We like to think of our sales engineers/solutions engineers as the MacGyver of SaaS. Possessing a genius-level intellect, proficiency in multiple languages, superb engineering skills, excellent knowledge of applied physics, military training in bomb disposal techniques, and a preference for non-lethal resolutions to conflicts. I’m not fully certain on the military training in bomb disposal techniques, but add a modern day mullet in there and you may just have yourself a unicorn. I think I’ll talk to Brandon in Solutions Engineering, he had it close with his finely waxed mustache at one point, but I digress.
Sales engineers fill a unique and important position, bringing together the interpersonal and persuasive skills of a sales rep with the deep technical knowledge and expertise of an engineer. When hiring a new sales engineer, you’re looking for a candidate who can effortlessly step into either side of their role.
Given MacGyver’s propensity to get himself into sticky situations, they probably need to be more like the “Bill Nye” of sales: a relatable expert who is always ready to provide simple, yet in-depth explanations.
Finding such a person is easier said than done, and demand for sales engineers is only increasing. But it’s worth the effort to secure a perfect fit for the position.
In this article, we’ll overview the role of a sales engineer, and we’ll cover the most important technical and interpersonal qualities to look for, bomb diffusing techniques optional.
The sales engineer’s role
Your average sales rep should have a basic understanding of the product they sell, but they don’t necessarily need to be familiar with all of its intricacies. They can get away with adapting talking points from a script. But some customers are going to bring technical questions to the table that push your sales reps past the limits of their product knowledge.
When this happens, you turn to a sales engineer.
The sales engineer has the communication skills of a salesperson, but they also have a thorough technical understanding of your products. They know the nuts and bolts, the hows and whys, and everything a customer could ever want to know. They can field questions that go way beyond what the average sales rep has the ability to answer.
Sales engineers speak directly with customers and the people who build your products. They advise sales reps and other employees within your organization. They visit potential clients in person to show them firsthand what your product can do. They present at conventions, conferences, and trade shows. And they act as a voice of authority for the technical details of your product.
Sales engineers must exhibit equal parts technical expertise and interpersonal skills. Let’s take a look at a few of the most important qualities relating to both.
Technical qualities to look for in a sales engineer
When hiring a sales engineer, you need someone with extensive technical expertise who can apply their knowledge in a wide array of scenarios.
The ideal candidate has broad technical knowledge, demonstrates an eagerness to grow and learn new things, can troubleshoot complex problems, can explain the complexities of the product, and anticipates difficulties in implementation.
Has broad technical knowledge
Sales engineers are the experts you rely on to communicate technical knowledge. They should come to your company already equipped with a solid understanding of the kinds of technology they’ll be selling and providing support for.
During the interview process for a sales engineer, be sure to involve existing product experts from your company who will be able to ask the right questions to gauge a potential hire’s familiarity with your product category, your product’s underlying technologies, your industry, and the people you serve.
Demonstrates an eagerness to grow and learn new things
No matter how thorough their technical knowledge of your category or industry may be, a new sales engineer will have to be trained on the specifics of your company’s product during their onboarding process. So they need to be ready to hit the ground running to quickly pick up and retain new information.
Additionally, technical expertise is never static. New developments and innovations are constantly changing the technological landscape, and your sales engineer will need to keep up to date with all of it.
Ask potential hires what new skills or technical knowledge they’ve most recently acquired, which sources they follow for tech updates, and what their process looks like for continued learning.
Can troubleshoot complex problems
Sales engineers must be able to work with customers to solve their problems, no matter how complex.
That includes working with prospective customers to understand the problems they face with their existing setup, and then explaining how your product can solve those problems. And because sales engineers often do both sales and support, it also includes working with existing customers to understand their ongoing problems, and walking them through how to properly use your product to resolve each specific issue.
Have potential hires solve example problems, and see how they’re able to apply critical thinking skills to come up with solutions.
Can explain the complexities of the product
Sales engineers often need to go in-depth into the intricate details of how your product works and what capabilities it offers. This will ultimately require a thorough understanding of your product that a potential hire won’t yet have, but you can still test their ability to explain complex concepts.
Pose questions based on their general expertise that test the limits of their explanatory abilities. You're looking for them to take something extremely complex and distill it into an easy-to-understand explanation—but without losing the technical precision such an explanation demands. You might start by asking technical questions about products they’ve sold in the past.
Anticipates difficulties in implementation
When helping a new customer get set up, sales engineers end up facing some of the same issues over and over again. If they can anticipate and pre-empt those difficulties, they avoid frustration on the part of the customer, while saving valuable time for themselves and the company.
Ask potential hires to identify recurring problems they’ve faced in their previous experience and explain how they proactively tackled them.
Interpersonal qualities to look for in a sales engineer
For a sales engineer, that technical expertise doesn’t mean much if they lack interpersonal skills. You need someone who is outgoing, easy to talk to, and able to relate to customers and make them feel at ease.
The ideal candidate presents clearly and compellingly, shows empathy for the customer’s needs, is comfortable speaking authoritatively, communicates well via all mediums, and is able to (kindly) challenge assumptions.
Presents clearly and compellingly
Sales engineers have top-notch communication skills. When they speak, their audience finds it easy to follow along and understand what they’re explaining. They can call out specific problems potential customers will face, then make a compelling case for why your product is the ideal solution. And ideally, they’ll make it feel more like a conversation than a sales pitch.
Have potential hires perform a mock presentation on a technical subject to see them demonstrate their speaking ability.
Shows empathy for the customer’s needs
All people have a deep-felt need to be understood. When customers speak with a sales engineer, they aren’t only looking for a solution to their problem—they also want to feel validated in the problem they’re facing.
A good sales engineer can see themself in the customer’s position, show empathy for the issue they're facing, and walk them through it as a fellow human, rather than as an item to check off their todo list.
Toward that end, storytelling can be extremely powerful. Look for a sales engineer who can reference the customer’s stated problems and craft a narrative to articulate how your product solves them.
Is comfortable speaking authoritatively
Your sales engineers are the technical experts on your products, and they must be able to speak as an authority. This should hold true no matter who they’re speaking to—whether that be a prospect’s CIO or their own CRO. They know what they’re talking about, they provide confident answers, and most importantly, they’re correct.
When faced with questions they don’t immediately know the answer to, they have the skills to research and find those answers quickly, allowing them to provide an accurate response as promptly as possible.
Look for candidates who give confident answers to questions they know. Then ask them questions they won’t know, and observe how they handle the response.
Communicates well via all mediums
Sales engineers will need to speak over the phone. They’ll need to message customers via chatbox. Hop onto a Zoom call. Remotely control other people’s devices while walking them through what they’re doing. Fly out to talk to clients in person. Speak at conferences. Respond to social media comments. Write up white papers and blog posts and extensive emails.
And they’ll need to exhibit equal proficiency across all these different forms of communication.
Ask potential candidates for writing samples, and look for communication skills across all the different mediums they use during the interview process.
Is able to (kindly) challenge assumptions
Contrary to the common saying, the customer is not always right—at least not when it comes to the kind of technical details sales engineers deal with.
Your sales engineers will frequently come across assumptions customers bring to the table that are simply wrong. And this presents a dilemma. The customer won’t be able to resolve their issue until they correct their faulty assumptions. However, simply telling a customer that they’re wrong is a great way to lose them.
The sales engineer must use tact to walk customers toward a corrected understanding without insulting their intelligence along the way. It’s a delicate balancing act, but the best sales engineers can pull it off.
Pose a hypothetical situation to potential hires where a customer demonstrates a common misunderstanding within your industry, and have them roleplay how they would go about offering a gentle correction.
Improve communication across your sales team with Performio
From sales engineers to sales reps to sales leadership, each member of your sales team brings something unique and valuable to the table. And they all need to be able to communicate with each other in an organized, systematic manner.
Performio helps you keep communications in one place with our ICM software’s built-in messaging system, making it easy for sales reps to get the technical expertise they need from sales engineers, for sales leaders to keep up to date with their sales reps’ progress, and for everyone to stay on the same page.
Want to learn more about what Performio can do for your organization?