Evolution of a Sales Engineering Organization

Today we are going to throw a curveball – our first Guest Post!  I figure you are probably sick of my pontification and soap box by now.  Jon Michaels is a fellow Leader in the Bay Area covering a global SE team for EnerNOC.  He also knows how to fly a helicopter.   A real helicopter.  Not just one of those little drones but a CH-53E “Super Stallion”.  I guarantee you a good read and correct grammar.  If you don’t agree I will offera 100% money back refund of your blog subscription price.








Evolution of a Sales Engineering Organization

Successful Sales Engineering organizations require careful planning, attention and coordination to grow and thrive.

Less than two years ago, EnerNOC did not have a dedicated SE team.  We had a team of five when we first stood up and now have a total of 18 SEs across North America, Europe, and Australia.  The following outlines not just my approach in building the SE team at EnerNOC and developing our capabilities, but also thoughts about how SE teams in general can evolve over time and continue to adapt to our ever changing environment.

Identify the need and get executive support

An important first step is to identify the need for a dedicated technical pre-sale team and move from a model where many different groups such as Operations, Professional Services or Product Marketing perform pre-sale work.  This approach is problematic because there are many groups providing support the sales reps are confused about who to go to, it’s a low priority for the groups that do provide this work, and that leads to poor results for the sales reps, the customers, and your company’s bottom line.

Developing executive support is crucial for this endeavor.  Building and SE organization is an investment in not just the sales team, but your entire organization.  It’s a cost and you need high-level support to make that investment.

 Initial planning and execution

Alignment on vision for the team.  Work with key internal stakeholders and develop a strong and consistent alignment on a vision for the team.    This is easier said than done, and requires extensive coordination with Operations, Professional Services, Sales, and Product.  Time spent in this developmental stage is crucial – you want to build a strong and well-regarded team of SE professional and don’t want to be pigeon-holed as the “in case of demo need, break glass” group.  Some key areas to define in the planning stage are:

  • What types of work will the SEs do?
  • How will sales reps engage them for support?
  • How will SE work be tracked (if at all)?   See recent post on Measuring and Tracking Sales Engineering.
  • Need to work closely with sales leaders to understand their needs, both in terms of the type of SE support they envision needing, as well as input about specific SE skills, talents and knowledge (so you start your recruiting efforts on a strong note).

Start to develop your “SE mindset”.  Carefully consider the overall areas you want your team to be known for.  Concepts that influenced the development of our SE team included: Be entrepreneurs of sales and product; fuse generalized awareness with specialist expertise; and help deals go as fast they can, but not faster.  We codified this mindset with our team mantra – be right, be authoritative, be timely.  This mantra was developed to instill confidence in our team with not just the demos we give and deliverables we create, but more importantly in the manner in which we go about our business.

  • Be right. First and foremost, SEs must provide 100% accurate information to every customer, every time.
  • Be authoritative. SEs will take command of engagements they support and seek resolution in a firm and thoughtful manner.  The SE team will always speak with one voice.
  • Be timely. We will respond expeditiously to all requests, but not at the expense of #1 and #2.

This mantra was shared with not only the SEs but the entire sales force, so they could always hold us to the high standard we set for ourselves.

Build a RACI.  It was very useful for us to develop a RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) matrix that clearly outlined steps in the sales and delivery process and who was involved in each step of the process and in what capacity.  Developing this RACI was a challenging process, though was extremely beneficial for two main reasons.  The first was a clear understanding of the RACI components and ownership.  The second, and perhaps more valuable, were the discussions with internal stakeholders in developing the RACI and ensuring complete alignment; every conversation about the development of your SE team is crucial.

Know the sales process.  A thorough understanding of the sales process is crucial; you don’t want to build a team that is operating outside of how your reps are conducting business.  Areas to explore include:

  • What is the sales process?  Where and how do SEs fit in?
  • What is the qualification process?  What is expected before SEs get involved?
  • What is our best on-ramp with the customer?  How do SEs support that?

Get your initial SE team in place.   This will set the tone for your entire SE organization and the initial impressions of the team.  It’s likely the initial number of SEs you are allotted is less than what you may want (and need).  With that, it’s crucial to recruit a strong cross-section of business and product experts who can tackle a variety of opportunities and deal scenarios.  An additional important consideration is where your mix of SEs will come from – internal teams such as Product, Engineering or Professional Services versus external sources such experienced SEs, customers, and other sources.  Our team at EnerNOC started with four internal employees and one external (who came to us from a customer, which lent great credibility for him in ensuing customer conversations).

Align with the structure of the sales org.  A complimentary area to getting the team in place is how exactly SEs will be aligned with the reps they support.  SEs can align with reps based on geography, customer vertical, or customer size.  In the early going, you will likely be stretched thin and need to have a team of generalists that can address multiple geographies, verticals, and customer size.

Educate the sales team and broader company about your SE team.  Take every opportunity to meet with Sales Managers and Directors and individual reps, both one -on-one and in group settings.  Evangelize your team, your mission, and your skills at every opportunity.

Understand the experience level of your sales reps and what they bring to the table.  Some reps will have worked with SEs before, some will have not.  You’ll want to identify those reps who have not worked with an SE before and likely do not know how to best engage with an SE and what to expect when they team up with one.  Those reps (and you SEs) will benefit greatly from some extra attention in the early going to get those reps up-to-speed on your team and how you can help them be successful.

Record and share your initial successes.  You’ll start small with some good demos, then some solid business cases and proposals.  You’ll then get some complex proofs of concept under your belt, as well as more complex demos and RFPs.  The smaller opportunity wins will come in first.  It will be a while before your SEs are playing large roles in million dollar plus deals; don’t get discouraged.  Keep looking for every opportunity to capture what your team does well and spread that word across your entire organization.  This will help show the success of the team, validate the investment your company has made in investing in an SE team, and be a model for those hard-to-reach reps to use in seeing how to work with your team and reaching out for support.

At EnerNOC, the analogy I used when describing SEs and sales reps was that of a military sniper team.  The rep is the sniper – they have the quota and are the one who pulls the trigger.  They have a spotter right next to them – the SE.  They are acting as a true team in working towards achieving their objective.

Air Mobility Rodeo 2011

Mature and evolve

Grow the team.  You may have started with just a few SEs; now it’s time to start to think about scaling your team.  Building a business case for a larger SE team can be the subject of an entirely separate discussion; for now, think about a simple story to tell that captures your early successes,

The story I used to grow the team beyond our initial headcount followed this format:

  1. Compared SE ratios at EnerNOC to other SaaS firms…
    2. …and compared the relative complexity of our solution to the benchmark companies.


  1. Noted how many opportunities SEs are currently working…
    4. …and then showed how many ‘large’ opps there are where there wasn’t an SE assigned…
  2. …and then listed out what we forgo by not having more SEs (at-risk pipeline, lack of scale, missed opportunities to better scope deals and set customers up for success, etc)


  1. Showed the risk of having small number of SEs (by showing how much pipeline $ was in the hands of just a few SEs)…
    7. …and then showed our ‘win rate’ of deals with and without SEs over the last few quarters


  1. A slide showing the relative of cost of an SE versus a sales rep (fully burdened rate of an SE is less)…
    9. …added in some quotes from recent emails from Sales Leaders about their positive experiences with SEs and how we are a crucial part of the sales process and team…
    10. …and finished with an org chart of what I how I would structure the team with that added headcount.

Grow the team in different ways.  More than just adding headcount, we added to the team in different ways.  We added more experienced Senior SEs from outside organizations who added a different level of professional experience to our overall team.  We added specialists in key customer verticals so our team would have the experience and credibility to address their specific concerns.  We also added more junior Associate SEs who could work closely with Senior SEs and serve as force multipliers to help those SEs be more effective in their role.  This Associate program also serves as a proving ground for our next generation of experienced SEs.

Another way we grew the team was by SE specialization.  Our initial group of SEs was for the most part product specialists and business generalists – they came from specialized areas of our company and could address in a capable manner most issues presented to them.  These SEs intimately knew the product, but were spread very thin and covered many business angles between engineering, sales, support and services.

As our software evolved, the product mix was still such that it is somewhat easy (though getting harder) for an SE to maintain deep expertise across the entire product line (especially since there is usually a dominant product and that is the case at EnerNOC).  We have now, however, a much more clearly defined infrastructure to support the sale and accompanying process.  The SE spends much more time now working with specific sales reps and is within a more traditional definition of the SE role.  I’ve heard this referred to before as having a team that is product specialized and business specialized.

As we continue to grow, I see additional evolution and expect to see an increasing variety of responsibilities with our SE organization.  Someone could “specialize” as a generalist, meaning they focus on broader opportunities.  Other possible specializations include top tier or SMB accounts, as well as product or industry specialization.  In this sense, an SE could take on a role ranging from product generalist or specialist to business generalist or specialist.

Take into account geographic considerations.  How is your SE team aligned with the Sales reps?  How will you support an increasing number of sales reps as your company moves into new market, both regionally and internationally?  The latter requires additional thought and planning – consistency helps with expansion into new countries (as SEs in one country may be able to back up SEs in another),  yet you must also respect regional nuances and understand that some things will be different across countries no matter how much you want them to be the same.

Show a career path.  We developed a career path to show progression from entry-level, Associate SE roles up through very senior and experienced roles.  This career path has tracks for both individual contributors as well as managers.  With seven core areas for employee/manager discussion and consideration (such as scope of leadership, scope of responsibility, productivity and results, and interaction and influence), a model like this serves to break down the ‘black box’ that can often surround advancement discussions.  It’s not a checklist for promotion, but rather a starting point for a discussion between an employee and manager and one that has been very well received.

Avoid delivery surprises.   Moving beyond basic execution, two key questions arise to examine when thinking about ‘surprises’ that come up after the sale: what are they and how do we avoid them?    Be maniacal about looking for holes in your execution and ensuring your team does everything it can to set the stage for customer success after the deal is won.  This requires constant communication with delivery teams and close coordination to ensure SEs are fully trained and aligned with customer success teams.

Start a rotation program.  As our team grew, we had more SEs join us from outside EnerNOC.  While they brought new and unique perspective to our company, we were diluting the in-depth product and delivery knowledge we had due to many of our original SEs coming from internal roles.  Our approach to help combat this (in addition to product training for the team) was to institute a rotation program where SEs spent time embedded with delivery teams and ‘walked a mile in their shoes’, executing the daily tasks those team address and learning firsthand the downstream implications of pre-sale decisions and actions taken (or not taken).  It was an investment to take new SEs and have them spend multiple months working with delivery teams, but it has been an extremely worthwhile one.

Learn from your mistakes.  You are sure to make missteps along the way – poorly constructed business cases, demos that miss the mark, and internal relationship that aren’t nurtured as they should be and end up hindering the growth of the team.  This no time to be proud – accept the mistakes you made and opportunities missed and develop a thorough debrief process so key areas (good and bad) are captured and learned from.

The analogy I use in describing the SE and sales rep relationship has changed from that of a sniper team to that of the President and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The sniper team analogy is good, but it has a very ‘tactical’ feel to it.  The President and Chairman of the JCS work at a strategic level – “What’s happening in the Pacific theater?”   This is similar to how our organization has evolved – reps and SEs are now talking about, “What is the big business problem we are solving for this customer?”  Now, there will be some very specific and tactical actions that come from those strategic discussions and the SE will act on those.  The key point here is that the rep and SE relationship has evolved and it’s now a more complete partnership focusing on the big picture.

President and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Stay Flexible

It may be a cliché to say that the only constant is change, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  There will be re-orgs of the sales structure; expect these.  Don’t put yourself in a position where a sales re-org forces you to re-org your entire team.  Similarly, there will undoubtedly be product changes and company strategy adjustments.  These became an expected component to my planning and served to reinforce the importance of the team structure we developed – our structure is our strategy.

There are no hard and fast rules for developing and growing an SE team.  It’s a huge amount of work, but a huge amount of fun.

Jon Michaels is the leader of the worldwide Solutions Engineering team at EnerNOC, a provider of Energy Intelligence Software.  He previously spent 10 years as an officer and Naval Aviator in the United States Marine Corps.  He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.  He is a Certified Energy Manager, Project Management Professional, and Six Sigma Green Belt. 

He can be contacted at jmichaels@enernoc.com and https://www.linkedin.com/in/jmichaels.

2 thoughts on “Evolution of a Sales Engineering Organization

  1. Love your introductory comments – you are very kind. Would love to see what kind of views it gets.

    I noticed the pic of the President and point 4 “Stay Flexible” didn’t copy over. Was there an issue with the file size? Minor point and not worth too much of your time.
    Thanks again. I’m cooking up some other posts, too, if you are game ☺



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