Sales Engineering Guide: How to close complex sales

The Dock Team
May 5, 2022
January 9, 2024

Don’t tell your account executives this, but once your SaaS product hits a certain level of complexity, your sales engineers are the members of your sales team who really close deals.

More than just tech nerds who know your product really well, these sales engineers are crucial for telling your product’s story through the technical sales pitch.

Relied on as the backbone of technical sales teams, sales engineers are normally stretched wafer thin between discovery calls, product demos, RFPs, proof of concepts, and sales trainings.

Getting sales engineering right starts with building a solid understanding of your clients and turning that into repeatable processes to quickly deliver a personalized sales process at scale.

In this article, we’ll explore the typical responsibilities of a sales engineer, which companies need them most, tips for sales engineering success, and how Dock can help you scale up your sales engineering workflows.

What is a sales engineer?

Sales engineers provide technical consulting to facilitate the sale of complex B2B products. 

The core function of their role is to understand the buyer’s problem, propose a technical solution that meets the customer’s needs, and then demo and validate that solution with the buyer.

Sales engineers act as connectors between the sales team, the client, and the product itself—pitching the right products to the right customers at the right time. 

Their objectives are to:

  • Scope out solutions that solve the customer’s problem
  • Pitch and validate solutions to satisfy the technical buyer
  • Provide accurate pricing to improve profitability
  • Improve sales velocity by removing obstacles and objections
  • Improve client satisfaction by acting as the voice of the customer

So while they’re the most technically knowledgeable members of the sales team, their goal is still to close deals. They just take a slightly different route to get there than an account executive.

The sales engineer role goes by many names, such as presales engineer, presales professional, product consultant, field consultant, and solutions architect. These roles have subtly different functions, depending on the company, but they all fall under the general sales engineering umbrella.

How do sales engineers work with account executives?

Sales engineers (SE) work directly alongside account executives (AE) to make the sales pitch. The SE and AE work as a tag team with mostly non-overlapping duties.

The AE works the lead from prospect to close. They build the relationships, get the client’s budget and requirements, give the high-level pitch, manage the timeline, and do all the necessary follow-up to make sure the client pays. 

The SE provides the technical know-how. They’re focused on understanding the client’s use case, asking detailed questions, nailing down a scope, demoing a solution, and running the proof of concept project.

The typical flow goes something like this:

  • An AE or junior sales rep takes the first call to qualify the buyer
  • Once they make sure there’s a high-level match, they bring in the SE
  • The SE starts scoping out a high-level solution
  • The AE sets up a discovery call with the SE and the client to get more details
  • The SE works on the demo, pitch, and POC to close the deal
  • The AE stays on as the relationship manager, helping as needed

Theoretically, this tag-team handoff works beautifully. 

In reality, though, the sales engineer normally splits their time between many tag teams at once—servicing a group of account executives.

According to 2021 research from Consensus, the median ratio of AEs to SEs is 4:1.

Source: 2021 Sales Engineering Compensation & Workload Report by Consensus

The majority of companies have between 1 and 6 AEs for every SE. About 15% of companies surveyed had a ratio of at least 10 AEs for every SE.

This ratio is typically a friction point between AEs and SEs, as the SE is often stretched too thin, slowing down sales velocity for the AE.

AEs typically have more to win or lose in this scenario, as they earn approximately 50 percent in base salary and 50 percent in commission. SEs also have quotas to hit, but more of their salary is guaranteed. The typical sales engineer salary structure is about 80 percent base salary, 20 percent commission.

Therefore, companies should be thoughtful about their ratio of SEs to AEs.

When should sales teams hire sales engineers?

To start, many small companies rely on product team developers or the customer experience team to lend technical knowledge to the sales team.

This can be a short-term starting point, because they know the product really well, but if you’re selling complex products or selling to enterprise customers, you’ll eventually need to bring sales engineers to the table.

To sell complex products

As a general rule, the more complex the product you’re selling, the more you need sales engineers.

As a company’s product line grows in complexity, the sales burden shifts away from the account executive and more towards the sales engineer. 

“Complexity” can come in a few forms.

Complexity can mean a highly technical product. These products have big fixed hardware installation costs and require significant developer resources—so these purchases aren’t made lightly.

It’s harder for the average sales rep to provide these without specific technical domain expertise, so sales engineers can jump in to “speak developer”.

According to the Consensus research, companies with complex products that require more than six demos with a client before closing a deal are likely to have more sales engineers per account executive. 

Complexity can also mean a wide product line, where the sales engineer is needed to match the right clients with the right products. Companies with more than 15 products are also likely to have more sales engineers per sales rep.

To sell to complex clients

Sales engineers also play a big role in moving upmarket into enterprise sales.

To sell to enterprise, you’ll need sales engineers to work through their formal procurement processes and buying criteria—including RFPs, compliance review, and demos for stakeholders.

For example, if you’re a company like Stripe, your smaller customers can just look at your documentation and implement the products themselves. 

But if you’re Stripe and you’re working with a giant like Amazon, there will be an extremely complex integration process with operational and security considerations like the use of unique access control methods and data security practices.

A sales engineer (or more likely a team of sales engineers) can walk them through to provide a personalized selling experience.

What are the responsibilities of a sales engineer?

Sales engineers don’t just jump in for technical demos. Like any other salesperson, they work with the customer through the entire sales process.

Sales engineers aren’t just technical execution experts either—they’re strategic sellers too. They make sure that the right products and solutions are pitched to the client, and that the right stories are being told based on the client’s needs.

In addition to managing individual sales, they’re also responsible for working with revenue operations to provide the technical infrastructure and repeatable processes needed to make sales at scale.

They’ve got a lot on their plates.

Let’s explore their most common responsibilities in more detail.

Responsibility #1: Discovery

Ideally, the sales engineer is only brought into the sales process once there’s a qualified buyer (whether that’s how it always happens is another story…)

During discovery, the sales engineer will ask the client probing technical questions to understand their needs and fit with the solution.

They’ll collaborate with the AE to ask questions about the client’s:

  • Goals, objectives, and success criteria
  • Current and desired operating processes
  • Technical stakeholders
  • Existing technical environment and infrastructure
  • Technical specifications and security requirements
  • Budget, implementation resources, and timeline

For example, if they were selling an HR product, the sales engineer might ask a question like “What does your current performance management process look like?”

The buyer may answer “four times a year using Product ABC” or “we’ve never done it before.” This will signal to the sales engineer how complex of a solution they’ll need and how much implementation work might be needed to overhaul their current system.

Responsibility #2: Planning/Architecting Solutions

Once the sales engineer has a strong grasp of the customer’s needs (and assuming the customer is a fit) they move on to solutioning.

They’ll collaborate with the AE and other internal technical experts to choose the right products or design a solution that meets the customer’s buying criteria.

Depending on the complexity, this could also mean pulling in external vendors, distributors, and fulfilment partners to help deliver a solution.

Responsibility #3: Proposals/RFPs

Sales engineers then collaborate with the AE and marketing to put together a formal proposal. 

The typical proposal contains a title page, table of contents, introduction, company bio, description of the client’s needs, a detailed project scope, technical specifics, the proposed solution, service level agreement details, and so on.

Most companies start from a proposal template created by marketing, and the sales engineer fills in the technical details with the AE.

For larger enterprise deals, buyer procurement teams will come with an RFP, which may have additional requirements or questions beyond your proposal template.

Responsibility #4: Product Demos

The most frequent responsibility for sales engineers is the product demo. 

Most products require several rounds of demos, starting with an introductory demo to show off the product’s functionality, before moving to more buyer-tailored demos that dig deeper and deeper into the proposed solution.

Sales engineers tackle these demos from both a strategic and implementation angle.

First, the engineer has to help figure out what story they’re going to tell. They have to answer:

  • Why the prospect should buy
  • What benefits your solution will deliver them
  • How your solution will achieve those benefits
  • Proof that you’ve done this before

You can tell a story based on features and benefits, but you can also tell a story based on the vertical, customer persona, or segment.

For example, if you’re presenting to a law firm, privacy and security may be a bigger factor, so you’ll tailor the demo to speak their language.

To do this, they’re doing customer research, talking to product marketing, and collaborating with the AE to figure out what’s most important to the client.

There’s also a technical legwork component to the demo.

Most demos are far more effective in a demo environment set up for the client. Rather than saying “imagine your logo/company name here”, sales engineers configure a sandbox environment to demo the product. 

This also helps you avoid bugs that might crop up at any moment in your production environment.

Responsibility #5: Proof of Concepts & Sales Pilots

Once you get deeper into the sales cycle, sales engineers will also participate in sales POCs or pilots.

POCs are normally smaller in scope than sales pilots, as they typically start with only a small chunk of the final product—but both are intended to validate your solution for the buyer and to pave the road from ideation to implementation. 

Sales engineers are largely responsible for what POCs or sales pilots mean for your company. They determine what steps are involved, what information needs to be shared, and what processes need to be in place.

Developing a POC or sales pilot typically involves:

  • Providing technical documentation
  • Establishing project stakeholders
  • Establishing POC milestones (e.g. set objectives, kickoff, onboarding, weekly check-ins, evaluation end)
  • Managing the POC mutual action plan
  • Scoping out the implementation
  • Establishing success criteria

This is normally the final stage of the sales process, where the clients makes a go/no-go decision.

Responsibility #6: Product Knowledge Training

Outside of the sales cycle, sales engineering also acts as the technical knowledge hub for the sales team.

This involves staying up to date on product development themselves, and ensuring product knowledge improvement on the rest of the sales team.

This also includes aligning your sales training with your product release schedule, and updating and maintaining any demo accounts or environments to keep up with your product updates.

Responsibility #7: Technical Sales Enablement

In addition to demo environments, sales engineers are responsible for maintaining a variety of other processes and tools to help the team sell.

While the CRM is normally left to RevOps, sales engineers will be responsible for providing other tools that help create repeatable processes to help with sales velocity.

For example, they may create a proof of concept template with Dock that can be easily reproduced for each customer.

Responsibility #8: Prospect Support, Consulting Calls, and FAQs

As the most technical members of the sales team, sales engineers also end up responsible for a long-tail of technical-support tasks.

They might answer AE’s technical questions in their Slack channel, answer emails forwarded from the customer, create FAQ documents, provide consultation calls to important clients, or help put together custom price quotes.

12 Sales Engineering Best Practices

Whether you’re a sales engineer yourself or you’re managing a sales engineering team, here are some quick-fire tips on how to get it right.

1. Measure your success. A sales engineer’s success should be tied to revenue. To measure impact, track sales metrics on deals with and without SE involvement (e.g. SE hours spent vs. dollars earned). SE success should also be tracked with metrics such as:

  • Closed revenue/ARR
  • Volume of demo/POC activities
  • % of deals won vs. lost
  • Technical wins (i.e. the technical buyer deemed you met their requirements)

You’ll also learn a lot from qualitative feedback from sales—whether it’s input about what customers are saying, which sales engineers are most helpful, or what processes could be improved.

2. Have a seat at the table. On smaller sales team, sales engineers are often represented in leadership or strategy meetings by a sales leader who has more of an AE perspective—but they have value insights with respect to how the product is built, implemented, and sold. If there’s no senior leader on the sales engineering team, be sure to advocate for a seat at the table for an SE.

3. Avoid sales engineer churn (or know your worth!). It takes a median of three months before a new sales engineer can take a demo on their own. Therefore, losing a sales engineer can have big consequences on a sales team’s bottom line. If you’re a manager, do everything you can to compensate your sales engineers appropriately. The 2021 Consensus report has plenty of research on salary ranges. Presales practitioners in the US make a median of $170,000 and presales leaders earn a median of $231,000. If you’re a sales engineer yourself, know your worth!

4. Understand your audience. The classic archetype of a sales engineer is that they know the product and technology really well, but the best sales engineers know their customer just as well. To succeed as a sales engineer, you have to know your customer’s biggest burning needs, pain points, industry, and other options on the market. Only then can you provide a truly personalized demo or proposal.

5. Ask more questions than you answer. Many AEs have the false idea that an SE is there to answer questions, but it’s just as important that you ask lots of questions. In discovery calls, challenge the customer. There’s a reason they’re coming to you for expertise—they might not fully understand their own needs. So if they ask a question, provide the answer, but ask a question back, such as “Why is that important to you?” It can help you get to the bottom of their real needs.
(This goes for your sales team too—don’t be afraid to push back with probing questions.)

6. Sales engineers should know your team’s sales framework. While SEs may not be responsible for executing your sales framework—whether it’s MEDDIC or Sandler Sales—it’s really helpful if they understand the basics. It will help to understand how your company qualifies leads, interacts with prospects, and how to react appropriately in a sales call. It also gives your SEs and AEs a common language to start from.

7. Avoid unqualified demos with better discovery. Sales engineers are often the biggest bottleneck to sales teams—but their time is still wasted on unqualified demos. According to the Consensus survey, more than half of the SEs surveyed said that at least 30% of their demos are unqualified or under-qualified. Asked where they could make the most impact on their team’s sales, SEs most commonly cited being more involved in the discovery process.

8. Reduce lag time for technical demo. The Consensus research showed that 67% of SEs take at least 5 business days to deliver a demo to a customer. This much lag time can slow sales velocity or kill deals altogether. Look for opportunities to speed up your demo process. Automate your demos. Use Dock templates

9. Pitch the value proposition, not the product. This general sales and marketing principle applies to technical demos too. Start your pitch with your customer’s problem and work towards your solution as a way to solve their problem. Don’t start by pitching features.

10. Use social proof. Newer sales engineers tend to “product” their way through a sales pitch, trying to stick to technical facts, but social proof is just as valuable in the technical sales process. Name drop customers, hint at how you’ve achieved success with other clients with the goal of creating FOMO.

11. Work closely with customer success. Sales engineers and customer success should have a close partnership. Once a deal closes, hold an internal handoff meeting to make sure CS has a full picture of the client. After this, keep the SE in the loop over time. For example, you can hold regular touchpoints between CS and SEs to identify upsell opportunities and build collective product knowledge. 

12. Define clear processes. This is a lot of responsibility for one role. With RFPs, POCs, and client management, the day-to-day action items start to pile up, and can quickly become unmanageable. To counter this, you should have well-documented, standardized processes. Everything your sales engineering team does should be as templatized and as centralized as possible. This makes it easier for sales reps and clients to find what they need, and allows you to scale up your sales engineering activities.

How sales engineers can scale themselves with Dock

Dock gives you a convenient way to create repeatable sales engineering processes. 

Today, most sales engineers manage everything through a combination of spreadsheets, Google Docs, Notion pages, and email threads. 

Not only are these tools tough to keep track of, but they also don’t integrate well with your CRM or hold other people accountable. 

With Dock, you can create shared client workspaces that help you create more structure in the relationship with both your sales team and with your prospects. 

Take the sales pilot template or the sales proof of concept template for example. This shared workspace will help you facilitate the implementation of a product through the proof of concept stage.

In this one Dock space, you can share:

  • The project overview
  • The timeline
  • Key stakeholders
  • Success criteria
  • Proposal files and demo videos
  • Shared next steps and mutual action plans

This Dock space lets you collaborate, align with your customer, provide technical documentation, and share feedback in one place.

And because each user has to provide their email to access the Dock space, you can always tell who’s viewing what and when. You can then connect this customer data to your CRM to better track which prospects are most active and which deals are more likely to close.

All of this can be done at scale, too. These workspaces can be duplicated from project-to-project, making it easier to create personalized sales experiences at scale.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Dock, just ask for a demo and our team will reach out.

The Dock Team