Winning Early: The Role of the Solution Engineer early in the Sales Cycle

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Clodagh Moriarty


Jul 4, 2022


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They say that the early bird catches the worm. This truism applies to nature but also to selling cloud services. Yet traditional technology sales thinking dictates that Solution Engineers (or PreSales professionals) are most valuable midway through the sales cycle, at the Evaluation stage (think Demo/POC). Traditional thinking is that SEs should not invest much time early in the sales cycle, which is the preserve of the sales executive and partner.


However, research tells us that deals are won or lost earlier than that. In fact, most customers will make their vendor selection very early in the sales cycle, at the initial Discovery stage. The technology vendor who engages and partners earliest with a customer, who plays the role of Value Creator (as opposed to Value Fulfiller), has the highest probability of winning — i.e., becoming the selected vendor for a customer's project.


In fact, if the Solution Engineer waits until later in the sales cycle, when the Sales executive and customer have reached the Evaluation (or "Demo") stage, the SE is on the back foot, and their ability to positively impact the win probability is compromised. The SE will have a steep path to climb to truly understand the customer's need, to tailor the capabilities and value to the customer, or to establish a credible "trusted advisor" relationship with the customer. We need to be smart and invest the SEin the right activities early in the sales cycle to maximise the deal win probability.

So what role does the solution engineer have to play early in the sales cycle?

  1. KYC (Know your Customer): The Research Stage 

While a Sales executive is preparing to engage with an account, they should be doing their eResearch about the company. eResearch activities include researching the company’s website; understanding their core market offerings (products and services); reviewing the company's annual report to understand their finances and their growth strategy; browsing LinkedIn to understand the profile of some of the main stakeholders; and understanding who the company's main competitors are in their industry. In addition, the Sales executive should explore their CRM and other internal customer intelligence tools to understand the company's historical relationship with the customer.


However, the SE also has a role to play at this stage, particularly for accounts that have been identified as high growth potential accounts. For the Solution Engineer’s focus industry or solution, they can do their own deep-dive research. For example, if the SE is focused on Sales, Marketing, or Customer Service solutions, they can evaluate the quality of the company's website and do some mystery shopping of the customer journey. In addition, an experienced Solution Engineer will have a strong sense as to what an industry-leading target architecture looks like, thereby having an early sense as to potential capability deficits that an organisation may be looking to address.


After the initial research and eDiscovery, the SE can also do some whiteboard ideation in conjunction with the Sales executive prior to the first customer conversation. Doing so helps to map out potential pain points to explore in discovery sessions with the customer, as well as some potential proposed use cases, customer references, or solutions that could be relevant to the customer.

  1. Learning More: The Discovery Stage

We are all familiar with this scenario: Several qualification and discovery conversations have already taken place between the Sales executive and the customer. The customer has shared an overview of their current challenges, the project they are embarking on, as well an overview of what they are hoping to achieve with this project. The initial relationships have been built with the Sales executive, the customer, and perhaps also a partner.

At this point, the Sales executive approaches the SE and says, "The customer needs a vanilla demo of our solution tomorrow morning at 10am." The Solution Engineer has not had a chance to meet the customer to build a relationship and rapport. Normally, the Sales executive focuses more on the business or commercial needs of the customer, and doesn't dive deeper into the solution and technical requirements of the customer. As a result, any demos delivered to the customer will have little impact and won’t be focused on the customer's needs. Indeed, the best demo at this stage might be a reverse demo, where the customer steps through the pain points of their existing solution for the TS to gather inputs and conduct solution discovery.


Therefore, as soon as the Sales executive and partner have secured meetings with the relevant customer stakeholders to begin Discovery, they should add the SE to the meetings. While the Sales executive will focus more on the commercial and business discovery, the Solution Engineer will complement that by focusing on the solution and technology discovery to understand the customer's current architecture, systems usage (the “As-Is”), along with what is working and what is not.

  1. Moments that Matter: The Outcomes Definition Stage

This brings us to one of the most crucial phases of the sales cycle, which can potentially have the greatest impact on the customer's vendor selection. Beyond understanding the customer's “As-Is” situation through Discovery, the Sales executive, partner, and Solution Engineer need to collaborate with the customer to develop a clear “To-Be,” or desired future state for the customer, in terms of capabilities, required technology, solution scope, user journeys and usability, desired outcomes, success metrics, and impact on the business.


However, the Sales team should not assume that the customer has a fully-fledged definition of their final state and outcomes — this is where the SE can really bring value. By jointly engaging in workshops with all internal and customer stakeholders, the SE can firstly inspire the customer by showcasing some “Art of the Possible” journeys and technologies. These may be beyond the scope of the customer’s current requirements, but may also broaden their thinking about where they want to go longer-term, where they may be able to deliver incremental business value, and the capabilities available with emerging technology.


Then, using design-thinking-led methodologies and structures, the Sales team (including the Solution Engineer) and customer can collaborate to define and scope out the desired future state. They achieve this through mapping relevant personas and user journeys, desired outcomes, and articulating value and potential impact.


Throughout these three early stages of the sales cycle, the Sales team (including the SE) should regularly synch up to validate the following: 

  • They have engaged the right customer stakeholders
  • They see the relevance and fit of their solutions to the customer's requirements early in the process (while not fully scoped out) 
  • The customer's need and timelines are established
  • They know the competitors and risks to the deal, with actions to mitigate those risks
  • They validate that the customer opportunity is worthwhile for the Sales team to invest the time to pursue this customer


The Sales team should do their best work at the beginning (as well as at the end) of the Sales cycle. If the team — including the SE — has done these activities at the early stage to build a relationship and help to shape the needs and desired outcomes with the customer, they should be poised to win the deal and form a long-term partnership with the customer. 

All of this before the Solution Engineer reaches the traditional “Demo” stage of the Sales cycle.

Written by:
Clodagh Moriarty

Business Applications Technical Director, Microsoft EMEA Digital Sales

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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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