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Sales SE

The Sales or Systems Engineer (SE) is often considered one of the two most important customer-facing roles in the Company (the other being the Product Manager). It's not uncommon for the PM role to be a career path for the SE role, often producing the strongest role contribution during critical stages of company growth given the wealth of real-world knowledge the SE would have.

Interesting debates occur around where the SE role reports to -- being a technical role, and how much sales activity the SE should be able to handle. As an aside, it's generally improper use to use the term 'engineer' associated with this role title as it is a designated title reserved for formalized engineering roles (mechanical, electrical, civil, etc). Your company could conceivably receive cease and desist notices from the local engineering society if seen to be using the engineering title improperly in public settings, although most all technology companies seem to use the term SE as described in this section.

Many quality SEs come from the inside the technical side of the Company, perhaps a software developer with excellent communication skills (and the ability to travel a lot), one of the top product support specialists or even someone from the software testing team. Occasionally a technically oriented sales rep would prefer an SE role over a quota-carrying selling role. People with consulting service backgrounds also make great SE's as they can often easily relate to and communicate the needs of the customer. In all cases, the deep technical background tends to allow the SE to bond better with the prospect, especially in early stage markets where the prospect is looking for a trusted individual to introduce them to new technology and not get burned (e.g. lose their job making a bad bet). SE's can also (ideally) come from the industries you sell into - bringing relevance, insight and trust to the relationships the Company is trying to build with the prospective client.

SE's can focus on prospect activities -- pre-sales SE, or on working with customers -- post-sales SE. In this section we'll look at the details of the SE role from both sides with more emphasis on pre-sales, including how SE's work hand-in-hand with the sales organization, possible organizational scenarios to consider, career path management, compensation and more. It's a critical role and worth the additional time and money investment to help build a Sales motion delivering excellence to the organization.

Pre-Sales SE

The pre-sales SE often works with multiple sales reps as an integral part of a sales cycle. One SE can often service the needs of as many as 8 sales reps but it is more common in traditional sales models to limit the number of reps an SE works with from anywhere from 2 to 4. The choice depends on the number and length of tasks in the sales cycle where the SE is directly involved. As a simple example, if the pre-sales SE does all on-line demos (which is common so the reps can focus on selling), it's hard to manage more than a couple per day so working for 8 reps each managing a few dozen leads per week would become impossible to handle. The ratios further reduce if territory travel is involved -- too many reps would spread the SE to thin making the role a bottleneck in the sales cycle.

The main role of the pre-sales SE is to convey the value proposition of the product -- often in a technical way. The SE should be able to relate to a variety of types of prospects from very technical (e.g. the hands-on evaluators) through to the more senior decision makers who are often looking for succinct high level benefit statements to buy into. Some of the key activities a pre-sales SE will undertake include:

One caution is to make sure the pre-sales SE does not become the primary point of contact for the customer after the sale. Ideally, the support team takes on that role (or post-sales SE) with assistance from the account rep. It's commonplace for the new customer to have bonded with the SE such that they become reliant on them for all product issues. A formal hand-off process is a good approach for this with the pre-sales SE checking in once in a while to make sure things are going well.

Most pre-sales SE's would say they do anything that is needed to help close a deal. The above items represent many of the core tasks but many more might exist in your organization for your products.

Post-Sales SE

Post-sales SE's are less common in most organizations. They often exist to help develop the potential of an existing account, essentially acting as a pre-sales SE looking for other opportunities in the account. In scenario's where there is a large scale implementation component, the post-sales SE may play the role of consultant to help the customer become successful.

Many of the tasks described above for pre-sales SE applies to the post-sales role. The skills are often similar although the post-sales SE bonds more with the customer given the relationship starts with the sale and continues long after. Some additional activities the post-sales SE might do include:

The post-sales SE role is not that unlike a project managers role and can often be interchangeable if needed.


SE compensation is often related to sales rep compensation. Given the SE is normally working in a region with one or more sales reps, sharing common targets tends to keep everyone involved focused on the same overall goal. As such, it is common to provide a variable compensation component based on territory target achievement. This compensation model is usually in dependant of whether you are operating a direct sales model or indirect (e.g. selling through partners).

Keep in mind that most SE's unsurprisingly feel they could sell products without the sales rep so often feel discouraged if their compensation drops because the rep did not meet the target given how much work they typically do in support of selling. They are not often exposed to what goes on at the start and end of a sales cycle so miss appreciating the skill of a quality sales rep (e.g. prospecting and closing). Conversely, sales reps should leave the middle parts of the sales cycle to the SE as the rep often just gets in the way if they try to do deep dives into the value proposition of a solution. The best level of technical trust is between the SE and the prospect no matter how hard the rep tries. You can create inventive incentive plans along these lines for both roles.

As mentioned, the SE is often tasked with doing most of the grunt work in closing a deal (demos, product support, on-site travel, email follow up, etc). It may be a good idea to provide some level of separate incentives that are earned regardless of overall territory achievement. Replacement SE's are very costly to the organization, often more than the cost of introducing replacement sales reps. Don't loose a good SE for a few dollars of variable salary. If SE's are managed from within Sales, these nuances are often lost, if they are managed outside of Sales and provided as an internal service to Sales, these nuances are often managed well. Unfortunately you are breaking with many traditions if you have the SE's report to anyone other than Sales although Product Management is one viable possibility (as is having them standalone or within a larger customer services group). It's up to you to decide how non-standard the organization can afford to be, but this is an area worthy of some consideration..

Possible objectives-based incentives for an SE include:

If you are offering stock options, the SE role is worthy of an allocation. If you are attracting a superstar from a competitor, a fair sized allocation at time of hire is reasonable, combined with performance-based stock allocation at an annual level. Set the goals high, most SE's will reach them.


There are a variety of key characteristics to look for in a quality SE. Some can be developed if the SE is migrating from a different role, others tend to be inherent so need to be there from the start. Focus on the following areas as much as you can:

Once you have a candidate identified and all first round interviewing is complete, you may want to put the candidate to task. One of the best is to perform a roll-play session where they get to play the SE with you as the prospect. See how they present your product, handle objections, show sales acumen, etc. Don't expect them to shine on the details of your product, but they should not sound ignorant either. It's worth choosing and paying for great candidates, take the time to find them. A bad SE choice can mess up a sales cycle more than a poor rep can.

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