Sales engineers, application engineers, and more than a few tech consultants have this in common: they do a lot of the sales' heavy lifting. In my experience, what makes them successful is their ability to perform three balancing acts—sales, technology, and personality. When they optimize these three equations, they thrive, and so does their employer.
Sales engineers. Application engineers. Consultants. There are multiple names out there describing people that engage in what I would call technical presale.
They all typically get called in by the sales organization after a lead—aka a potential customer—is identified. They act as experts in the products or services that the organization sells, and as such will discuss with different types of decision-makers at client sites along with salespeople.
They will ask questions to understand the needs, recommend a solution, often provide proofs of concept, and, if a sale occurs, typically oversee the initial deployment of the proposed solution and its transfer to the support organization.
I have experience managing both sales engineers and more traditional sales and business development people. Albeit there is a difference in role, I like to tell engineers that what they are doing is, in fact, sales, as they are there to help increase revenues. In fact, in a number of industries where solutions need to be customized, they are a critical part of the sales process.
This mandate means that sales and application engineers must care about business and technology all at once. Their ability to strike a careful balancing act determines how successful their company will be. Or, in more tech terminology, they must try to optimize three different equations all at once:
- They must consider increasing revenues as an important goal, but without forgetting profitability;
- They must push the boundaries of what is possible to do with their technology, but without endangering the credibility of the company;
- Finally, they must be very resilient, but without stubbornly trying to deliver on things that will never work.
Sales Engineers: Bullish On Revenues, Still Good Stewards
Let me shock a few of you. Field application engineers and consultants, I consider you salespeople.
Sure, you aren't typically closing deals. But there is much more to sales than the act of closing. You engage clients, listen to their problems, their objectives, their aspirations. From there, you come up with recommendations and solutions, demo these, often run proof of concepts. You may also be partially or fully involved in the delivery of these once a sale is closed.
In other words, in many cases, if there is no you, there are no sales. You are the starting pitcher who sets the table for a closing pitcher to come in and conclude the transaction.
In fact, in many cases, you are also being called to generate leads as well. A number of you publish white papers or engage with visitors in trade show booths. Isn't that part of prospecting for new business?
One key metric management will use to judge your group's performance is revenue, just like more traditional sales. In fact, in many cases, individual compensation will be partially linked to it.
He or she will increase revenue as a matter of personal and organizational pride and celebrate wins just like a regular salesperson would.
Because of this, they will constantly evaluate how to improve things to propel sales further. The best performers will not be passive in that regard.
However, what sales and application engineers cannot do is consider that short-term revenue maximization is their only goal. They know full well that signing a rotten deal that ends up being an excessive drag on resources is no win at all.
Now, in my view, even traditional salespeople should not get a pass on signing bad deals by considering that their job is only to increase revenue. As I discussed previously, I take a dim view of that type of behavior, and I am far from being the only one.
Still, because sales and application engineers are, in fact, the technical experts of the sales process, they have a special responsibility to ensure deals make sense to the organization. They know that trust is the crucial currency of any business relationship. They will not endanger it by knowingly signing up for deals that will likely fail at the client site (for example, by selling vaporware).
Likewise, they understand the concept of opportunity cost. If a deal swallows an excessive amount of resources related to its revenues, these resources are not available to other, more profitable sales opportunities.
Sales Engineers: At The Edge Of Technology Without Falling Over A Cliff
man Application engineers know how to push their technology to its limits, without falling into an abyssPhoto by Stephen Mayes on Unsplash
So, as discussed above, the best sales and application engineers care about revenues. And the tool they use to promote growth is their technical expertise.
The best ones go a step further. They know what their solutions can and could do if pushed to their edge.
Here's an example. Once in Japan, we had a client who expressed interest in our testing solutions. However, there was a problem: our software did not support their operating system.
We could have walked away. Instead, we came up with a way to compile, link, and run tests on that machine while running our software onto another server that ran an operating system we supported.
We were able to do so because we understood our technology well and had the imagination required to "think outside the box" on that one. The level of investment that the client was able to commit to also made it sensical from a business standpoint.
That is what excellent sales and application engineers do. They are not content to reproduce at multiple sites what previously done. They are also genuinely excited to deliver innovative solutions that break new ground, either through their technical prowess or by collaborating with R&D—and often a mix of both.
Of course, this needs to be carefully balanced. Just because something is cool doesn't mean it should be done. Just like profitability needs to inform revenue increases, pushing the technology to its limits must be done within reasons.
In other words, delivering complex and flaky customizations to a customer that will likely generate a ton of support calls should never be considered a step forward that is acceptable for a sales or application engineer.
In our case, the extra burden was reasonable given the contract's size and the fact that the underpinning technological approach was sound. We also did not oversell the client on what it could do, and we were upfront about its limitations before the deal was inked. That helped ensure a high level of satisfaction for all parties.
Sales Engineers: The Resilience of Indiana Jones With The Aura Of ExpertiseFile:Indiana Jones - Lucca Cosplay 2008.jpg - Wikimedia Commons commons.wikimedia.org
The best sales and application engineers I know all have something in common. Somewhere, they all have a bit of Indiana Jones in them.
No, they don't all have a knack for unleashing huge rolling balls (you hope they never do!), and no, they don't all have a high tolerance for "special food." But what distinguishes them from other engineers is a high degree of resilience.
See, their job is a suite of mostly short-term missions. Each has its unique caveats, its challenges, and its unknowns.
Adequate preparation minimizes the latter, but it doesn't eliminate them. These engineers often show up at the client site to find something unique going on, something they never saw before, and for which they could not prepare adequately.
When this happens, what are they going to do? Stop working until the solution is known is not an option. The show must go on.
Just like Indy keeps on going after barely escaping from a death trap, they press on. They ask questions, research on Google or manuals, and keep trying different things until it finally works, all while managing customer expectations.
Stressful, it can be. But immensely rewarding it is when it finally works!
And then they have to reboot and do it again in another environment tomorrow.
Not every engineer is cut for this type of life, and that is OK. In my experience, the ones that are truly great at their jobs are lifelong learners who don't let go. They may be extraverted or introverted, but they all have resilience in spades.
That being said, one has to be careful about going a bit too far. There are some projects out there that should not be undertaken. Resilience in the face of adversity is one thing, but obstinacy is quite another.
Sales and application engineers must have the wisdom to tell where to set the line and back off if they make a mistake and go over it. We are all humans, after all.
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