Can You Make It as a Sales Engineer?
Traditionally, technology salespeople have come from sales backgrounds. Now they may rise through the technical ranks, especially if they have proved themselves by working with customers, handling presentations and playing a role in the selling process. But a sales mentality -- and, yes, the right personality -- is still paramount.
"They have to have that personality to make the leap," says Michael Mullins, vice president of sales and marketing for Defywire, a wireless software company based in Reston, Virginia. "There's a big difference between a successful salesperson and a successful engineer."
Technical and Business Expertise Needed
Technology sales leaders say the field has undergone a shift. The presence of technology in all facets of business together with tech-savvy CEOs, CIOs and other executives means today's technology salespeople -- sometimes called sales engineers -- need more extensive technical expertise than they did 10 years ago.
Business goals today are often closely tied to their implementation through technology, so salespeople must be able to understand both worlds. "The salesperson is absolutely expected to be able to go out on a first call or a series of calls and find out what is the business problem a Fortune 500 company might have," says Mullins. "They absolutely need the ability, from a technical perspective."
Says Pete Jensen, senior vice president at Mayfield Heights, Ohio-based KeyLink Systems, a distributor of computer systems and software, who has spent 30 years in sales: "In today's world, there's more convergence. I don't think there's one starting point that ensures success."
Sales leaders offer the following advice to techies looking to make the transition to sales engineer, relationship manager or product specialist:
- When working in a technical role, seek out ways to assist in the selling process by supporting customers or accompanying a salesperson on calls to address technical questions. A position working with a sales engineer in a formal pre- or post-sales role is even better. "Sometimes those make the best salespeople," notes Mullins.
- Technology sales pros need to know when to talk like a techie and when to drop the jargon, especially when addressing a nontechnical audience. "Sales engineers need to be technical, but talk the layman's lingo," says Harvey Bass, CEO of Stascom Technologies, a Sparta, New Jersey, firm specializing in placing IT sales professionals.
- Don't think of sales as purely about soft skills -- try to learn about it as a profession. Mullins recommends sales training from organizations such as Miller Heiman and Brian Tracy International. "There's a whole sales cycle and sales process," he says,
- Just because you're currently in a technical role, don't think you've got to stay within that techie box for your whole career, advises Jensen. "Be willing to expand beyond the boundaries you've set for yourself today," he says. "Network, network, network. It's as much who you know as what you know."
- "Communication skills are key," says Jensen. Individuals with the best chances "are very bright technically," he says, and also have the listening, speaking and presentation skills of a salesperson. "That takes them up the food chain in terms of responsibility, value to a customer and earnings potential."
And the qualities sought in salespeople?
"I like people who are aggressive," Jensen says. "I like people who are inquisitive. I like people who are thoughtful in their answers during job interviews, who are prepared, who know something about my company, and who have an ability to sell themselves and their skills."
And there's a charisma factor, he adds. "When I spend 15 minutes with someone, I want to get a sense of charisma," he says.
Don't assume technical knowledge, with a smattering of customer contact, will be enough. Experience making presentations and working with others counts, too. "I believe I can teach the technology more easily than I can teach the sales piece," says Mullins. "Good presentation skills take years to acquire."
Or, as David Lease, chief architect for WAM!NET Government Services in Herndon, Virginia, puts it: "To some degree, the personality is going to drive you in one direction or another."