What is a sales engineer? And what makes a good one?
This specialist sales job brings together business studies, tech knowledge, and customer service. The result is a dynamic profession in technical sales that’s as demanding as it is rewarding. Interested in mixing a love of applied science, computer, and automation with the more people-driven side of the business? Then a career in tech sales as a sales engineer could be just the ticket.
What is a sales engineer?
Sales engineers are essentially specialists focused on selling complex technology or advanced scientific products and services. Though they must be skilled at the actual act of selling, sales engineers also put an enormous amount of effort into product education. This may include memorizing a laundry list of specifications or studying the ins and outs of cutting-edge concepts. The goal is a level of proficiency that makes it easy to explain the benefits to potential clients.
Companies often choose to take a team approach to technical sales. In those cases, a sales engineer zeroes in on the tech aspects of the sale while a more generalized salesperson oversees the overall account.
What makes a good sales engineer?
A career in SaaS sales is exciting, but it can also be stressful. In addition to the ever-present need to meet sales quotas, there’s the pressing desire to generate deals and bring home a hefty commission. Being a sales engineer requires:
- An adaptive personality: In sales, you never know what the next day might bring. An ability to roll with the punches is a valuable skill to have.
- Patience: Sometimes prospects will stand you up. Sometimes you’ll lose a major deal. It’s good to be ambitious, but learning when to take a deep breath and wait it out is also important.
- People skills: Can you listen as much as you talk? Are you able to make people comfortable quickly, so they’re ready to open up and spend? Do you come across as trustworthy? All these characteristics could influence whether you make a sale or not.
- Nerves of steel: Sales engineers need to be comfortable speaking in front of people. This may include presenting a product to a crowd.
- In-depth product knowledge: It’s not enough to just memorize marketing materials. Sales engineers also must be able to offer accurate answers to any questions customers may have.
- Sales knowledge: Not only must sales engineers present key information clearly, they almost use that info to help drive sales. That requires familiarity with the entire sales process from awareness to closing.
Day-to-day activities of a top sales engineer
The fluid nature of sales careers means there really is no “typical day” for sales engineers. That said, there are some job responsibilities that are fairly common.
Research & development
While sales engineers are hired to help sell, their technical expertise makes them the go-to person for all kinds of tech issues. They could be called in to help at every level of the research, development, manufacturing, and marketing processes. This includes assisting with a competitive analysis to see how proprietary models stack up against other industry players.
This is the tech segment of the sales pitch. There is often a verbal presentation combined with visual support such as graphs, blueprints, spec sheets, etc.
Some technical and scientific concepts have to be seen to be understood. Sales engineers may do a product demo while describing how that product could add value or otherwise benefit the client.
Sales copy must be accurate. Sales engineers help by fact-checking freelance content and working alongside the marketing team to develop unique selling propositions (USPs). They may even write white papers or blogs to offer a professional perspective on tech topics.
Q & A
When prospects have questions, sales engineers deliver the answers. These questions are often general in nature. But they still may need to call on their knowledge and experience to explain how products benefit a specific client. This could happen during the sales process or they may offer support to existing customers as well.
It might not seem like it from the outside, but all the small talk that comes with a sales job is important. Conversations are how you establish a rapport and offer clients insight that proves your worth and encourages conversion.
From trade shows and conventions to press conferences and product launches, it’s important that sales events go off without a hitch. Sales engineers help by sharing information and running demos.
What is an average sales engineer salary?
The next most popular question after “what is a sales engineer?” is “what does a sales engineer make?”
Salaries for sales engineers vary depending on a variety of factors including geographic location, industry experience, education, and employer size. Most companies may offer their employees packages that combine salary with commission. Sales engineers generally have a similar pay structure to account executives or other sales reps. Their compensation ranges from a 50/50 base/commission split to a 75/25 split. Others may opt for purely salary-based compensation that remains steady regardless of how many deals each salesperson closes.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average sales engineer OTE (on-target earnings) in the United States in 2019 was $103,900 per year. This is good news for anyone interested in exploring a career in sales engineering. Even better, the field is projected to grow about 6% between 2018 and 2028 (about on par with the average occupational growth rate).
What is the career track?
A job as a sales engineer starts in college. Many employers look for applicants who are graduates of engineering programs. A bachelor’s degree is important to some recruiters; others are more interested in an applicant’s technical training.
Like most professions, sales jobs have a certain trajectory that takes newbies up the career ladder one rung at a time. For a sales engineer, the starting line could be an Associate Sales Engineer position or ASE. These positions typically report to a more senior sales engineer and/or as part of a large corporate sales department. Sometimes, they’re the sole SE at a smaller company.
Next up is a promotion to a Corporate Sales Engineer (CSE) position. With the new job title comes a new tier of clients and extra job duties. CSEs handle more valuable accounts and may be responsible for increasingly complex tasks. A CSE may be a team leader. They may also work under a Senior CSE who serves as the point person for a large account.
One of the most attractive aspects of a career as a sales engineer is that there are countless opportunities outside the traditional trajectory. For example, sales engineers may freelance in product development or focus on customer service. They may also devote their entire career to research used to power other aspects of the sales process.
So, what is a sales engineer? Sales engineers are problem solvers, but they’re also expert communicators. If you’re looking to build a better sales team, consider bringing on an SE.
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