedom to put the title on their cards that best matches the expectation of their customers. Drive consistency where possible, but always remain flexible.

If you still don’t have the answer, go ask your customer. Rarely are the best answers found in your office.

If by now you are wondering why I use the term sales engineer around here, it’s pretty simple. Do a web search for systems engineer, sales engineer, etc.  I think you’ll see that using sales engineer gives my potential audience the best chance of finding this site. Case closed.