Originally posted May 2021
Sales Engineers are key players in the sales process for many companies. We take a deep dive into who they are, who they’re not, and top skills needed to excel in the role.
Who They Are
Sales Engineers (SEs) act as the liaison between sales and product development teams. SEs are critical to the presales process and have a unique set of cross-functional skills. First, they’re trained subject matter experts with advanced technical knowledge of the mechanics behind the solutions. Second, they are perceptive consultants who can effectively articulate how the solutions can solve specific customer problems.
Depending on the nature of sales within a company, sales engineers can spend the majority of their time in sales presentations or negotiations, taking deep dives into the products and determining the most effective implementation strategies for each customer. However, they should not be confused with Product Managers or Sales Representatives:
- Product Manager vs. Sales Engineer – PMs are the brains behind product development, and typically wouldn’t be involved in sales conversations in more mature or larger companies. Product Managers own the product. Sales Engineers, on the other hand, would be highly involved with the product development teams to understand product capabilities and how to articulate benefits to prospective customers.
- Sales Representative vs. Sales Engineer – Sales Representatives manage the entirety of the customer relationship and the sales process. They own the account. Whereas Sales Engineers are typically included for demos or consulted for technical insight on deployment and implementation when reps are closing the deal. While they don’t own the account, they can be a huge contributor when it comes to big wins.
- Systems Engineers
- Technical Sales Engineer
- Solutions Architect
- Solutions Consultant
- Implementations Engineer
A Sales Engineer can wear multiple hats throughout their career. Because of the nature of their job, it requires them to not just adapt based on who they’re interacting with, but masterfully balance each hat simultaneously. Here are the three top skills (or hats) of an effective Sales Engineer:
Technical Skills – The Architect
Similar to an Architect, Sales Engineers leverage their creative instincts to devise potential solutions while taking into account each prospect’s distinct business needs. Depending on the nature of the product or services, SEs can custom create, reassemble, or reposition solutions to adhere to client pain points. Either way, this requires an exceptional amount of technical expertise to understand potential delivery and implementation models in addition to interaction with the prospect’s current systems or processes. If product offerings relate to cryptographic and secure data, they should be able to speak confidently about basic concepts on cryptography, algorithms, and cryptographic attacks too.
Soft Skills – The Linguist
The art form of a Linguist is bringing clarity and congruence between two or groups. The same can be said of Sales Engineers. While an essential skill for everyone, an integral part of an SE’s role is active listening. If SEs can actively listen when engaging with sales prospects, they’ll pick up on clues, technical or otherwise, to provide direction on how to drive the conversation in a compelling manner toward the right solutions.
On the other end, they should be able to effectively communicate with decision-makers, where they must conceptualize their needs and address their pain points both tactfully and skillfully. This is where balancing both the Architect and Linguist hats come into play, to demonstrate the technical competency and credibility needed on client calls in order to help propel the deal forward faster.
Analytical Skills – The Scientist
To quote organizational psychologist and (a personal favorite) author, Adam Grant, from his latest book Think Again:
“Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right—and revising our views based on what we learn.”
Applied to the role of a Sales Engineer, thinking like a Scientist means being open to new ideas or approaches to their solutions that they haven’t previously considered and looking for creative ways to optimize the experience for the customer. Being in between sales conversations and getting direct customer feedback or in discussions about the product development roadmap with product managers, SEs have a unique opportunity to identify possible gaps or opportunities for continuous improvement in development and usability.
How to Stand Out
Besides having an undergraduate degree in a related field, previous sales experience, or experience in a related industry, there are additional qualities and skills that can help sales engineering candidates truly stand out from the crowd.
Being curious in nature, inquisitive, and a problem-solver are additional soft skills that are essential in sales engineering. Again depending on the type of company and the services being sold, having technical expertise in a specific field or software is a huge advantage in getting a second call with hiring managers. For example:
- Programming or scripting languages such as PowerShell, Python, and R
- Large-scale cloud platforms such as AWS, Azure, VMware, etc.
- Cybersecurity background or understanding in areas such as network security, security engineering, or security operations
While not always necessary, certifications can be beneficial for Sales Engineers in the cybersecurity industry and for most technology companies. Consider a certification from Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure if applying for a cloud services company. Security+ from CompTIA or the Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) from EC-Council are both respectable credentials for the cybersecurity field. A project management certification like the PMP could be a good choice too.
Training for Sales Engineering Teams
For managers of sales engineering teams, key elements of training should include areas such as:
- Buyer and user personas
- Key use cases and product workflow
- Product positioning and differentiators
- Product functionality and limitations
- APIs and integrations/implementations
- Product infrastructure and security
For technology and cybersecurity companies, one area that may go overlooked is cybersecurity training. No, not the general awareness “Don’t click the link” training, but more foundational technical training to help understand the threat landscape as it relates to product offerings, solidify subject matter expertise, and bring credibility and authenticity into all sales processes.