Sales engineers sell or assist in selling technically or scientifically complex products. A relatively new career, the sales engineer requires both communication and math/science skills. The job arose out of the realization that as science became more and more advanced, traditional salespeople simply didn’t have the educational background to be able to explain how cutting-edge technological products worked. The joke went, “What’s the difference between a used car salesman and a computer salesman? Answer: The car salesman knows when he’s feeding you a line.”
The job market is increasingly shifting to favor people with multiple specialties, meaning that sales engineers are being hired in increasing numbers. Sales engineers typically start out as standard engineers, and then develop sales skills on the job. Once engineers have shown their aptitude for selling products, they are likely to do well in the job market. Pay is often quite lucrative, as the position is a specialized one.
Sales engineers present technical products, typically computer hardware and software, to potential clients. Their job is to make engineering jargon like program specs and technical requirements easily understood, to explain how complex products work, and to demonstrate how the product could be of service to clients.
The specific responsibilities of sales engineers include making presentations, answering technical questions, providing advice for potential and current clients, and helping sales teams put together sales strategies based on their knowledge of the product. They are expected to travel extensively to meet with clients all over the country and world. Sales engineers use a consultative style of selling, whereby they determine the exact technical needs of their clients and provide a solution with their company’s product, based on their own engineering knowledge and background.
They also apply an engineering mindset to the business of selling products. While standard salespeople typically enumerate the benefits of a product and leave clients to determine whether they need it, sales engineers treat each sale like a problem to be solved. Clients have problems that they need to fix, and products are presented as tools to fix the problems.
Finally, sales engineers must have excellent communication skills. A particular subset of communication – the ability to make the highly technical easily accessible – is required for any sales engineer
Training and Education Requirements
Sales engineers typically earn engineering degrees rather than sales degrees, even though the job is primarily focused on selling products. This is because while sales techniques can be learned on the job, engineering expertise is something that needs to be taught at school.
A four-year bachelor’s degree is required for a sales engineer, as is sales experience. Sales engineers tend to start work at a given company as an engineer, where they learn the workings of the company’s product inside and out. If they show a predilection for sales work, they may be paired with a seasoned sales representative to help present the product to customers.
Engineering degrees don’t always provide adequate communications coursework, so it is often necessary for the prospective sales engineer to supplement his or her math and science courses with marketing, sales, and writing classes. While there is no such thing as an entry-level sales engineer position, that course supplementation shows employers where prospective sales engineers want to take their careers.
Sales Engineer Salary and Wages
The specialized nature of the sales engineer position ensures great pay and great job security, with salaries ranging in the mid 80s. Depending on whether engineers are employed with the business whose products they sell or with a sales company contracting with local businesses, sales engineers may receive a salary plus commissions, or just commissions. Earnings vary greatly, depending on how much product the sales team manages to sell.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sales engineers earned a median annual salary of $83,100 in 2008. The top 10% made over $136,770, and the bottom 10% made less than $49,640. In addition to salary or commissions, sales engineers are often reimbursed for transportation, lodging, food and customer entertainment. Use of a company car, airline mileage, and gifts for outstanding performance are some of the perks that sales engineers can expect to enjoy.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
Sales engineers need to be certified according to the product that they sell. For instance, software sales engineers need to have their folio of necessary software certifications from product vendors like IBM, Microsoft or Cisco, and hardware sales engineers need to be A+ certified to a professional level. These certification programs are typically online, weekend, or week-intensive courses designed to keep engineers abreast of the latest new programs that their engineers work with.
Sales engineers need to be as knowledgeable as the engineers that design a product about the product’s specifications. In addition, they need to be able to explain the product to people who don’t know about it. For this reason, keeping up to date on certifications is even more important, as it ensures that a sales engineer’s mind stays fresh and aware of what’s going on.
Because the sales engineer position is such a new job, there aren’t any professional associations specifically geared toward sales engineers. However, many sales engineers join the groups associated with their engineering specialization, such as chemical (AICE), software (IEEE CS), or telecommunications (NARTE). Because the magazines published by professional associations are designed to present the latest advances in a readable format, sales engineers often read up to determine how to explain advances to potential clients.