Return on Effort: The Metric No One Talks About

Return on SE effort!
Ramzi Marjaba Ramzi Marjaba

There is a common trend among people to measure the outcome. For example, if someone is trying to lose weight, they measure their, wait for it … weight. If someone is trying to run faster, they track how fast they run, and so on.

This somehow followed us into the sales world. Sales and Sales Engineers are measured by leadership in regards to hitting their quota, how many demos they perform, how many proofs of concept they conduct, etc. 

Let’s go back to the weight example. Amateurs, like I said, measure their weight. Professionals (i.e. bodybuilders) measure their weight as well, but they also know measuring their weight is not the reason they lost weight; it’s an outcome, not an action. The action could be tracking (measuring) how much food they eat, how much water they drink, or how much sleep they get. These factors affect their weight.  It takes a lot more effort to track food and intake than to simply do whatever and weigh yourself every now and then. Believe me, I’ve tried. You have to measure your portions, input the food into an app, and hope to whatever deity you pray for that the app finds it.

(As a 36-year-old Lebanese manchild who still enjoys his mommy’s Lebanese home cooking, sometimes I have a hard time finding “Manooshe” or “fwarigh” to input but I think I’m going off on a tangent.)

Lebanese Manooshe

The point is to highlight that we need to track the right action in order to achieve the right result. 

That is the metric we need to focus on. I like to track a specific metric that shows both action and result.

What’s this metric you ask? No, you didn’t ask that? Well, I’m going to tell you anyway, because it’s that important! The metric I like to track is “Return on Effort.” Now, this is not an easy one to track, particularly if you’re Presales leadership and you want to track this metric across your team members.

Unlike return on investment, if you put $100 down and get $5 back on investment, that’s 5%. “Effort” is hard to measure overall, so return on effort is hard to measure as well, but it’s important we try.

Hold on, hear me out. I’ll explain my reasoning through an example. As a Sales Engineer, customers email me with different questions all the time. Sometimes they ask about how to use a product, and other times it’s about problems with a system. Since I live close to my customers, my preference is to meet them in person, rather than chat over webex or zoom. In-person meetings would give me the opportunity to build a relationship in person, whiteboard if things got complicated, and generally speaking, just finish the task more efficiently.

Early on in my career, whenever a customer reached out, I’d get my above-average-sized behind in my small manual Honda Civic and drive over. I’d get to the customer site all excited to help, sign into the building, walk up 12 flights of stairs to help reduce the size of my above-average behind, and get to my customer’s 2.0 cubicle. And then? To my surprise, I find out that the customer is working from home that day. 

Return on Effort for the 40 minutes I just spent = 0!

After I learned from my mistake, and believe me, it took a few times, I started emailing the customer: “Can I visit you? It would be easier to get to the bottom of this in person.”

1-minute email’s Return on Effort = a much larger arbitrary value, let’s say 100% for this example. 

This is a very simple example of one action that took up a big part of my day with zero return on effort, and another that took 2 minutes that yielded a much better return. There are many actions that yield a high return on effort. 

Here are 3 specific ones that I will discuss in-depth:


Sales Engineers are part of the sales world. Unless SEs are treated like demo jockeys, account planning should be part of our job description. The reason that would yield a high return on effort is due to the fact that being part of the account planning would give Sales Engineers direction. Whenever I was involved in the account planning sessions with my salesperson, I was able to plan my action items after the fact. I knew which customers to reach out to, and when to ask the right questions. Without that, I might be reaching out to the customers who have no budget or need, which would yield zero return on effort.

Another part of planning is to spend a few minutes before I’m done work planning the next day, or early in the morning planning the day ahead. That moves me from a reactionary mode to a proactive mode. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do; I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.  


Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, did not start off as a billionaire. He actually started selling into an industry that he didn’t know much about. However, every time he was set to meet a customer, he would read every magazine and every article because he had the imposter syndrome. When he’d show up to the meeting, he’d actually know more than the customer about their own business.  

This research helped him close deals, and as SEs we need to do the same. We need to know what problems our customers face and how we can help them.

Most professionals get measured on the outcome, not how much work it took to achieve that outcome (return on effort). It’s like someone trying to lose weight and they are measured by how much weight they lose. However, the action with the most return on effort is to measure how much food they eat, how often they work out, how much sleep they get. All of this is time-consuming, but with a high return on effort. 


I don’t have exact numbers here, but every hour an SE spends learning the correct technology, product, or solution, would shave days off the sales cycle. As a generalist SE, I have to know a ton of different products, and the more I know about each product, what it solves, and how it works, the less I would have to get product specialists or product managers involved.

When it comes to sales skills, the more we invest in ourselves in terms of learning to do a proper discovery, asking better questions, telling stories, or managing the customers, the more we can dig into the customers’ situation and clearly show them that we have the best solutions.

The Bottom Line for Presales Leadership

If managers want their SEs to hit their quotas or other objectives, they have to teach their SEs to perform the tasks with the highest return on effort. Most of us spend our life going from meeting to meeting, working on demos, or putting out fires that we rarely have time to think, plan, research or educate ourselves. That is what we are incentivized to do.

If this behavior is going to change, the SEs need to be incentivized to do the work with the highest returns on effort, and to track those in addition to their quota. 

Ramzi Marjaba Ramzi Marjaba September 28, 2020