What is Sales Engineering?

A hybrid between Sales and Engineering, Sales Engineers (SE) are often the technical experts that are brought into complex sales transactions to perform product demos, address technical questions, and develop the final solution to deliver to the customer.

But wait, there’s more!

Both the function of Sales Engineering and the role itself are often used interchangeably with many other terms, so let’s get some clarity.

What is Pre-Sales?

Another name for the function of Sales Engineering, pre-sales is the more common term used to describe the Sales Engineer role. In a pre-sales role you actually wear many hats; one focused on supporting the sales team to close deals, one providing feedback to the product team on the product itself, and yet another working with the internal security team to address security and compliance requirements during the procurement process. Oh, and you serve as the product expert for all sales conversations. No biggie.

While you might think this is a lot for one role (oftentimes it is), the need to wear these different hats is often balanced based on the demands of the business. For the majority of your day-to-day, pre-sales is really all about the balance between sales and technology. Whether you are conducting a product demo, executing a proof of concept, or doing competitive research…your ultimate goal is to solve the pain points of your customers. The product or service that you sell is just part of the overall solution you present to address (the customer’s) needs.

Note: There are other roles within the organization that might fit within the “pre-sales” function as well. If you work for a larger organization, you might have a team that handles proposal creation or is a product expert supporting sales. These are all roles that support the sales effort and are often classified as a “pre-sales” function.

What is Post-Sales?

Another function, or hat, that Sales Engineers are sometimes asked to perform is that of the consultant (often called a hybrid SE). Post-sales is often associated with the role or individual that will implement, configure, and optimize the solution that is sold to the customer. In some cases it makes sense to have the SE do post-sales work, particularly in startups or small organizations. If you are part of the sales transaction you’ll have first hand knowledge of exactly what needs to be done to implement the solution (based on the needs of the customer).

This sounds like a great idea because using the same SE from pre-sales to post-sale delivery provides for great continuity, especially from the customer’s perspective. However, in larger deals or when working with enterprise customers…post-sale implementations can sometimes take months to complete. This means losing valuable technical resources on the pre-sales front as they are tied up doing delivery work.

Note: Similar to pre-sales, there are other roles that fall within the scope of the “post-sales” function as well.

What’s in a Name?

We’ve discussed the different functions that a Sales Engineer can play, but what about the role itself? Although the term Sales Engineer has been around for a while, there are actually many different titles that exist today. Solutions Engineer, Solutions Consultant, Pre-Sales Consultant, Solutions Architect. Sadly, each of these names are often used interchangeably when in reality they do have slight differences between them. While we might go by many different names, we are all striving for the same end goal; customer success.

If we were to step back and reflect on the title “Sales Engineer” for a moment, in some ways it is actually becoming quite antiquated. The original purpose was for (technical) engineers to support sales; this at a time when technology was overly complex. Today though, many software solutions being delivered from the cloud don’t require the same level of technical support because the complexity factor has been reduced. This is where the slight changes in the name of the role start to shine through.

Instead of focusing on just the technical elements of a solution, the modern day SE is meant to take a consultative approach to understanding customer needs and pairing it with solutions that bring value. This outcome based approach really gives rise to the term Solutions Consultant or Solutions Engineer.

The more traditional Sales Engineer title suggests the focus remains on selling complex technology products and services. The problem with this thinking is that all Sales Engineers, regardless of title, want to be seen as a trusted advisor that works alongside customers to solve problems and arrive at the desired outcome (similar to what was just described for the “Solutions” title).

So what is the answer here? Should we abolish the Sales Engineer title and replace it with Solutions Engineer? Should we change the Sales Engineer role to be less technical or perhaps the Solutions Engineer role to be more technical?

Let’s actually change the question.

What Job are You Actually Doing?

Two different functions, four different roles…the actual definition of Sales Engineering seems more confusing, not less. But here is the bottom line; the responsibilities you are given in a job matter more than anything else, regardless of what your title or function is.

The trap most people fall into with Sales Engineering is making an assumption that it’s just “one role”, when it clearly isn’t. If you are looking to break into the world of technical sales, changing companies, or looking for your next promotion…the devil is in the details. Regardless of what any job description says, you’ll want to make sure that you have a solid understanding of the role and that the company has a clear understanding of which function they want you to play.

Ask others already in the role, talk to different individuals as a potential company. Make sure you have a list of questions going in that clearly define what job you will actually be doing. If you don’t like any of the answers, or if they are too vague, move on. You will thank yourself later.

Oh, and if you are looking to break into the technical sales world…check out our guide on how to land your first technical sales job.

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