Sales engineering: When to involve billable people in bizdev

Sales engineering requires being intentional about which billable SMEs get involved in the business development process.
Written by: Karl Sakas

In an ideal world, your salespeople would never need help from a billable person during the sales process. In reality, salespeople need input and advice from your billable team—especially when you’re evaluating a complex custom engagement. That’s where “sales engineering” comes in.

As we discussed in a previous article, your account managers (AMs) and project managers (PMs) will always be involved in the sales process. But what about other billable team members—like strategists, developers, designers, analysts, and other Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)?

Today, we’ll review how to decide—including 10 factors that drive when to get sales engineering help from otherwise billable employees. But first, let’s get on the same page about some key definitions.

What is “sales engineering”?

Sales engineering is a type of sales support—when you enlist normally-billable people to assist your salesperson in scoping and closing a deal. The “engineering” part conveys that they’re applying a specific technical skillset to support the sales process.

What is a “sales engineer”?

A “sales engineer” is a team member who’s applying their usually-billable skillset to evaluate a sales opportunity, to help the salesperson close the deal. At independent agencies, sales engineering is usually not a full-time role. Instead, the agency temporarily enlists an SME to spend a finite amount of time on sales engineering.

Are AMs and PMs doing sales engineering when they help in the sales process?

Yes and no. An account manager likely isn’t doing sales engineering; they’re involved in the sales process to create a smoother handoff for client onboarding, rather than sharing “technical” expertise. A project manager’s sales support comes closer to sales engineering, but scoping isn’t quite engineering.

The “engineering” part is about an SME bringing their technical expertise—a developer applying their development expertise, a designer applying their creative expertise, or an analyst bringing their analytical expertise.

However you describe it, you still need to bring the right people to the sales process, at the right time. Speaking of that—let’s look at how to decide when to enlist a billable person to do non-billable sales work.

10 reasons to get Sales Engineering help from your billable SMEs

Your salespeople should handle most or all the sales process, with later-stage support from your AMs and PMs to create a smoother onboarding process. But sometimes, you need expert advice from highly-billable SMEs, even when you’re not sure a deal will close—that’s sales engineering.

What impacts whether to enlist a billable person for sales engineering? Consider these 10 factors (where “project” and “retainer” are interchangeable for client engagements):

  1. Scope: The scope is really big, which means there are likely a lot of moving parts.
  2. Budget: There’s a really big budget for the work (regardless of the scope). This typically means it’s worth investing [somewhat] more time in the sales process, to help close the deal.
  3. Complexity: Regardless of budget, the work will be highly complex. For instance, there might be uncertainty around using a new technology.
  4. Stakeholders: If there are a lot of client stakeholders—or any number of senior client stakeholders—you probably want to enlist a team member for sales engineering. It helps increase the size of your team at prospect-facing meetings… and gives you counterparts to the prospect’s own internal experts.
  5. Pricing Model: If you work on a fixed-scope basis, sales engineering is critical. If you plan to use value-based pricing, be sure you understand what it might take to get results. And even time & materials (hourly pricing) benefits from sales engineering, even if it’s to give you a narrower estimate range.
  6. Duration: If a project is likely to take more than a few months, it helps to get sales engineering support—including advice on ways to split the work into shorter, more-manageable phases.
  7. Expertise: If this is different from the work you usually do, your salespeople should get help from SMEs so they don’t under-scope it (because they don’t understand what they’re selling)… or over-scope it (because they’re not confident there’s enough budget). This also helps if you don’t have prior projects to compare this to, since you wouldn’t have done work breakouts (WBOs) on this before.
  8. Prior Experience: If this is a brand new client for the agency, sales engineering will help you ensure you manage their expectations. And if the client has never done the work before—with you or anyone else—sales engineering helps you evaluate the situation and manage their expectations.
  9. Timeline to Close: If you’re in a hurry to close, sales engineering can sometimes help you close the deal faster, because you’re demonstrating your willingness to enlist your technical experts.
  10. Availability: If an SME happens to be available—or they want to move to a more client-facing role—you might enlist them as a sales engineer, even if the opportunity didn’t otherwise merit the extra expertise. Or if you’d usually be the expert—but you’re not available—the SME might serve as your technical representative.

In general, high-complexity and bigger-budget sales opportunities tend to merit enlisting a billable team member for sales engineering (in addition to the AM and/or PM).

Let’s look at how to choose which SMEs will do sales engineering.

Which SMEs should do sales engineering?

As with most project management, be sure to assign sales engineering to what I call the “Cheapest Competent Available Person” (CCAP).

That is to say, don’t assign sales engineering to your lowest-paid SME… especially if they’re not competent at the more-complex scoping work. And sometimes you’ll need to wait a bit—or pay more—if the best match isn’t available right now.

At a previous agency, we’d enlist our senior-most developer—who had excellent client skills—to do sales engineering. We sometimes brought in trusted freelance developers, if the scoping was in area outside our senior employee’s expertise.

Is there a sign that a specific SME shouldn’t do sales engineering?

Are some SMEs a poor choice for sales engineering? Yes: it’s vital that any client-facing SMEs have good (or at least adequate) client skills.

On an Amtrak train trip several years ago, I met the owner of a construction company in the dining car. He mentioned specializing in custom homes, targeted to wealthy buyers in the Minneapolis area. As we talked about hiring challenges, he mentioned knowing a carpenter who does excellent work… but who is blunt about disliking “rich people.” Because that’s the builder’s primary market, he won’t hire the carpenter any more.

Likewise, your client-facing SMEs likely won’t have the same client skills as your salespeople and account managers… but the SMEs need to want to help clients and prospects.

How do we make time for SMEs to do sales engineering?

There’s a reason your SMEs shouldn’t be 100% billable: you need them to do internal work, too. Some of that internal work includes business-building efforts, like sales engineering.

Typically, agencies get help from senior SMEs—often with a “lead” title—who already have a lower billable target. The lower billable target creates time to train and mentor junior employees… and to do sales support.

How can we reduce the time required for sales engineering?

There are several ways to reduce sales engineering time… or to even bypass it altogether.

  1. Be sure you’re using sales scoping templates. There’s no need to develop scopes entirely from scratch.
  2. Enlist project managers in the sales process before you enlist SMEs—since PMs are good at scoping, and they have a vested interest in selling properly-scoped work.
  3. Be conservative on when a sales opportunity merits sales engineering. This means waiting ‘til after the first (or even second) sales meeting. Be sure the prospect passes your BANT or CRUX qualification process, before you enlist an SME.
  4. Considering shifting your agency from custom to productized services—which would reduce or even eliminate sales engineering entirely.

Even if you don’t shift to fully productized services, requiring new clients to start with a Paid Discovery mini-project will help you get paid for what used to be unpaid sales engineering.

Conclusion: Improving how you do sales engineering at your agency

When you’re juggling resources and trying to hit the client’s deadlines, sales engineering can help you close the deal and bridge the gap between sales and delivery. To summarize:

  • Consider the 10 factors (above); the more you see, the more important it is to enlist an SME (or more than one) for sales engineering.
  • Be intentional. Enlisting your billable team should never be a knee-jerk reaction. Part of your “sales strategy” for an opportunity should include which team members need to be involved.
  • To reduce the time required, you can use scoping templates, enlist PMs in the sales process, and (potentially) shift to delivering more-productized services—or at least do Paid Discovery.

By considering these factors and tips, you can improve how you do sales engineering—and improve your profitability margins by reducing scope creep and client confusion.

Question: How do you optimize sales engineering at your agency?

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