November 30, 2017 § 1 Comment
Most Sales Engineers (SEs) have rare skill combinations that are only present in a fraction of the workforce. They’re technically skilled, yet they understand business requirements while also generally possessing strong interpersonal intuition. But this isn’t always the case: a not-insignificant number of SEs are surprisingly brusque in their dealings with others.
As someone who’s hired lots of SEs, I was often under pressure to get the job filled ASAP, which routinely meant lowering standards. One of the first requirements to go out the window was the candidate’s perceived ability to conduct interpersonal situations. We often felt that we could leave the relationship management to the sales rep, but the upshot was that we ended up with team members that demonstrated behaviors that weren’t as tactful as the circumstances demanded.
This shortfall manifested itself in a number of ways, including tense relationships with co-workers (especially in product development) and other peers such as SEs or salespeople. But the worst outcome was how they handled the inevitable provocations that came their way from prospective customers, particularly technically-minded people. The old adage that no one ever won an argument with a customer is doubly true when the client is still a prospect!
While it’s quite common for tactless SEs to stay in their jobs, it does hurt their ability to get promoted. I can also state this with confidence: if I had to choose between two equally technically talented SEs to let go during layoffs or other downsizing, I’d always select the one who was more abrasive. So if you’re an SE worried about your own vulnerabilities here, take some time to think about your interactions – written or verbal – with others, and correct where necessary. I’m not suggesting that you sit silently by when you’re being unfairly challenged, but there are proven polite, respectful, yet firm ways to disagree or otherwise make a point. Learning how to master this skill will help advance your career, and make the daily grind that much more bearable.
You can learn more about the overall topic of sales engineering here.
February 28, 2017 Comments Off on Bad Sales Engineer Behavior #4: Negativity
Show me a salesperson with a negative attitude, and I’ll show you someone who will be looking for a new line of work before too long. Sales – and sales engineering – just isn’t a good fit for someone with a gloomy outlook. A while back, I wrote about skepticism and the damage it can do to a sales engineer’s career. In that context, I defined skepticism as approaching each sales opportunity with a dubious perspective and relentlessly putting the sales representative on the defensive – hardly a recipe for a harmonious relationship.
But negativity goes far beyond mere opportunity cynicism to color how the sales engineer interacts with everyone else in the organization, from immediate peers to people on other teams such as marketing, engineering, and product support. Negativity manifests itself in many ways, including continual criticism, doubts about the basic competence of everyone else, and questions about why the company is even in business! People pick up on this attitude very quickly, and it’s one of the most common reasons why a seemingly successful sales engineer is shown the door, whether or not they’re reaching their sales goals.
For those readers that are thinking of becoming a sales engineer but haven’t made the transition yet, I urge you to honestly evaluate your mental outlook and worldview before you start the process: Are you someone who sees the glass as half full, half empty, or shattered in pieces on the floor? If you can’t change your attitude for the better, my recommendation is to refrain from embarking on what is universally acknowledged as lucrative yet very taxing career.
August 3, 2016 Comments Off on Overcoming a Technical Sales Ambush Best Practice #2: Request a List of Questions in Advance
Continuing this series on technical sales and sales engineering, a technical sales ambush is a situation where prospect calls a technically-oriented meeting with the hidden (and bad-faith) purpose of introducing impossible or unreasonable requirements that end up monkey wrenching the entire sale. Naturally, legitimate technical questions are part of every sales cycle, but an ambush is deliberately meant to derail the sale while making it look like it’s the vendor’s fault. Any new product or service can be disruptive and threatening, so you should be on the lookout for it.
While ambushes can’t be totally avoided, they can be managed through proper preparation. For example, you should avoid open-ended “discovery” meetings at all costs. Instead, all interactions should be structured: by simply requesting a list of questions – well in advance of the meeting – you have an excellent chance of thwarting surprises. In fact, scheduling the meeting should be gated on receiving the list of questions, and you should also keep the decision makers in the loop.
Once you have the list, prepare to put your answers in writing, and distribute them to all prospect constituencies (including line-of-business leaders) in advance of the meeting. During the session, you can discuss the answers, provide demonstrations, and so on. This is much more effective than an open-ended “fishing expedition”. And if unplanned questions arise, you can either address them on the spot (and append the written list), or use the time-tested “I’ll get back to you on this” response, and simply come back with your answers once you’ve done your research.
Either way, this strategy gives you much more control over the interaction with the prospect, and can help you win the opportunity.
January 31, 2016 Comments Off on Bad Sales Engineer Behavior #3: Egotism
In the previous installment of this series of posts about detrimental sales engineer (SE) behaviors, I described how a skeptical attitude can damage the morale of the entire sales organization. Egotism is another debilitating trait that a not-insignificant number of SEs display.
For the purposes of this post, I define egotism as a general and palpable sense of superiority when dealing with one’s peers. It can be driven by numerous factors, such as better technical skills, stronger sales acumen, and recent wins. The fact that there’s a severe labor shortage for SEs doesn’t help, either. It’s always nice to take pride in one’s work – especially when it’s deserved – but it’s regrettable when it mutates into full-blown conceit.
Whatever the cause, this mentality often manifests as unwillingness to pitch in and help others out with their sales opportunities, and frequently entails withholding presentations, best practices, and other hard-won experiences. Compensation plans can also be a factor here, since many of them don’t specifically reward teamwork. This can lead to an “every man for himself” approach, which is obviously damaging to the overall business.
Fortunately, the smartest and most effective SEs go out of their way to help their colleagues, and these efforts commonly pay off in career advancement and other leadership opportunities.
You can learn more about the overall topic of sales engineering here.
September 30, 2015 Comments Off on Overcoming a Technical Sales Ambush Best Practice #1: Include the Sales Representative
As I recently depicted, a technical sales ambush is a scenario where a prospect convenes a technically focused “review” meeting with the hidden purpose of introducing impossible or unreasonable requirements that end up monkey wrenching the entire sale.
While ambushes can’t be totally avoided, their outcomes can be ameliorated through proper preparation. For example, sales representatives – at least those that are making or exceeding quota – are masters of interpersonal relationships and reading between the lines. I’ve found that the best reps can instantly sniff out an ambush or other situation where the prospect’s technical experts are not acting in their employer’s best interest, and are advancing their own private agendas instead.
A proactive sales representative will quickly take steps to stop an ambush in its tracks. This can include entirely rejecting the meeting without adequate representation from the business, or demanding a quid-pro-quo about what happens after the meeting (like setting up a proof-of-concept).
One of the most important things a rep can do is simply make sure that they’re part of the meeting: a sales engineer (SE) should never face this type of audience alone, especially when it appears that an ambush might be in the cards. Having the sales rep present frees up the SE to focus on making a good faith effort to address all technical questions, while strengthening the case that the vendor is making to the prospect.
August 20, 2015 Comments Off on Five Ways to Overcome a Technical Sales Ambush
As I’ve described in other posts, there are many advantages to being a sales engineer. One of the most attractive benefits is generally being free of the politics, mind games, and brinksmanship that take place during a high-value, strategic technology sale. These are usually the domain of the sales representative, which is why they get such big commission checks – or get fired.
Unfortunately, there are circumstances where sales engineers can be dragged in to some distasteful encounters with a prospect, which usually revolve around a live session to go over deep technical aspects of the proposed product or service. I label these interactions as “ambushes”, because an unsuspecting SE often has no idea what they’re getting into until it’s too late.
I’ve been on both sides of the table in a technical sales ambush, so in this series of blog posts I’ll provide some guidance about how to avoid them, and what to do if you get caught up in one.
First, what are some of the signs that you’re about to walk into an ambush?
- You are selling a product or service that will replace an in-house solution created or maintained by people still on the prospect’s payroll, or there’s an alternate offering from another vendor that has passionate backing from some members of your prospect’s technology team.
- You’re in the mid to late stages of a sales cycle, when it appears that your solution actually has a chance of being chosen.
- The prospect has requested a live, onsite meeting at their offices. They may call it a “review session”, or a “technical deep dive”.
- The prospect has invited a large and diverse group of technically focused people to the meeting, often including someone with a title like “chief architect” or “lead engineer”.
- The prospect can’t (or won’t) provide you with a list of topics for discussion in advance. Instead, the session is billed as a “friendly, open-ended exploration to get more technical details” about your product or service. Trust me: there’s nothing “friendly” or “open-ended” about an ambush.
At first glance, none of these attributes necessarily indicate that the meeting will be an ambush. However, when you step back and look at the big picture – especially from a cynical perspective – you begin to realize that the true purpose of the encounter is to introduce fear, uncertainty, or doubt into the equation, and thereby torpedo the deal if at all possible.
I’ll write about guidelines to cope with an ambush in some upcoming posts, but for now here’s a high level list:
- Make sure the sales representative is in attendance.
- Request a list of questions in advance.
- Encourage one or more of the prospect’s business executives to observe.
- Consider bringing someone from your own engineering team.
- Don’t take the ambush personally.
June 19, 2015 Comments Off on Bad Sales Engineer Behavior #2: Skepticism
As I continue my tour of seven of the worst sales engineering (SE) traits, let’s take a look at skepticism. Selling complex, high-value products and services is hard enough even when everyone on the team is upbeat and optimistic. Long hours, grueling travel, and the interpersonal challenges of coping with mercurial prospects all result in generous amounts of stress and significant sales professional turnover.
An already-difficult job is made much tougher when the sales team is burdened by friction between the sales representative and the SE. In particular, skepticism is one of the most toxic attitudes an SE can display, and it’s often one of the biggest sources of tension in the relationship.
I define skepticism as continual – and even adversarial – questioning of sales representatives by their SE colleagues, especially in the early stages of a sales cycle. SE skepticism can emerge even earlier, such as when marketing leads arrive, or on initial telesales qualification calls.
I once had an SE on my team who needed to be sold – every time – on why he should deign to deliver a demo. Unsurprisingly, this created extensive and unnecessary hostility between him and his sales partner. This SE lost sight of the basic reality that his customer was the sales representative, not the prospective client.
Don’t get me wrong: rational, unemotional evaluation of potential opportunities is essential when allocating scarce sales resources. But unless something looks really off, the SE’s job is to give 100% and be an encouraging participant as the deal moves through the funnel. If something appears troubling about the prospect or opportunity, it’s most productive for the SE to position it as a challenge that can be solved by positive, constructive teamwork.
You can learn more about sales engineering here.