With Gartner recently predicting that global IT spending will reach $3.8 trillion in 2019, organization’s sales engineers (SE) are becoming increasingly critical for software product success. However, thanks to the advances in tech and automation, technical sales has drastically evolved over the past few years.
Understanding this evolution is John Care, founder of Mastering Technical Sales, a consultancy focused on the development of pre-sales engineers. I recently had the opportunity to chat with John about the current and future states of sales engineering, as well as where the profession is headed.
Do SEs have a future?
John Care: I bet my company on it. There’s definitely a growing demand in the marketplace for SEs.
An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review recently looked at which skills and jobs are most likely to become automated out of existence. If you look at sales — and particularly technical design and technology architecture — it’s way down at the bottom of the list. Human factor and empathy are qualities that cannot be duplicated by computers or technology. People still want to work and talk with people. They don’t want robots to sell them software.
Why would there be a conversation about the demise of the SE?
JC: The way that customers are buying technical stuff has certainly changed over the last 10 to 15 years. Customers go a considerable way through the sales cycle now before they start engaging with vendors.
There is still much for vendors to do. But if, as a sales rep, all you can do is “parrot” back what’s on your website, then you can question the value of the job. I think it’s about providing value and that’s where SEs excel. There’s so much that they can do and so much value they can provide.
So, you propose a SE should now focus on consulting, why?
JC: That’s what customers are demanding. It’s no longer enough to be deeply knowledgeable about your product. You need to know how customers use it to be able to communicate that knowledge. It’s no longer just somebody who can turn up and recite speeds and feeds.
I meet with many VPs of sales at large tech companies and the conversation almost always starts, “I have great technical SEs, but…,” which usually follows with “I wish they just didn’t dive-down into features at the first opportunity. I wish they took the time to understand what the customer’s business problems really are and link our technology portfolio back to the business.”
If there’s one sentence that describes consultative selling for a SE, that’s it.
You’re writing a book about technical sales management. Is the challenge of the sales manager to teach SEs how to be more consultative?
JC: It’s one of them. But also, the challenge is finding the right people for the job. To be a successful SE today, it will require a fairly unique blend of skills. You need to understand the technology and then be able to continually learn the technology. You also need to be able to communicate clearly, so you need some interpersonal sales skills.
It can be challenging to find somebody who can put those two together in an effective way.
Somebody who is consultative or is a consultant needs to develop listening skills and ask the right questions, right?
JC: Absolutely. I believe you can judge the quality of a SE not necessarily by the answers they give but by the questions they asked up front. Knowing what to ask is a tough skill to acquire, and one that usually requires some training.
Fact or fiction: the lines between the SE and the sales rep are blurring?
JC: Fact. The role of the salesperson has not significantly changed in the last 20 years in terms of what you do. Certainly, how you do it has changed, but very few new skills have been added to the role of the salesperson.
Yet the role of the SE has. SEs are being asked to become more consultative, better communicators, able to get in front of CIOs and CFOs and COOs. So, the skill set is expanding rapidly.
In the middle is the area of customer relationships, making the executive connection, what companies call “land and expand.” Quite often the SE is in a better position to do that than the salesperson.
For the next five to 10 years, the roles are going to come together. SEs hate what they call “selling,” which they equate with forecasting, negotiation and putting proposals together.
I don’t know if they’re ever going to morph together but certainly there used to be a gray area in the middle of the skill sets and now SEs are starting to handle more of that. It’s part of the push for this consultative selling again.
How much has automation changed the game?
JC: The ability to automate a good chunk of the request for proposal response—not just throwing in boilerplate responses to standard questions—is happening more and more.
A lot of times, as a rookie SE, one of your first tasks is to fill out a bunch of RFPs, which is a horrible thing to do. So, getting that automated, smoothing it over and touching it up—that’s going to save tremendous amounts of time for many SE organizations.
The other part of automation is around demos. Right now, you can go to the website at many tech companies, check a few boxes and they will give you an “out of the box” demo.
I think the demo is going to start becoming more experiential, in that a potential customer will be able to come on a website, check a few boxes, basically ordering from a menu, and see a customized demonstration based on exactly what they selected.
That’s going to take out of play what a number of inside SEs do. They’ll then be pushed into the higher end, in terms of architecture, larger deals and more complex demonstrations and presentations.
However, taking the low-end stuff out is quite a big deal because you can save a massive portion of sales engineering’s time by automating those two things.
You’ve asked executives to reveal the skills they value most in a vendor’s technical sales team? What answers did you get?
JC: It’s interesting. The execs came back with five skills they value during the process, which include:
1. A strong understanding of their business. They didn’t want to have to teach the seller about it.
2. Ability to design innovative solutions with their staff—not FOR their people but WITH their people.
3. Clear and effective communication with them (the exec).
4. Demonstrate they will always do the right thing for their company, to be a trusted advisor.
5. Possesses a deep technical knowledge.
When I look at the data behind those answers, it reveals answers 1, 2, 3 and 4 had a very high correlation factor. Almost 85% of the people I asked gave these top answers. The last skill, deep technical knowledge, was listed by 42% of respondents, indicating that particular skill is now simply table stakes.
So, the bottom line is technical demonstrations have to evolve to meet the needs of both the SE and the prospective buyer?
JC: Absolutely. A properly timed demo (by the way, many occur too early in the sales process) is usually a key proof point for the customer. It’s the SE and associated team presenting to the customer with some interaction. A proof of concept (POC) is usually where the SE will work directly with the customer onsite. Now, the customer just downloads their own software or uses it up in the cloud, and it’s mainly a try and buy.
The strategy behind that has changed quite a bit. The faster you can set it up and the more contained you can make it, the easier it is to close the deal.
I have clients who tell me that if you can get a qualified customer to a proof of concept, the win rate is about five out of six. That’s a pretty impressive conversion rate. Notice the caveat: it’s a fully qualified customer.