"What is the ideal SE/AE ratio?"
(SE = sales engineer or presales in general, AE = account executive)
This was a question I heard that was asked in the interview process for a new SE leader. Also the asker was a non-presales exec and they thought that there was an ideal answer that is correct for all organizations.
First of all, there is no ideal ratio. Let's get that out there. Both AEs and SEs are important to how most technology companies earn revenue. Some organizations are more dependant than others on SEs. However some technologies also tend to need more time and effort devoted towards supporting customer evaluations and this ratio can even flip over to having more SEs than AEs.
I'd also add, it is worthwhile in measuring the ratio, and looking at whether you would sell more by adding more SEs or more AEs at any time.
So let's look at the factors. If you don't have enough SEs or your AEs are not technical enough, you will have bottlenecks in the buying process. These will happen early on at discovery, if customers can't see or understand why they would want to buy or how the solution works for them. It can also happen later on it the process, when they need a proof in order to complete their purchase. These proofs can be labour intensive, and require a lot of handholding.
You can lose deals because it takes you too long to get the right level of technical support, or also because your technical support isn't specialised into a presales mode of thinking.
If you don't have enough AEs, then your presales team will have lots of periods of time where they aren't busy enough, or the AEs will take them to every meeting so that they look busy.
One sign that your SE team is getting overloaded, is whether they can apply the right level of attention to all of the opportunities they cover, regardless of whether they are with the same or different AEs.
As SEs start getting overloaded, their attention to the needs of each opportunity go down. You will start to see lack of followup, less time for proactive actions, and rushed POVs and workshops.
Stretching SEs too far can even be the final straw for some, and they will leave, making the support ratio even worse.
It can be an individual thing. With more tenure, your SEs understand the right level of interaction that is needed for each opportunity at each stage. If they have the time to prepare, and get the first sessions done the right way, it can lead to less action needed per deal, and make them more productive.
Another way to get a leaner support ratio, would be to narrow the range of engagements that require your SE team to participate in. If your reps are geared up to run discovery sessions themselves, or have high quality video assets for customers to learn from, then you can reduce the amount of time the SEs need to spend on each opportunity and let them focus on higher value or more qualified activities. SEs that don't have to cover marketing, or post sales activities also can help drive a leaner ratio.
The stage of the company is an important factor. If the technology is less understood by customers, then usually it needs more education, deeper demos and challenging POVs in order to help buyers commit. Each of these leads to a heavier presales ratio. A lot of startups have a 1-1 ratio, as it is less about optimizing the cost of sale, and more about ensuring that every lead and every customer has the best chance of converting. Revenue and new logos are much more important than the cost of sale. It can be similar for organizations breaking into a new territory or new verticle. The initial sales are so important that a dedicated SE for the new sales team is vital.