The Tip of the Value Selling Spear

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Zach Bolt


Feb 22, 2021


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In the body politic of modern technology sales processes and methods, it’s widely recognized beyond question that in a company’s revenue generating apparatus, the sales engineering function possesses a unique relationship with prospective customers. As part salesperson, part technology wizard, and part subject matter expert, the sales engineer stands in the enviable position of being most readily able to cultivate the role of “trusted advisor” with prospective clients prior to the sale. While I think the term “trusted advisor” is overused, in this instance I feel that it aptly describes the relationship that can (and should) develop between a sales engineer and a customer.

Let’s take a moment to develop the criticality of the sales engineering team to success in revenue acquisition. The ability to build a relationship based on trust, a subject matter rapport, with customers makes the sales engineering role incredibly strategic to the organization. In fact, it’s been my experience that when executed correctly, sales engineering rapidly becomes the most strategic component of the sales team. If you doubt the validity of that statement, let me ask you a couple of questions:

  • What other role in the revenue generating arm of your business can consistently exert the level of influence on a customer’s decision as to who to buy from than your sales engineering team?
  • What other role leads the charge in the majority of your company’s make-or-break interactions with a prospective client?

That’s right. There isn’t one. Built into the fabric of the sales engineering role is the position and platform to have an outsized impact on your company’s revenue stream. That’s why it’s so incredibly important for sales engineers to be fully trained and competent to deliver your company’s value messaging effectively across the entire sales cycle.

The focus of this article is to explore key areas within a value selling framework in which sales engineering can have an enormous impact and to discuss how your sales engineering team can leverage their status as trusted advisors to further the endeavors of the value selling framework. Here’s the hypothesis I’m going to develop and defend below: Because sales engineers forge such a unique relationship with prospective clients, they are the best positioned resource in the sales organization both to articulate the value of your company’s solutions and to gain the insights required to support the value-based sales framework. Stated more simply, if a value selling methodology can be likened to a spear, then sales engineering is its tip.

Let’s get down to business

While sales engineering can support the value sell in a wide variety of settings and situations, this article will focus on three specific areas in which sales engineering can contribute most heavily to the execution of your value selling methodology.

  1. First, we will review how sales engineering can have enormous impact by selling value during key client interactions such as demonstrations.
  2. Second, we will explore how a value-based discovery process not only supports preparation for demonstrations, but also can turbo charge every conversation your organization has with the client by uncovering the true business drivers behind their technology evaluation.
  3. Third, we will examine how sales engineering can contribute to the bigger picture of the value sell in the context of how opportunities are qualified and managed.

Are you ready? Then let’s get this party started!

Selling Value in Key Client Interactions

The first area I wish to explore is how sales engineering can hugely impact revenue by effectively communicating solution and company value to various stakeholder groups during key client interactions. Think for a moment about which person or team spends the most time in front of a prospective customer during the majority of key sales cycle interactions. If you answered “sales engineering”, then you’d be correct in most cases. Now let’s take this one step further. What’s the primary vehicle in which sales engineers occupy that customer-facing stage? Correct again – solution demos.

Since sales engineers are the actors in the spotlight in most of your make-or-break client interactions, then by logical extension, the sales engineering team is the de facto standard bearer for communicating your company’s value messaging, uncovering key client pain points, and mapping technology to solve business problems. Therefore, it’s imperative that sales engineers be equipped to bear that standard effectively; otherwise, your organization will suffer missed revenue opportunities. To prevent that from happening, let’s now focus on precisely what it means for the sales engineering team to communicate value to every level of the client organization.

Let’s start with a question. What does value mean in terms of the sales engineering team’s interaction with the client in the context of a solution demonstration? I think about it like this: Value is only value if it’s valuable to the person you’re presenting to. And no, that’s not just salesy double-speak; let me explain. Any given person who is watching a product demonstration can be dropped into one of three major buckets: functional staff, leadership staff, and executive staff. Think about it for a minute – yep, these are your buckets. The point is that what each group values – broadly speaking, at least – differs based on their role within the company. Let’s take each group in turn.

  • Functional Staff: These are the primary users of the technology you’re demonstrating. They mostly care about how your technology is going to impact their everyday lives and make their jobs easier. Value to this group is typically expressed in tactical terms. They ask questions like: Will your technology reduce the number of clicks it takes to accomplish X or Y task? How will it help automate repetitive parts of my job? Value to this group is demonstrated viscerally by showing them in your technology how the product will simplify their lives.
  • Leadership Staff: These folks manage the functional staff. This is the layer between the executives who steer the company ship toward a strategic vision and the employees who carry out the day-to-day work. They are responsible to operationalize the company’s strategic objectives. This group mostly cares about things like increasing efficiency, reducing risk of error or fraud, increasing employee productivity, etc. They often ask questions like: Can you tell me how the solution you’re presenting has increased efficiencies in other companies like ours? Coupled with the technology, value to these folks is typically demonstrated in the form of case studies, customer success stories, and industry information and insights.
  • Executive Staff: These are the folks who are the strategic leaders in the company. They are responsible to define corporate objectives and then see that any project they fund will move the ball forward on one or more of the company’s strategic initiatives. Executive leaders are typically focused on how purchasing a software solution will enable the company to increase revenue/profit, reduce some aspect of risk, or increase compliance. They tend to ask questions like: What sort of financial ROI have your other customers received from implementing your software? How will your application reduce our risk of X happening? Value to this group is communicated in terms of how the solution aligns with and will further the vision and goals set for the company.

So, let’s net this out. In the context of the solution demonstration (a key client interaction), it’s incumbent on the sales engineer to speak in terms of what is valuable to each specific group of people to which he/she is presenting and then present those pieces of the technology targeted at solving the specific problems facing that specific group of people at that specific company. The sales engineer who is most skilled at targeting a specific message to solving the exact problems facing the audience will resonate well and be most remembered by those attending the demonstration.

Clearly emerging then is the criticality of ensuring that the members of the sales engineering team are properly armed with value messaging by product feature and process, as well as by persona to whom they frequently present. It’s imperative that they can communicate both in broad industry terms as well as in very minute feature terms the exact value the solution will bring to the client. While the specifics of how to map value in a matrix (such as the one I described above) is too deep a topic for this article, the criticality of an organization-wide ability to communicate differentiating value effectively and clearly cannot be understated. Stated simply, if your sales engineering team is not fully prepared to carry the value standard of your company’s solutions into the demo battle, then you are leaving to the whims of fate your ability to win deals consistently.

In summary, when sales engineering is trained properly to deliver value messages to customers in extremely clear and concise terms, each individual member becomes a powerful differentiating force in the sales process. Your company’s solutions will resonate more strongly with clients and you will become more memorable than your competitors. When this happens, the impression is created with the client that your company is the one most likely to make them successful and to enable them to achieve their objectives. Of all the customer-facing teams in your company, only the sales engineering group can have this level of impact on the customer journey because sales engineering is the primary team bearing your organization’s standard of value through presenting technology solutions to business problems.

Powering the Value Selling Framework with Discovery

Let’s shift gears now and move upstream of the demo setting into the realm of discovery to learn more about how this sales engineering led process can ignite the fire of value-selling language on a per-customer basis within your company. Barrels of ink have been spilled on discovery covering every facet from process to procedure to methods, etc. In this article, I have no intention of relitigating the obvious here as it pertains to the value of discovery and how it should be done. Rather, my focus centers on how discovery can be used by sales engineering as a tool to power your value selling framework.

Let’s start with a brief description of what discovery is in the context of value selling. Stated in very simplistic terms, discovery is the process and procedure whereby interactions with a prospective client yield an understanding of the business problems the customer needs to solve (i.e., their business pain). It’s that pain that causes them to seek a remedy for it. If the pain of living with the problem exceeds the pain of making a change, then they seek to purchase a solution to the problem. Otherwise, they tend to live with the pain. That’s discovery 101, but if you recall from our discussion above, customer stakeholders can be broadly distributed into three major categories. Value to each of the groups is different because the business problems (or pain) they feel daily is different. True discovery is targeted at diagnosing business pain for each of these groups and prescribing a remedy in terms they can understand. Now let’s take this baseline understanding and extrapolate it into how discovery can energize your company’s value selling approach.

For the balance of this discussion on discovery, I’m going to assume that your company has adopted a discovery framework that’s based on the principles of value selling. If not, then you need to address that sooner rather than later. Also, while I realize that discovery is a team sport, I’m going to assume that the majority of it is done by your sales engineering team. In my experience, although many sales engineering groups have a discovery framework that’s focused on uncovering the true problems the customer is trying to solve, still much (or most) of the focus of discovery is on how to prepare for an upcoming demonstration. What this creates is a situation where the majority of discovery focuses on solving the business problems of the first and most tactical constituency we talked about above, the functional staff. This mode of discovery, while valuable, focuses on answering the question “What problems do the primary users of the solution face so we can prepare to show them how our technology will make their lives easier and solve those problems?”

There are many flaws with this approach, not the least of which is these folks don’t control the flow of money (read that as don’t sign contracts and spend money with you!). How can you tell if your sales team is falling into this trap? Let me give you a one question dip test. In demo prep calls, are your account executives or sales leadership saying things like, “Be sure to show our feature X because that was a real pain point for the customer”? If so, then your team may have fallen into what I call the “Tactical Value Selling Trap”! This trap means that while you may be selling value by tying product features and functions to solutions to business problems, you are focused primarily on selling that value to the least strategic group of people in your prospective client’s company.

Let’s look at a better way to communicate value to every client stakeholder group powered by discovery. First, while I grant you that discovery is important in preparing for demonstrations, we must remember that obtaining information that powers demo prep is the least strategic element of discovery. True value-based discovery transcends demo prep and shapes the entire sales team’s mode of communication with the client in order to continuously reinforce how not only your product, but your services and your entire organization aligns to solve the biggest and most strategic challenges facing the customer’s business. In the context of the three groups of people listed above, value-based discovery enables you to uncover the hidden problems and then prepare to present value that’s perceived as value to each group of stakeholders. Again, sales engineering emerges as playing a pivotal role in the collection of this data and the communication of value to the client. In many cases, sales engineering leads the efforts to uncover business problems and what truly constitutes value to each stakeholder in the business, thus providing grist for the sales mill to communicate and message most effectively.

In order to accomplish this, you must make the investment to craft a discovery framework structured in such a way that it enables you to learn what’s most important to leadership and executive staff. Once you employ such a model, you’re well on your way to being able to shape a compelling narrative for your organization’s value messaging across the spectrum of client stakeholder groups. If sales engineering leads these efforts effectively, then account executives, sales leadership, and executive leadership can all be armed with effective ideas and messages to power client interactions, but it all starts with effective discovery execution by the sales engineering team.

Since sales engineers are the primary discovery data collection mechanisms, they must be empowered with the proper tools and training to do it with mastery because the quality of your value message’s alignment to the specifics of each client is only as good as the intel you have to frame it. It’s the old garbage in, garbage out axiom at work. If your discovery fails to empower your organization to bridge the current-state-to-future vision gap for all key stakeholder groups, then you’re going to have major holes in your attempts to sell value to the more strategic groups in your customer’s company. It’s like trying to play darts in the dark. You may throw value darts in the general direction of the dart board of your customer, but you have no idea if you’re actually hitting the mark with key decision makers unless you truly understand what it is that they value as individuals and as a collective.

To summarize, once you’ve established a value-based discovery framework, your sales engineering team’s ability to gather the intel you need is the most critical element in effective discovery execution. If your sales engineering team consistently executes in a manner that obtains the required intel, then your business moves to the head of the pack competitively speaking because you’re empowered to communicate value to every level of your customer’s business.

Contributing to the Value Selling Process

The third and final area I wish to explore focuses on the impactful role sales engineering can play in the broader picture of value selling embedded in the sales process itself. This section will transition the discussion from a focus on the traditional responsibilities of sales engineering and explore new avenues in which sales engineers can add value over and above excellence in technical execution. As this discussion unfolds new light will be shed on the pivotal role sales engineering can play in executing a value-based sales process.

For this discussion, I’m going to assume that your organization has adopted a value selling methodology. However, to ensure we’re aligned, I do wish to make a few brief remarks about the deployment of value selling practices. Value selling is more than just another sales process. In its purest form, it’s the full alignment of the selling organization’s technology and communications to build value in terms of positive business outcomes in the eyes of prospective customers. A value-based sales methodology transforms the traditional sales process from a “How do we move to the next sales stage?” mentality (it’s all about us) to thinking in terms of the buyer and what constitutes value to them as you travel with them along their journey from identifying a business problem to purchasing a technology solution. This approach necessarily brings about significant changes in how the mechanics of the sales process, including qualification, sales stage exit criteria, customer validated outcomes, etc., are structured and executed as the sales process is turned on its head to focus on the journey from the prospective buyer’s point of view.

If your company has adopted a value selling methodology, then no doubt you’ve structured your sales stages to align with your value selling approach and have also configured your CRM to enforce rigor in the process. For example, you likely have key questions you’re looking to get answers to about potential opportunities in order to qualify them before investing time and energy – Hey, are these folks going to buy anything? Additionally, you’ve almost certainly established bright lines for sales stage exit criteria which doubtless include clear client validated outcomes. There’s a lot to unpack here, and to keep this article brief, I’m not going to dig into this any further. I think my point is made. The question now is, how can sales engineering support the broader data gathering and buyer journey alignment at the opportunity macro level?

Frankly, it all starts with the typical client’s willingness to communicate openly with sales engineers. Right or wrong, there’s a marked difference in the average buyer’s perception of the role of account executive and the role of sales engineer. Speaking in general terms, many buyers tend more readily to regard salespeople with some level of suspicion and distrust, sometimes even open hostility. On the other hand, clients tend to regard sales engineers as knowledgeable experts whose thoughts and opinions should be objectively valued. As a result of this reality, it can be difficult for account executives to build relationships with customers that result in the sharing of information vital to fueling the value-based sales process. However, clients will often open up and share this information with a sales engineer.

I think this reality is rooted in the fact that, oddly enough, clients often don’t look at sales engineers as salespeople, even though they have “sales” in their title! As a result, they are often willing to share information with a sales engineer that they won’t share with an account executive. Maybe they think we don’t talk to each other. I don’t know, but what I do know is that I’ve seen time and again where a sales engineer has been able to get answers to questions that helped qualify an opportunity, furthered understanding of key business drivers, or informed how to differentiate from competitors when the client categorically refused to share the same information with the account executive.

How does this help further the ends of value selling at the opportunity level? Well, it means that sales engineers by virtue of the client’s perception of their role are positioned to ask questions to qualify opportunities, gain insight to internal politics, learn the true business drivers and competitive standing, identify potential deal killers, understand the motivations of stakeholders as well as a host of other supporting intel. The sales engineer can carefully leverage his/her perceived role as “not a sales guy/gal” to question clients and obtain the answers needed to support the value based process. Obviously, some finesse must be applied here because as a sales engineer you don’t want to sacrifice the perception of objective neutrality, but with practice it can easily be done.

I’ll end with this section with a quick personal anecdote on this topic. At one company where I led sales engineering and sales operations, I worked with my SVP of Sales to implement a value-based sales process. As part of that process, he placed the expectation (required would be a better word!) that my team and I would ask clients the questions we established to support our value-based framework when / if our sales reps could not get the answers from the customer. Turns out it works pretty well. We were frequently able to gain insights from clients that account executives had struggled to obtain.

So, let’s wrap this up. Over the course of this article, we’ve identified and explored several areas in which sales engineering plays a critical role in support of value-based sales processes. I think it’s worth restating my firm belief that when done correctly, the role of the sales engineer is the most strategic within the revenue machine. With effort and resolve, sales engineers can transcend the traditional technical role to become incredibly valuable contributors within the value selling framework. If you are in sales engineering as a contributor or a leader, I encourage you to be the tip of the value selling spear by challenging yourself and your organization to reach higher and provide more value to your sales leadership than they’ve ever thought possible!

Zach Bolt founded Demo Boss to empower PreSales organizations to improve win rates, increase deal size, and structure for scale.

Connect with Zach on LinkedIn!

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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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