How to Tame Your Sales Engineer

Ramzi Marjaba December 21, 2020

Sales Engineers are a great resource for their companies. They help sell, find new opportunities, support their account managers, provide feedback to the product team, help with marketing efforts, and more. 

The list is endless.

But rookie SEs don’t come in this polished, or this valuable. They are wild and wide-eyed. They want to do everything and anything to prove they belong in this strange world of technical sales. There are so many things that we do wrong right out of the gate. We need taming. Or maybe we need refining, Either way, SEs need some work to get over the initial mistakes that we make. That’s where the Managers come in.

Managers may not be actively molding the SE into what an SE should look like, but they should be orchestrating it. In this respect, managers are like a James Bond villain except they work for the forces of good. 


But first, what are some of the mistakes the SEs make as they enter the SE workforce? Here are the top 5 that I think they do, or at least I did.

1. We’re too afraid to make mistakes.

Sales Engineering is overwhelming. There are so many things to do, and so many customers to meet and understand. There is also a quota potentially looming overhead for the first time in a new SE’s career. Although we’re not as affected by the commission as Salespeople, we still feel the effects. Not to mention, the competitive nature of sales adds stress to our lives. 

This means we don’t want to make a mistake that could affect the deal. We take our time, and we don’t want to jump into the demo or consult with the customer–especially since we don’t know how to consult them or what to consult them on. 

2. We won’t stop talking about the product.

Once we get over the fear of making mistakes, we get to show off our product knowledge to our customers. That usually means that we don’t shut up about it. We love the product, and we vow that by the time we’re done, our customers will love it too.

3. We’re too afraid to correct the salesperson.

My favorite show in the whole wide world.

Part of the job is to keep the salespeople honest, whether they meant to be dishonest or didn’t know any better. But how can this lowly SE, new to the role, be able to handle this Sr. Salesperson, who is smooth talking the customer?

4. We’re a “Yes Person” to the Customer. 

Who has not heard the old adage: “The customer is always right?”

Most new SEs don’t know the product enough, don’t have the confidence, or don’t have the skills to properly tell the customer “no.” Some SEs don’t even know that they can tell the customer that they are mistaken (nicely, of course).

5. We’re trying to learn too many things at once. 

This is especially true if the new SE comes from a different organization. They could still be in the same industry, but still, the new employer may have many products and even new technologies that SEs have to learn–as well as new sales skills. So what does a normal SE do, or at least what I tried to do? Well, I tried to learn them all at once without a focus on a specific product/technology.

All these mistakes are manageable. Most SEs learn to overcome them in time. But Managers can help speed up the process.

Here’s how SE Managers can help tame their SEs faster:

1. Give Permission to Make Mistakes.

SEs will make mistakes. As I tell my children, if they are not making mistakes, they are not trying hard enough. The problem is Sales Engineers’ mistakes are costly. It’s not just a math problem where we just erase the mistake and redo the problem.

But I like to think about it as a rebuilding season in sports. When the football team has a new quarterback or running back, and they are trying to build around that person, they might start off on all cylinders, but more likely they will start by making mistakes. It is costly, it is difficult to watch, but sometimes we just have to let them go through it. 

The good news is that for SEs, they can be helped with that by having them shadow more experienced SEs. They can even be encouraged to take the lead, while the experienced SE provides support. You would be amazed at the results.

A few years ago, I had a mentor who left the company 2 months after I joined the team as a rookie SE. My manager asked me if I needed a mentor. My ego said “no” but reality said “yes” because I still had no idea what I’m doing, I was just stupidly confident in my talent. So even if the SE is getting comfortable, they might be building the wrong skills. Make sure that they still have a Sr. SE support if you want them to be successful. 

Also, my mentor never actually joined me on a call. I understand why; he was busy helping to close his own deals, but that environment should be highly encouraged. 

Mentors are something we need throughout our careers. I’ve been an SE for almost 7 years now, and I have a ton of mentors mostly acquired through the podcast that I’ve been running for the last 3 years. Matt Darrow, the CEO of Vivun mentioned on the podcast that he still has mentors. Make sure your team has them!

2. The “So What” Test!

People’s comfort zone is to talk about what they know. New SEs are still baby SEs who don’t necessarily understand human interaction. All the effort is put into learning how the products work, not what problem the products solve. So that’s what they tend to talk about.

But if they are taught the basic principle of the “So What” test, that can change the way they view “technical products.” They will understand that these products are meant to solve a business problem and nothing else. I know this point seems obvious–after all, who doesn’t know about the so what test? Well, I didn’t. Not until I read a book a few years after my SE career started. Even then it did not initially click. 

New SEs also don’t want to show their inexperience. They don’t want to put themselves out there and show that they don’t know the customer’s business the way they should, or they are working with a brand new tech. I think that SEs can be shown that customers are not monsters, and that they like to talk about what they know best…their business. Still today, if I’m talking to a customer about a technology that I’m not on top of, I explain that I’m a generalist and that my focus has been on another technology. I follow up with asking if they mind teaching me about their technology or business properly so I can relay the info correctly to our specialists. Customers are happy to talk about what they know!

Give people permission to be vulnerable.

3.  Don’t just give SEs the power to correct, but also provide the techniques to do so.

It’s all about technique.

Salespeople oversell. That’s not a secret. Sometimes in their excitement, they say something that is not based in fact. As SEs, we have to toe the line of continuing to show confidence in our salesperson and be truthful to our customers. 

So we have to correct them without making them look untrustworthy (I’m sugar-coating here). At times, the salesperson will continue to go down the same wrong path even after being corrected. It’s happened to me and I read into that situation that the salesperson did not really care about the customer. All they care about is selling. 

As a rookie SE, I had no tools at my disposal to deal with this situation other than my manager telling me to correct them no matter what. Great! I have the power to correct them, but how do I do that? In that case, correcting them seemed like picking a fight in front of the customer. 

I needed either more tools or more practice in different situations. 

Managers have to provide these tools for new SEs to deal with a Salesperson. There is no way to cover all situations, but we can learn and adapt the more we practice. 

4. Become Trusted Advisors ( I can never say that sentence without thinking of John Care).

    “Can your product shoot out lasers and automagically fix all our networking issues” “Yes!”

    “Can you come over the next 10 weekends, missing your children’s birthdays and games, to implement something I should have paid for professional services to do!” “Sure, I’d love to!”

It’s hard to say no. So we say yes. But the customer is not always right. Sure, we want to make sure the customer is happy, but we don’t want customers to walk all over us.

I’ve had a customer who would show up to a 1:00 pm meeting at 3:00 pm and expect us to still be waiting in the room. Or expect me to do his or her job while they go out to lunch. This customer held the fact that they are a strategic customer over our head. “Do it or I go with the competition.”

Basically, at this point, the SE is less seen as a trusted advisor but seen as a free resource who will do whatever the customer wants. 

The same way SEs need tools to handle salespeople, they need tools to handle difficult customers. It could also be a combination of the 2. The salesperson wants the SE to bend over backward to get this done, either because they are too afraid to sell professional services, or it’s a “strategic customer.” If you want to learn more about being a trusted advisor, I suggest the book called by the title, wait for it…”The Trusted Advisor Sales Engineer” by John Care. It’s actually a chapter in his larger, some would call it, SE bible book, Mastering Technical Sales

5. Guide and teach focus.

The biggest mistake I made early in my career is trying to learn too many things, or more specifically, too many of the wrong things. Generalist SEs have to learn many different technologies and products, but something that I was never told was that I needed to learn the art of Sales. 

This is my experience in a nutshell:  

“I need to learn product A. No wait, maybe I need to learn technology instead?”

“Nope, wrong again – I need to learn how technology X works with product C.”

“But wait, how do I sell it? What is sales anyway? I guess I’ll learn that too.”

Ramzi Marjaba, Internal Monologue

 In the end, for the first few months, I learned nothing. Kinda like Jon Snow.

I wish my Manager grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me really hard, but I guess he couldn’t reach. Still, he could have told me: “Ramzi, your customers use this product more than anything else. I need you to understand what the product does, how it helps the customers, and how to sell it. Once that is done, we can discuss the next thing for you to learn.” 

Focus on 1 thing and 1 thing only. You would still pick up info about other topics through the monthly release reviews, or quarterly training, but you should spend your spare time, usually in the middle of the night, to focus on one thing. If you don’t believe me, read The One Thing by Garry Keller and Jay Papazan.  

The title of this post is “How to Tame Your Sales Engineer.” In case you cannot tell, it’s a play on the movie How to Tame Your Dragon. Same as dragons, SEs can be a powerful tool in the sales cycle with proper training and mentorship which only a few organizations do. If the SEs are not trained, sometimes they can destroy a deal just like these dragons destroyed their town..several times. 

Ramzi Marjaba December 21, 2020