May 17th, 2008 Systems posted by dmerritts View Comments

Hiring SEs – Technical vs. Relationship

Hiring sales engineers (SEs) can make or break your chances in succeeding in enterprise software sales. Depending on the technical nature and target market of your product, you have two real choices when hiring SEs: (1) Hire domain experts; (2) Hire technical relationship managers. Hiring the former can often be tempting. The argument goes: we’re targeting [ Insert Expertise Here ] (e.g., Exchange, SQL, Linux, Network), so we must hire experienced experts in this domain who can ‘talk the talk and walk the walk.’ This is especially true when you’re a start-up with limited creditability; i.e., you still need to prove yourself as a company. The argument is extended: we must build creditability through our customer-facing engineers to overcome 1.0 product shortcomings. This a false argument. Start-ups should always hire experienced SEs, not domain experts.

Inexperienced at Selling

Typically, the technical expert SE has only been on the receiving side of the sales engineering process. That is, evaluating product pitches and test-driving products. Each one has their own decision process. Each brings a model for what should ‘work.’ Seemingly, what ‘should’ work evolved from the approval or decision-making process from previous employers. They have not experienced the sales interactions — start to finish — at hundreds of different companies. Most with ‘deep technical’ understanding don’t have much, if any, sales or relationship management experience. This creates a ‘huge’ learning curve for the technical expert. And, quite frankly, you don’t want that sales curve to be learned in the early ramp-up of a software start-up.

Deep Expertise != Sales

The criterion of hiring on ‘deep technical’ understanding is a false premise. Those with deep technical understanding are less adept at managing client expectation, on-site evaluations and client-objections. The domain expert is more concerned about being technically and semantically accurate in the face of his or her peer than understanding the client’s need. Not understanding the client’s need and shaping the conversation to help position the product around the client’s needs will continually result in failure.

Demos Are Bad

Giving a good, targeted demo is critical to moving into the kingdom of the client. If your demo is bad, you likely wasted an hour of your time and left a bad taste in the client’s mouth. The technical demo is an art. Good technical demos require practice and adaptation. Memorizing a demo script results in bad demos. Only those SEs who have given more than 300 or 400 demos in their day are capable at quickly adapting the message to the client’s needs. Sure the ‘technical expert’ can learn how to give a great demo; but, getting great takes time — time in the start-up world is precious. It must be a highly optimized resource. It can’t therefore be something that is squandered.

Process is Unknown, Poorly Defined

Experienced SEs know multiple successful selling processes. Technical experts typically only know one or two. In a start-up, selling your ‘never market tested’ product takes time. Trial and failure is the name of the game. Fewer failure traps result in faster revenue or sales realization. Experienced SEs are able to manage past the obvious pitfalls. While technical experts often succumb to the obvious ones, learning to avoid them as they go. The SEs who are able to help shape a successful sales process quickly are paramount to those with more expertise.

Expertise is Learned

Hiring smart successful sales engineers means that they’re likely able to learn enough to be successful. My suggestion is that you build the deep technical expertise in engineering. Make the individuals with deep experience available to your SEs. Have them train them on the latest and greatest and ensure that they know the basics. They’ll take this knowledge and ensure that the client is managed first, then technical fortitude managed secondary.

Hire A VP of Sales First

I think the final aspect of building a successful sales team is hiring a VP of Sales first. Often start-ups hire experienced sales people without leadership. This method often creates a management dichotomy where the before VP of Sales team members feel they have the CEO’s or executive team’s ear. This means that these team members feel that they can ‘out-maneuver’ the VP of Sales. This sets a bad precedent. And, ultimately, adds a lot more work for the VP of Sales to create a team aligned to his or her goals; let alone willing to follow direction and help create a sustainable sales process.

Overall, early stage companies should hire SEs that have experience selling in a similar domain as your product. This will heed a lot of frustration from hiring the wrong domain experts. Often, it seems that teaching domain experts how to sell is easier than teaching sales engineers how to be technical. My experience has shown that the latter – teaching great on-site SEs to be technically astute – is easier than teaching geeks how to sell.
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