Thoughts on Sales Engineering


to paraphrase the old saying, "when you have a hammer to sell you think everyone's problem is a nail"

to paraphrase the old saying, "when you have a hammer to sell you think everyone's problem is a nail"

Sometimes I’ve heard Sales Engineers nicknamed “sales preventers” because  they understand why a product isn’t a good fit for a particular client’s needs preventing a potential deal. Knowing when and how to highlight a potential deal’s issues requires a delicate balance. and good communication skills.  

Your job is to help support the sales effort but you also have to be aware of what will ultimately be possible. Selling a solution that won’t work for a client, doesn’t help your or your company’s credibility. Occasionally sales people will have a hammer for a product and see every client’s problem as a nail. Part of the sales engineer’s job is know when a client has a nail and when it’s a bolt or a screw.

But being realistic isn’t easy. Sitting at the board room table and having the CEO turn away from the sales VP and look down to your end of the table and ask you point blank “will this work?” as the rest of the table’s eyes swivel towards you can be pretty intimidating. If you want to succeed in your job the only way to answer that question is with some variation of “yes, of course it will”. If you want to keep your credibility the only way to answer it is with some variation of  “it depends and will it have your support?” Knowing how to craft that answer is what separates successful sales engineers from the crowd.

Another aspect to this is qualifying prospects, normally something sales people do very well (at least the successful ones) but sometimes they’ve been known to leave prospects in their pipelines because of high hopes and over-confidence in their ability to close the deal. For example I remember one prospect – we’ll call them Acme Healthcare – that was very interested in outsourcing IT  because they had lots of IT issues and wanted to improve things. And according to the sales person they were making a decision in 30 days. Sounds like a great fit, so good so far. So I get on a plane, book a hotel room and plan to spend two days of auditing their IT department – hardware, software, personnel, etc. Within 10 minutes of being on-site I knew the opportunity wasn’t a fit and was only a very, very long shot at best.

Let me explain. Many outsourcing vendors often calculate expected ROI based on industry benchmarks. Sometimes there will be actual verifiable dollars saved resulting in a clear and compelling business case, other times the ROI includes things like increased productivity, expected time savings, increased focus, etc. All things much more difficult to calculate, realize and agree upon. So if you have a prospect who spends far, far below the average IT spend for their industry it’s very difficult to realize an actual dollar savings forcing the deal to focus on more nebulous  less quantifiable benefits. But the converse is also true if a prospect has been over-investing relative to their industry you can find and realize significant cost savings.

So after seeing multiple departments at Acme using Windows 95 and Windows 98 computers I knew the likelihood that making the business case based on benchmark IT spending would be difficult at best since it appeared they hadn’t invested new computers for quite some time. I continued with the assessment and as one would expect this organization had significant problems. they were: understaffed for the number of users, lacked needed skill sets, lacked technology investments (for example over 25% of the office staff were still using 14″ inch CRT monitors), and ultimately what doomed the deal: lack of funding or budget for this project.

Still I was plum-flummoxed by seeing a healthcare provider using Win9X with the security issues so numerous and well documented. I started to ask about HIPAA compliance and the IT manager simply said it wasn’t an issue. I gently probed further asking about Office 95 and Office 97 security issues and again his response was “we’ve never had a problem.” I asked when they were planning to migrate from NT4.0 to Active Directory and was told “we have no plans to migrate, NT4 works great.” I should  have cut the assessment short right then saving everyone’s time and reducing my travel costs by flying home earlier. But I kept going because I was trained to be a good soldier (actually I was a Sailor but that’s not the idiom).

Realizing I was getting nowhere, I switched gears asking about future plans and upcoming projects hoping to hear they had a lot planned in the current and planned fiscal year. The response was “no, everything is working fine, we might need to replace a few hard drives, but that’s about it.”  The IT manager had become such a penny-pincher with a such  limited view of the organization that he had no idea of the risk to which he exposing the organization.

The disconnect from reality was simply stunning. Looking around their “server” room where I was conducting the interview, it was like I had stepped back in time to 1997 complete with Pentium 200 Compaq Proliant Tower servers and modem banks. As an IT department they were so antiquated that only a wholesale replacement would bring them into 2007. None of their hardware and only some of their software were capable of running on Windows XP, much less Windows Vista or Windows Server 2003. Their network backbone was a group of 10/100 hubs daisy-chained together. The litany of issues continued on and on. 

Finally I finished my audit of their environment struggling to find something positive to highlight – ultimately I praised their customer service skills since the end-users responded well to them (because they saw them so much.) What’s sad is that for not much money their users and clients could have had a secure, modern, easier to administer, and superior IT infrastructure in only a matter of weeks. Unfortunately their extreme frugality mindset had permeated the organization to point that while they wanted a better IT infrastructure they had no concept or idea of what it would cost and were absolutely shocked by the required investments just to bring equipment up to a level which could be managed by an IT service provider.

As much fun as it was to see their jaws drop after we presented our findings and the solution with the accompanying costs, the entire process wasted many people’s time and could have been prevented by asking a few simple qualifying questions up front.  And this is why sales engineers have to walk a fine line because while I realized that the prospect had a very low probability of converting to client, I didn’t want to be seen as being negative to the opportunity since the sales person was adamant about it being a great fit. However once it was known that the client needed a complete replacement of all equipment but had no budget or funding for the project and no executive sponsorship for the project a lot of time and money could have been saved if we had taken a step back and looked at the opportunity with a fresh set of eyes. Last I heard Acme is still limping along with their circa 1997 IT infrastructure.

Of course those decisions are usually made above the Sales Engineer pay grade, although a good organization asks for, and gets, constructive feedback from all parties supporting their revenue generating efforts.  So what’s your best wild goose chase sales story? What’s the longest shot deal you’ve closed, and how did you do it? -t

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