Sales engineers must have technical expertise and sales acumen, as they’re often tasked with walking potential clients through the benefits of a particular technology. On a day-to-day basis, they must use that technical know-how and customer-focused communication skills to articulate complex technical solutions in a way that aligns with clients' business needs and challenges.
They serve as key assets in driving successful sales by explaining how intricate technical functions will result in tangible benefits for their customers, ensuring the smooth integration of technology solutions across various business environments.
What Does a Sales Engineer Do?
Sales engineers work closely with sales leads to compel potential customers to choose a particular technology product. Depending on the company, they might demo new technology, fly to a client’s business to demonstrate how the technology would integrate into an existing tech stack, or show how the technology can be customized for a highly specific use.
Sales engineers pop up most frequently in an enterprise context, such as large businesses selling to other businesses. As they advance in seniority, they may also have greater input on their company’s overall sales strategy.
What Skills Does a Sales Engineer Need?
First and foremost, sales engineers must understand their company’s technology inside and out; that involves interfacing with the company’s engineers and staying hyper-aware of not only any updates, but also any flaws in the technology. You don’t want to be caught flat-footed by a potential client’s question about vulnerabilities.
Sales engineers also need a variety of “soft skills,” including (but certainly not limited to):
- Problem-solving: You need to know how your company’s technology will solve a client’s biggest pain-points.
- Empathy: You need to really understand what a client wants and needs.
- Communication: You’ll have to explain complex topics to people without a technical background.
- Goal-setting: As a sales engineer, you’ll have sales goals and other metrics to hit every quarter.
- Research: You’ll need to effectively research a client before heading into a meeting.
- Teamwork: No sales engineer is an island.
In addition, sales engineers develop a solid grasp of sales tactics. While not all sales engineers start out in sales, absorbing best practices as quickly as possible will only benefit your career progression.
What Training Do You Need to Become a Sales Engineer?
Scott Deluke, senior sales engineering manager at Abnormal Security, explains how the traditional sales engineering role is an evolutionary step from either sales or traditional IT roles: “For those who take the sales route, majoring in business or taking classes around sales methodologies and management can provide huge benefits to your success as you grow into a sales engineering role.”
For those coming from the traditional IT space, there are two main paths for education: the first is the traditional diploma route in an IT specialization field.
“The second is completing IT certifications such as CompTIA's N+, A+, S+, Cisco, or other deep networking certifications, or specific security certifications, like the CISSP,” Deluke says. "The third option is developing work experience by starting from the and working your way up."
Developing a high level of emotional intelligence (EQ) from hands-on experience is invaluable when looking to pursue a career in sales engineering. “Aspiring sales engineers should also think outside the box when it comes to traditional certifications," Deluke says. “Being a sales engineer requires two key skill sets: technical acumen and communication chops.”
Looking into organizations like Toastmasters or other groups that help with public speaking can be huge in building your success as a sales engineer. “There are now classes that you can take that offer training specifically for becoming a sales engineer, and while they won’t provide you everything you need, they will help you work on IQ and EQ skills that are so critical to the role,” Deluke adds. Customer service or community service experience can also help to develop the skills needed for the SE role.
How is the Sales Engineer Role Evolving?
Terry Cozard, director of solution architecture at Strata, explains the role of a sales engineer has changed over the years. “At one time, a sales engineer only needed to talk about the features and benefits of their product,” he says. “Now the role has grown to become far more dynamic.”
To be an exceptional sales engineer today, one must know about far more things than just the technology that being sold. “Exceptional sales engineers can clearly communicate in a room with an engineer, CEO and an analyst and be fully understood by them all,” Cozard explains. “The sales engineer needs to communicate in a way that can be understood by everyone, but also has the depth and breadth in case anyone probes deeper.”
The best sales engineers are polished presenters who guide the audience through how their business challenges can be solved by leveraging your product or service. “The best sales engineers also understand business,” Cozard says. “Long gone are the days where organizations purchase software to tinker with. In this competitive market, you need to help a prospect understand the business benefits for using your product.”
He points out that various certifications can help someone on their path to becoming a sales engineer; and while those may vary depending on the industry; he’s always on the lookout for the following:
- Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
- Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
For Sales Engineers, Continued Learning and Soft Skills are Key
Cozard thinks communication skills are perhaps as important, if not more important that technical depth. “There are a lot of very smart people in every industry—and very few of them could be an effective sales engineer,” he says. “Effective sales engineers can winnow down the essence of your solution and explain it to your grandparents, or anyone that you night meet on the street.”
Explaining the best software on earth isn’t important if it doesn’t solve a business problem for the customer. “Listen to their needs, priorities and aspirations,” he advises. “Then, and only then can you craft your message about how your solution can benefit the prospect.”
Additionally, the role of a sales engineer is filled with times when things don’t work as expected; it’s up to the sales engineer to search for resolution and figure out a fix or workaround. “Sales engineers don’t have the luxury of saying ‘it doesn’t work,’” Cozard cautions. “They have to get it to work and then show it off to the prospect.”
Deluke points out that continued education keeps the mind sharp and pivot-ready. “Constantly educating yourself not only pays off as you’re developing along the sales engineering path, but it can also help transition you through future changes,” he says. “What is hot technology today might not be tomorrow.”
Instead of having to start all over, there are many things that sales engineers can do to actively keep skills and knowledge up-to-date on an ongoing basis. “This can help you transition to any role that you might want to pursue in the future,” he says, pointing to LinkedIn Learning as a great avenue to continuing education and obtaining all certifications. With just a library card, anyone can get free access to LinkedIn Learning and take as many courses as they like to grow in any way that they choose.
“If you use [Microsoft 365] for your business productivity suite, you can go learn about some of its new automation tools or how to be more proficient at Excel,” he explains. “While it may not technically make you a better sales engineer, it will help in all the other tasks that come along with the job."