Partner, Probe, and Prepare –Habits of Highly Effective Sales Engineers (Part 1)

Aaron Sun Avatar photo

Last year I was privileged to have the opportunity to discuss with Vivun CEO Matt Darrow the six habits that I believe form the bedrock of effectiveness for sales engineers, and what presales leaders can do to enable those six habits.  While we covered a tremendous amount of ground in that first webinar, there’s still more to explore in the rapidly evolving world of technical sales.  To that end, I’m inspired to recap the key points Matt and I made on The Six Habits of Highly Successful Sales Engineers in a 2-part blog series.

For starters, it is important to establish that many sales engineer leaders move into the role with little or limited management experience.  Many, if not MOST, were high-performing technical presales individual contributors who were promoted into the role.  That was Matt’s story.  Like many top performing SEs, when a management position opened up, he was the logical selection.  But how well are SEs prepared for management – sales management no less?  In many cases, not particularly well.  And there’s limited guidance for presales leadership – although that’s changing.  In many regards, the move from successful sales engineer to effective SE Leader is a much bigger leap than that of sales to sales leadership.  And there’s less support in the way of best practices and industry guidance. The question is, what can you do to shorten the learning curve and prepare for the leap?  In my next webinar with Vivun, we will elaborate on what it means to be a “catalyst for change.”

For now, let’s recap the first 3 habits that are critical for everyone in presales, and I’ll offer some additional questions to tackle in the next webinar.

Habit #1: Partner  

For those of you familiar with my framework, you know that Habit 1 is to PARTNER with your sales counterpart.  I like to say that Sales is a Team Sport.  This is the foundation of the other five habits, and frankly, the foundation of our success.  These relationships are critical to our success but, at times, can be very difficult.  In large part, because we are simply wired so differently – sales and sales engineers.  But the fact that we are different is also the very thing that makes the team that much stronger – when channeled correctly.  As presales leaders, we are challenged to step in for our teams without meddling unnecessarily.  It’s a balance between holding our team members accountable for mistakes and going to bat on their behalf.  We need to coach our people in the use of negotiation, communication, and feedback. And we also need to demonstrate through our actions.

I posed a question about this to Matt.  How can we measure the quality and effectiveness of these partnerships?  His responses provided some great insight into how we as sales engineer leaders can drive meaningful change through tangible quantitative analysis.  Regarding Habit #1, he cited support ratios and attach rates.  Support ratios – i.e., the number of sales reps supported by a single SE – indicates quota capacity retirement and cost of sale.  It may also indicate the availability of sales engineers and may require certain rules of engagement to be put in place by SE leaders.  For example, a higher ratio of sales to SEs requires sales to be more cognizant of other deals that SEs may be involved in and, as such, may have to allow more time for important meetings to be scheduled.  The attach rate, i.e., the percentage of deals in which an SE is involved – consider how many of those deals are closed won vs. closed lost.  In the latter, the reason for losses, may prove to be important indicators, such as effective use of SE resources.  

Qualitative data may also come into play here.  Sales engineers may at times be a little more pragmatic and realistic than their sales counterparts regarding whether or not a deal is likely to close. This is based largely on the “technical fit” of the solution.  (Incidentally, they can also be unnecessarily skeptical at times, and have the propensity to be reluctant to look beyond the solution’s minor technical limitations.  So, let’s walk that line carefully.)  Nonetheless, the best projection of whether or not a deal will close is often the combined input from both sales and sales engineers, but oftentimes SEs are left out of that equation.  Mature sales organizations have mechanisms in place to get balanced projection from both sides.

I believe one of the questions that remains to be discussed is the following:  As sales and SE leaders improve their quantitative and qualitative data analysis, is it possible that some of these new insights can actually make the partnership MORE difficult?  And if so, what can we as leaders do to avoid and alleviate that? To be continued in the next webinar…

Habit #2: Probe

One of my favorite topics in sales is discovery.  In fact, it’s becoming one of the more controversial topics in our field.  Some say the notion of formal technical discovery is dead – or at the very least, outdated thinking.  And that in today’s product-first SaaS environment, we need to be prepared to show first, discover second.  Again, anyone who has read my book knows that I’m a big proponent of technical discovery. I come from a selling background in which I was very reluctant to show anything before I got some context from the people to whom I was giving the demonstration.  However, even I have become convinced that there is a time and a place – for certain products and solutions that fit a certain profile – that having brief, well scripted, outcome-driven demonstrations that can be given without any discovery at all, can be very beneficial to the buyer journey.  But regardless of where you stand on the sequence of demo or discovery first – there is little debate that at SOME POINT, we need the ability to do some level of technical discovery in order to make the best recommendation to our prospects and customers.  At some point – and frankly, throughout most if not all of the lifecycle of the deal – we need the ability to effectively and gracefully probe into customer inquiries, requirements and questions. This is the path to the heart of what they truly need – and what their decision drivers really are.  As a sales engineer, to think that the ability to execute technical discovery is NOT part of our job, in my opinion, is false thinking.

So, to the point of this article, what can we as SE Leaders do to enable and promote discovery skills?  And from Matt’s perspective, how can we measure our team’s effectiveness?  To answer the first question, I believe it begins with demonstrating a high level of Emotional Intelligence – EQ as it is commonly called.  The foundation of high EQ is self-awareness and the ability to prioritize others over self.  And that is precisely what discovery is all about – clearing our “mental cache” and working hard to understand our customers’ objectives, decision drivers, requirements, etc. BEFORE we launch into our script of why we and our product are so wonderful.  In addition, we as SE leaders should be coaching our team members on how to ask effective questions – open-ended and clarifying questions – and how to respond in such a way that demonstrates active listening.  When we can restate – to our customers’ satisfaction – what it is that they are trying to accomplish, then we are likely ready to move into solution positioning mode.  

To measure the effectiveness of discovery, look no further than deal conversion rates across the presales team.  What percentage of deals won involved presales in the discovery process?  More telling, what percentage of deals lost did not?  And at what stage of the process did presales get engaged in discovery?  More specifically, how many days or weeks between the time the lead first appeared, and presales was engaged in discovery.  Most organizations find that the earlier presales engages in discovery, the higher close rates tend to be – and often, the shorter sales cycles tend to be.  But how will we even know if we aren’t tracking that information?  Hence the importance of capturing these metrics.  Imagine if you could show a correlation between “slowing down” the discovery process – in order to capture more information and greater insights – and an increase in deal velocity.  Powerful.  But only if you have the data.

But how do you capture that data and build confidence in what the data indicates?  Again, to be continued…

Habit #3: Prepare

Effectiveness in Habit #3 prepare is all about balancing efficiency and effectiveness.  Err too far on the side of efficiency – i.e., try to prepare for and support too many deals with too little time – and revenue will suffer. You will not be showing up adequately prepared for important meetings and deals will get delayed, or worse, close lost.  Err too far on the side of effectiveness – i.e., put all your effort into perfecting demos and presentations at the expense of other deals – and again, revenue will suffer due to the sheer bottleneck of deals and sales funnel delays.  As SE leaders, we need to make sure that our team members are balancing preparation with productivity.  WHAT we focus on as sales engineers when preparing for key meetings is often the difference-maker.  Are we focused on our product and what we want to show?  Or are we focusing on the customer and what they are trying to accomplish?  Remember, the customer doesn’t need to see everything the solution can do in order to make a purchase decision.  They just need to see the evidence necessary to feel confident that your solution will help them address their issues and help them achieve what they are trying to accomplish.  In preparing for demos, we need to build with the MVD in mind – the Minimum Viable Demo.  As leaders, we need to consistently encourage our SEs to maximize their return on time invested in preparing for demos.  We tend to overbuild.  Over-engineer.  Keep the goal in mind. We need to get the technical win; we don’t need to demonstrate that we are smart enough to build the final solution.   

So how do we measure our effectiveness here and/or improve in this area?  Matt talked about measuring pipeline velocity through automation.  By formalizing presales processes and the steps involved from discovery to demo delivery – and capturing or ingesting data points along the path – we gain visibility into Sales Engineering productivity and efficiency.  The more complete the data, the more complete and accurate the picture.  But how do we draw a correlation between what we discover in these workstreams and revenue outcomes?  And if we do find anomalies in the data, how can we add context to that information, and when do we know it’s time for process improvement.  Again, to be continued…

Keep an eye out for my next blog post on Habits 4-6 (Practice, Perform, and Perfect). I’ll recap the latter half of my discussion with Matt and his insights on measuring and optimizing these critical skills.  I will pose more questions to discuss my next session with Vivun as well. 

In the meantime, save your seat for the webinar, where we’ll dive into new questions and insights on how presales leaders can empower our teams.

Aaron Sun Avatar photo February 4, 2021