When AE/SE partnership goes off the rails...

The AE/SE partnership. There’s plenty of airtime that’s been given to how the relationship between AEs and SEs is a partnership. And I completely agree - it’s the foundation for successful sales organizations. We’ve all heard the great stories that result when an AE and SE are working together in harmony. Crushed demos, more wins, bigger paychecks. It all makes for a great LinkedIn post or three.

But what happens when things go off the rails? Or were off course from the get-go? There’s much less written about this scenario, and more importantly, how to recover from it from the perspective of a team leader who is responsible for mediating and solving the issue before even worse things happen (PIPs, termination, etc). So let’s dig in.

Setting the Scene

If you’ve been managing a PreSales team for longer than one month, you’ll eventually encounter this scenario. It’s the middle of the day on a random Tuesday. Things are overall going pretty well on your team. There are lots of recent success stories, along with some focus areas for the upcoming quarter to drive the team to even greater success. And then suddenly out of left field, you get a same-day meeting invite from a regional sales VP titled “Quick Chat”. Clearly this can’t be good, and you spend the next two hours racking your brain on what he/she could possibly want to have a quick chat about.

You jump on the Zoom, and after the usual pleasantries are dispensed, the VP gets right to it. An AE (or maybe two AEs) have had bad feedback about one of your SEs. They find this person difficult to work with. They don’t feel their demos are effective. And even worse, they think they’re losing deals as a result.

What are you going to do about this?”, the VP asks.

Discover & Diagnose

When faced with a scenario like this, it’s very easy to slip into defensive mode and immediately begin defending your team member and making excuses. Every new manager has likely done this, or at least I have since I’m being totally honest.

A better approach in this scenario is to do your own discovery and diagnose the root causes of the issues described by the VP. And the best way to do this is to get first-hand information directly from the AEs who have the feedback. Much like any good discovery call, the key here is to ask second and third level questions to get to the heart of the matter. If the feedback is “I don’t like Amy’s demos”, a suitable follow-up would be “Tell me more about what you don’t like” or “Can you provide specific examples on what you don’t like?”

If you’re lucky enough to have Gong or Chorus in place, prepare in advance by listening to a few demos before having the conversation. This can help with corroborating specific points. If the feedback is related to attitude or other collaboration attributes, getting specific examples and details is going to be even more important, since often this is much harder to verify and can simply be a difference in work styles. For example, if the feedback is “Amy isn’t very responsive”, clarify what they mean by “responsive”. Are they referring to speed of response to emails or Slacks, or ability to provide deliverables within an agreed upon timeline? Depending on the answer, there are different approaches you will end up taking when it comes to coaching.

The Hard Conversation

Now that you have this information, it’s time to have a hard conversation with your team member. I don’t believe there’s a one size fits all approach on how to do this. What works with one person might be a total fail with another person. Assuming your team member isn’t brand new, you’ll hopefully have a good idea on how to approach this conversation. In my experience, the best way to deliver the feedback is to be direct and keep it focused on facts, and then give your team member the opportunity to respond without interruption. By just listening, this helps you understand their perspective on the situation, which will many times give you a good sense of what is actually going on. Reality is often sometimes in the middle of two people’s points of view.

Establish an Action Plan

Now that it’s all out on the table, it’s time to establish an action plan. When putting together the action plan, it’s important to keep the plan time boxed and define specific milestones, along with desired outcomes for each milestone. This will ensure that progress is being made, and will also serve as checkpoints throughout the journey. As part of creating an action plan, I find it important to share this with the AE’s manager as well, so they’re aware of what the plan is. Keeping everyone aligned at this stage is key.

I’ve found that sharing the plan helps in two ways. First, it demonstrates that we acknowledged that there are issues to solve, but more importantly, we’re taking it seriously and have concrete plans to develop and grow. Second, it serves as a good foundation for a conversation with the AE’s manager to determine what steps the AE will be taking to improve on their end as well. In my experience, AE/SE clashes are generally a step-ladder progression where each party plays a role in things going wrong. And as such, both parties should have a plan on how to solve the underlying issues and grow towards a true partnership. It’s really like any relationship in that regard.

Now Comes the Hard Work

With the action plan in place, now it’s time to put in the work. I always make it clear to my SE that I’m willing to invest as much time and energy as needed to help make them successful, and then I follow through on that promise. In addition to coaching sessions and reviewing recorded calls (if the issue is performance related) and providing feedback, I’ll also make it a point to find several strategic deals that the AE/SE pair are working on and attach myself to these. This gives me the opportunity to observe the relationship in action, and by being present during this development phase, it also serves as a mediating presence by keeping the relationship professional and results-focused. It also demonstrates to my SE that I have their back and am serious about their success.

One of my favorite experiences doing this involved joining a new SE hire and a veteran AE on several meetings in Los Angeles a few years ago. My new SE was struggling with demo delivery and internalizing the use cases we supported, and the veteran AE was quite vocal that it was going to cost him some big deals. After going through the sequence of steps described earlier in this post, I let the AE know that I would be joining him and my SE in LA for two big onsites. I told him that this was not only to help de-risk the meetings, but more importantly, I wanted to ensure that he and my SE were putting in the time to prepare.

He agreed that this was the right approach, and we ended up spending an entire Tuesday holed up in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency LAX getting ready for the next day. While it was excruciating at times, and everyones’ nerves were frayed by 5pm, we all agreed it was time well spent, and felt good about what we had accomplished. The meeting the next day ended up going quite well, and my SE brought her A-game to the table. We followed up with this same sequence of events a month later on another big pitch, which helped solidify key learnings and behaviors from the first round, and also helped cement their relationship and build trust. Fast forward six months, and this duo was consistently bringing in some of the biggest deals in the company, and they’re good friends to this day. It’s still one of my prouder moments as a leader.

Final Thoughts

AE/SE partnerships tend to go off the rails when communication breaks down, and each of the people involved begin making assumptions about the other person’s motivations, work ethic, and capabilities. If not nipped in the bud early, this can easily spiral and lead you to the situation described here in this post. As I’ve gotten deeper into my career as a leader, I use my 1:1s to identify early indicators that something isn’t going well. I also try to bring empathy to the table, not only for my SE, but for the AE as well. Even in good times, the role is very challenging and fraught with obstacles to success, and I view the AE/SE partnership as a key ingredient to ensure success. While I don’t expect these scenarios to always result in life-long friendships, my ultimate goal is to help my team member grow so that the next time they’re faced with a challenging relationship, they have the skills to identify issues early and work through them on their own with light guidance from me along the way.

Chris is a highly accomplished PreSales leader with 15 years of experience building, scaling, and leading teams in competitive enterprise SaaS markets. He is currently Director of Solutions Consulting at Dynamic Signal.

Connect with Chris 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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