A SaaS sales team usually starts with a founder who sells. Then a salesperson or two. Maybe some SDRs. Then a director or VP. Then more reps. Then sales operations. And at some point, most B2B SaaS sales leaders find themselves wondering, “Do we need a sales engineer?”
Hiring my first sales engineer was one of the best decisions I ever made
I am a big believer of the impact a fantastic sales engineer can have on a small, growing SaaS company.
At the time, it was a scary decision though. I was at the point where I knew if I invested X in a sales hire, I could expect about Y in revenue/bookings. But, how would I know if a sales engineer was additive? Would there be a way to calculate the impact? What if this was an expense that didn’t pay off?
Turns out, when you have a strong sales engineer all of those questions go away. You don’t need to measure the impact, you can feel the impact—it’s palpable. A sales engineer helps you grow, and a sales engineer helps your sales people sell.
So, if you are wondering what a sales engineer is, what they actually do, and if you need one…here are some thoughts to get you going.
First, what is a sales engineer?
You know I love a good Wikipedia quote, so let’s start with a definition.
Sales engineering is a hybrid of sales and engineering that exists in industrial and commercial markets. Buying decisions in these markets are made differently than those in many consumer contexts, being based more on technical information and rational analysis and less on style, fashion, or impulse…A sales engineer is thus both “a salesperson that understands and can apply engineering” and “an engineer that understands how to sell engineered systems”. They thus not only sell but also provide advice and support.”Wikipedia
I also like this definition a lot:
“The role of technical sales engineers essentially involves translating and explaining highly complex technical information to customers and clients, focusing on revealing how a product or piece of equipment can solve specific problems. They therefore play an important role in the modern sales process.”Grade Ireland
But it’s not always technical
The role of a sales engineer sounds pretty technical, but even SaaS companies who sell to non-technical buyers, with a relatively simple product often still use a sales engineer.
A sales engineer is more than someone who translates technical concepts to a layman or speaks tech to a technical buyer. A sales engineer translates use cases into reality, business needs into functional examples,
So, what does a sales engineer actually do?
Here are a list of primary duties that sales engineers are usually responsible for in a SaaS selling environment:
- Product demos that are specific to the prospect’s needs, goals and unique scenario.
- Providing a deep level of product knowledge and skillfully answering product-related questions during the sales cycle.
- Supporting the sales team for responding to RFPs, and preparing custom quotes, statements of work or pricing when needed.
- Participating in discussions with prospects regarding the competitive landscape, drawing on knowledge of competitive differentiation and positioning.
- In unusual or new use cases, acts as the technical project manager/liaison for coordinating internal resources, salesperson and prospect, and working with internal technical resources to ascertain feasibility and fit from a technical perspective.
- Works with the sales team and prospect to help determine if the product is the right fit for the prospect’s needs.
- Trains sales team on demo techniques, providing guidelines, scripts, checklists
andother resources to assist in the advancement of demo skills of the entire team.
- Demonstrates and trains sales team members on new product features and how to successfully position those features for maximum impact.
Of all the things listed above, a great sales engineer saves selling time. They sit in product release meetings, so the sales team doesn’t. They take that hour of content and boil it down into a 10-minute debrief. They teach the sales team about product, positioning and competitive positioning through the sales lens. They block and tackle. And that’s key to a highly productive sales team.
How to decide if it’s time to hire a sales engineer
If you have a short sales cycle and simple product, you probably don’t need a sales engineer and never will. Here is when a sales engineer is most needed:
You sell to a technical target. Your prospects and customers will want to talk to a technical peer, and including a sales engineer in the process can boost credibility and accelerate your sales cycle. This can be true even if you have a relatively simple and straightforward product with a low level of complexity.
Your product has a high level of complexity. If your product has a learning curve, or requires setup and onboarding, you probably need a sales engineer. A sales engineer knows how to understand business requirements and simplify that so it doesn’t bog down your sales cycle. They also ensure a salesperson isn’t overpromising on what your product can do, and what it will take to get up and running. They help the prospect get ready to onboard, adopt and utilize your product.
Your customers usually integrate your product. If your product will be integrated into other parts of the customer’s tech stack, it can be a good idea to have a sales engineer navigating those discussions so everyone is prepped and ready to get through the integrations efficiently and without hiccups.
Your sales process includes many stakeholder roles. If you have a variety of roles on the prospect’s buying team, a sales engineer can help bridge the gap, and ensure everyone’s unique needs and concerns are addressed.
You are scaling the sales team quickly. When you are onboarding many salespeople at once, a sales engineer helps to accelerate their ramp time by providing targeted product & demo training, and by conducting demos for the new reps. A sales engineer helps you get your reps building pipeline and closing deals faster.
How to interview a sales engineer
Like many key roles, I think you know it when you find the right person. My typical sales engineer interview process is:
- Phone screen—weeding out the crazies, screening for experience, attitude and potential culture fit.
- Phone interview—discussing expectations, their understanding of the role, addressing their questions, deeper in their experience and lots of situation questions, (“If this happened, how would you handle it?” “How do you approach it when…?”)
- Presentation and demo—This is all that matters. I ask every sales engineer candidate to prepare a 5-minute presentation and a 5-demo on any topic of their choice. This is where the decision gets made, because it shows you how they explain things, build a story arch, answer questions, and generally put together the flow of a demo.
- Final interview—If someone nails the demo step, I usually know that I am going to extend an offer. But, I’ll usually do one more interview to provide them with feedback on their demo to see how they respond to coaching. This is also a good opportunity to tie up any loose ends, bring in additional team members for introductions, and make sure you feel confident they will be a fit with your organization.
Product specialist…the modern day sales engineer
The SaaS sales engineer is often less engineer, and more product specialist. In fact, that’s my preferred title for this role.
I think a product specialist is a better definition of what a sales engineer is usually responsible for in a SaaS selling environment. Sure, they have to explain technical concepts, but they have to deeply understand the business case for the product, the ROI and use cases, the competitive landscape, differentiation and more.
The title of this post is, “Is it time for a sales engineer?” and I will leave you with this thought: If you are thinking about hiring a sales engineer, then it’s probably time.