These are all good articles, though I'd particularly point to the a16z articles and Ben Horowitz' book "The Hard thing about Hard Things" for an appreciation of what sales brings to a company that needs enterprise customers.
Also, sales can be learned by anyone. Some of the best sales people I know (earning $400k most years to upwards of $1m in a year if they hit a home run) are deeply technical.
It's a potential career transition that definitely interests me, I'm just not sure where to start. Getting to talk (& teach?) potential customers along with tying pay directly to performance are both very appealing elements of the field. Any additional advice appreciated! Thanks!
If this is something you're interested in, many organizations are in need of sales engineers (pre-sales technical folks) who have real experience from the trenches. If you are comfortable talking with technical and non-technical people alike, sales engineering is probably the best place to start. The challenge with getting into a purely sales role is that many places expect a level of experience before hiring people. Negotiations and proposal building can be surprisingly complex, and there aren't many organizations interested in training-up sales people. Sales engineering would serve the purpose of giving you exposure to the pre-negotiation piece of the sales process, as well as introducing you to a lot of people with deep experience in the negotiation / closing process.
I'd be happy to chat with you offline about my experiences as well -- my email is in my profile.
I started down this way because while I love technology, I was getting pretty bored with the typical engineer personality types in every company I went to, and I was starting to get a little heat for being too customer focused. This makes sense when your company is at risk because they're drowning in features while engineering is light years ahead and into YAGNI territory. But simply caring beyond your engineering duties of ship stuff on a schedule is a huge step in mentality.
I know what you mean, but I haven't given up yet. I still can't believe that a field this dynamic and intellectually challenging is so devoid of... personality and wit?
Its probably different in the valley, but this has been my experience in Europe. After 7 years, I still don't get it.
Besides that, I'd bet that a lot of programmers suffer from social anxiety (I used to be one of them), which severely limits your ability to express any personality that you might have.
I think the fact that these stereotypes even exist means that there could be a biological reason behind it. Levels of dopamine and serotonine in the brain, the amount of muscles, a lean or a broad frame, social anxiety,...
These things interest me a lot, mainly because they affect me as well of course, so if there is a place to discuss them I'd love to hear about it. Actually I'm surprised this isn't a regular HN topic .
Regarding biological reasons, you might be interested in the Human Behavioral Biology course . I'm half way through it and it's jam packed with knowledge.
I've hired a couple guys for my ops team that are primarily developers because I want a more forward-thinking and feature development pace for the work we do, and just plain better forethought would cut these stressful scenarios down to maybe half an hour of troubleshooting instead of hours and days.
There are a great deal of very intelligent people that cross so many different ranges across humanity and IT / software seems to select for just a small slice of the possibilities and the richness that exists. Even among companies you are biased for certain personality traits (big companies tend to attract those that are less risk averse or with children due to the 9-to-5 culture as stereotype and vice versa with smaller companies).
The European immigrants I worked with certainly had a different sense of all sorts of things as well as the Middle Eastern and African immigrants. But gosh do they all share some strange similarities despite all these differences.
Things do get rather boring potentially outside the usual nerd crowds. For example, I really don't care about following competitive sports - this is a huge, huge social handicap in the U.S. even among women in many regions. This becomes even more pervasive among sales folks for sure - I think most sales folks that are pretty good performers are actually pretty darn.... moderate if we tried to "average" personalities. It's clear among managers that engineers tend to be a rather specific group of people that doesn't necessarily need to be accounted for among other types of organizations.
The thing about bonding over sports is one of the first major differences outside the tech social circle.
I would agree on the statement that it is an advantage to be following sports. But a recent trend in companies is a more diverse hiring pool because decision makers are become more diverse as well.
I also think the end goal of bonding over sports is being relatable and likable. If you have other traits that compensate for lack of sports knowledge, you can still be successful.
Yeah that seems to be the case - or at least the challenges are on a different level.
The thing about competitive sports: I've found a good way to handle it is to be very firm and confident about not being interested in it at all, thankyouverymuch. Just brush it off in a non-awkward, humorous way.
Enterprise sales is complex but still fundamentally rather emotional among the decision-makers. The kinds of companies that buy $10MM of software in a year from one vendor are only so many, so there tends to be reputations that follow people, and many sales persons simply follow along a few friends that are executives at organizations across their careers and sell whatever software they're peddling every time they switch companies.
My experience is that sales people are not actually liked all that much, as their efforts to socialize sometimes seem forced and creepy. You can turn that into your advantage.
The stereotypes, as usual, do seem to have some truth behind them.
I've lived with, worked with and hired engineers who behaved like machines, treated conversation and pleasantries as a waste of time, and some who existed in their own subculture. Perhaps they were full of personality and wit in their subculture, but in my experience... no.
This is Europe too.
A good sales engineer is a "glue player", in that they do a combination of:
- Presenting the company, or products, or concepts/architectures to prospects customers and partners
- Demoing products and concepts that illustrate some kind of meaningful benefit for the audience rather than just "this button does X"
- building technical champions in your accounts - taking people out for tea/coffee/libations , lunch and learns, listening to them, white boarding with them, basically teaching them to sell on your behalf at their companies because their jobs are easier if they have your product
- Qualifying and scoping opportunities with your wingman, the account manager. This is figuring out what the customer needs, if you can fill that need with your software, and what is missing.
- Scoping and executing a proof of concept, which is half engineering , half performance art. Basically it's about validating to a customer in a time boxed project that they can achieve their goals with your software
- On site customer support, when the support line isn't enough
- On site architecture / solution support, when post sales consulting isn't enough
- Sometimes crafting quotes, deals, and proposals though often this is in the account manager's wheelhouse
Good books on solution selling (ie. Focusing on customer success rather than "dumping the license keys and running") include "Let's Get Real or Let's not play" by Khalsa and Illig or "Insight Selling" by Schulz and Doerr. I also recommend a course or book on building good presentations such as from Mandel Communications.
If you can demonstrate technical and presentation skills in an interview and give a good demo (record yourself to practice), you'll likely get an SE job. Your comp will usually be 70/30 or 60/40 fixed/variable and you'll be comped based on your region's sales performance.
From there, the next step after a few years is to sales specialists (basically a sales account manager specialized in a product area) or account manager (general sales rep). These pay more variable comp (60/40 or 50/50), lower base pay, but strong accelerators after you hit your quota (this is where you hit $400k+). This requires knowing sales processes and building relationships with sales management that you'll gain as an SE. Some companies aren't great at growing their SEs into reps, some are - jump elsewhere after a couple of years if you're stuck in a "hey geek give us a demo" transactional relationship with your sales team.
Once you get into pure sales, it is way more about deal structuring , relationship building , managing your support network (SEs, consulting, support, proposal building, field marketing) to focus on your accounts, and relentless repetitive discovery and qualification of needs - and being able to be rejected a lot without getting depressed. Technical stuff takes a back seat though still is helpful for credibility and bullshit detection. It's not for everyone (I don't think I can do it, but never say never). But the upside if you're good at it or at a growth company can be high.
I'm also on the implementation side (sometimes referred to as professional services), and two immediate thoughts jump to mind:
1) Unless you're a practice manager directly responsible for maintaining a targeted book-to-bill ratio or other quota metric (which usually entails account and long-term customer relationship management), your management should not be throwing you under the bus and exposing you to break that news to the customer. Nothing destroys a booking pipeline faster than customers with mismanaged expectations.
2) This type of behaviour from Sales teams is usually indicative of misaligned incentives. A concrete example of this type of situation could be company in an early "hyper-growth" phase where they only comp on new bookings, and don't comp Sales on contract renewals.
(It's often the same middle management that omits to let the dev team know the system is supposed to work on IE8 until the client complains.)
Sales commmonly direct their sour taste towards the developers...
* Business function: If you're customer facing, most [project|practice|field|support]managers should be sticking their nose into day-to-day projects, especially when a bad message needs to be delivered (e.g. the product we sold you will fall short of your expectations). This is not only because the customer will be incensed, but because there may also be commercial repercussions (e.g. SLA penalties) that you may not be aware of in umbrella master [service|support|license] agreements.
* Deal/budget size: Typically, the larger a manager's deal or budget, the more headcount they have. And the more headcount on a project|team|division, the more intermediate managers there will be to layer the manager in question. Hence, if the deal size is rather large, in most cases managers will not get involved on a day-to-day basis, but should be available for escalations (presuming an account management role for larger deal sizes). If the deal size is usually smaller, more than likely the manager will be more involved (e.g. as a project manager).
* Org size: BDC - not usually. Startup - usually yes.
Also, some (most) places do not have very good lines of communication between sales and R&D, while others do. I'm lucky to be in a place where I can submit a PR on Github if I need something yesterday, or can file feature requests / fixes that will get looked at within the week.
My view is generally that the relationship with a customer is where you make most of your money over 5+ years, selling them an opportunity once by promising the moon and delivering a paper plate is in no one's interest. Lots of sales people act that way but that's not going generally going to be your leaders.
Sales Engineers in particular don't want to sell something dishonestly - it opens the company up to risk and it hurts their credibility, particularly if you sell multiple products.
There are a few reasons I can think of:
1. The technical people that run the current implementation didn't put their requirements into the sales process.
2. Some of those features really don't matter to the business and were fodder.
3. The requirements were listed, but not accurately or with enough depth.
4. The Sales team didn't have enough knowledge (or training) to know the difference - or inaccurate documentation.
5. It was roadmapped close enough to implementation and including delays to go ahead anyway.
6. The competitor claims to have this feature but theirs is broken also, so it's a race to who can sell broken stuff faster - because nobody can truly do it.
The people and the companies that support this exist certainly - just not for very long.
Oh, hey VMware! What's up?
If we send you twenty pages of requirements, we do not expect your product to cover each and every one of them (especially not those labeled as "nice to have", and also not those that were inserted just to please some internal egos and will be ignored in the decision-making altogether... although I grant you that this will be hard to judge from the outside). Nevertheless, I have experienced time and time again that sales agents waste 45 minutes of their two hour presentation to try to explain some clumsy workaround for something their software cannot do instead of spending that time to focus on what their software can do. Also, a software that supposedly can do everything makes me wonder if it can do these things well... or if we might end up with a solution so customized that every upgrade turns into a nightmare.
But a big chunk of enterprise sales is just learning to understand the customer's organization, how it works, how it makes decisions, and what problems the customer is experiencing. Part of the reason things are so expensive is that the sales cycle is so long and arduous, and that's because it's just really, really hard to communicate and make decisions within large enterprises - even when they really, really need the product and have strong internal champions.
> learning to understand the customer's organization
I wish this was the case all around, clearly it happens at least occasionally or you would not have your personal experience, but I have yet to see it in mine. If I have seen it, it was so well executed I didn't even notice, but even then from my experience that is the minority of cases.
The funny thing is that I'm doing much of the same things here as I was doing at Facebook: understanding the team's core problem, understanding their systems, designing benchmarks, explaining possible solutions, walking through operations scenarios, etc.
There is more PowerPoint time, as we are from a separate company and need to establish our credentials first, but the bulk is deeply technical and the standards are high. I couldn't bullshit these people even if I wanted to.
The market is providing.
EDIT: Exhibit A-Z is the current $240M lawsuit by the State of Oregon v Oracle: http://www.bizjournals.com/portland/blog/health-care-inc/201...
Grill them, a year later sign up for something we 10% need lol
I know the sales guys work for their money, but I don't think the above is alot to ask for what could potentially be a quarter of a million dollars in recurring annual revenue.
This is why the exciting new breed of start-ups in this space (payroll, ATS, HRIS, etc) are making a killing—amazing profit margins, even when you dramatically undercut the established players.
1. Have huge bloated software that is hard to add features to, support, or reason about
2. Are based on a decade or more old software (at best)
3. Are being undercut by software that does probably less than 10% of what they offer, because nobody needs the other 90% of shit they pack in (but did because they added some customization or "feature" to the product whenever a big client came online due to some slimy sales guy)
Check out www.work-bench.com/startups for a list of a bunch of companies selling true enterprise-class deals and doing a great job at it.
This article by Steve Sinofsky provides a broader framework to understand Enterprise sales.
1) Wear douchy leather shoes, slacks, look smart
2) BS and make stuff up on software you 20% understand until the client nods
3) Keep going
4) Call client, every, freaking, month, for 2 years
5) Do this enough - Sale!