In my 27-year career as a PreSales Sales Engineering leader, I admit to having “hit-and-miss” success at earning a seat at the sales leader table when representing my team. Over time, I have developed some best practices in achieving that lofty goal. This post is dedicated to the up-and-coming SE leaders that will inevitably face similar challenges.


The Sales Engineer role has been evolving and maturing rapidly over the past 25 years, but is still considered non-traditional. While you won’t likely see children aspiring to be an SE “when they grow up,” it is one of the best technical career paths out there. It allows those with technical and business acumen to stay challenged and benefit from fantastic careers and incomes that are typically only seen in traditional career paths. Yet, relatively few people are aware of this role. It is up to you, the SE leadership community, to do something about it.


The role of the SE has evolved a lot, especially with the advent of high-tech companies delivering internet-based SaaS solutions to their customers. Historically, it was enough for the SE to be a “helpful techie” that assisted the sales executive, but that is no longer enough. Today’s product-driven solutions and well-educated buyers necessitate that your SEs step up their game and show how they move the needle for sales organizations. It is necessary for you, the SE leader, to have a seat at the table with your sales leader counterparts to achieve this for your team. This coveted place is neither freely given nor easily earned. One way for you to earn this status is by achieving the Technical Win.


In any sales organization, it is critically important to have everyone on the same game plan. This requires a clear definition of roles, accountability, and ownership of key stages in a sales cycle. Just as important as the roles and accountability is the lexicon. Agreement must exist on the meaning of key terms such as Technical Buyer, Economic Buyer, and Technical Win. I’ve often heard sales executives say, “I got the technical win.” However, if I ask five different sales executives, they might give me five different definitions of what that means. I have a very specific definition of the “Technical Win:”


By using this definition or devising one of your own, you’ve made a key step towards accountability and measurement. By defining it, you can measure it. By measuring it you can manage and improve it. Ultimately, this helps you and your SE organization earn a seat at the sales leadership table.


Measurable Goals for the Role of the SE


To get that coveted seat at the leadership table, you must clearly articulate where the SEs are contributing. That requires a clear definition of the role and measures of success. There are many varying definitions out there. Some lean more toward technology and others toward technical sales. The following is my boiled-down definition for what a traditional pre-sales SE must do to succeed:


If this works for your organization, fantastic. If not, spend the time and effort needed to nail this. It will become the cornerstone of how you build the brand of the SE organization. Once you have this definition, you must focus your SEs’ efforts on those items. It’s just as important to know what not to do as it is to know what to do. Additionally, the first two bullet points above are where you should focus reporting because they are quantifiable and measurable. The third is still critically important, but will be qualitative and more difficult to measure.


From “Trusty Sidekick” to “Hero”


Too often the SE is seen as a “trusty side-kick” to the sales executive. While this isn’t a bad thing, when executive staff looks at how a sales org achieved business success, too often the sales executives get all the credit, and the SEs are seen as a helpful team coming along for the ride — or aren’t noticed at all. In this environment, when investment decisions must be made (think headcount and salaries) sales gets the first cut and SEs end up with left-overs, or worse, an after-thought in the budget phase. This can leave you struggling to meet workload demands of your team and potentially burning-out individual contributors, causing attrition and ultimately eroding sales productivity. This pitfall can be avoided if you are seen as a peer to the sales leaders and have earned a seat at the sales leadership table. This seat is “earned”, in large part, by your ability to quantify how the SE organization contributed to the top line.


So, how do you do this? It starts with a clear definition of what the SE organization is accountable for followed by the discipline to measure, manage, and report on it. By putting your credibility on the line and owning key performance metrics that drive sales, you, as the SE leader (and the resulting SE organization), can ensure visibility to the heroic efforts of your team, thus transitioning from “side-kick” status to “hero,” assuming you execute successfully.


The SE Leader’s Contribution to the Forecast


As the SE leader, you have a crucial role to play that sets the pace and the brand for the entire SE organization that you represent. You must not only be a trusted technical advisor, but also as a trusted sales advisor, bringing thoughtful advice and ideas on how to win deals. One key area is your interaction and contribution to the sales forecast. If the SE team has done a good job at identifying KPIs and showing how they lead to a technical win, you will be armed with powerful information on the SE perspective of any opportunity sales cycle. Often SE leaders simply give an anecdotal perspective on an opportunity. A better way to do this is through the Technical Win as a key milestone to close an opportunity.




  • Was the technical win achieved?
  • If not, what is the risk (low/med/high) of achieving it?
  • How can the SE team shorten the time to achieve the “early technical win” thus shorten the sales cycle?

Ultimately, tracking and enabling the “early” technical win will show continuous performance improvement and how the SE organization contributed to closing sales. Over time this will become a key point of reference for sales leadership to make forecast judgement calls. That is when you will be indispensable to sales and well on your way to becoming a great SE leader.



Technical Win Limitations


While achieving the technical win is a powerful way to measure SE contribution to a sale, it does have limitations. Hitting a technical win target does not mean that the sales team will hit their revenue target. There are, of course, other factors to getting a commercial close on a sales opportunity that go beyond a technical win (pricing, executive relationships, timing, etc). The KPIs that you measure can augment a good sales cadence, but they are not a replacement for doing the right thing. Often, data hygiene can skew the reports, and thus the decisions based on that data (trash in/trash out). Sales forecast cadence, as well as basic sales hygiene, is still paramount. You, as the SE leader, will have to navigate the barriers and objections due to these limitations. The key will be your plan to address and mitigate what you can.


Summary


SE teams are hard working, highly trained, and capable of doing many things within a sales organization. It is important to focus on what matters to the business and de-focus the “noise” of all the other things an SE can do. By focusing on the areas where the SE can move the needle for a sale, you and your SE organization will ultimately earn a seat at the table and ensure proper executive visibility and investment for success.

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The Leadership collective is a group designed for PreSales leaders in a management capacity (Manager+ title) who are looking to network, grow professionally, and actively participate.

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