Truth and Money: The Sale-Dependent Salary

Sophi Kravitz is an electrical engineer who enjoys being somewhere near the bottom of the learning curve. Currently, she is pursuing RF engineering, analog engineering and building art based on RF signals. She lives in a workshop containing a kitchen and living room with her husband.

I have to say: Frautech’s recent post about Double Speak resonated with me.

Nearly two years ago, I moved into a Sales Engineering role out of Design Engineering.

Exhilarating, fun, challenging and creative, being a Design Engineer is fulfilling on an emotional level. Making money for the company which can provide a sense of importance, Sales is fulfilling on an egotistical level.

My function is to maximize sales for my company by helping engineers and scientists to choose the right product (ours, naturally) for their application. The thermal control products that I sell aren’t very complex, but there are distinct competitors which use other technologies to achieve a similar end result. As an SE, I have the opportunity to persuade a Design Engineer to design our thermal controls into their product, resulting in a large sale for my company.

So what is the right thing to do when I meet an application that might be solved by a competitive technology? There is the Engineer’s Code of Ethics, which states among other things, to avoid deceptive acts.

Is it deceptive not to introduce the competition by keeping my mouth shut even if I believe this is the correct design route?

There is the Designer side of me that would be angered if I found out that the Sales people didn’t share all of the information. As a designer, I’d be furious if I was led to the wrong solution.

Then there is the Sales side of me.

In Sales, the measurables that show how good of a job you are doing are the sales numbers you bring in. In addition, my paycheck is closely tied via commissions to how much I sell. So leading a design engineer to a competitor’s product, and doing this too often, will lead to getting fired at worst, and at best, a smaller paycheck.

To further complicate things, sometimes the situation is such that the designer is new at their job or new to the technology, or they might be working on a project I’ve seen before with another customer. A recent sale that I made was to a customer who was performing an extreme process identical to a previous customer. The extreme process was causing our thermal equipment to fail in the case of the earlier customer. Luckily, I was able to allude to this previous situation and upsell the new customer on something more robust.

A beta product that I’ve been tasked with finding new markets for simply doesn’t perform quite as well as the existing product it is meant to replace. It has been difficult to sell this partially because the customers don’t believe in it and partially because it’s difficult to kick the incumbent product out.

I’ve concluded it will be better to find a competitive product that it can do a better job replacing rather than stretching the truth and pissing off my fellow engineers.

Sales Engineers and Field Applications Engineers, what do you tell your customers when you find yourself in this situation?

Design Engineers, have you ever been steered in the wrong direction? What have you done about it?

Thanks to Oblong Pictures for the lego shot.

7 responses to “Truth and Money: The Sale-Dependent Salary”

  1. D S

    I am an applications engineer in that I provide technical assistance to our sales representatives and directly to our customers. I am not paid on a commission basis. However, I can relate to what you have posted.

    We sell precision laser alignment products for the facilities maintenance. Fortunately for me, I work for a company sells the best product in our industry. However, our issue is certain competitors that skew and heavily distort the capability of their products in order to compete with us.

    My job is to make sure that the sales rep properly informs the customer so they do not make the mistake of buying something inferior from the competition. This practice is mostly for establishing new customers. When you have a good product that works as advertised and the sales rep has a good relationship with the customer, the orders will come in for existing and new products. Some of our reps have been with the company for 30+ years and they have sales figures to back it up.

    I would advise all sales engineers to practice brutal honesty. Deception, lies and distorted truths will eventually surface and are not good for long term relations. If I can’t promise 100% to the satisfaction in terms of capabilities to the customer, then our product is not worth selling. Most of our products are also not priced the lowest (because they are a high quality), yet we are dominate the market for laser alignment tools. Customer service, reliable and honesty will make a customer a customer for life.

  2. Alan W2AEW

    As a Field Applications Engineer – the most important thing I bring to the table is technical credibility. So, being open, honest and accurate is imperative. Sometimes you have to be creative to be effective. At the end of the day, if you lose technical credibility through deception or obvious omission, you’ve lost your edge with the customer. Good customers will appreciate and remember you if they respect your credibility, even if that means falling on your sword when it’s technically the right thing to do. Customers will be more likely to call on you again if they know they can trust you.

    1. sophi

      And that also goes for if you switch companies, you want to be able to keep the trust of your customers!

  3. chris jones

    I think the only really satisfactory solution is for your design engineer colleagues to fix their products or develop new products so that they are not inferior to the competition for the applications that you have come across. The first step is that they need to be told about the problems. I would start with telling the people who actually do the design work, then work on their managers, so even if their managers are unreceptive the designers might still be able to sneak in some of the improvements. I suspect in some companies that sort of message is generally unwelcome, in which case the customers would eventually figure out that they need to go to competitors, and maybe you would too.

    1. sophi

      Luckily, this kind of comment is not unwelcome at all, but we have a hierarchy of who is allowed to deliver this kind of news.

  4. Richard Tasker

    I am one of the owners of a pressure sensor manufacturing company (quite successful I might add). We are always quite happy to point our potential customers to a competitor if their product is a better match for the customers’ application. We have excellent performance products that will solve most customers’ problems, but they are not the cheapest products around. If what the customer wants to do will be accomplished with a competitors product that is cheaper than ours, we tell then so.

    And, yes, there are plenty of vendors out there who will “stretch the truth” so to say. Your job is to tactfully explain where it is being stretched and why yours is a better solution, particularly since your specs are real, not made up.

    I have found that if you are honest with the potential customer, they will remember you and come back if either the competitors product ultimately does not turn out to be suitable or if they have an additional application that cannot be served by the competitor. In our case, I have lost count how many times we have told a customer that we cannot do what they want at the price point they want and to go to the competition only to have them come back to us in a short time or a years time with tales of woe about how the competition’s product didn’t do quite what they said it would or failed early or any number of issues they found with the “low cost solution”.

    This is not to say that we do not try like heck to sell our product to a customer if we feel it is the best solution for them – even if it will cost them more money. In a number of cases, we are dealing with purchasing people who just want the cheapest upfront costs. Since we frequently are not the lowest cost solution and don’t want to be, we emphasize the long term cost aspects – if it doesn’t fail the money they save in avoiding service calls far outweighs the higher cost of acquisition.

    Basically:
    No bullshit. Do a fair comparison of your solution to a competitor’s. If theirs is a better overall solution then tell the customer. If yours is better then explain why and what advantages it provides them. Even if you do not get that job, they will remember you and come to you the next time and your job then is even easier.

  5. sophi

    great comments and insights, thanks!