Thursday, December 29, 2011

How to Answer Sales Engineer Interview Questions

Getting your first Sales Engineer job can be tricky - particularly if you can't get that sort of position in your current company.

The interview - Razvan Caliman
To get one, you will need to prove that your current experience shows that you can do the job and will be a low risk option. Remember, everyone should have some kind of experience that proves you can sell something.

A sales engineering position usually will have several interviews with different kinds of agendas.  Some people will test you technically, others will test your ability to sell, and others still, how you work within a team.  Work out what each interviewer wants to hear, and try to prove yourself. Be prepared with a trial presentation or whiteboarding session.  It could be about your current product or something arbitrary.

Practice it like a real demo.


  • Know what it says in your resume. Have something good to say about each job you have had
  • Know the company you are applying for - understand the business and the product areas you are applying for
  • Have a prepared demo / whiteboard session that you can run through - they might want to test you
  • Have your prepared questions list (see below) - don't be afraid to ask them more than once
  • Have prepared answers to the following questions with examples
  • If you don't have experience as an SE - use your experience in whatever role and how it helped sell product technically
  • Be ready for oddball questions.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Google has asked the following: Using only a four-minute hourglass and a seven-minute hourglass, measure exactly nine minutes—without the process taking longer than nine minutes.
You will get questions concerning the technologies - I can't help you much with this, other than to say show how your experience proves you understand their product and its requisite technologies.  You should be prepared to study enough to know what all the acronyms mean and how you plan to come up to speed with the technology.

The big questions are:

  • Why do you want a job in technical sales?
  • How have you ensured a deal was successful technically?
  • How would you plan a typical demonstration of a product?
  • How would you explain the benefits of a product to a customer?
  • How do you handle a technical objection?

For all of these you need to boost the strength of the answer by using examples from your career.  Save your best examples for the important questions - and try to use different examples to answer each question.  You should be able to think of examples that are useful in answering the above questions.

Your questions to them are the other important part of the interview.

You should have a few questions about how the job suits you, and practically check that you want to work in the company.  I know plenty of SEs who have taken on jobs and later found that they didn't want to work for the company.  Save yourself the hassle and make sure the job works for you.

  • Find out about the people you work for/with
  • How they structure the team
  • How compensation is linked to revenue earned
  • How the company values SEs
  • What career options exist for a successful SE within the company

Finally, make sure you try and close them at the end of the interview.  That is, find out where they are in the process, do they feel you proved yourself in the interview, and are they ready to tell you now.  If they aren't (and they probably aren't) you have pushed it which is very important in sales. You should try and find out important things that may help you negotiate your salary.

Further Reading

How to Ace a Google Interview -
The 25 most difficult questions you'll be asked on a job interview

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sales Engineers - look back at 2011

For some of you, this is the end of your financial year.
Even if it isn't, it is probably a good time to look back at the year and think of ways of doing things even better.

Happy New Year to all SEs - picture by Billy Alexander
My GM likes us to always think of the following things after a meeting:

  • What did we do well?
  • What did we not do well?
  • How could we improve next time?
I think for the end of the year we can go through the same process in a more strategic way.  You should be thinking about this both from how well you did your current role, and also what you should be thinking about for your next role.

For instance in 2011, you may feel you did the following well:
  • Broadened my knowledge across new product offerings
  • Used the colleagues in my team in situations that they are more productive 
  • Shared resources with the team to help us all get more productive
Things you may have been able to do better:
  • Kept my demos as fresh and slick as possible
  • Spend appropriate time on bigger things
  • Push myself forward for new roles
How can you improve?
  • Spend a little time every week keeping demos and presentations up to date - and getting the whole team to add value to it.
  • Ensure I share workload with the team - clear my schedule of things that others can do well
  • Show that I am capable of the new roles, so management don't see it as a risk.
By thinking about this at a more relaxed time you can really get your head straight and go for the things that matter.  When you spend too much time with your head down busy, you can miss the strategic options.

Further reading for the new year:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sales Engineers: Present YOUR Way & Make your own Slides

10 Excellent slideshows showing how you should present to an audience.  

FOLLOW and get inspired!

Think you can do better than your corporate marketing slides?

Just do it!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Stuck in RFP hell

I've been a bit quiet lately - its because I am stuck in RFP hell.  At least almost - more like purgatory...

This RFP at least is well qualified - we know why they are writing it, and have been asked to respond.  We even believe we are the main influence on its contents.

Lets hope this is enough to get ahead. In general the less you know about an RFP or if you haven't been aware that it was about it happen, the less likely you will win.  If your customer has taken the time to learn about your product, and understand what they need to do, you should be a close fit for whatever RFP they need.

Keep selling!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What is the ROI of Sales Engineers?

Businesses often ask what the ROI (Return on Investment) is of something, before spending money on it.  Sales Engineering is an example - of course the prediction and calculation of ROI is quite a tricky subject.

ROI growth - Image by Christian Ferrari
Financially speaking, an ROI is about the performance of investments - which to a company are Assets that go on the balance sheet. An SE is a cost in personnel.  Lets relax this definition though and use the term investment to mean the annual fully loaded cost of running your SE team, and ROI to mean the additional value that this team brings.

This is the part where it is harder to directly measure.
How do SEs add value?

  1. Bring in sales that can't be won without SEs (the technical sale)
  2. Help sales staff bring in sales quicker (less time for each deal)
  3. Increase the size of deals through their unique understanding of customer environment
  4. Improve ability of company to negotiate - better customer knowledge
  5. Discover new opportunities while working closely with a customer
There are probably others, but these are the main ideas I think we can work with. (please let me know which others you can think of!

1. Bring in sales that can't be won without SEs (the technical sale)

Knowing which deals these are can be difficult.  Sales people might be reluctant to say internally how much they needed an SE for each deal.  They are also very proud to boast when they close something without an SE.  A business needs to look on this point objectively and decide on a percentage factor how much the SE facilitated the deal.  

Looking at the activities performed we can get a sense of how independantly the Sales person was able to work through the deal.  Although this would then neglect the fact that good sales engineering work doesn't need to take a long time.  A well executed demo saves the need for several more demos, or a more extensive POC.

What you could do is look at the activities that only SEs can perform well - a good tech demo, a POC, a technical RFP response, and if a deal requires these activities then it counts as one that requires an SE.

Count the revenue here towards the SE ROI target.

2. Help sales staff bring in sales quicker (less time for each deal)

Making business happen faster is another key point.  Maybe your sales staff could convince some customers that the product just works, lets get it in for a trial, pay for some services to install/help and you can have your money back if it doesn't.  In fact I am sure many companies have tried this approach before a sales engineering role had matured.

The problem with this is, it can take more sales staff effort.  It ties up on services staff to support these implementations, and if they are not successful, even though services might get paid, it is not really why your organisation should have these staff.  They should be there to help customers who do buy your products.

So to measure how much quicker the SEs help make the deal we need to think about the saved effort in the sales cycle.  How much time does a well executed demo or POC save?  How effective is your SE at engaging technical staff that a sales person cannot - like Enterprise Architects or DBAs?

This needs more work - but I believe a good SE should be able to save 50% of the time on the deal - at a minimum.  This is not necessarily time of the overall sales cycle - but in adding another face to your company that can help your customer understand your product and solution areas in more detail - you reduce the number of emails that need to go to and fro, and can save the need for additional meetings and multiple proofing efforts.

The improvement in the sales team's ability to close more deals in the same time is the key measurement - or the ability to keep more opportunities in the pipeline.

3. Increase the size of deals through their unique understanding of customer environment

An SE tends to get closer to the customer's key people than a sales person can.  Often the customer believes the SE offers more knowledge about the solution and should appear less threatening (more on this later).  So an SE might find that this particular opportunity can be widened in scope or priced differently due to environmental factors.  If the sales person was unaware of these factors, or only becomes aware due to the SE, it is a clear gain in ROI from the SE's help.

In these cases we need to measure the increased size of the deal from the SE and count towards the SE target.

4. Improve ability of company to negotiate - better customer knowledge

Like the previous point, an SE will sometimes find out some other reasons why you can be stronger in negotiation.  This may include finding out internal deadlines for the implementation, lack of competition, size of their budget or any other factor important to the negotiation.  It might be as simple as finding out that the buyer loves to play golf, or is dying to go to a particular restaurant.

This is a soft skill that will take an SE far - and also will help increase the value of business they are working on.

There is a negative side to this too - your SE may blurt out that the business really needs this deal this quarter or the business might go under.  Try rescuing a deal from that one...

Measure this as how well the pricing is maintained on deals the SE works on, compared to the average.

5. Discover new opportunities while working closely with a customer

Finally, SEs can be great at sniffing out new opportunities while on site with a customer.  If your company tracks where leads come from, it could be a good opportunity for SEs to be recognized (and perhaps rewarded) for finding opportunities for selling more or related products while dealing with an existing customer or prospect.  In this case the lead itself should be considered as part of the value of the deal - most companies have a concept of how much business in its pipeline is worth.  

Measure this how you would measure business coming from any other pipeline source.

The Total ROI

With all these factors at play we come to calculating the total ROI.  Just add up the above 5 numbers and call the result your ROI.  This should reflect the added value the SEs have made.  If you don't have good measurements, you will need to estimate how much of the revenue the opportunities that the SEs have worked on is due to each of these factors.  This sum should be a proportion of the overall revenue figure.

Now what?

If we find that hiring 3 SEs gives 300% ROI (we earn 3x as much revenue as we pay the cost of the SEs) then we would then need to consider what the incremental cost of hiring one (or more) additional SEs would be, and decide whether there is still additional gains to be made.  

This could be much more accurate than just considering simple ratios of Sales staff to SEs or a simple % of revenue.  It should also lead to a better balance of SE workload, improved performance and a whole new load of KPIs to measure the SE team and leadership on.

That's all for today!  

Monday, December 5, 2011

How to (not) Oversell!

How often do you hear after a deal has been signed with a customer that people decide something has been oversold?

Overselling - Copyright penywise 2008
Hopefully not too often.

Overselling is when the customer experience post-sale doesn't meet their expectations of the agreement.  When you have the opportunity, make sure your customers are happy with the result, and that any step that they don't agree with is worked on in future sales.

  • They may say that not enough of Product Y or Service Z has been sold with Product X.
  • Some feature they thought was available is not included.
  • A product is actually something done by a service, or a previous customer did on their own.
  • A competitor's product did something, that they thought you could do too.
  • It doesn't work due to the customer's particular architecture
Many of these things could be found out if the right questions are asked, but it is a fine line between asking the right question and putting the deal in jeopardy.  Sometimes we don't know enough about a customer but they drive us along quickly.  Sometimes you think of a problem, but it isn't something for you to point out - and when you discuss it internally, its decided not to push that angle of it too far.

Ideally the your organization listens to the customer, you understand what they want and are able to present the vision for them to understand the solution. A commercial arrangement is made that both sides understand and sign up to.  The negotiations at the end don't take anything away that is necessary from the deal.

The job of the sales team is to offer solutions to the customer's problems, that if implemented as you propose it will result in the business problem being addressed.

There are a lot of unknowns in selling though.  Customers won't always let you know all of the answers - just as we won't tell them all our weaknesses.
  • What if the customer doesn't know their real business problem?
  • What if you hear their statement of the problem incorrectly, but they like your answer?
  • How do you tell the customer that they want the wrong thing?
  • Does the sales team understand what they are selling in order to recommend the right solution?
  • Can you accurately gauge the services and products that the customer needs to order?
  • Will the legal team strike some of the customer's needs out of the contract?
  • Will the product be implemented in the same way it was sold?
As your company gains more experience in the market, having a strong base of reference customers is very important, so it is important to try and ensure that customers will be happier with your offering.

This is not just about how things are sold, but also marketing, manufacturing, services delivery, support, and so on.

Over time your ability to understand and meet customer expectations should improve - and it is this improvement that will ensure that overselling declines in the long run.