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The Many Names for Presales

Aaron Janmohamed

What’s in a name: The History Of Presales Titles and Where They’re Headed

“What do you do for work?” It’s a simple enough question, but for Presales it can be a bit of a loaded one. Everyone has a different opinion. Peter Cohan told me, “Ask 100 Presales people and you’ll get 100 answers.” 

When there’s 40+ options for your one job title, it can be hard to know how to describe what you do. Peter, the founder of The Second Derivative and author of Great Demo!, has been working in the realm of Presales for over 35 years. This means he’s been, managed, and worked with many of these titles himself. 

Here’s a partial list Peter compiled of different Presales job titles:

  • Sales Engineer
  • Solution Engineer
  • Application Engineer
  • Systems Engineer
  • Technical Salesperson
  • Sales Consultant
  • Solution Consultant
  • Solution Architect
  • Business Consultant
  • Business Solution Consultant
  • Solution Advisor
  • Customer Advisor
  • Field Applications Scientist
  • Technical Evangelist
  • Product Specialist
  • Implementation Specialist

“There’s just a very, very broad range and it’s not complete. There are people who are outliers even beyond this list.”

So how do we know the best way to refer to someone working in the realm of Presales AND does it matter? 

If we had asked someone in that room of 100 Presales pros what they do, they’d start with their title, but if asked for clarification, they’d most likely say “I work in Presales.” (We tested this with 20 customers…it worked!)

“Presales is currently the broadest identifier, something that everyone would agree and identify with, even if they disagree with the actual words that make up the term,” commented Cohan.  Presales have traditionally been in demand across the customer lifecycle. In our most recent SE Workload and Compensation study, only 2% of Presales teams report supporting Sales exclusively. They enter engagements earlier and increasingly stay on well after deals close.

Even a term like “Sales Engineer” can be misleading because they’re not always wrapped into the Sales org and most are not technically engineers. So it’s understandably hard to find a consistent set of titles that closely fit the function, it’s more a reflection of the origins of the position itself. “If you explore the origins of Sales Engineers, they were so named because they were just that: Engineers who worked with a Sales counterpart.”

So traditionally the role of a Sales Engineer was someone who was the technical compatriot to the salesperson. Someone who was literally an engineer whose job was to explain how things work, at a time when people were selling things in the realm of aerospace and automobiles, both of which were new(er) tech and when access to information was very limited. 

People needed help understanding the deep technical details about the products they were buying. 

From Peter’s own experience, there were some title variations and interactions emerging in the 80’s that mirrored more the experience level of the Presales practitioners. 

“I joined a software company in 1985 and the people then doing Presales work were called Field Application Scientists. We were all scientists – chemists in fact – building and selling software for the pharmaceutical research side of things (people discovering and creating new pharmaceuticals). To be able to sell into this industry, you needed to be a chemist or a biochemist or someone who could really speak the language. In keeping with the fact that many of the people in this role had doctorates in chemistry and many had practiced on the bench, they perceived themselves as scientists. So referring to them as something like a product consultant felt, to them, like a downgrade. Hence, the title Field Application Scientist.” 

So, the roots have always been technical, and probably a bit nerdy. Peter continued:

“We also had Internal Application Scientists. The idea for these folks was ‘how do you take your core product and apply it to different sub-verticals of the practices’. What are the applications that a chemist might actually use for the software? Field Application Scientist was the logical outcome of that approach, which is similar to the early uses of Sales Engineer in that it was derived from the nature of the job title being pulled into the sales process.”

Customers still need that technical expertise, but now the focus is more on software and solutions so you could say there’s an argument for keeping the Sales Engineer’s title. But why does the Presales community seem to have an internal push for a change in title? Maybe it’s because the nature and roles of the job have changed enough that Sales Engineer doesn’t feel fitting any more or maybe managers are trying to differentiate their teams from others. 

Titles in this field have always been in a state of flux. “It seems to me that every couple of years frontline managers – and particularly senior presales managers – ask the musical question, ‘How do we rename this role to make it more applicable and accurate’?”

Maybe there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. There are many aspects that influence which name fits the Presales role. “A lot of it depends on the size of the company and the nature of their prospects’ industries, which will probably dictate how broad or narrow the term is defined. A start-up Presalesperson is probably doing everything under the sun.” 

This seems like a long way of saying there’s no clear answer, but in that there’s some freedom. 

“What’s the future? I really think it depends on where you sit in the context above. Presales management should think about what skillsets they want their teams to embrace and achieve competency in two years time. And that should, in theory, drive their strategies for getting to those endpoints.”

For our part, there’s a separate layer entirely that encompasses all the value that Presales has come to be known for, but also the very way in which all revenue teams must reorient themselves (around their customers), and it’s called Buyer Enablement

It’s the fundamental reality that there aren’t complex sales, only complex purchases. Sellers, therefore, don’t close deals, only the buyers can. But buyers aren’t good at it because there’s no training for buying or tools that make it easy, and they don’t buy often. They need buyer coaches. They need guides. This sums up the true nature of selling and being in Presales.

Creating a Buyer Enablement framework is the best way to move forward (regardless of Presales titles), so why not snag the terminology as well? 

That way, when people ask what you do, you have an answer that is clear and explains the position: “My job is Buyer Enablement.”