The Secret Formula for Great Sales Engineers

Ask any VP of Sales… high quality sales engineers can be very hard to find. Why is this? The challenge lies in the fact that great sales engineers possess skills that are often considered mutually exclusive.

So… what’s the secret formula that makes for a great sales engineer?


I believe that a great sales engineer must be endowed, in equal parts, with:

  • domain expertise
  • product expertise
  • sales/communication expertise

Let’s examine each of these more closely…

Domain Expertise

With the exception perhaps of games, all successful software was designed to solve a problem. This problem might be “how do we protect our network from intruders?”, “how do we plan our agile projects?” or “how do we run an oil refinery?”

Sales engineers with domain expertise have a deep understanding of the problem space their software products are intended to solve.

Obviously, software is highly specialized so any sales engineer who hopes to be successful must develop some sort of specialization. I know a sales engineer who has worked for his entire career in the field of Windows network security. He has developed substantial expertise in that field, which serves him well as he sells new products in that space.

Of course, such specialization is risky. You might choose to specialize in a field or a technology that falls from favor. For example, back in the 1990s there were lots of companies selling software to “screen scrape” mainframe applications; how many of those products do you see in the market today? If you decide to specialize in one domain you are making a very large bet that this domain will still be thriving in 25 years. Alternatively, you could decide to specialize in a very broad field –such as application development– with the understand that you will need to change your focus over the years as your domain shifts focus, for example a progression though mainframe, client-server, web and mobile application development.

Personally, I prefer to take a different approach to domain expertise. Over the years, I’ve developed the ability to quickly learn new domains. Although I have a field of specialization (application development) I have also worked effectively in other domains such as electronic contract management, agile project management and application release management.

If you are just starting out as a sales engineer, you should ask yourself:

  • Am I the sort of person who is going to specialize in one field? … or
  • Do I have the skills to quickly learn entirely new domains as needed?

These are important questions… ones that each sales engineer must answer for himself. (I’ll come back to the topic of adapting to new product domains in a later post.)

Regardless of which path you pick, you must bring some domain expertise to the table if your customers are ever going to view you as an expert in your field of work.

Product/Technology Expertise

Domain expertise is sometimes confused with product expertise, but they are quite different. Domain expertise in accounting means that you understand all of the rules for revenue recognition as defined by FASB (or the accounting regulatory agency in your country.) Product expertise means that you can explain how your accounting software implements and enforces those accounting rules.

Product expertise is critical because it’s at the core of what being a sales engineer is all about; the sales engineer is the product expert on the sale team.

The most important advice I have regarding product expertise is to never stop learning about the product(s) you sell. Product knowledge comes in layers, once you master one layer of product functionality you should continue your education, learning more about the lower levels of your product.

After you master the fundamentals of your product, consider these questions:

  • Do you know enough about how the APIs in your product work?
  • Do you know how your product can be integrated to other products?
  • Do you know the ROI that your key customers have realized?

Sales / Communication Expertise

In addition to domain expertise and product expertise, a great sales engineer must possess a solid understanding of the enterprise sales process and a great set of communication skills.

While all three skill set are important, I believe that this is the most critical part of the formula because the lack of these skills can kill a deal. I could write an entire book on the topic (and perhaps someday I will) but for now, I’ll just summarize the most important skills.

A great sales engineer understands how to:

  • Qualify opportunities at the beginning of the sales cycle
  • Build rapport with prospective customers
  • Ask the right questions during the sales cycle
  • Listen closely to fully understand customer requirements
  • Communicate at the right level to the different types of audiences
  • Present products as solutions to a business problem
  • Develop an ROI based on input from the prospect
  • Handle objections
  • Make the technical close

Each of these will be addressed in more detail in later posts on this blog.

Why Great Sale Engineers are Hard to Find

If you’ve been paying close attention you have probably already noticed the problem with this formula: some of these elements are mutually exclusive.

It is uncommon to find people who have deep technical skills and great communication/sales skills. This could be because difference personality types exceed at these two very different tasks. It’s also possible that the problem here is one of focus; if you focus all of your energy on being a great developer you might never invest time in learning other skills such a persuasive writing and public speaking.

Regardless of the reasons why, it’s extremely uncommon to find someone who possesses deep domain expertise, solid technical skills and great sales skills. I’ve hired lots of sales engineers over the years… Although I’m always looking for someone with all three skills, I’ve been willing to find someone who has two solid skill sets, with the assumption that he will learn the third. Usually this means hiring someone who lacks domain expertise because that’s usually the skill set that can be developed the most quickly.

What do you think?

Does this view of what makes a sales engineer great match up with your opinions? If so –or if not- please share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

9 Responses to The Secret Formula for Great Sales Engineers

  1. Jomy says:

    Hi Matt,

    This is was really a very informative post! I’ve learnt it the hard way though. I was under the misconception that Sales people just need to have those extra “people” skills and hence they have an advantage over the so called Subject Matter Experts, where they needn’t be aligned to a specific domain or industry. After all, they have to do is “sell”.

    But I was so wrong! A Sales Engineer, i feel, really needs to be a fast learner. Not a specialist, but at the same time not just an direct sales guy!

    I’m really interested in knowing more about those extra little things or documentation/presentations that can help a Sales Engineer in closing a sale. In the paragraph mentioned above, you spoke of creating a ROI based on customer inputs. I have never created one before. Could you shed some light on that area ?

    Great blog !
    – Jomy

  2. Greg Jackson says:

    Hi Matt,

    Great post! I agree w/ you that learning new domains quickly is key. However, if one is naturally curious and enjoys learning new stuff, this if fun rather than a chore.

    Regards, Greg

  3. Sofandre says:

    Is Sales Engineer similar with pre-sales consultant?

    Thank you.

    • saleh says:

      hi . the different between sales and pre-sales that: pre-sales must know deeply in products technically more than sales ,

  4. Hossein says:

    Thanks for the post. It was very well explained esp. for me that I’m going to start my job as a sale’s engineer.

  5. saleh says:

    Thanks for the post. It was very well explained esp. for me because my job is a sale’s engineer.

  6. Ali says:

    I totally agree with u, the point is that the sales engineer has to combine between the technical strengths with the sales/communication abilities.

  7. Don says:

    I agree, All three are very hard to find in a person to make a good sales engineer. And it takes years to develop the skills to move a potential client from prospect to closed WON! Keep up the great work love the article.

    regards,

    Don

  8. danish says:

    thanks i was really help full i am starting as a sales engineer… wish me luck bye

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