Link to podcast. Link to transcript which I organised as 20VC didn’t have a transcript.

20th February 2023.

Sajith: In this podcast Harry and Zach cover the field of solutions engineering, including, the role of a solutions engineer, how s/he dovetails with the overall sales teams, how to hire and comp them, and so on. Zach leads the solutions consulting team at Rippling. Previously he has worked in similar roles at Slack, Optimizely and Box.

I thought the podcast was a useful listen for any founder, senior operator doing enterprise sales. High ACV top down sales is the domain of solution engineers, who work with Account Executives to design and ensure that the solutions that they craft and offer to the buyer have the right business value so as to delight the buyer, and thereby help the sales rep close the deal. Lots of actionable content here such as when to hire the sales rep, the interview process, how to design their comp etc. The most interesting takeaway for me was on how important content-creation, including product collateral, is becoming (see the section on Outbound below) in enabling better and earlier conversations of the Solution Engineers with the buyer. Another was on how the buyer sees the Solution Engineer as a champion of the buyer’s interest, while the Account Executive is seen as focused on closing sales.

Highlights of what I found interesting below.

The role of the Sales Engineer or Solution Engineer

Zach: “The sales engineer or solutions consultant or pre-sales consultant? There are a lot of different words these days. I think solution consultant is the proper term. We are a product expert, an expert in the solutions that tie the business value to help support the sales rep in the execution of their quota.”

Sensemaking and enterprise sales

Zach: “People still want to talk to people but they wanna talk to people on their terms. So Forrester has this concept of sensemaking. It’s a term they use as it applies to modern complex selling. And I really like it because it’s, what it’s really about is your job is not to sell something to somebody. Your job is to help your buyer make sense of a really increasingly complex world. “

How Outbound sales is evolving; content-creation matters more than ever today

Zach: “I don’t think outbound is dead. I think outbound has just has fundamentally changed in terms of the methods that you need to use to engage prospects and you have to take like a multi-channel approach to that and it’s as simple as creating different forms of content to capture people’s attention and the way that they consume information today. TikTok style approach to selling, you and I we’re gonna get off this podcast or whenever you take a break you’re probably a look at your phone and consume about 16 different pieces of content and articles and probably read half of those articles. We don’t have time to consume long form content in the way that we did, but we’re, we’re selling as if people have time to read these elaborate emails, we’ve gotta capture their attention where they are and the way their brain processes information.

…especially in my world where the solutions engineering function was predominantly uh, a really guarded function or resource where you couldn’t even talk to somebody on my team 10 years ago unless you’ve gone through an hour discovery call and you’ve been well qualified, we’re starting to encroach earlier in the process and that’s okay. We want our team to develop content that will be consumed earlier in the process. So we’re creating things like shortform videos and demo vignettes and slides that are easier to consume in new formats in a way that helps the customer educate themselves earlier in that process. So by the time they get to us, we’re very well aligned on what they’re trying to do, what they’re trying to accomplish. It makes our jobs easier, more precise and more valuable and it makes the buying experience much more enjoyable as well. And effective.

We think about what we do on a weekly basis, how we’re engaging with customers and how we might productize some of those engagements in a way that can be scaled earlier in the process. So it’s not us physically getting on a call with the customer earlier, it’s us creating content and messaging and solution material that can be leveraged earlier in a sales process but we don’t have to get involved directly when we do it at scale. “

Why do we need solutions consultants, solutions engineers

Zach: “Well there’s two things. One, if it’s a highly technical product that requires deep expertise, oftentimes you can’t have the same person be the account executive who also is going to go to that level of depth with a customer. There are some solutions where very early on you just have to have a technical expert on every call because it’s that detailed and that technical a product or solution. On the other hand, if you’re competing in a market where your competing sales teams have a solutions engineer or consultant as part of the sales team’s composition, that’s when you have to think earlier about adding a solutions consultant to your team as well. Because part of what we do is provide that deep expertise, solution expertise, presentation, differentiation through process and approach. But also it’s a competitive differentiator in how you approach a sales cycle and how you appear to a customer. And if you show up and you’re, there’s only an AE who’s trying to handle this end to end and you’re competing for a large ACV or dollar amount, it’s really difficult to compete without the right resources in place.”

SE Comp

Zach: “If you’re gonna invest in SE resources, you gotta have larger quotas for the AEs for sure because the idea is you have to believe that by adding additional resources to the equation that they’ll be able to execute on a much larger quota at the same rate with additional SE resources. And the SEs from an SE comp perspective should always have a variable component. You want them to have some skin in the game but there’s less risk involved. Typically you’ve got the AE was 50 50, you know 50 base, 50 variable and the SE in an ideal world is 70 30 and you want the SE in my opinion to have as much skin in the game as possible and be connected to the same number as the sales executive because they need to have a shared destiny and they need to be considered salespeople as well in my opinion.

For deals where there is an SE we should have a higher close rate, but at the same time an SE could be a great way to qualify deals out early stage and save us time so we’re working on the right deals at the right time. “

When to hire the first SE

Zach: “On average across a wide variety of products? When you get to about five to seven reps because you’re starting your first sales team, you probably need to hire more capable multi-faceted AEs for the first five. But then you get to a point where they can’t be handling all the demos and handling all of the follow up and handling all the technical details and solutioning, you’re gonna achieve scale by adding another sort of central resource that’ll be at five to one ratio, moving at scale beyond and handle some of the back office stuff as well. And a great example, I joined a company called Get Satisfaction long ago I was the first SE and I think we had about five or seven reps or so.”

The customer feels the SE is on their side

Zach: “One thing that I think is important to understand about SEs and team selling in general, but even if both people could do exactly the same thing, there’s a lot of value in having just two people on a call because a prospect or customer is going to answer questions differently coming from an SE than they would from an account executive because they have this perception that the account executive just wants get them to close the deal and the SE truly cares about the business, which is true, but it’s just this dynamic that continues to play out.”

SE red flags

Zach: “Another component that’s critical especially in this role is that it doesn’t matter how smart or good of a presenter or how technical an SE is, if they can’t work with their AE counterparts, they’re never going to be successful. 

If they can’t work with their AEs, that’s red flag number one. Sometimes you get folks with a deep technical background who don’t have a tolerance for salespeople and are running into personal conflict or professional conflict. That’s red flag number one. If that’s not working, it’s never going to work. It doesn’t matter how smart the person is. In fact number two is that especially in early stage companies, the person that you hire has to be an absolute self-starter and somebody who’s both a builder and willing to work on deals. And I remember my first job as the lone SE at Get Satisfaction was I was building the demo environment, so I was building all of the decks, I was working on deals, I was working with business development. You just have to be really upfront in describing that’s what the job’s about and people have to be excited about if they’re willing to participate in all those activities and they’re not gonna work out.”