Love the technology, but tired of cubicle life? Enjoy talking with other engineers, rather than working alone? Got an itch for business – maybe even starting your own business someday? Maybe you should consider becoming a sales engineer.
Last year, I wrote here about becoming a consulting engineer, something I’ve enjoyed for almost thirty years. But before that, I spend seven years as a sales engineer, and three years in technical marketing. My experience included stints with Tektronix, Intel, and two smaller companies (one a startup).
Prior to that, I spent ten years in RF and EMC design engineering. The combined experience of design, systems, and sales engineering all contributed to my later success as an independent EMC design consultant.
For me, sales engineering was a bridge to consulting. Since sales/marketing are central to starting and building a consulting firm, the experience was invaluable. Without the sales experience, I doubt I would have made my own jump to consulting.
But it was great fun and, had I not had the overwhelming itch to consult, I might have stayed a sales engineer. It was satisfying and rewarding, as was EMC consulting.
Four Key Points
Here are four key points gleaned over the years about sales engineering.
- Technical sales is different – When most people think of salespeople, they think of the used car salesman. You know, pushy, manipulative, and motivated solely by money. But in my experience, this is not so with sales engineers. Almost all have a “geek streak,” and love to talk about technology with their technical colleagues. And they all love the freedom that comes with sales. It is almost as good as running your own business. In some ways, even better, as you have a big company backing you up.
- Sales engineers are unique – They combine a love of technology, a desire to work with technical colleagues, and an interest in business. In the latter case, I learned more about business in my first year in sales than the previous ten years as an RF/EMC engineer. As a result, sales engineers are always in demand, for without customers there is no business. Once you get a year or two of experience –
and assuming you enjoy it – you never need to worry about a job again. And you can always use it as a stepping stone to your own business.
- Sales engineers have great visibility – A sales colleague once noted, “This is the best seat in the house to watch the technology parade.” I had to agree. Not only do you see opportunities, you share the excitement of new products before they hit the market. You also make valuable contacts, which often lead to new employment opportunities. That is how I found several new jobs – or rather, they found me. As with consulting, it is not only what you know, but WHO you know.
- Age is an advantage — Like it or not, young engineers are often preferred over more experienced engineers. But it is often the reverse with sales engineers. Age can be an advantage in consulting too. Experience counts in both areas. When hired by Intel, I was slightly older than my boss. He once confided a reason he hired me was he needed someone who could simply “take the ball and run with it.” Much of his staff was a dozen years younger, and needed more of his management time. He was a great boss, and it was a great job
Six Key Attributes
Here are six key attributes I would look for if I were hiring a sales engineer.
- Technical Experience – Mandatory, as without it you have no credibility with technical customers. But technical degrees, although useful, are not mandatory. I’ve known sales engineers without degrees (as well as those with advanced degrees) who have done very well. In sales, it’s the results that count.
- Sales Experience — A plus, but not necessary. Sales is a process, and sales skills can be learned in much less time than technical skills. Most companies provide basic sales and product training upon hiring. There are a number of on-line programs if you want to explore or further hone your skills.
- Personality — Upbeat, enthusiastic, and amiable. Must enjoy working with other engineers. It is not necessary to be an extrovert. Some of the most successful sales engineers I’ve known were quiet introverts. Since most engineers are introverts, this is often an advantage over the more traditional extroverted sales personality.
- Communication Skills — Both written and oral. Proposals, reports, and presentations are the order of the day. The ability to listen and question are very important. Like consulting, one must diagnose first before prescribing a solution.
- Organizational Skills — Time management and the ability to multi-task are crucial. Unlike design projects, one rarely has the luxury of focusing on one project for long periods of time. If you dislike panics and chaos, best to avoid sales (or consulting).
- Entrepreneurial – Self-confident, but not arrogant. One must also be willing to accept risks versus a strong need for security. When inquiring about sales, a friend expressed concerns about fluctuating paychecks due to commissions. As a result, I suggested he stick with design and not consider sales or consulting.
So how are sales engineers paid? Commissions are common, and can vary from none to full, and can be paid individually or to a sales team. It varies from company to company.
A very common compensation plan for sales engineers is a base salary, plus commission, plus an auto. Assuming you meet your quota, you will probably make a bit more than an in-house engineer. This is only fair, as you are assuming some risk. The upside is if you have a really good year, you could make quite a bit more. Most companies want their sales engineers to succeed, as this means more revenues.
Three Technical Sales Channels
Here are three common sales channels for technical products. Remember, this is business-to-business (B2B), not retail. The process can be highly consultative, as customers often need solid information on how to use your products or equipment.
- Direct — Employed directly by the company. Depending on company size, there may be are district managers, regional managers, and a VP of sales. Sales engineers are the foot soldiers in the field, and typically have a territory and/or specific companies as customers. Many work from home offices, or small district offices. Most of the time is spent out of the office with customers. Regular visits to the company offices are common.Travel typically varies from 20 percent to almost 100 percent, depending on territory and responsibilities. If you dislike travel, think twice about direct sales. Nevertheless, this is an excellent channel to pursue if you are new to sales. You will have a reputable company behind you, training, leads, and more.
- Distribution — Many electronic products and are sold through distributors. While similar to direct sales, distributors often represent a number of suppliers. Distributor sales engineers often team with direct sales engineers, particularly on larger and/or complex sales.Distribution sales teams can include “inside” and “outside” sales personnel. Since most distributors have local facilities, less travel is typical. Unlike direct sales, most distributors stock parts and equipment locally. Like direct sales, distribution can be a good way to break into sales.
- Manufacturer’s Representatives — Similar to consultants, these are independent firms that typically focus on specific market niches and/or geography. The EMC community has a number of such “rep firms” around the world serving us well.Like direct sales, most reps do not stock parts or equipment, and often represent several complementary non-competing lines. Commissions can make up 100 percent of the compensation. As such, the income can vary widely, but the upside is higher than direct or distribution sales.Most rep firms are looking for experienced sales personnel, so it may not be a good place to start out. But with a few years of experience, it can be attractive and lucrative. In fact, reps may seek you out, as several did with me. But my late business partner and I decided we wanted to consult, where you still sell – but just yourself.
Still interested? A good first step is to talk to a sales engineer who calls on your company. Better yet, offer to buy lunch. Most are used to buying customers lunch, so your offer will be appreciated, and will show you are serious. Most are happy to share the pros and cons, and how they got started. They may even know of some openings.
Going to a trade show? Make contact with sales people at companies of interest to you. If they are busy in the booth (after all, they are there to meet potential customers) offer to meet outside the show. Breakfast meetings are good, as is an offer to buy drinks in the bar. Lunches or dinner are often already booked with customers. As a minimum, get a business card and be sure to follow up.
A Few Loose Ends
- Applications Engineering – Not ready to jump into sales? Applications engineering may be an option. While working with sales engineers, these positions are often more technical, but lack the business focus (proposals, quotes, etc.). If your long-term goal is your own business, I suggest sales engineering.But if that is not an issue, applications engineering offers many advantages of sales — freedom from the cubicle, visibility, and more. Applications Engineers may have quotas and commissions, based on “design wins.” Others are compensated on a base plus bonuses. Like sales, there are financial upsides.
- Marketing vs Sales – Don’t be confused – these are two different but vitally important functions in any business. Although complementary, both are necessary. In simple terms, marketing is strategic, and focuses on defining products and generating leads and awareness. Most technical marketers are located at the factory, and not in the field. Many see this as a way to climb the corporate ladder. Sales, on the other hand, is tactical, and focuses on developing relationships and getting orders. Most sales personnel are located in the field, and regularly meet with customers. Many see this as a path to freedom.Over the years, I’ve observed some friendly animosity between the two functions. But that soon disappears if places are exchanged. Nothing like actually doing it to really learn it. I’ve done both, and appreciate the challenges of each.
Some Final Thoughts
Sales engineering is just another way to practice engineering. When I left Intel thirty years ago to start my own consulting firm, one of my colleagues asked “So, are you excited about going back into engineering?”
Without thinking, I replied “I never left engineering. I just practiced it in a different way. As far as moving into consulting, I’m now just selling my expertise rather than a product – AND I’m still doing engineering.” Having said that, I was very glad I had seven years as a sales engineer under my belt.
I hope you found this of interest, and I wish you well if you make a jump to sales engineering, or perhaps even a jump to consulting.
Daryl Gerke (PE) is the surviving partner of Kimmel Gerke Associates, Ltd., an engineering consulting and training firm that specializes in EM/EMC/ESD design issues.The firm has been in full time practice since 1987.
Daryl and his late business partner, Bill Kimmel (PE) solved hundreds of EMC problems across a wide range of industries (computers, medical, military, vehicular, avionics, telecommunications industrial controls, and more.) They also trained over 10,000 students on EMC design practices through their public and in-house seminars.
Now semi-retired, Daryl still teaches EMC classes, and blogs on consulting. With over 200 posts, the blog is a resource for those interested in the subject.
Daryl has a BSEE from the University of Nebraska, is a Registered Professional Engineer (PE), and is a NARTE Certified EMC Engineer. He resides in Mesa, Arizona and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (www.emiguru.com).
Thank you for the very comprehensive write-up about Sales Engineering. It provided me with much needed perspective on my next career step. Greetings from Germany.
Thanks for the kind comments, and glad you enjoyed the article. We are all in “sales” when dealing with customers. All the best to you too — Daryl
Great article. While not in the position of a Sales Engineer, I am often find myself in customer facing situations. Your “Four Key Points” and “Six Key Attributes” are an excellent reminders of customer expectations. When i keep these in mind during my interactions with the customer, it has the effect transferring a level confidence about myself to the sales staff of my own company.
All the best, Doug