Building Fierce Loyalty: How PreSales Managers Hire, Maintain and Elevate Happy SEs

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Ramzi Marjaba April 8, 2021

Late last year, I wrote a blog (check it out after, not now)describing the best manager I’ve had in my career. He’s always had my loyalty, even today, and we have not worked together since 2018. I interviewed an SE Manager at Splunk, Liz Whitaker-Freitas, on We The SEs Podcast show 97. One of the main reasons I had her on the show was because one of her SEs reached out to me and told me how great she is. I started to wonder why she has such fierce loyalty from her SEs. So I went on a researching quest.

After a few keyword searches, the only term that provided me with some results was “Employee Loyalty.” There were a few articles on how employers and organizations can develop loyalty from their employees. That is not what I wanted to find. 

There is some degree of art involved when it comes to gourmet cooking and a large degree of skill that is necessary in order to achieve these culinary masterpieces.

Now, I’ve worked for a few companies (presales or otherwise), and I’m not sure if I’m sad to say I was not loyal to any of them. I’ve been devoted to some of my Managers, but never the company as I always felt that I’m just a number to the company. Go a couple of levels up the command chain, and suddenly nobody knows who you are. When I worked in a big company, I was just a face. When I worked in a small company remotely, I was just a location.

So, why do people talk about loyalty to companies or organizations when it is so much easier to build loyalty to people, aka managers? And if every manager, director, VP, or C-level is trying to build loyalty with his or her subordinates, wouldn’t it effectively build loyalty to the entire company, more specifically, the people who run the company? 

I personally believe that’s the better way to go, but I’d love to hear what you think. Feel free to comment below or on the social media post and tag me. 

That said, I wanted to share my thoughts about how managers can build fierce loyalty from their SEs. These are based on my experience and the hundreds of SEs and SE Managers I’ve talked to on the podcast. 

Put your SE’s problems first.

Sales Engineering Management is not easy. Like any role, SEs only see a portion of it. Managers shield us from other people who may not have our best interest at heart; they train and guide us and act as mentors. The fact of the matter is SE Managers have their own problems. They have SEs to hire, paperwork to fill, Sales Managers to reign in, and most likely manage between 10 and 30 SEs, depending on the location. Liz (mentioned above) has a mentality that stood out to me. Even though her problems are important, her SEs’ problems come first. She has to solve or at least guide SEs to solve their problems before taking a look at her own. Good managers do that, and if SEs see that, they will appreciate it, and their loyalty will start to build. 

On the other hand, if SEs want to get their managers’ loyalty, help your manager solve their problems, or at a minimum, don’t dump your problems on them. Having trouble with an Account Manager, talk to them. Product Managers not getting back to you in time via email, pick up the phone, slack them, or simply figure it out. You’re an adult, and that’s why you get paid the big bucks. 

Let your sales engineers know where they stand.

I had a colleague in a previous company. He joined during a rough time, his territory was not growing before he joined, and as an SE, he could not figure out a way to help it grow. My manager didn’t seem to think that it was his fault, and he told him that. He knew that in our manager’s eyes, he was safe. 

But then came along the VP of Field Engineering, and every time he’d see my colleague, which was not often since they were on different coasts, he would comment something to the effect: “So you didn’t make your quota” and would walk away. 

If the two had a good relationship, you’d think he’s joking. Still, they only saw each other twice a year if that, so comments like this coming from someone so senior in the organization eliminated any trust between the SE and the VP and made the SE doubt his relationship with the manager. 

I knew the SE was a solid, reliable SE. Unfortunately, we all have imposter syndrome within us to some degree. I know my imposter peeks his ugly head every other day. So if the SE is doing a good job, it would be better to affirm that he or she is doing a good job rather than for the manager/VP not to say anything, or even worse, say a negative comment.

The SE has since moved to a different company and, according to him, has a much better relationship with his current manager, who goes out of his way to take care of him.

Listen.

I worked remotely. Initially, I’d see my manager every couple of months. He’d travel from Raleigh to Ottawa to check up on me and make sure I’m doing well. As I got better at the job and built some trust with him, he started showing up less and focusing on the SEs who need more support. Every time he’d come up, we’d talk for hours. Every meal where the customer is not available, we’d talk—breakfast, lunch, or dinner. A couple of years later, I called him out on only coming up every 6 months during one of his visits. After that, I saw him 3 months later. I know it was selfish of me, but it showed me that he heard, and he cares, and I wanted to work for him for as long as I can. I left the company 2 months after he did. 

Get rid of dead weight.

I’ve worked with some great SEs in the past, and I also had the misfortune of working with some duds. I.e., those who either take advantage of high-performing employees to get them to do their work or those who think that their work is amazing, but in reality, it leaves a lot to be desired.

I hate to say this, but sometimes you have to set some people free for their benefit and the benefit of the team. It’s not always easy, and it may take time to hire someone to replace them. And if that is the case, you should check out my blog about recruiting SEs, but it needs to be done. They are a drain. And if they are slightly self-aware, they might know this yet are too afraid to cut the ties themselves. It might be in these peoples’ best interest to move on and find a role that is more suitable for them. I knew of a person in this exact situation. Today, he is thankful he no longer has to work with customers.

Help your SEs achieve their goals

Sales Engineers want different things. I’ve talked to a few friends at VMWare, and they tell me their managers are like life coaches. They are trying to help them achieve their goals and point them in the right direction.

A personal story, I am ready to become an SE manager. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, even in my previous company. When I talked to my manager there, he let me know that this company has a certain policy that managers should be in certain locations (not Ottawa, Canada), and if this is a role that I want to pursue, I should go somewhere else. This manager has my loyalty, and I did not leave the company until after he left.

At my new company, there is currently no available SE Manager role. Still, my manager put me in touch with other SE managers he has a good relationship with in order for them to mentor and coach me when the opportunity arises. It is not in this manager’s best interest to get me an SE manager role as I’m doing a lot of work helping him in the sales department, but going back to the previous point, he’s putting my problems first. I appreciate it, and I’m loyal to him for it.

Not everybody wants to be an SE manager. Some want to learn new technology, or go to more conferences, or simply increase their impact radius, as John White of Nerd-Journey.com would say. The manager should be able to discover that and help.

Having the Sales Engineer’s back

Sales Engineers, unlike most other types of employees, work with a lot of people. To name a few (because I don’t have all day): SE Managers, Salespeople (one or more), Sales Directors or VPs, Product Managers, etc.

All of them have different personalities, ways of doing things, ways to communicate with people, love languages, and the list goes on. That said, there is bound to be some friction at times, and while working in a high-pressure environment, on stressful large deals, the blame will sometimes land on someone. 

The demo goes bad? The salesperson blames the SE for not preparing the right story, and the SE blames the salesperson for not relaying proper information or not even doing a proper discovery. 

We once had our VP of Sales (my boss’s boss’s boss), VP Field Engineering (my boss’s boss), and a Sr. Director of Product Management (not in my boss chain) coming up to Ottawa to show some love to one customer who we’ve been trying to break into for 10 years before I joined. Since they were coming all the way up from California, we scheduled an extra 5 meetings with customers. We did the same presentation at all of these meetings, except for the last one – my salesperson seemed to have gotten bored of doing it, so he asked me to do it. 

During this last presentation, the customer stopped me early on to let me know that he was not actually interested in what we are presenting; he was interested in another topic. We stopped and discussed what he requested. 

Back in the office, the VP of Sales invited me to the conference room and gave me some constructive feedback. He told me that we did not do proper discovery in most of the meetings. We discussed it. I learned from it and moved on. 

The VP gave my salesperson the same feedback, who instead of learning from it, just blamed me. 

When the story got back to my manager, he stood up for me, which meant the world. Having someone that can defend me when I am not present just led me to be more loyal, again!

Personally, I believe I should have started the presentation with a small discovery, and maybe the VPs should not have been there since they had more important things to do, and I learned from it. But knowing that my boss stood up for me when something so small could have been blown out of proportion meant a lot to me. 

This is just one thing that’s happened to me over the years, and I have more that will remain private for now. I’m sure other SEs have been through much worse.

If I were to summarize this entire essay in one word, it would be CARE. Don’t just care and not do anything about it. Care about your employees. Make sure to show it and act upon it should the opportunity arise. 

Ramzi Marjaba April 8, 2021