Sales engineering isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s a necessity.


Author: Brooklin Nash
Last updated: Published:

“It’s not about selling anymore; it’s about enabling the buyer to make a decision.”

Zach Lawryk was an early adopter of the Internet.

His early career tracks with that self-identification: he worked at Sun Microsystems ahead of Y2K, then founded a web startup with a couple of friends (yes, back when everybody called it “the web” instead of “the internet”).

Those early years were transformational.

Zach loved technology, but didn’t want to stay in the computer lab all day. He loved the people and process of business, but didn’t want to move away from the technology.

That’s when he discovered a role that seemed custom-made for his passion: a Sales Engineer at Salesforce. “I’ve never been as excited about a new job as I was for my first Sales Engineering role at Salesforce,” Zach told me.

(And that’s saying something, coming from the current VP of Solutions Engineering at Slack.)

With hands-on experience at some of the biggest names in tech (add Box and Optimizely to the list), Zach has built his career on sales engineering, which he sees as the overlap between technology, business and people.

Lucky for us, he has a lot to say on the topic.

Let’s get this out of the way: Sales engineering isn’t just for complex, enterprise deals

“I think any software company needs a sales engineer,” Zach says, no qualms in sight. Larger organizations may need an entire function; he grew the sales engineering team at Box to 100 strong, and more recently grew the team at Slack from 10 to over 200 over the course of three years.

Why the growth?

“You need someone who can architect the story you want to tell through the product,” Zach says. If he has anything to say about it (and he does), Zach has his sales engineers work closely with product marketing, Account Executives and sales enablement to hone that story.

The result isn’t just a better sales process; it’s a better customer experience. “Having someone who owns the technical win creates a dynamic that’s beneficial for the customer as well,” Zach shares. In a brave new world (populated by article titles like Buyer Expectations Have Shifted—Are You Keeping Up?), Zach sees sales engineering as more important than ever.

Keep reading for more on:

  • How sales engineering supports the new buying process
  • Where sales engineering has changed—and where it’s remained true to its roots
  • How revenue leaders can lean on sales engineering for better sales conversations

Sales engineering and the new buying process

“The buying process has changed.”

Plug that into Google and you’ll get a million and a half results in about half a second.

But just because something is cliché doesn’t mean it’s untrue. In this case, it’s more true than ever.

Just look at Gartner’s insights. As of 2019, buyers spent just 17% of their time meeting with potential vendors.

Sales—from AEs to VPs—have to focus on making the most of the time they do get with buyers.

And a discovery call that reiterates the same promises without providing any new information isn’t the way to do that.

“It’s not about selling anymore,” according to Zach. “It’s about enabling the buyer to make a decision.”

This sums up the shift in buyer preferences better than anything I’ve read, so I wanted to dig deeper. How can sales engineers, specifically, adapt to meet that change?

“Our customers are more than halfway through the buying process by the time we first talk to them,” Zach tells me. “But we try to sell to them as if they’re at the beginning. In many instances, we’re still selling the same way we were 20 years ago.”

Sure, some things are tried-and-true. You want to sell based on value, for instance. But failing to adapt to customer preferences can kill a deal faster than a security breach. “You can’t rely on multiple calls before you (finally) get to the meat of what the customer wants to know,” Zach shares.

In short? “We need new mechanisms for capturing our customers’ attention.”

At the heart of these new mechanisms should be what Zach calls a “TikTok style” in your approach to sales and marketing. He recommends making every piece of content, from a sales deck to demo call script, more engaging and more interactive.

  • More engaging
  • More interactive

For pre-sales and sales engineering, this means leaning on new technology that supports engaging, interactive conversations. For Zach’s team, it means heavy use of video and audio tools. “You can create a pretty compelling narrative from an iPhone,” Zach explains. “Five years ago, that would’ve taken an agency and production studio.”

Big picture, it means creating content that your potential customers want (or need) in order to create consensus within their team.

There’s another critical element here: “Be willing to provide a point of view, earlier in the process.”

Don’t resort to high-level value props in the sales call, followed by a discovery call with repetitive questions, saving the good stuff for the demo (maybe). Instead, Zach has seen sales engineers support a consultative approach: you have to provide a hypothesis for how you’ll provide value for the customer.

It doesn’t mean creating an extensive, entirely customized presentation for each customer, either. Zach recommends a more scalable approach: create a series of slides for each of your most popular use cases, most promising buyer personas, and most strategic industry verticals. Then tailor those pre-set slides for each customer to make it feel personal.

Taken all together, this approach “helps frame the conversation in a specific way,” Zach says.

Talk about enabling the buyer to make a decision.

How sales engineering has changed—and remained the same

When I asked Zach what role sales engineering should take in 2022 that it didn’t in 2012, he was unequivocal: “Sales engineers need to do more, earlier in the process.”

Early on, sales engineering focused more on the engineering part of the function and less on the sales piece of the puzzle.

Now? “The sales engineering role has gone from a strategic, technical role to acting as expert storytellers,” Zach says. “The best sales engineers are the best storytellers.”

This storytelling begins and ends with business value, according to Zach. “Technical understanding will always be necessary, but now sales engineers need to reframe expertise through the lens of business value,” he says. “Business value is paramount. You need to understand how your solution is going to impact the customer.”

In the past, sales engineers might have gotten stuck in the weeds: explaining how the product works or answering technical questions. Now, Zach is actively working to free up Slack’s sales engineering team to spend less time customizing demos and slides and more time to better understand each customer.

This intentional focus means the sales engineering team at Slack has been able to spend more time thinking about how to engage the customer through creative channels.

Do we try to condense our main message into three slides that can be shared around?

Would a microsite be helpful for the buying committee?

Should I send over a short video to our champion?

The end goal is to spend as much time as possible in front of the customer (remember that Gartner stat from above).

It’s this new balance of skills that Zach thinks will define good sales engineers and teams in the future: “Your technical expertise is temporary; your customer understanding is forever.”

How revenue leaders can (and should) lean on sales engineering

Zach wants to get a few misconceptions out of the way.

It’s not true that the sales engineering function is a “grumpy technical resource.”

It’s not true that sales engineers “don’t want to talk to customers.”

It’s not true that sales engineering leaders are “anti-AE.”

He’s heard it all. And none of it’s true.

“I’ve always considered the sales engineering function a strategic partner in the sales process,” Zach shares. “Not a limited element of the sales process.”

“There’s an ancient misconception that technical expertise corresponds with a lack of emotional intelligence,” he explains. In Zach’s experience, the most successful sales engineers are highly customer-oriented and concern themselves with understanding the customer’s business.

It’s not the AE’s job, it’s the job of the entire account team—including sales engineers. He sums it up in simple terms: “Value is everybody’s job.”

Revenue leaders would do well to adopt a similar mindset.

For starters, bring sales engineering into the conversation even earlier in the process. At Slack, sales engineers partner closely with product marketers to make sure messaging is relevant—and specific to—customers. Sales engineering leaders are involved with new campaigns and messaging, alongside marketing, sales and customer success.

“Sales engineering expertise is beneficial to the entire customer lifecycle,” Zach concludes. It’s just a matter of bringing them into the conversation.

At a more fundamental level, revenue leaders can expand the sales engineering function by broadening their horizons.

“There’s a better and more engaged community of sales engineers and pre-sales than there has ever been,” Zach says, pointing to PreSales Collective as one example. “We need more people and a diverse representation of the world. It’s still too homogenous and male-dominant.”

By way of explanation, Zach says that he’s seen the best sales engineers come from non-traditional backgrounds. “What about videographers? Teachers? Theater majors?”

Yes, open up avenues for your AEs and product engineers to move into pre-sales. But don’t forget to look elsewhere, either.

For aspiring sales engineers, Zach has one piece of advice: “Develop a passion for both the business and the technology. It’s a place where you can stay close to customers, changing technology, and business adaptation. That natural curiosity is what will keep you going throughout your career.”

And, whatever you do, don’t forget that TikTok mindset.

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