How can sales engineers cope with Imposter Syndrome?

One thing in presales that I hear very often is feelings of being out of place or not being qualified enough. This is a psychological condition called Imposter Syndrome. Even people who externally look very successful and in the right role, might not be as sure about themselves or in control as they outwardly appear.

That's me in the corner
That's me in the spot-light
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no I've said too much
I haven't said enough

R.E.M (Losing my religion) 

This song for me is full of the emotions and feelings you can get from Imposter Syndrome. Feeling like you could get exposed for saying the wrong thing, that you're in the spot-light.  Its worth remembering that others feel this way too, and that you might be given more slack to learn how to perform in the role you are in.


The feeling of imposter syndrome is common. Many successful people have it, or have struggled with it previously in their career. I've particularly heard it in presales circles, for many because it is an area that keeps pushing you out of your comfort zone professionally.

In what ways do presales people feel Imposter Syndrome?


How can you deal with these pressures?


What is the payoff?

Firstly - the areas that cause these feelings in sales engineers could come from how you come into and rise in the profession. It is rare that you have strong domain, sales, investigative, technical, leadership and marketing skills all in one person. The role can push you very broadly, and expects you to turn your experiences into lessions that you can show to other people.

If you come in from being a practitioner, or other roles in the same business, even if you know the products, you need to apply these skills to new customers and prospects and be able to react quickly and be on the spot. You need to think about the reasons people ask you questions and how you can appeal to their deeper needs. For this audience, just being in a sales role (or coming to the realization that you're in one) can start to scare them. 

Otherwise if you might come from being in presales in a different industry or company. What worked for you in the previous role, might not be directly applicable in the current one. You might put yourself under a lot of pressure to learn the product, knowledge, industry segment or other areas. Quite often you need time, experience and exposure to learn these things. You might be scared that your questions reveal your ignorance. In these cases, the pressure you put on yourself might be in the right direction, but your expectations of yourself are too high. Often your colleagues will be happy to decipher their acronyms. You may even help them realise that they can't explain some of the key concepts well enough themselves.

You can also find yourself promoted into a role where you are looked up to for your experience, time and skills in the past, and need to help motivate and lead others. Again, you probably put more expectation on yourself than others do, but you want to show people that you can cope with the new level in your career. Finding a mentor could help you in this case. They don't necessarily need to be in presales, but there are many people who've stepped up in their career and had to learn new skills to be successful at the new level. This Marshall Goldsmith book is a useful resource for this challenge:

How can you deal with these pressures?

Make sure you're aware that you are creating or adding this pressure. Other people have taken the responsibility and the decision to put you in this place. A lot of the things you need to do in the role, need to be learned by doing it. Don't put things off until you are ready! It is ok to have prep time, but you can't always wait until perfection arrives.

If there is something you need to do, that is paralysing you with fear, often you just need to try it, and that will help you realise it isn't as hard as you thought, and you can do it well enough already. Sometimes you can find a lower impact time to try something new. Try a new demo with some colleagues. Dry run a new presentation with an existing client and ask them for feedback. Chances are you will learn a new point of view that you'd never get on your own.

If you don't feel comfortable in a sales situation, because of your background, remember this is a skill that can be learned. People in all sorts of roles learn how to convince others, to influence decisions and handle objections. Your part in the sales team could focus on these skills.

Think of what the high potential outcomes are, rather than just what can go wrong. You will be surprised, that often the upside potential far outweighs the risk. 

Sometimes in presales, you only need to be 1 step ahead of the customers, to anticipate questions and be able to show them enough value. Some "experts" show things that are too far above their audience and miss getting their point across. In many cases, being there to help the customer investigate and lead could be a stronger sales/presales skill, than just having the super deep knowledge yourself.

What is the payoff?

Chances are, there are points in your career when you didn't take a chance on yourself, and if you did it could have helped advance you. Often you don't need to be too advanced to be able to build on your success and take on a bigger role. Looking back for me, every time I did try something new, it led to new value to me personally, new skills, and new rewards. 

Being the first person to sell a new product area, or to a new industry, is very rewarding. Helping teach colleagues a new capability, or to lead a new team or initiative. These jobs aren't given unless management have confidence in your abilities. Even if you feel like you don't deserve to be in the position, think about what it takes to succeed, and you should find a way to progress it.

If you think about the opposite, if you just stayed in your comfort zone, doing things you know you can do, then you won't make a positive change. You will not move into exciting new product areas, technologies or roles. Back yourself, and reflect on the things about your work that worry you, and then think about how you can address them, and learn and earn the trust that has been placed in you.

Let me know what you think - I feel like this feeling is there for many in presales, and I'd love to understand how others have addressed it over time.

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