June 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
In the fifth episode of the 7 Habits of the Most Effective SEs, it’s time to turn our attention to the considerable role that communication plays in the technical sales process. As a key participant in the sales organization, SEs naturally have major customer-facing responsibilities. In general, it should come as no surprise that an articulate SE will outperform one that can’t communicate. After all, think of all the situations where an SE must disseminate information:
- Conducting a needs analysis
- Delivering a technical presentation
- Responding to an RFP
- Performing a demo
- Replying to questions
- Presenting results of a proof-of-concept
- Helping transition a prospective client to a paying customer
As you can see from this abbreviated list, these exchanges are verbal as well as written, so a top-level SE will excel at both types of communication. In terms of SE writing talents, poor spelling and grammar can cause a prospect to question your organization’s standards. Frankly, modern spell checkers and grammar tools mean that there’s no excuse for this kind of sloppiness. For those SEs that are uncomfortable in speaking situations, there are some very helpful courses that can help improve their presentation skills: I’ve seen quite a number of shy, unassuming SEs blossom when given proper training.
When it’s time to hire an SE, I recommend setting up a phone interview first. Some people aren’t comfortable on the phone, but if this type of interaction is part of your sales cycle then it’s a must for your candidates. After that, set up a face-to-face interview and ask the candidate to deliver a presentation about their current product or service. If they can’t (or won’t), then I suggest moving on: I’ve personally witnessed candidates that had been working for the same company for 5+ years yet were unable to pitch their product!
Assuming the candidate makes it past the initial phone and in-person screen, ask for writing samples. RFPs and other detailed customer-oriented documents are ideal. And don’t buy the ‘confidentiality’ excuse: these missives can be sanitized or excerpted yet still demonstrate if your candidate is likely to be a ‘Great Communicator’.
February 12, 2012 § 4 Comments
In this next segment of the continuing saga of what makes an effective sales engineer (SE), it’s time to talk about technical skills. While it’s hard to make sweeping statements, in general the ideal SE will possess a good measure of technical expertise: after all, ‘engineer’ is part of their title.
But technical talents are just the start of the story: it’s even better if they pair this knowledge with hands-on practical experience. Some SEs will have learned your technology as users or developers in an IT shop. Others will have represented competing products at other vendors. And the most motivated candidates will have invested the time and effort to learn it on their own.
Naturally, the ideal technical background is highly determined by the job’s requirements. For example, selling a consumer-oriented SaaS solution has very different necessities than representing infrastructure aimed at software developers.
When I was hiring SEs, I always kept these factors in mind:
- Does the candidate have a degree or not? It’s certainly helpful, especially when selling highly complex solutions or targeting C-level buyers. However, it’s not necessary to have a computer science degree. In fact, in some cases being overly technical can be a drawback – SEs have ‘sales’ in their titles, after all.
- How deep is the candidate’s technical expertise? By necessity, SEs must be spread a mile wide and an inch deep. This can be very frustrating to someone who is very technically skilled and likes longer-term engagements.
- How much relevant real-world experience does the candidate have? A background in implementation and/or managing ongoing operations was especially appealing.
In my experience, the most important attribute is the SE’s ability to rapidly master a new technology; in fact, the most effective SEs delight in picking up new proficiencies and relish the challenge. Find an SE who has a history of quickly acquiring new skills, and you’ve probably picked a winner. One final thought on expertise: don’t forget to evaluate the candidate’s writing skills. Ask to see samples of reports, RFPs, and so on.
December 18, 2011 § Leave a Comment
“Don’t sell past the close” is a time-tested chestnut of sales wisdom. It refers to the reasonable recommendation that once you’ve attained agreement from your prospect that they’d like to buy, it’s time to stop selling – even if you have other good stuff to tell them about your product or service. Instead, the moment has arrived for them to “sign on the line that is dotted”.
As someone who has led sales engineering teams for many years, I’m here to tell you that this guideline makes sense when it comes to the proof-of-concept (POC), too. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many situations where this rule gets violated, and the outcome is usually unpleasant for everyone involved.
For example, several years ago I was assisting on a grueling POC. The client had given us a series of seemingly insurmountable challenges to overcome. But with the help of engineering, lots of caffeine, ruined weekends, and lost sleep we managed to successfully complete the POC. All that remained was the client presentation, which went off without a hitch, much to the apparent delight of our prospect.
At this point, all that was necessary was to ask for the order. But that didn’t take place. Instead, the sales rep asked if the prospect would like to see anything else from the POC. The prospect answered ‘No’. The question was asked again – not once, not twice, but three times. On the third re-try, our prospect mentioned that perhaps his European colleagues – who previously had nothing to do with the buying decision – might enjoy seeing what we had done. In fact, they might even have some ideas of their own. Imagine what happened next.
To help you avoid unhappy endings like these, in a future post I’ll offer some humble suggestions about smoothly transitioning from the POC to the sale.
December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments
I’ve spent many years working as a sales engineer (SE) and then later leading sales engineering teams. Throughout my career, I’ve observed seven personality traits that separate the run-of-the-mill SE from the superstar. Since SEs are the great unsung heroes of the sales process, you definitely want to staff the best-of-the-best for this critical position. In this installment, I discuss why the most effective SEs possess an unyielding but properly targeted competitive spirit.
In a crowded market, the technical sales process is cutthroat: every deal is a brawl. Even though sales commission is typically only a small percentage of their overall compensation, the ideal SE takes a deep, personal interest in winning. This translates into a willingness to do whatever it takes to demonstrate the technical superiority of your offering. This might mean late nights configuring your solution or answering RFPs under tight deadline pressure. It also likely includes providing ad-hoc training to potential users and impressing executives of the need to choose your technology.
Unfortunately, I’ve encountered many SEs that are either too relaxed (“Why should I knock myself out? The product sells itself!”) or too competitive with their peers (“Why does that sales rep make twice what I do when I did all the hard technical stuff to win the deal?”). Incidentally, as an SE manager I found it easier to motivate the tranquil folks to step it up a bit than to get the SEs with commission envy to focus on their jobs.