Simply put, Sales Engineers (a.k.a. “Solution Engineers”, “Systems Engineers”, “Systems Architects”, “Sales Consultants”, and a dozen other titles) are the technical product experts in Technology companies. They juggle a wide range of responsibilities, from discovery to presentations and demos to POCs to implementations, and they spend way too much time on RFPs!
The reality is RFPs are an important part of the sales cycle, and they’re not going anywhere. The good news is, whether you’re a Sales Engineer or a Sales Engineering leader, there are ways to streamline and structure your RFP response process to make it more efficient. Take it from someone who’s been in the Sales Engineering profession for several decades – John Care.
So I recently interviewed John, a Sales Engineering Expert and co-author of Mastering Technical Sales: The Sales Engineer’s Handbook to pick his brain on how Sales Engineers and their managers can tackle the RFP response process and free up time to focus on activities where they can deliver higher value.
Galina: John, can you provide a brief overview of who Sales Engineers are and their roles?
John: If you think about Software or Hardware companies – anyone who sells technology – there is a Sales Rep that goes out and builds the relationship, shakes the customer’s hand and buys them nice dinners. But at some point, they have to bring in a more technical person, who can explain, demonstrate or present how the product, solution, or service actually works and how it’s going to fit into that customer’s environment. That’s what a Sales Engineer does. It’s a schizophrenic blend of technology and business.
Overall, there are about 50 different names and titles for what Sales Engineers (SEs) actually do – Sales Engineers, Systems Engineers, Systems Architect, Sales Consultant – but, basically, they are the technical conscience of the sales force.
Galina: When it comes to day-to-day activities, what are some of their responsibilities?
John: They handle a fairly heavy load through the sales cycle. They may get involved working with the Sales Rep right up front, in terms of doing first line discovery and uncovering business problems. That’s where typically an RFP or an RFI might come out.
Then you get into more discovery, solution, and design. That means putting together presentations, demonstrations, and whiteboards, and trying to convince the customer why their product is uniquely qualified to solve the customer’s business problems.
In smaller companies, Sales Engineers might even get involved in some of the installation and the post-sales activities.
Galina: Talking about the RFP response process and SEs’ involvement in it, what exactly do they do and at what point do they become involved in RFPs?
John: That’s really a perennial question that SE leaders ask. My brief answer is Sales Engineers spend too much time doing RFPs.
You can think of an RFP as having a head, a body, and a tail. The head might be the Executive Summary and the tail is the actual business proposal. The body is where you’re matching the capabilities, speed, and feeds of your product to the requirements of the customer, and that’s typically what the SEs engage with. But, all too often, they have to take care of the front and the back end as well, which I don’t think is the most productive thing that SEs could be doing.
Galina: RFPs can be very time-consuming and SEs often have to work under tight deadlines. Can you share your top three tips for SEs to make their day more efficient?
John: If you look at the RFPs, the typical win rate is somewhere between 8% and 15%. It’s not a highly productive thing for Sales Engineers to be doing, as engagement in other parts of the sales cycle would probably lead to higher win rates. However, it is a necessary thing to be doing. That’s why you want to do it well, but fast.
If I was to think about three tips…
- One would be to figure out what the endgame is. Is it an RFP where the winner takes everything and the winner is announced after the RFP or is it a gating process, where the best three RFPs are going to be invited back to do a pitch later on? Because that makes a difference to how you write it.
- Second, and this is where I think companies like Loopio come in, is looking at reuse and the capability for SEs within an organization to share their information, so that people don’t have to recreate and retype the same thing.
- And the third is to look for opportunities to delegate the RFP process out to other teams. There is no reason why Product Management, Engineering, and Sales can't pick up a larger part of the load.
So the three tips are:
- Figure out the end game
- And, where possible, delegate out to others
Galina: If we were to think of an ideal scenario, from an SE's perspective, what would be the best workflow of the RFP response process. How would collaboration look like between the different teams that are involved: Sales, Presales, Sales Engineers, etc.
John: As a first step, I always recommend to my clients that they have a scoring process for RFPs because not all RFPs are equal. There are some, where you think you have a really good chance of winning, and there are some, where you are looking at it and thinking, “They just sent this to us because they need three bids or five bids.”
My recommendation is to put together a one-or-two page scorecard. The SE and the Sales Rep can sit down, look at it together, and decided whether it's an RFP they should do and where does it rank in terms of priority, in case they have five other RFPs. Companies that do this tend to improve their win rates because they prioritize their efforts on the RFPs they can actually win.
The second thing would be to figure out who owns the RFP response process and what's the role of the SE. I don't think Sales Engineers should own the process; I think that better lies with the Account Manager. In some larger organizations, there are specialized RFP response teams that own the Project Management and keep up the Knowledge Management and the content. The SEs, the reps, and other teams contribute to the Knowledge Management base. This is the better way to go through the RFP process.
Galina: For organizations that have many product lines or sell to customers in different countries, what kinds of SE team structures work best
John: Traditionally, SEs used to report into the local Sales Manager. But usually, Sales Managers didn't know how to get the best out of their SE teams and motivate them. Then, companies started making SE organizations be parallel to Sales, as opposed to under, reporting to Regional Sales Engineering Leads and Sales Engineering Managers. Their role was to provide learning and development opportunities to the SE organization, as well as create alignment between SEs across the globe. Now, there are many SE organizations that have a Worldwide VP of Sales Engineering, who reports into the Worldwide VP of Sales, or someone who leads different regions (the Americas, Asia-Pacific, etc.) and reports into the regional Sales Leader.
Galina: In addition to ensuring an efficient RFP response process and an effective team structure, what other support can technical sales leaders offer to their teams?
John: I think of the SE leaders as the SEs' representatives in Congress. They take part in the executive meetings and they have a voice in the creation of strategies and execution plans. They also put together metrics around productivity, activity tracking, and win rates on RFPs and demos. Also, SE leaders can provide a lot of strategic input back to the executives, depending on what's happening out in the field. They also do things, such as, put together global enablement programs (which is where companies like mine come into play), learning management systems, and knowledge sharing solutions.
Galina: What motivated you as a Sales Engineer to come into work every day?
John: As an SE, you get to work with a bunch of different people in different companies who face different problems. Depending on the technology your company offers, you can really make a difference for your clients by solving their business problems. So in addition to the thrill of winning that deal, you get to help those companies with your solution and in turn develop very strong relationships with your customers.
About John Care
John Care is a Sales Engineering expert and the co-author of Mastering Technical Sales: The Sales Engineer’s Handbook, a how-to guide for Sales Engineers and their leaders. He is also the author of an eBook called The Trusted Advisor Sales Engineer. John’s expertise comes from years of experience in helping build Sales Engineering teams at companies, such as Oracle, HP, Nortel, and CA Technologies.
An efficient RFP workflow enables collaboration and provides knowledge management abilities. See how Loopio can help you streamline your RFP response process.