How to become a sales engineer: What the role entails + career path guide
A sales engineer specializes in selling complex scientific and technological products. Here’s everything you need to know about the role and how to start your sales engineer career path.
By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer
Last updated February 7, 2023
Sales jobs look a lot different than they did just a couple of decades ago. Sure, we still make cold calls, pay visits to prospects, and nurture relationships with existing customers. But technology has advanced the sales industry, and depending on a company’s products, region, and size, a business may now require sales experts with different specialties.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA)® predicted Americans will spend $505 billion on tech products and services in 2022—a 3.5 percent increase from the previous year. With the tech industry rapidly growing, companies are on the hunt for tech-savvy, down-to-earth sales representatives who know what it takes to explain Big Tech. That’s where a sales engineer comes in.
Our guide will detail the role of a sales engineer, what it takes to become one, and the career path to get you there.
- What is a sales engineer?
- What does a sales engineer do?
- Sales engineer skills you need
- How to become a sales engineer: The typical career path
- How to prepare for a sales engineer interview
- Sales engineer FAQs
- Enhance your sales engineer qualifications by becoming a sales tech expert
What is a sales engineer?
Sales engineers (also known as technical sales engineers) are specialists who focus on selling complex scientific and technological products. They most commonly negotiate B2B sales, working with high-value, enterprise-level customers.
Some sales engineers work independently, while others work alongside other sales team members. They often assist product development teams, serving as tech consultants for the sale.
Role expectations: What does a sales engineer do?
A sales engineer’s primary job is to use their expertise to translate technical concepts into everyday language so that complicated products are approachable and understandable for potential buyers. But there’s more to the role than what you’ll find in the typical sales engineer job description. Some common activities for sales engineers include:
- Preparing and leading presentations that carefully explain the scientific or technical aspects of products
- Consulting with current and prospective customers (and other engineers) about equipment and system requirements
- Securing orders of relevant products and arranging their delivery
- Working with the sales team to understand customer problems and how relevant products might solve them
- Collaborating with product development to modify products to better address customer pain points
- Assisting established clients with the product or tech installation
- Recommending improvements to the company to lower costs and/or increase production efficiency
- Researching and developing new products with the product development team
Many aspects of a sales engineer’s job overlap with those of a sales rep, which makes it a highly specialized position. Not only do sales engineers need to be excellent sales representatives, but they also need to be science and technology experts. Because they have a hand in everything from sales to marketing to product development, sales engineers are often considered the driving force behind bringing products to market.
Sales engineer skills you need
As you take your first steps toward becoming a sales engineer, there’s a lot of work to do along the way. In addition to ensuring you’re well-studied and fully certified, you’ll need to develop all the necessary technical skills and qualities of a sales engineer. Here are a few hard and soft skills to focus on.
- Sales skills: A sales engineer should have experience working in sales and understand the sales process.
- Project management skills: Sales engineers must be the quarterback of the project, keeping it on track, proactively communicating, collaborating with sales managers, and meeting deadlines during the sales cycle.
- Research and analytical skills: Analyzing data and finding new or creative ways to optimize the customer experience are critical skills. Because sales engineers are involved in sales and product conversations with the customer, they’re uniquely positioned to identify opportunities to improve the sales process, marketing, and product development.
- Technical knowledge: You’re not selling to tech experts—you’re selling to people who want to use tech to fix their problems. The ability to explain complex products and concepts in simple terms is what makes a great sales engineer.
- Q&A skills: Adequately answering the prospect’s questions and asking the right ones to better understand their needs are key to effective sales.
- Writing skills: You will be creating documents that detail your products or services. It’s crucial to tailor the benefits to each prospect’s business.
- Communication skills: Build trust and loyalty with knowledgeable, transparent communication that helps customers make informed decisions about your offerings.
- Public speaking skills: Sales engineers often lead presentations and demos for prospects. You must be able to speak confidently to a room of prospects, answer their questions, and create a compelling pitch to generate sales.
- Organizational skills: Sales engineers often handle several projects at once, so keeping records and customer data organized will help you stay on top of your work.
- Problem-solving skills: You are not only expected to solve client pain points but also to address technical issues when they arise. A cool head and a keen eye are essential.
- People and teamwork skills: You’re going to be working alongside people with different personality traits. You must be able to navigate social situations with ease and create a calm, pleasant environment.
- Networking skills: Creating connections with customers and peers can result in referral opportunities and more insights into different technologies and industries.
How to become a sales engineer: The typical career path
Where do you start? Although everyone experiences unique twists and turns on their journey to becoming a sales engineer, most people share a similar path. Following the steps below will help guide you toward your goal.
Pick an industry
Research sales engineer positions across a variety of industries to determine which field or specialty you’re most interested in. Some industries include:
- Computer science
You can also identify the types of companies you’d like to work for first, then work backward to get the required education and relevant experience. Start building your network so that when you’re ready to go, the industry is ready to have you.
Get a degree
Once you’ve decided on an industry, research the education requirements. The average sales engineer starts with a degree in computer science, engineering (electrical, mechanical, or civil), or a related technical field. While it’s possible to become a sales engineer without one of these degrees, they make it much easier to get a foot in the door.
Before beginning a sales career, sales engineers should acquire basic sales certifications. There are several certifications you can earn, but a few important ones include:
- Certified Professional Sales Person (CPSP) certification through the National Association of Sales Professionals (NASP)
- Certified Sales Engineer (CSE) certification through the North American Association of Sales Engineering (NAASE)
- SMEI Certified Professional Salesperson (SCPS) certification through Sales and Marketing Executives International (SMEI)
While earning certifications, look for opportunities in your chosen industry to gain experience working with the products you want to sell. Jeff Miller, a sales engineer at McHenry Roofing, emphasized the importance of sales experience when interacting with clients.
“You can be an encyclopedia about the product, but you’ll never understand the rebuttals to the product until you get in front of real potential clients,” Miller says. “You need to understand the problems of your clients before you can properly introduce your product as a solution.”
Though many aim to land a sales rep role, getting a trainee position or serving as a technological consultant alongside a non-tech-trained sales representative can help you develop sales strategies.
Henry Foster, a seasoned systems engineer and technical head at Skilled Golf, took advantage of different avenues to gain valuable experience after graduation. In addition to completing courses to improve his technical skills, he says he joined “several internship programs to take part in extensive on-the-job training programs to develop a thorough understanding of products.”
Apply for sales engineer jobs
Once you have the education, certifications, and sales experience, start looking for sales engineer jobs in your industry. Pick positions that interest you, and don’t be afraid to apply—even if you don’t meet every qualification listed. Just be sure to draft a winning resume and cover letter that demonstrate your skills, passion, and experience that sets you apart from the competition.
How to prepare for a sales engineer interview
So, your resume landed you an interview. Now what? Here are a few tips on how to prepare and impress during the interview process.
When preparing for the interview, you must be able to answer questions about different sides of the sales process. A sales engineer should possess deep knowledge of a product’s technical specifications and be able to explain them in a way that’s easily understandable. You also need the ability to understand a customer’s needs and pain points and sell them on how your product or service can help.
Here are a few topics that you should be prepared to discuss during your sales engineer interview:
- Questions detailing your experience and background in a sales or technical role
- Behavioral and situational questions
- Questions about your technical and soft skills
Common interview questions
You’ll likely get the basic questions during your interview (“Can you tell us about yourself?” and “Why are you interested in this role?”), but you also need to prepare for more complex sales interview questions.
Here are 10 in-depth questions you may face during your sales engineer interview and how to answer them.
- Tell us about your previous experience related to sales engineer roles.
- Walk us through how you typically handle a sales call.
- Describe a successful sales project you’re proud of, and what was your role?
- Describe a challenging sales project and how you overcame the challenges.
- How do you approach providing demonstrations to customers?
- How would you handle a situation where you don’t have a solution for a customer’s pain points?
- Explain how a sales cycle works.
- How do you measure sales success?
- Do you thrive in independent or collaborative work environments?
- How would you present our product to a potential customer?
How to answer: Consider how your previous roles tie into the role you’re interviewing for. Describe each relevant role, your duties and responsibilities, and examples of how you performed them.
How to answer: Mention the importance of asking the customer questions about their pain points and their needs, and then explain how you would describe the value of your products or services.
How to answer: Include the details of your role, the challenges you faced, and the metrics used to measure your success.
How to answer: Specify the goal of the project, the challenge you faced, and the critical-thinking skills you used to find a solution to satisfy the customer.
How to answer: Detail how you pinpoint the customer’s needs, answer their questions, and describe the value of your products or services.
How to answer: Describe a situation where you had to reach out to teammates for help finding a solution to a customer’s problem. Explain how you communicated with the customer, whom you reached out to for help, and the outcome.
How to answer: Describe the sales cycle stages and an example of how you used them in successful projects.
How to answer: Include metrics like sales profits, number of leads, and deals won.
How to answer: Provide examples of projects when you excelled both independently and as a member of a team.
How to answer: Highlight the product benefits, explain the technical aspects in nontechnical terms, and detail how it serves as a solution to the customer’s pain points.
Sales engineer FAQs
These frequently asked questions can help you learn more about becoming a sales engineer.
How long does it take to become a sales engineer?
Becoming a sales engineer takes four to five years, on average. Most sales engineers earn a bachelor’s degree (usually in sales, engineering, or business), get relevant certifications, and train with established sales engineers before becoming one themselves.
How much experience do you need to become a sales engineer?
After earning a bachelor’s degree in sales, engineering, or a related field, you can gain sales and technical experience by shadowing a sales engineer for up to a year.
If you currently work in sales, you’re halfway there. If your company specializes in technological or scientific products, you likely already know more than you think. Begin by looking at your clients from a tech perspective: What do they need? Efficiency? Features? Use that knowledge and reach out to your colleagues to see if you can work on more technical B2B sales.
If you already consult for a sales company, ask them if you can observe more sales or train under a senior sales representative.
If you don’t have any sales experience, you must get some. It might mean starting at the bottom of the ladder, but you’ll need to work with a sales team in a more junior position to develop sales skills.
What is the average sales engineer salary?
According to Glassdoor.com, the average base salary for a sales engineer is around $79,000 per year. Bonuses, commissions, and profit-sharing can add another $38,239 per year.
Enhance your sales engineer qualifications by becoming a sales tech expert
No matter your technical specialty, every sales engineer needs to have a handle on sales technology. This includes:
Sales technology makes modern sales happen efficiently, accurately, and effortlessly. Sales engineers and reps use these tools daily for sales tracking and sales funnel management as well as for client and co-worker communication.
If you’re looking to combine your passions for sales and technology, you should be comfortable with the tech needed to make sales happen. The easiest way to get your hands on a simple CRM is to request a demo of Zendesk Sell. Reach out today, and take the first steps on your sales engineer career path with the powerful combination of sales and technical expertise.
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