One to One Pairing or an SE Pool?

Ramzi Marjaba Ramzi Marjaba

People compare large organizations to cruise liners and startups to speed boats. One is slow and methodical and the other is agile and very easy to change direction.

If I were a betting man, I would venture a guess that most large organizations were small and nimble at some point and they grew into a behemoth of a company that no matter what you do, they will not change direction. This is why it’s important to set great foundations. Since I’m a Sales Engineer (SE), I want that foundation for the Sales Engineering organization to be solid. The obstacle to overcome is that the Sales Engineering organization is usually an afterthought. Let’s build the sales teams, SDR teams, and then “someone” from engineering can help with demos. Then SE organizations grow to be less than optimal, static organizations.

What does that imply? Well, it implies that if you grow your SE organization without a thought of how the organization should look like in the future, it might be hard to change it when the powers that be decide it’s time. 

There are many topics that can be discussed about building an SE organization. One question that I get asked often is: “Should we pair Sales Engineers one to one with their Account Executives (from henceforth referred to as AEs) or should we have a pool of SEs to help cover the different requests?”

The answer is the most overused answer in PreSales: It depends. It depends on a lot of things, such as what is your end goal, how you would want to incentivize your SEs. It depends on the product. How complex is it? How many products does the company sell? How much thought would you put into hiring an SE beyond the obvious technical skills, the strengths of the SEs, their weaknesses? I can go on and on, or I’m just saying that since I ran out of questions but I feel there should be a couple more ….. Don’t judge! 

Let me get this out of the way: I am biased, and I prefer the one-to-one pairing. I prefer that from an SE standpoint, as well as from an organizational standpoint. That being said, there are pros and cons to each one, and I will dig deeper now.

Let’s start off with the pros of One to One pairing.

Pro 1: Alignment

Not that kind of alignment

Also, if the AE makes quota, so does the SE. They are in it together, and the only way to make quota is to work on it together. I’ve seen AEs have bad SEs and try to get past that by using other SEs. In my experience, that has not led to success. 

Pro 2: Build Great Relationships – Part one

SEs are not gofers. The worst feeling we get is when we’re given commands to do this or do that. Rob Falcone, the author of Just F*ing Demo, told me on the podcast that the genesis of the book is the fact that someone told him “Just f*ing demo.” The nature of his business is that he was one of the first SEs in his company, so even though not a pool of SEs, he worked with a lot more salespeople to effectively build a relationship. 

Building a great relationship with our AEs allows us to go from gofers to their Trusted Advisors. We can strategize, brainstorm, and partner up to find new deals and close old ones. 

A bonus here is that customers appreciate a great SE/AE relationship. They do notice shorthands between the 2, and how the 2 work together to help solve a problem. 

Pro 3: Build Great Relationships Part DEUX!

Both the SE and the AE get to build a great relationship with their customers, not just the AE. That’s another thing customers appreciate. In my experience, customers like to build relationships with SEs more than AEs since the perception is that SEs are there to help, whereas the AEs are there to sell. 

One additional pro I would like to add is that the AEs are not fighting over resources (SE resources?). The SE is their SE. They work together. They don’t need to find an SE for a last-minute call; they can see the SE’s calendar, and can work with them directly to schedule what is needed.

Now let’s talk about the cons:

Cons of pairing SE/AE (One-to-One pairing): 

Con 1: Bad Partner

When we talk about our people, it’s not a great feeling to know that you stuck an SE with a bad partner or vice versa. I’ve worked with AEs who had bad SEs and asked me to assist, and I’ve worked with SEs who have had bad AEs and helped them in dealing with the situation. 

A lot of thought has to go through hiring. It’s not just if the SEs or AEs are good at their job; it’s if they will be able to work together and enjoy it. We’re all professionals and we will get the job done, but there’s a difference between being excited going to work, or dreading your first call with your partner. 

Hiring partners is hard. You, the Manager, are basically asking people to get married on the first date. I met 2 of my former Account Managers for the first time over dinner with the Sales Director, as part of the hiring process. My SE manager, and a couple of teammates were also there, naturally. Once our meet & greet was over and the prospect AE left us, they all turned to me and said “So?” as if I was supposed to fall in love right then and there. All I could think of saying is “Seems nice” knowing that they’ve been on their best behavior all dinner since they are trying to get the job. 

Maybe a little more time should be spent cultivating the relationship before asking people to stick together for a prolonged period of time. 

Con 2: Product Knowledge

Another downside to being paired one to one, especially if the SE is a generalist with a big portfolio, is that the SE will not know all the products and will very likely need to get a specialist involved. That will always slow down the deal, going from 1 discovery to potentially multiple if the opportunity is not qualified right. 

In most cases, the SE will know the 1 or 2 products they sell the most; otherwise, the wrong person was hired, again. So needing a specialist is not a daily occurrence. It’s only needed when some opportunity comes up specifically for a technology that the SE is not very well versed in. Even then, if the opportunity is qualified correctly, the SE will know what products and technologies are going to be discussed, so they can do a bit more research ahead of time, or get a specialist or teammate who knows that technology involved. 

Con 3: I want a VACATION!!!

The last issue with one to one pairing that I want to talk about, and this could be just me, but I found it hard to go on vacation since I’m the only one who knows my customers. Other SEs were happy to jump in and assist when needed, but I had ownership of my customers. They are “my precious” and I didn’t want to ask them to go to someone else for help. I wanted to help. My job, my customers. Let me know if your SEs feel the same way in a one-to-one pairing. 

The bottom line, there are workarounds for all these cons.

Enough with the one-to-one; this blog post is turning into a short story. Let’s talk about the pros of pooling SEs. 

Pro 1: Product Specialization

Having an SE pool means that each SE can specialize in a different technology or aspect of the sale. You will not need overlapping skills so you can be more efficient in hiring SEs. That also means that it does not matter what technology is going to be discussed in an opportunity, there is an SE for that.

Pro 2: Cover Me!

SEs can also cover for each other. Since the SE does not specifically own a customer, they are there to help the AE who owns the customer, it will not matter which SE shows up to the customer site as long as the job gets done. 

Pro 3: I want a divorce

Going back to the personnel perspective, SEs are not really affected by a bad AE and vice versa. If an AE is being an ****, SEs will steer away from them and work with others as much as humanly possible before being forced by management. If an AE is just not closing deals, management will be ok with SE focusing on working with AEs who will in order to make quota. (At least, that’s my opinion about that.)

Also, AEs will request to not work with bad SEs, or more specifically, request their favorite SEs to work with, so a bad SE will not make or break a deal, just the team’s morale. I’ll leave that to the cons section. 

The last pro for this form of organization is that SEs will build better relationships with each other since they are in the same boat, and they work together for a common goal. 

Now, on to the CONS!

Con 1: Customer not My Customer

RIP Robin Williams

 I mentioned that SEs can cover for each other as a positive aspect to pooling SEs, but this can also be a con. It will be much harder to develop a relationship with the customers if the SEs are interchangeable. SEs having a good relationship with the customers is paramount. As a matter of fact, I would say 50% of the deals that my AEs were working on were leads given to the SEs directly from the customers. That’s because we’ve built trust and customers like to work with Sales Engineers more than salespeople. 

Con 2: Monogamy Shmonogamy

SEs will also find it harder to build relationships with their AEs, which means in meetings, SEs will not understand specific looks the AEs give, when to talk and when to shut up. The synergy that the customers appreciate will not be there, or it will take much longer to develop.  

If specific SEs are good at developing those relationships with the AEs and do the job well, they will always be in demand which makes them a bit overworked while others are twiddling their thumbs. It is the Manager’s responsibility to make sure all SEs are working equally, especially if they are getting paid equally. But I found that some Managers will keep someone working till they say, “I cannot breathe anymore.” 

Con 3: But He’s Open, Coach

In my previous life, my Manager kept walking into my cubicle and he would say, “Ramzi pick up this project,” “Ramzi, pick up that project”–over and over. At one point when my plate was getting full, I listed all the projects that I’m working on and told him which project do you want me to drop so I can work on the new one. He didn’t even answer. He just turned sound, called on my neighbor who was also a teammate, and asked him “What are you working on?” The response was “Nothing” and the Manager gave him the project. 

Con 4: Show Me the Money

Finally, how are these SEs incentivized? It’s usually a large quota for all the SEs instead of being individual quotas. When I asked John Care and Chris Daly on a Cloudshare webinar this question, that was their first point, if I remember correctly. It’s hard to incentivize people when the outcome is not in their control. It’s not enough for 1 SE to control his or her actions and do a great job. Everybody else on the team has to be perfect to hit their quota. A quick example of not being in control no matter how excellent you are is the NBA finals from 2 years ago, with Lebron James trying to win another title, only for JR Smith to do the biggest oopsies of life and potentially cost Lebron his dreams. In general, for SEs to be incentivized to do something, it has to be within their control.

I personally prefer the one-to-one pairing. John Care and Chris Daly agree. I know there are some excellent pros for having a pool of SEs, but the cons far outweigh the pros, and that fact the SEs seem to love to help each other out, the cons for one to one pairing are easily overcome. 

To be clear, when Sales Engineering organizations start, there are usually many more Salespeople who are established in their role before the first SE is hired. As the team grows, the most natural step is to have an SE covering multiple AEs. It would still be better to have SEs assigned to multiple AEs than to have a pool of SEs for the reasons I’ve stated above, knowing that the end goal for this organization is to have one to one pairing. 

Now that I’ve spewed my thoughts on you for the last 2000 words, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Maybe you can change my mind. 

Ramzi Marjaba Ramzi Marjaba October 19, 2020