During my time in corporate leadership, I have been responsible for building a series of successful sales engineering teams to meet the unique challenges SaaS companies face. SaaS has exploded over the last decade as organizations have benefitted from its lower costs, scalability, and ease of use. In the process, sales engineers have become crucial to acquiring and onboarding new clients. In many SaaS companies today, sales engineers are often on the first call with prospects, doing product demonstrations and asking the questions that will help define solutions and solve problems. They are the first “experts” that a prospect is going to meet, which is a tremendous responsibility but also an incredible opportunity. One thing I’ve learned is that a successful sales engineer must have in-depth technical and product knowledge combined with the ability to understand complex business systems — and just as importantly, people skills.
A Sales Engineer at Work
A good interaction with a sales engineer is often the first step in building trust with prospective customers. This relationship continues to develop step-by-step through the sales cycle. While the exact process differs from company to company, broadly speaking, the SE is responsible for developing a working knowledge of their client’s business processes and systems. Some of the common SE responsibilities include:
Typical Responsibilities for a Sales Engineer
- Developing a proof of concept outlining how the product will be implemented and what it will accomplish.
- Developing the system integration processes to implement the product.
- Supporting the sales team by providing statistical or technical information specific to the customer’s needs.
- Presenting product demonstrations tailored to the customer.
- Addressing technical questions as the process moves forward and helping to overcome technical obstacles to the sale.
Over time, sales engineers are exposed to a variety of customers and system configurations, and acquire an understanding of how their products fit into the larger ecosystem. With this in-depth product and system knowledge, they become an expert consultant who adds value to the customer’s experience.
As such, they become an important resource for IT managers who are challenged by varied integration and configuration requirements from multiple vendors as their systems become more dynamic. This is particularly important today because over 70 percent of organizations reported that their IT environment is more complex now than it was just two years ago, according to The Current State of the IT Asset Visibility Gap and Post-Pandemic Preparedness, a survey of 500 information security and IT decision makers conducted by the Enterprise Strategy Group for Axonius.
What Qualities Does a Sales Engineer Need to Succeed?
Beyond the necessary technical knowledge and sales skills, I have found that great sales engineers bring another dimension to the job. They are able to keep growing and developing, both personally and professionally, even though they are already considered “good” at their job. A successful sales engineer can discover a customer’s needs—sometimes beyond what they are aware of themselves—and help them improve their business processes. This ability requires more than just a technical understanding of products. They’ve mastered their product, but they remain open to new knowledge and experiences. They approach technical challenges with integrity and respect for their clients.
In my experience, the best sales engineers possess the following:
The 5 Qualities of a Successful Sales Engineer
Success starts with asking the customer the right questions about their business, their needs, and their goals, then listening closely to their responses. An effective sales engineer is genuinely interested in what the customer expects to gain from the product and why the solution is important to them. When a customer came to us to solve a very basic problem, one of our sales engineers listened carefully and asked thoughtful questions. They were able to uncover the customer’s true pain point, and subsequently proposed a more effective solution than the client had been considering. The SE transformed a mediocre client experience into one that positively impacted thousands of users and led to a serious uptick in productivity.
Since SEs work with customers across many verticals, they often bring unique perspectives to problem-solving. Very often, they can offer technical and process alternatives that achieve a goal more efficiently or more completely. For example, one engineer who worked extensively in manufacturing was able to share best practices she developed for that vertical with a large healthcare provider. As a result, hospitals were able to streamline the onboarding of first responders at a critical moment during the pandemic.
Relationships are built on trust, and honesty is key for building that trust. In sales engineering, this often means delivering news or recommendations that customers may not want to hear. For example, they may need to change deeply embedded business processes or collect more data to achieve specific goals. Approaching these discussions with empathy and honesty allows sales engineers to become trusted partners with customers, and this relationship will extend to the SaaS company overall.
Sales engineering is a highly visible, customer-facing role, so an individual’s ability to interface with others in a respectful, congenial manner will make prospects feel welcomed and reassured. It’s important that the sales engineer possesses a genuine desire to help companies find solutions to their greatest challenges. After all, you are asking the prospect to make a big investment in your technology, and the SE in turn should invest in the success of their technical sponsors. This contributes to long-term customer retention, but it can also be a source of new business, as many IT leaders continue relationships with trusted partners as they change roles and companies.
Great sales engineers are recognized as experts in a given field and collaborate and share information, especially peer-to-peer with other SEs. When I was in a previous role, whenever Apple released a new iOS version, I would be the first SE to research how it affected our product, then I would share my findings in a paper for the team. I learned from this experience to volunteer and take on new projects that will challenge me, like writing a blog or a white paper. When I discovered that one of my sales engineers was exceptional at explaining technical issues to customers, we tapped them to write knowledge base articles and even do a few videos. That SE was able to significantly build their profile within the company, and as a result was asked to take on bigger roles.
In my experience of developing effective SE teams, I’ve seen how building these skills contributes to a sales engineer growing from adequate to great. SEs who make these investments become a valued company resource and develop long-term business relationships with customers based on mutual trust and respect.