Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Time passes strangely in the technology industry. It seems like a year in tech is worth 5 anywhere else, maybe even 10 compared to some industries. There is a saying that “the only constant is change”, and in my experience that is definitely true, even more so in fast-growing technology companies. Having spent the last 8 years at my current company as both a SE and now a SE leader, I’ve seen my PreSales organization cycle through what feels like decades of changes -- going from a small group of gatekeepers to a large, global organization of trusted advisors and consultants. Our growth and transformation over the last 8 years has been a rollercoaster of successes and lessons, and having witnessed it all, I wanted to share my experience and learnings with the hope that it can help other SEs and PreSales leaders making their own transitions, wherever your organization may be in its journey.
My story begins in 2012 -- I had just landed a job as a Sales Engineer at HubSpot, an up and coming tech company in Boston. They had only just realized a need for a SE team and were
still figuring out the role; little did I know we would be constantly reinventing the role as the years went on and the business grew!
Back then our SEs sat in Customer Success, as customer retention was the top priority during this early phase of the company’s growth. The SE’s purpose at that time was to protect the quality of our customer base and to find workarounds and creative solutions for use cases that our product couldn't solve for yet. After a few years we moved formally into the sales department, realigning our incentives in the process and began the second era of the SE team; instead of being purely gatekeepers, we also became order takers. Now playing on the same team, the primary focus became building trust between SE and AEs, which brings me to my first lesson.
Don’t settle for trust with your sales team, build true partnership
There are many ways to build trust. As a SE, it can be tempting to build trust with our AEs through acts of service (order-taking) rather than building an equal partnership (collaborating and challenging each other with empathy and respect). When we initially joined the sales org our SEs were eager to help, taking as many calls as they could, which were in high demand as our product widened and deepened during this time. Eventually, the SE team became like security blankets to their AEs, jumping on calls last minute and without much prep, resulting in lots of back to back days and a reactive way of working. Although we gained trust, we lost the ability to be strategic and challenge the status quo, and ultimately we had to circle back on this to drive true partnership (and not just order-taking) with our sales teams.
So how can a PreSales org build true partnership with their sales org?
Be patient and don’t take shortcuts
Real partnership doesn’t happen overnight and doesn’t form from easy situations. It’s how we handle hard situations together with our AEs and Sales Managers that show our true colors and the value we can bring. In PreSales, we are often the role that is the least financially and emotionally invested in our deals, and we can really leverage that to add value to deals by asking the hard questions, speaking up with objective observations and truths, and bringing a long-term perspective to our selling teams. Challenge with empathy, and your sales counterparts will value your input tenfold.
Invest in learning sales strategy
Most SEs are not formally trained in fundamental sales skills, value frameworks, or strategy. And it is rare for AEs to become SEs (although it does happen, and here is some great advice from one!) As a result, sometimes it can feel like the SE and AE are speaking different languages and it can be hard for the SE to influence the deal with technical knowledge alone. So if you want the respect of your AEs, and especially sales managers, learn to speak their language! As a SE, being able to at least talk the talk in this area is invaluable in communicating well with AEs and managers and for earning a seat at the table. Invest here, and you’ll enjoy a much greater ability to influence deals (and people).
Implement an engagement model
After all this effort to build relationships, it can feel strict and impersonal to layer rules of engagement or a formal booking process on top. Many SE teams rely on personal relationships between AE and SE to qualify, prepare for and book deals -- early in our journey, we fell squarely in this category. However, establishing clear expectations for what SEs can and can’t help with, how much notice and what information they need before jumping on calls, and how to engage with them is critical to establishing healthy boundaries and allowing SEs to prioritize their time. It lays the foundation for partnership, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Clear expectations and accountability get everyone’s needs met and ensure all parties can do their best work.
The second era of my PreSales org was centered around establishing these three pillars. As the years went on, this became a big priority for us and we worked closely with sales leadership to align on expectations and process, and to communicate these expectations to the AEs. This brings us nearly to the present version of the SE role at my company, which I would describe as “trusted advisors”. This also coincides with the company transforming from a start-up to a scale-up, and our product becoming much more mature. As scalability and impact began to take priority, it became clear that we needed to allocate our SE resources differently and that the role itself would have to adapt, which brings me to the second big lesson.
Be Proactive and Focus on Impact
Over the past few years our focus shifted yet again, this time from building trust to building impact. After making progress rebalancing the relationship between SEs and AEs, we began incentivizing our SEs to be proactive about spending their time where they can have the most influence on the business.
How can PreSales leaders incentivize proactivity and help their teams build strategies to focus on impact?
Strengthen relationships between SEs and Sales Managers
SEs traditionally focus on AEs, but the relationship between a SE and their Sales managers is even more important. With the right partnership and communication, SEs and Sales Managers can be true allies, providing a second set of eyes for each other, supporting both to be more effective in their jobs. SEs sit on significantly more calls and deals than a Sales Manager can with their AEs; the amount of (usually unheard) insights and coaching opportunities a SE will see on a daily basis would probably shock many sales managers!
In exchange, the manager can help the SE understand the bigger picture and find opportunities to influence team performance by including them in their forecasting efforts, doing regular pipeline reviews (especially for large accounts) and collaborating on training/enablement needs in their team. When Sales Managers and SEs work together to up-skill the sales team, both can be more agile and proactive in their roles. This is a practice we have leaned into more and more over the years, and has dramatically improved our SEs’ ability to support team performance over individual AE performance, prioritize their tasks effectively, and drive more impact.
Make room for SEs to engage in side projects and passions
Working deals is (and always will be) the primary responsibility of a SE, but it doesn’t do much to nurture the big picture perspective or strategic planning skills that are necessary to taking a proactive, impactful approach to their work. Plus, SEs see a lot and maintain a massive amount of subject matter expertise, and often don’t have a creative outlet for their insights -- projects that allow them to drive a larger-scale impact can achieve both, allowing them to take a step back and do more with their knowledge and putting the impact of their deals in context of the business as a whole. Prioritizing this in recent years has helped us nurture the strategic side of our SEs, giving them the tools they need to develop a proactive, holistic and impactful approach to their work, and of course expanding our impact as a PreSales organization far beyond the deals we work.
Invest time and resources to develop wise prioritization
At the end of the day, being proactive and focusing on impact comes down to prioritization, investing time in the right deals, the right projects, and the right people at the right time to create more impact with the same (or less) resources. Processes can support this, and creating a system to funnel tasks with varied priority levels into the appropriate channel is especially important in a high volume business where everything feels urgent and prioritization is difficult. But by and large, coaching is king here. No amount of rules or processes can replace old fashioned coaching and direct, consistent feedback. SEs need to develop good judgement and the ability to prioritize and reprioritize as conditions change in order to be agile and independent in the often gray areas they work in, and the only way to get there is through learned experience. There’s no quick fix for this, but the payoff for consistent coaching on prioritization is priceless. If you’re a leader, challenge your people to prioritize and develop their own judgments, and if you’re a SE, ask for opportunities and coaching to practice this!
Looking back on the history of my org, I credit our leadership’s investment in all of these areas for our successful transition from a fairly reactive way of working to the consultative and proactive approach we have today.
Our SEs may be doing less heavy lifting on calls and demos now, but our impact has increased as they spend more time consulting, coaching and enabling and less time defending, gatekeeping, and order-taking. The result is a group of highly strategic, knowledgeable and independent PreSales professionals, who are solving for our most complex accounts, empowering and partnering with their AEs, creating real value for our organization and who I’m really proud to work with every day. No matter where you are in your organization’s life-cycle, there is always change waiting just around the corner. As such, I’m sure this is not the final phase for my org. Change is hard, it can even be painful, but it doesn’t have to be -- it’s all a matter of perspective. By embracing it proactively, adapting, and viewing it as an opportunity to innovate, we can create better futures for our organizations and our teams, becoming better PreSales professionals and leaders in the process.
Sarah is a Solutions Engineering Manager at Hubspot and contributor to PreSales Collective.
Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.