Salespeople And Engineers At Loggerheads? Here's How To Bury The Hatchet

In high-tech fields such as software, salespeople and engineers are often called upon collaborating. Engineers run the presales and deliveries, while salespeople find clients and close deals. But these two groups often end up treating each other with suspicion. Here's why—and, more importantly, what to do about it.

It usually goes like this.

You have a complex technical product. You recruit salespeople that specialize in hunting, farming, and closing deals.

Since this is complex tech, you also recruit a number of application engineers, sales engineers, or consultants to back them up. They are running pre-sales, sometimes deliveries and after-sales too.

And then you find out that both groups mistrust each other.

Engineers may find their sales colleagues bossy that do not truly understand what they are selling. That they are willing to sell vaporware. That they only care about one thing: closing—and the paycheck that comes with it. And that they, the engineers, are being called upon to mop the messes they leave in their wake.

Salespeople may find their engineer colleagues over-cautious and tedious. Prompt to say that things are "impossible" or "too difficult" to do. Only too happy to speak in tongues ("techno-babble") and not be sufficiently motivated by results. Some may even genuinely believe engineers need a salesperson's "strong hand" to get any "real" job done.

I can understand this from both ends. I have been doing my own sales and my own sales engineering for years. I also recruited and managed great people in both categories. And here are the lessons I learned along the way that helped me promote peace and efficiency.

Wanted: Tech-Curious Salespeople

Forget about the myth of the all-powerful salesperson that can sell anything to anyone. The best salespeople are solution-oriented. They have a real passion for what they are selling and learn everything they can about it.

They also care about their clients' success because of enlightened self-interest; not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also profitable. They know satisfied clients will buy again. And they know selling vaporware is the surest way to ensure this doesn't happen.

So, if you want harmony and efficiency in your sales organization, you want to recruit accordingly. Not all salespeople will play nicely with engineers. First, avoid the Lone Wolves, the arrogant and selfish ones, at any cost, as any true collaboration is above their level of ability.

Likewise, anyone that sees himself or herself as a unidimensional expert of sales should raise suspicion. Specialty is one thing, but a lack of interest in what one sells is quite another. Would you ever buy professional services (say, car repair services or home improvement) from someone that did not minimally understand them?

Personally, I go for the challengers. The ones that specialize in business development but want to really engage with clients. People that do not fear to learn continuously.

I have one example in mind. That particular gentleman may not have been an engineer, but he volunteered to learn how to demo the tool. He saw, rightfully, that the way to build trust with clients was to talk the talk and walk the walk. The team became more effective and a lot more agile because of what he did, but he earned the trust and respect of the engineers on the team.

A Purple Squirrel: The Cowboy Engineer?

grayscale photo of man riding horse Photo by Mahir Uysal on Unsplash

Just as not all salespeople are a good fit for technology selling, not all engineers can adapt to the rigors of life in a sales team.

Are you most comfortable in crystal-clear settings, known environments with plenty of time to complete your work? Unfortunately, in the field, it rarely works like this. You are much more likely to face ambiguous situations with unstable environments—and clients that wanted a solution to their woes yesterday.

Sound horrible? It may be. But it is also exhilarating. You gain exposure to some amazingly cutting-edge projects. You get to learn—and learn a lot. Monotonous, it is certainly not.

So, it all depends on personality. Are you an adventurer, a cowboy that gets a kick out of that type of challenge, or do you prefer a more traditional engineering environment?

There is not a right or wrong answer here. The great thing about human beings is that we have lots of diversity, and we need that diversity of skill to build complex civilizations.

So, it is all about ensuring you put the right folks into the right chairs.

In my case, I found that recruiting my engineers primarily based on their personalities, such as their resilience and flexibility, was key to success.

Gaps in skills, I could teach—as long as the person was coachable and willing to learn. But the folks that succeeded as sales and application engineers are the ones that refused to quit when they faced issues at customer sites. They tried and tried again.

Personality traits matter. And without disclosing too much about how I went around to gauge this before they got hired (Hey, you don't expect my future hires to know all my bag of tricks, do you?), there are ways to test for these before you make a choice.

But for this to happen, you have to modulate your expectations. In other words, pick first for personality, then for skills. Otherwise, you will be hunting a purple squirrel.

Not exactly what they taught us in "leadership school," but it works.

Leaders, Here's How To Bind Salespeople And Sales Engineers Together


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Recruiting is, of course, only part of the battle. The right team members can still treat each other as foreigners if placed in the wrong environment.

That is when effective leadership comes in.

  • Instill a sense of shared mission: Both salespeople and engineers are on your team to achieve the same objectives. They do so in their respective specialty, sure, but ultimately everyone on the team is there for the same purpose: increasing profitable revenues by ensuring clients are successful. That is something that must be ingrained at the heart of the team. And I know no better way than communicating it clearly and often. The unmistakable message must be that we succeed or fail together—salespeople and engineers.
  • Some things cannot be tolerated: Here is something that you never want to hear from a team member: "My job is to sell (or write code), whatever else is someone else's problem." Sorry pal, this is incorrect. Sales success is everyone's responsibility. And because sales success requires closing—and many more things—you cannot wash your hands clean by stipulating you have an expertise and your responsibility ends there. In other words, the expectation must be that you act as if you were the company's owners. You do not land the company in hot water by signing rotten contracts and then walking away, letting others fix it. Signing deals is an amazing responsibility that shall not be entrusted to irresponsible folks.
  • Encourage cross-specialty training: In my experience, nothing is quite as effective to secure harmony in a sales team as providing opportunities for learning skills on the other side of the fence. At times, I entrusted business development missions to application engineers and taught them to manage customer expectations. Conversely, I also taught salespeople how to conduct simple demos and explained complex technical realities in layman's terms. And I mentored both in the art of writing white papers. That does not only allow team members to better relate to one another on a personal basis, but it also enables them to grow and become more efficient. Salespeople become true solution folks and are more adept at securing client trust, the currency of choice for closing deals. Engineers get the tools they need to handle client objections and expectations more efficiently. They all become more valuable players in the process.
  • Rituals build camaraderie: The role of a leader is to be a cheerleader, not the one that systematically decides everything. Just the one that ensures team members are all rowing in the same direction. That is perhaps the most tricky thing of all. I found that a few team rituals help achieve that goal. Personally, each time I visit my remote sales teams, I make sure that I bring them all to share a meal. It doesn't need to be the fanciest or most expensive place—I actively avoid these (I like the local vibe and don't want to antagonize finance). Here is what it does: it brings all of us together. You may find other rituals as well.

Are You Saying One Thing And Your Incentives Another?

Trying to figure out how the compensation plan and doing the "right thing" mesh The Posting Gets TOO Personal

To ensure harmony between salespeople on one hand and sales engineers on the other, we need to discuss the effect of the incentive plans on behavior.

This is the big elephant in the room. And it is a very complex topic that is worthy of many articles—and quite a few debates! Since this article is already long enough, I won't go into too much detail.

(Well, perhaps one day, in a future article!)

But I will ask a simple question. If you, as the leader, assign a salesperson a sky-high quota and compensate that individual solely on his ability to close, can you guess what will happen at the end of the quarter or year when they come up short?

That's right: they will close anything, even rotten deals. Who cares if the project fails in the end?

He or she will also try to unleash presales after any prospect, even those where the engineers tell him or her there is nothing they can do, in order to save his or her own skin.

That quickly becomes an organizational problem. Not only will it create discontent within the team, but that behavior will end up sullying the brand. Talk about a lose-lose situation!

But again, this is a controversial and complex topic that is well-deserving of his own paper—or two or three.

This article was not written by the WID staff, therefore the opinions and beliefs expressed in this article are the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect Work It Daily