Sales Engineers: What They Do and How to Become One

sales engineer

A sales engineer is someone with unique technical knowledge of the products or services they’re tasked with selling. Critically, not only do they specialize in understanding complex and advanced products, but they have the skills to explain them in a relatable, easy-to-understand way. 

A well-trained sales engineer can help devise sales strategies, conduct market research and help sales reps better understand the technical aspects of the products they are selling to help them close the deal.

In this article, we’ll explore what it takes to become a sales engineer and why it can be a lucrative career path. We’ll also provide tips for hiring managers to run an effective sales engineer interview to ensure you’re hiring top talent for your team. 

Table of contents

What is a sales engineer?

A sales engineer has a deep knowledge of the inner workings of a product or service and applies that expertise to the sale. They must leverage their know-how to explain what their product does, how it works and why it’s the right solution for their prospect’s problem or need. 

Sales engineers can work both collaboratively and individually. They often help their fellow sales reps at critical points in their prospect’s buying journey, as well as manage their own deals. They are often called on to answer questions, explain features and help sales reps pitch products. 

It’s a demanding job that requires many hard and soft skills, such as excellent time management, the ability to handle pressure well, a ton of confidence, immense technical knowledge and excellent persuasion tactics.   

Sales engineers sometimes have the job title solutions engineers, systems engineers and solutions architects. 

The difference between a sales engineer and a product manager

Sales engineers and product managers are similar in that they both have deep knowledge about the product or service at hand and both look to serve customer requirements.

Product managers, sometimes referred to as account managers, need to research the current market, outline the needs of the target audience, articulate the product positioning and help facilitate the product launch process. They are focused on helping sales channels from a high-level perspective and rarely get involved with the actual sale itself.

In contrast, sales engineers focus directly on the sale itself, acting as the salesperson’s technical directory throughout the sale. They are tasked with offering explanations on how the product solves specific customer problems, performing technical presentations and product demonstrations and monitoring the market to advise on ways to continuously modify and improve products to meet customer needs.

Why becoming a sales engineer is a great next step for sales reps

There are many transferable traits between a sales rep and a sales engineer. Both require interpersonal skills and problem-solving acumen, such as excellent communication, professionalism and a high level of emotional intelligence.

The roles begin to diverge once you take technical skills into account. Successful sales engineers have the technical background and industry expertise to follow the market and identify needs or patterns that an untrained eye may miss.

When working with leads or prospects, technical sales engineers can illustrate these complicated or complex concepts in a customer-friendly way. They tap into their extensive knowledge base to demonstrate how and why their solution will produce the desired results or outcomes. 

Because of this, sales engineers are also better equipped to connect more deeply with market pains and needs. They help sales reps understand how to better address their prospects’ pain points and tweak their sales process accordingly.

Additionally, the sales engineer uses their technical background to audit the product development pipeline for opportunities to update existing features or build new ones altogether. The outcome? An optimized customer experience that better aligns with the target audience’s needs.

Some companies also give sales engineers their own sales team to manage, which requires them to have business leadership and management skills.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of sales engineers is projected to grow 6% between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than the occupation-wide average. Overall, it’s a stable position that provides a good opportunity to expand your skillset and further your career.

What skills does a sales engineer need?

Technical sales engineers still need to have general sales skills and experience. This includes the ability to be personable, professional, collaborative and work well under pressure. To gain these skills, explore client-facing opportunities and pursue deadline-driven work.

Some companies will require you to have a technical degree relevant to the industry sector you are entering, for example, you may need a bachelor’s degree in software engineering for the Software as a Service industry. 

In general, degrees in engineering, mathematics, computer science, information technology, or applied science are all relevant. If you don’t have these degrees, consider pursuing relevant professional qualifications to boost your career prospects.

Sales engineers also need extensive knowledge of the product or service. This includes understanding the technical intricacies of how it works and the different ways it can help create results for customers. 

Because their attendance is often required for answering technical questions, sales engineers also benefit from previous experience presenting at conferences or trade shows. To improve your sales techniques in these areas, look for opportunities to discuss your company’s product in new formats, such as online webinars and in-person sales presentations

Sales engineers also need to be comfortable interpreting data and analytics because they are often tasked with creating data-driven sales strategies. Consider incorporating more data and analytics into your current workflow to identify key performance metrics (KPIs) and learn how to interpret and apply them.

To summarize, sales engineers will benefit from some or all of these key skills and background experience:

  • General sales skills, such as the ability to be personable, professional, collaborative and work well under pressure
  • Excellent problem-solving know-how and the ability to think quickly
  • A technical degree relevant to the industry sector you are entering
  • A general degree in engineering, mathematics, computer science, information technology, or applied science
  • Previous experience presenting at conferences or trade shows
  • The ability to interpret data and analytics to identify and measure KPIs

What does a sales engineer do on a day-to-day basis? 

In a typical week, sales engineers can expect to spend time meeting with potential customers and sales reps alike to address technical questions about how their products or services work, and why those distinctions set them apart from the crowd. 

That said, the day-to-day responsibilities vary depending on the company you work for and the industry you work in. In a Quora post, sales engineer Ankita Bhosle described how the role functions on her team at Fiat Lux:

“We usually work closely alongside a sales rep but have a clear distinction of duties between us, in that, we address all the technical questions and concerns while the sales rep addresses pricing/billing, administrative stuff, is usually the primary point of contact and is also responsible for managing the relationship.”

Here is a general list of day-to-day sales engineer responsibilities:

  • Support the research and development of advanced technical products and services
  • Prepare and deliver technical presentations that explain the product to existing and prospective customers
  • Consult with customers and engineers to assess equipment needs and system requirements
  • Collaborate with sales teams to understand customer needs and provide technical sales support
  • Secure and renew orders and arrange delivery
  • Continuously modify and improve products to meet customer needs
  • Help clients solve problems and explore options
  • Recommend improved materials or machinery to customers, showing how changes will improve performance

In an interview with WideOrbit, sales engineer Suzi Gomez weighed in on her day-to-day routine: 

“One of my favorite things about being a sales engineer is that there isn’t a typical workday, per se. I do product demos, either remote or onsite, when possible, as well as Request for Proposal/Request for Information responses, maintaining demo databases, and keeping up to date on our products and their new modules, features, etc.”

In terms of career opportunities, there are plenty of routes you can take. Ankita Bhosle discusses these options:

“It’s a very hybrid role that collaborates with many different teams and has new challenges everyday, so it makes for a great foray into so many different roles later on—solution architecture, product management, product marketing, consulting, etc.—with transferable skills to all these different areas.”

What is the average sales engineer salary?

A sales engineering salary varies depending on company, industry and previous experience. As of January 2021, Glassdoor entries suggest that a sales engineer salary in the U.S. hovers around $50,000 on the lower end and over $100,000 at the higher end.

As with any job, the salary range varies based on the country and region you’re in. 

  • UK: Between £28,000 and £86,000 
  • Canada: Between CA $53,000 and CA $136,000
  • South Africa: Between ZAR 100,000 and ZAR 816k
  • Australia: Between A $58,000 and A $160,000
  • New Zealand: Between NZ $60,000 and NZ $150,000

Even if you secure a position with a lower base salary, many sales engineers are paid on a base/quota compensation scheme such as the 70/30 rule wherein 70% of the salary is base and 30% comes from hitting your quota.

Things to consider when hiring a sales engineer

Because of the collaborative nature of the role, it’s key that your sales engineers work well with your sales team. For this reason, it’s worth exploring your current professional network for referrals and recommendations. Make sure to follow a structured hiring strategy to attract the right talent, with the required qualities, at the right time. 

You should also narrow your search by the type of technical skillset and sales techniques that are important and relevant for your company. LinkedIn has a great search function that lets you look for potential recruits by location, experience, current companies and industry. You can also use LinkedIn Recruiter to narrow your search based on the sales skills and technical product knowledge you’re seeking. 

Because your sales engineer will support and potentially manage sales reps, you should look for someone with business leadership and experience. Although this prior experience is important, you should still plan to provide on-the-job training and opportunities to gain product knowledge.

To attract top talent, make sure to craft your job description in a way that sets your company apart from competing listings. To do this, highlight the company culture, working environment, and any other benefits you bring to the table for new hires.

It’s also important to match how you pay your sales engineers with how you compensate your sales representatives to keep sales incentives aligned.

Tips for running an effective sales engineer interview

Start the interview with written technical sales engineer questions to screen for basic qualifications and, if successful, transition to face-to-face or video interviews to dive deeper into their strengths and character.

As part of this step, some companies opt to include a live mock presentation to assess sales and communication skills. It’s worth taking into account the overall fit and synergy with your sales team by involving a few sales reps in the interview process.

Here are a few more tips you can follow when interviewing a sales engineer:

  • Ask them if they have any questions and listen intently to their response. You can’t expect them to know everything about your product, service, or target market, but based on their research they should be able to ask relevant questions about your buyers, competitors and industry. This will show how quickly they’ll be able to grasp your USP and assimilate knowledge.
  • Go beyond the live mock presentation and ask them to give a product demo on the topic of their choice. Asking them to demo your product before they’ve had a chance to work with it doesn’t make much sense, but you do want to evaluate their expertise on a product they feel comfortable with. Watch for how they explain concepts and evaluate their communication strategy.
  • Ask them how they would approach working with a variety of different salespeople. Because the majority of their role will be collaborative, it’s important to get a feel for how they will handle various personalities. If they seem like they’ll be easily bothered or overly critical, that may not be a great fit. Conflict resolution is key.

Final thoughts

Sales engineers are a valuable asset to any sales team that sells technologically advanced products or services. Their unique insights, expertise and technical knowledge can significantly help your reps move potential buyers through the sales pipeline and close more high-quality deals, faster. 

As a wide range of technologically sophisticated products make their way to the market, sales engineer jobs will continue to be in high demand.

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