How to succeed in Technical Sales… and Life

In the last month I’ve been reviewing and revising the job description for Sales Engineering (SE) at work as I work on expanding my team here. These guidelines form a sort of code of honor that I try to adhere to as a professional and outline what I look for in potential team members.  They aren’t always easy to live up to, but making the effort is its own reward.  I hope they will help you as much as they’ve helped me.

1) Empower your Customers

Sales people often get a bad rap; but the best of them are in it because they enjoy putting powerful tools in the hands of innovators.  These professionals will cultivate a network of relationships throughout their industry and sell to the same folks over and over again.  That’s possible because their contacts trust them to recommend tools that provide real value.  While we are less focused on the networking and lead gen, the drive to empower people is the reason most of us got into technical sales and support in the first place.  Keeping that mission front and center is essential and informs everything else in this list.

2) Put the client first

For a Sales team the cliché is ABC – Always Be Closing, but on the technical side of the table we tend to be less focused on closing deals and more focused on identifying real need.  Sometimes that means realizing that the client doesn’t actually need your product.  The best response in this situation is outlined by the acronym TRUTH*:

Tell the Truth – Tell them you cannot meet the stated need.  Do not sugar-coat it and don’t even think about promising something you can’t actually deliver.

Recommend – Remember that you work in the space and know the landscape far better than most clients who are just beginning their research. If you can recommend a product that will meet that need you instantly build your credibility and provide real value.

Understand – Understand what the client is trying to do and their actual pain points.  Often a client who is looking for an adjacent product will need the thing I’m selling, even if they don’t know they do.

Teach – Client education is half the job and often the need becomes obvious once the prospect understands the real value proposition.

Help – Above all, the goal should be to help the prospect meet their need and walk away from the meeting feeling like the time was productive.

This approach builds your credibility, provides tangible evidence that you have their best interest at heart, and establishes you as an expert in the industry.  The Sales team I currently work with makes a habit of doing this for prospects who are looking for in-app analytics and don’t understand the difference between what we do and what those companies do.   Our friends at those companies appreciate the qualified leads we send their way and return the favor when they can.  As a bonus, once clients understand the distinction between the two services they often end up  buying both.  This helps grow the whole pie – not just our slice – and is good for everyone.

3) Remember:  Every upset customer is a potential champion

I’ve written about this previously in the context of social media, but it’s worth repeating because it’s very powerful.  The customers we provide the most value to are the ones who have trouble.  A happy customer who never needs to contact support is the ideal, of course. But the customer who gets stuck and relies on us to get them through that roadblock is one who may turn into a real advocate.  My father (who worked in a very different sort of industry) calls this “slaying dragons” and it’s a term I’ve adopted.  People forget products but they remember dragon slayers.  I have seen this over and over in my career.  Building trust is what will turn a skeptic into a champion.  As those champions move through the industry and recommend you to colleagues, friends, future employers, and random people they meet at parties, they will be far more credible than you could hope to be.  This is good for your company and good for you personally.

4) Be about it

Follow through is everything.  Passing the buck and putting the onus back on the client to respond instead of pro-actively working to solve the issue will leave a bad taste.  This is the difference between a support engineer who is focused on closing tickets in order to meet some arbitrary performance metric and the one who is focused on empowering people.  It’s also the difference between the SE who waits for clients to reply to his emails and has deals fall through and the SE who uses tools like followup.cc to make sure she’s pro-actively reaching out and helps her team close quickly and efficiently.  A good friend of mine (who also happens to be the top performing sales rep at our company) put it nicely: “People ask me all the time about my ‘sales hacks’ but simply following up and being diligent pays dividends.

5) Manage expectations and then over-deliver

Everyone who’s ever worked in a client-facing role knows there are clients who would love to get you to do their job for them.  The thing is, clearly delineating the services you can provide and then surpassing expectations will usually result in a happier client than endless hoop jumping.  Remember the long term goal of empowering the client – by doing everything for them you’re robbing them of the chance to build competence on their own.  That doesn’t mean refusing to help, it does mean providing the best support and training you can and giving them tools to succeed on their own.  This is incredibly important, and not just because failing to do it can prevent your team from scaling effectively.

6) Find good people and hold onto them

Startups are impermanent.  Most will only last a few years before going under, being acquired, merging, or (if you’re very lucky) getting big and changing so much you hardly recognize the company you’ve spent years helping to build.  When it comes time to look for your next job it’s practically guaranteed to come as the result of a recommendation from someone you’ve worked with or supported.  That network of friends, colleagues, mentors, and customers is the single most valuable asset you will build and the only one you get to take with you.  Find the best of those people, let them know you value them, help them slay their dragons, and make sure they can count on you as much as you count on them.  That way when a future boss asks them for recommendations your name is at the top of the list.

7) Never stop learning

You might think that people who work in tech would understand the transitory nature of technology and the need to be constantly updating skills, but often folks are so focused on the project at hand they forgot to keep an iron in the fire.  I remember my first real job out of high school, I was doing photoshop work in the advertising department of a newspaper.  We had one guy in our department whose whole job was using the old mainframe for rendering high resolution bitmaps.   He had done it for years and was good at it, but when desktop computers finally got powerful enough to handle it his entire job was suddenly obsolete.  The look on his face realizing that at 55 he was unemployed with no marketable skills broke my heart and I promised myself I’d never be in that position.

Learn a new language or framework, take that online course you’ve been thinking about,  maybe even go back to school to get that degree – but whatever you do keep learning!  You can’t stop getting older and the experience and practical knowledge that comes with it is an asset, but only if you can apply it to new technology.

8) Be bold

The deal you sit on is the deal you lose. Prospects worth winning do not have time to waste and by moving slowly and wasting that time you will provide compelling evidence that they should do business with someone else.  Boldness is especially important when things go badly and situations beyond your control inflict collateral damage on the deals you’ve worked so hard to cement.  I am not suggesting you be rash, but the person who moves decisively and with integrity instead of waiting for someone else to deal with a crisis will earn the respect of prospects, clients, and peers.  Above all, never get defensive and seek to lay blame.  Own your mistakes when you make them and take deliberate steps to rectify them.   At worst, a good supervisor will appreciate your efforts and provide guidance on how to do better.  At best, this is the sort of thing that earns promotions.

9) Be humble

The world is a huge and amazing place and it is changing far faster than evolution has prepared us for.  It takes chutzpah to stand up in front of an audience and do a training or make a sale and that can be hard to balance with the humility it takes to accept criticism and feedback.  The thing is, no matter how much any of us know, that knowledge is dwarfed by the things we don’t know.  Remember that.  Humility also means accepting imperfection in colleagues and being patient.  I remember a technical lead who was referred to behind his back as “the bear” because he had a habit of chewing out people who approached him with questions – even when the answer was not documented anywhere outside his own head.  As a result most people didn’t ask him questions, which he liked… but it also meant his team made mistakes that could have been avoided.

10) Don’t overplay your hand

The best training or sales presentation is the one that keeps the client’s attention all the way through and leaves them wanting to dig deeper.  Fred Astair said that once you have the perfect set where everything is golden and you can hold the audience all the way through, you should go back and pull 15 minutes out of it.  The same is true of Sales – and writing for that matter.

And so – on that note – I’ll end on a question.  What is the single most important piece of advice you could give to someone who’s just starting out?

*I haven’t patented the TRUTH acronym but I probably should.  If you use it a link back would be lovely.

  • Shawn Azman

    Jed – Great read! Thanks for sharing. Having been an SE for the past few years at a few different companies, I’ve seen both the good and bad side of sales and sales engineering. The worst, in my option, is when Sales closes a deal by promising features/products that don’t exist. Not only is this dishonest sales that upsets your customers, it’s also an easy way to cause problems within your own organization.

    Because of this – I have one promise I make to any company I join (and I make this promise specifically to any Customer Success Managers who have to manage clients after sign up), and that promise is that I’ll never sell a deal based on functionality we cannot provide.

    For me, this helps ensure happy clients and also a happy team.

    • Jed Wheeler

      Thanks Shawn! You’re one of the best and I learned quite a bit working with you, even if it was only for a short time. Always glad to refer business to you and the Leanplum team. You-all have been great partners for us – especially since I can be confident you’ll stick to the same code and put the client first. Makes it far easier to refer someone when I know they’ll be treated right on the other side!