Winning sales engineer trait #2: Technical skills

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.

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