Being part of a sales organization is very different from the world of support, where I first got my feet wet in the world of software quality. Here are some of the lessons I've learned about being a sales engineer so far. Maybe they'll help other new sales engineers, or maybe they can act as a refresher for the seasoned professionals out there.
#1 It's OK to say "I don't know."
It came as a bit of a surprise, but even though sales engineers are regarded as experts on the products they support, no one expects them to know everything right off the top of their heads. As long as you convey to the prospect or customer that you will find the answer and get it back to them (and then follow up with it, of course!) you won't diminish your reputation as an expert on the subject matter. Now that's not saying that you shouldn't know your product as well as possible, but don't feel too much pressure to know every single nuance and configuration option a customer might have questions about, and don't panic or feel the need to come up with an answer (any answer!) on the spot if someone asks you something you aren't sure of. Calmly deflect the question, assure the client that you will get an answer for them, and move on with your demonstration. This is a bit of a different direction than the standard support training would usually advise, but again, being part of presales is different than being part of a post sales support organization.
#2 Take the time to learn your target audience
It's not enough to know how to use your product, you also need to take the time to learn how your clients use your product, what they do, how your tool helps others do it, and how it can help THEM. Depending on what your job as a Sales Engineer entails, you might or might not be a heavy practitioner of the tool you demonstrate, but chances are pretty good you won't be as involved as someone whose job it is to use that tool or work in that space full time. It's important to spend some time, preferably on a regular basis, to understand the WHY of what your software does, the HOW behind its benefit to its users, and the WHAT of the needs it addresses or the process it improves. Being able to speak knowledgeably on these topics and relate features and benefits to users from their perspective will really help take your demonstrations to the next level. Rather than presenting a product you're trying to sell them, present a solution to help them.
#3 Always be positive!
Be honest and truthful, but try framing everything you can in a positive light. Sure, your product may not be perfect and it might not have every feature and function that a user could want, but focus on what it DOES have and what it CAN do. Be prepared with success stories or use cases, if that's something you can share in your particular situation. If there's something that a user absolutely needs in order to make a product a viable solution, explore workarounds or alternative options. It is possible that your product might not meet every customer's needs, but that's nothing against the product or against your skills. On that note, avoid the temptation to put down your competitors, too, even if you know your product is better. Speak positively, but address the limitations of that option as well as highlighting the benefits of your solution instead of talking smack.
#4 Remember whose side you're on.
If you came from a support organization, like I did, you might become mentally locked into your role as a customer advocate. Now, while no one is saying that you should do anything immoral (at least I hope they aren't!) you should do your best to remember that the first part of being a Sales Engineer is... Sales! You're a part of the sales team now, and they are your primary focus. Do what you can to support them, especially the person on the call with you. Do your best not to contradict their messaging (even if they are wrong) or to foul the sale. Let your product speak for itself, present the features and benefits in your demo, guide the customer in exploring the tool and creating a viable proof of concept, and above all, support your sales team to the absolute best of your efforts. After all, they're the ones you're going to be looking in the eye after the call.
#5 Practice, practice, practice!
Hone your skills! Perfect your elevator pitch! Put your best foot forward! Buzzwords aside, while you'll never be able to plan for every single contingency, you can plan how you'll react when the unexpected occurs. Unless you're supporting Pong, there will be times when you don't have an answer, get caught by surprise, or something completely unusual happens. When you get stuck in those sort of situations, fall back on your presentation skills, things you CAN work on and practice to perfect. Join a public speaking club or a social organization. Practice speaking comfortably, filling silences, transitioning topics, and guiding conversations. Learn to take things in stride and with a sense of humor and not to let technical difficulties, rude prospects, or other bumps in the road derail your demo. Remember: The only thing you can control is yourself!
I hope this list has been helpful, or at least interesting! Thanks for taking the time to read it!
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