How to Strike the Right Balance: The Role of Solution Engineers and Account Executives in Start-up’s Sales Strategy
Anna: Today, we have the privilege of speaking with Wilfred Filer, an experienced Presales Practitioner and start-up advisor, to gain insights into the debate surrounding the hiring priorities of Solution Engineers (SEs) and Account Executives (AEs) in start-up environments. Wilfred, can you begin by providing a brief overview of your career as a Solution Engineer and your transition to start-up advisory roles?
Wilfred: Certainly! I have been working in various pre-sales capacities since 2001, spanning different industries, business segments, and company sizes. I have served both as an individual contributor and as a leader in pre-sales teams. Since last September, I have been sharing my knowledge and expertise with start-up and scale-up companies.
Anna: In your experience, what role do Solution Engineers play in the sales cycle, and how does their approach differ from that of start-up companies?
Wilfred: Solution Engineers play a critical role in the sales cycle as trusted advisors who manage accounts from a technical perspective. They excel in activities such as discovery, qualification, and value-added selling, which are essential for a successful sales cycle. However, start-up companies often tend to take a different approach, where product management is showcasing all features and functions, even if they may not be directly relevant to the customer's specific use case.
Anna: Based on your background in established pre-sales teams at companies like Salesforce and Celonis, how does your experience apply to the start-up world?
Wilfred: Interestingly, even established pre-sales teams encounter similar challenges as start-ups. Sales cycles can suffer from inadequate execution due to resource constraints or junior pre-sales representatives still learning the ropes. Through my involvement in over 300 sales cycles at Salesforce and Celonis, I have learned that this approach is not the most successful one.
Anna: When start-ups seek your advice, what are the key challenges they typically highlight?
Wilfred: One common challenge is that some start-ups fail to recognize the effectiveness and value that a pre-sales person brings to the sales cycle. They often believe that a pre-sales person is only required for conducting product demos, which they assume can be handled by someone from product management. Convincing these start-ups of the benefits that a pre-sales person can offer becomes a crucial task. Additionally, establishing well-defined activities for each stage of the sales cycle is essential for success, and I base my advisory approach on this foundation.
Anna: There has been a growing discussion about start-ups prioritizing the hiring of SEs over AEs. What is your perspective on this matter?
Wilfred: SEs undeniably bring great value, and in some cases, they can fill the gaps left by AEs more easily than vice versa. SEs are already involved in key activities throughout the sales cycle. However, it's important not to underestimate the fact that certain tasks, such as cold calling, T&C negotiations, and deal closure, may not align with every SE's skill set. SEs act as bridges between product development and sales, requiring a combination of technical knowledge, business acumen, commercial aptitude, and strong communication skills. In some situations where the product does not demand highly technical SEs, a more commercially-oriented SE can be hired to cover most of the sales cycle. However, in most cases, start-ups initially prioritize hiring AEs and gradually bring in SEs once the AE/SE ratio reaches a tipping point. To help address the understaffing of SE teams, tools like Demoboost can effectively scale pre-sales activities.
Anna: What would be the ideal profile of an SE for this approach to work? Could you expand on the commercial skills required for pre-sales?
Wilfred: It's challenging for an SE to excel simultaneously in highly technical and highly commercial aspects. Typically, pre-sales professionals tend to lean toward one end of this spectrum. If a solution does not demand excessive technical expertise, the ideal profile of an SE should possess strong commercial skills. However, considering the current market trends, which heavily emphasize data, AI, analytics, and security solutions and rely on technical expertise, it is unlikely that SEs can completely replace AEs.
Anna: In terms of collaboration between founders and SEs, what would be the ideal process or flow for achieving the best results?
Wilfred: If founders choose to prioritize hiring SEs over AEs, it is crucial to ensure that additional support is available to the SEs in areas where they may require assistance. This may involve engaging a Business Development Representative (BDR) for cold calling and prospecting, a legal expert for T&C negotiations, and a sales manager for closing deals. Collaboration and coordination among these team members are key to achieving optimal results.
Anna: Are there any risks associated with prioritizing SE hires over AEs? Can this approach backfire, or are there specific start-up industries where it may not be effective?
Wilfred: Certainly, there are risks involved. SEs may become overwhelmed with commercial responsibilities, leaving them with insufficient time to fulfill their pre-sales tasks and maintain in-depth product knowledge. This situation not only demotivates the SEs but also harms the business overall. Consequently, the SEs may seek other opportunities where the workload is more manageable. Additionally, this approach may not work well for start-ups offering more technical infrastructure-oriented solutions, as I mentioned earlier.
Anna: To conclude, what is your one-sentence answer to the question: Should start-ups put a higher priority on hiring SEs than AEs?
Wilfred: No, the priority should be focused more on reducing the AE/SE ratio rather than hiring an SE before an AE. The reason I decided to partner with Demoboost is that I genuinely believe that tools like Demoboost can help to effectively scale pre-sales activities within the start-up world..