What is a Sales Engineer?
I was speaking with a recent engineering graduate about a role for a trainee sales engineer today and it dawned on me that most engineering graduates only ever hear about the role of a sales engineer or technical sales engineer once they have graduated.
Most tell me that they had never heard of the role until they started their career search in earnest.
Academic Engineering courses are there to teach the technical aspects of engineering and I have no issue with that. It really is no surprise that Engineering Professors don’t teach a module on Technical Sales- frankly I wouldn’t expect them to. I’m not one to subscribe to the idea that Academics should be responsible for supplying ready trained staff for businesses anyway (however convenient it might be for businesses).
It just doesn’t seem right to co-opt academia in this way- as though they were part of a just in time supply chain for the creation of engineering personnel.
I’m actually happy that Academia sticks to the academic side of engineering because the careers market for engineering graduates certainly needs people who are capable of the academic rigour that the subject demands. Besides which, good engineering businesses should take responsibility for training their staff, particularly if the subject matter is commercially related.
Of course, when students graduate, they quickly discover that Engineering Companies are also businesses too and because of this they have a need for people with commercial skills.
The role of sales engineer is at the forefront of the commercial facet of most engineering businesses.
The sales engineer’s role is all about the customer and plays a key part in enabling customers to make use of an engineering business’ technological offering be it a product, a service or both.
Indeed, sales engineers spend most of their working lives finding and engaging with customers in order to explore how or if their offering can benefit that customer or that customer’s business.
Because engineering businesses are frequently selling products or services to other technical people and also because in many cases the products or services which they offer are also bespoke, the sales people in engineering business also need to have a technical or engineering background.
This is the reason why there are Sales Engineers. Customers need a sales person who can both understand how the product or service will be used and who will also be able to guide the customer towards the most beneficial outcome-in many cases free consultancy services or product training are part of the package that a sales engineer will also be helping to deliver. Frequently engineering businesses are buying a turn-key solution because they are happy to outsource both the supply of the product and the risk of making sure that it works to an external supplier who is an expert in their niche. In days gone by engineering business may have bought components and configured these themselves – however the economic case for targeted outsourcing of project work is now a proven route. It transfers risk, labour costs and ensures relevant expertise is engaged. If the product or solution doesn’t work the supplier doesn’t get paid.
By and large sales engineers are selling non-commoditized products customised to each individual buyer’s requirement. So instead of focusing wholly on price negation as a commodity sales person might the sales engineer must use their expertise to help tailor a service or product for each individual customer. This sort of activity simply couldn’t be done by a non-technical sales person.
The style of selling that is most predominant in technical sales as a consequence of this driver is largely customer centric. Some would describe it as “solutions-based selling”, others as “buyer facilitation”. These terms are more or less interchangeable. The key is that effective sales engineers tend to be good at asking the right questions and very good at listening to and understanding their customers technical or commercial challenges. Often this is essential because in order to propose a solution the sales person needs to firstly agree and define a specification with the customer. Rarely is a sale made because of some Wizz Bang presentation. Sales are made because they stack up as the optimum solution in the mind’s eye of customer not because of the charisma of the sales person.
Some of the best sales engineers I have met are actually really good engineers, who are great with people too and many of them also have a creativity and an instinct for problem solving that wouldn’t be out of place in engineers who have followed the design career pathway.
The sales engineering role is the most overtly direct entry route into the commercial part of an engineering business.
A good many technical (non-sales) engineers go through their careers and ultimately rise to leadership roles and when they do in most cases their responsibilities frequently become less technical and more commercial too (perhaps accounting for the mid-career rush for Engineers signing up to MBA courses). The commercial teams in most engineering businesses are often staffed by a mix of the two.
Indeed, it is not uncommon for us as a consultancy to be actively recruiting for trainee sales engineers for some of our clients. Needless to say, it is a common trait to find that trainee sales engineers are often very interested in business and in how businesses work. They may be avid viewers of Dragons Den or the Apprentice for example. They may have run little side line businesses, perhaps selling on Amazon, Ebay or Depop whilst at University. They will almost certainly have worked in a customer facing role and really enjoyed it. Curiously not all sales people are extroverts.
Some of the best sales people are more introverted that you may imagine. However, there are certainly observable trends that appear as frequent motifs in the nascent sales engineer. Achievement orientation, low passivity, low compliance, high levels of empathy and emotional intelligence etc are common traits- perhaps these are the qualities that make sales people both lovable and possibly a little bit annoying too – depending on your perspective!
All businesses have to sell in order to survive and thrive. Someone has to do it! For Engineering businesses, it is largely the Sales Engineer who is responsible. The sales engineering expert is a seemingly rare type of employee and because so many engineers primarily have an interest in the technical aspects of the subject, the majority of engineers pursue careers in technical engineering- so as a result the sales engineer seems to be something of a rarity.
Having said this, I would nonetheless estimate that there are perhaps about 10,000 employees in the UK who are responsible for either technical sales, technical sales support or applications engineering activities, all of which tie in to the commercial aspect of selling an engineering businesses services or products. So, whilst the career is not well known or well publicized it is nonetheless a significant career path within the engineering sector and perhaps deserving of greater prominence as a career choice.
Most people who come into the career tend to do so from a variety of routes, some are direct graduate entrants, others may have whetted their appetite for customer facing roles by moving across from service or support roles and there are others still who move into selling having come from a project management or leadership role where they were perhaps already partly involved in many of the elements of technical sales given their proximity to the customer and their involvement in developing the technical specification for their project work.
Just like any other engineering discipline. Sales engineers are in short supply and because the best sales engineers can make a step change in the performance of the businesses in which they work demand for their services is ever present.
We believe that more needs to be done to highlight Sales Engineer as a sound career choice.