Intro: What is a Sales Engineer?
‘Sales Engineer’ as a title is a little disingenuous. An SE (as I’ll refer to the role throughout this post) doesn’t necessarily need to sell. That’s the sales reps job. There’s no distinct ‘pitch’ or ‘script’ for an SE. They also don’t necessarily engineer anything. Engineering suggests creation of new product (in a software business anyway). But the SE’s definitely lean into the problem solving aspect of the word ‘engineering’.
The basics of the SE role is one that sits in the center of a venn diagram of a standard organisation. I’m going to talk more about software (SaaS, specifically) because that’s what I know — though the role exists in lots of other business types. The venn diagram has a few intersecting circles: sales/marketing (one bucket), product/engineering & support/services.
SE sits in the intersection of pretty much all of those departments. It’s not necessarily the heartbeat of the business, but more an underlying infrastructure that binds a lot of these functions. An SE, although aligned to the VP of Sales normally, will interact with Product Managers, Devs and Support & Services (Account Managers, etc.) about everything they see & hear. And what do they see? An SE will see the product evolve to solve customer needs, how customers want to use the product & beyond. They tend to command more respect from engineering than sales would, and vice-versa (they command respect from sales where engineering wouldn’t).
So with that in mind, what are a few key things I reckon an SE does in a business?
1. Help Sales Get A Deal Over The Line
There are a few stages sales goes through to actually sell a deal. It’s funny, before I was an SE (and my current role is the only one where I’ve been an SE — prior to this I was a dev) I had no idea how maniacally analytical sales are.
We all know & think engineering & product teams across the world use lots of tools to graph productivity, results & more. But sales folks are just the same. They graph their productivity to track deals across the stages of the sales funnel to better predict the likelihood of closing a deal, and then trying to get better at picking opportunities to sell in future, etc. It’s remarkably well thought-out as a process.
But there are normally a few stages in a sales funnel. From the SE perspective, the important pieces are a technical scope call, deep-dive into a product feature or a full demo. At any, or all of these steps, the SE is required. Either to shepherd the conversation or to be there as a resource for the sales rep, who is leading the conversation.
An SE might be responsible to help technically evaluate if the product being sold can even help the prospect, but is also often responsible for coming up & demonstrating a solution that solves for the needs of that prospect too.
Beyond that, one big goal an SE should have is being the technical resource for the sales organisation. Simply being in the room for sales reps is quite a big part of the role (a lot of logged assists will be “walk up questions”) but also coaching the reps on new product updates, how to explain concepts to customers, etc. Basically being the product departments eyes, ears & mouth on the sales floor.
2. Help Product Solve For The Customer
One of the key phrases that evolves from a growing sales organisation is ‘EV’, which stands for Enterprise Value.
What this means is that while the business is there to solve for customer needs, there needs to be some ROI from that action. The EV of having an SE in the business is simply that they help get more complex deals over the line, but also help the sales team into a more comfortable position when tough conversations come up.
EV is what sales & marketing are all about. But EV is also important in product/dev. It’s often forgotten there because they problems being solved by PMs or devs are so complex, unique or large that EV isn’t quite the thing that comes top of mind. As such, the SE team are a phenomenal resource for the PM team to lean-in on when they think about market fit for new products, features or updates. The SE team spend so much time talking to the internal business units as well as prospects or customers that they’re a great way to vet new stuff. Moreover, the SE team is a technically qualified team (I think almost all the SEs I work with come from a Computer Science or Engineering background). In other words, they “get it”.
The SE team tends to also find time in their day to dig into the dark corners of the product. They’ll uncover bugs, but also manage to dig into cool tips & tricks. In fact, the team I work with has an “SE Tips & Tricks” email distro. with which new product discoveries can be shared. This becomes important as the scope of the product gets bigger as the team grows & the EV solution gets more complex.
3. Drive Solutions
Like I mentioned above, the team I work with are mostly coming from very technical backgrounds. These are folks who were developers & engineers in the past, so their analytical & mathematical minds are automatically attuned to solving problems.
As such, the role becomes far more tailored to the specific conversation we’re having with prospects or customers. The job is less demo’ing a standard set of features over & over again, and more about finding out what the customer actually can do with the product and solve their problems with the tools our sales reps are trying to sell.
The SE team needs to have a broad range of knowledge & skills around the product they’re dealing with, in order to maintain a certain level of agility when discovering solutions for prospects or customers. As such, they need to be able to come up with different product market fits & solutions dependent on the conversation they’re having. It’s that kind of nuance that separates a good SE from a regular one.
Moreover, through all of this *solution driving*, the SE team tends to uncover new opportunities for the business. New market fit solutions often come up. For example, discovering people who want to use a B2B tool for B2C stuff — and actually making it work. That’s the kind of information the marketing or product teams normally wouldn’t be able to uncover.
4. Be Smart
The company I work for has HQ in Boston so I’m sure they’d appreciate the context of this title being “be wicked smaht”.
SE’s need to be a central fulcrum for a lot of people. As such, they need to be smart about how they spend their time. They need to be able to delegate some things to reps., as well as push back on reps with some aspects of their day.
Being smart also means being smart about finding gaps in sales people’s product knowledge &… well, filling that gap. Using coaching sessions & product update roadshows to demonstrate to the teams how they can leverage new features or updates to their prospects.
SEs need to be smart & technical enough to be able to implement solutions that seem simple but need complex discovery & thought process evaluation. Sometimes even on a technical level to work with APIs (not necessarily to write code, but at least to explain it).
Uses also need to be thought leaders, public speakers (at least on the enterprise level) and a knowledge base for the teams around them. They need, on top of this, to have an agile mentality when it comes to changes in job structure, product & everything in-between.
Above all, they need to not be a dick. To anyone. Ever.