The Profile of an Effective AE-SE Partnership

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Chris White

Chris White is a familiar name in the Presales space. As the author of the acclaimed The Six Habits of Highly Effective Sales Engineers, founder and CEO of Tech Sales Advisors, and host of the LinkedIn live program Tech Sales Advice, Chris is one of the most credible people in understanding the common struggles Presales teams face. 

For his DEMOFEST 2022 presentation, Chris took on one of the largest problems facing technical sales teams –  one that creates the most negative disruption if ignored. “The Profile of an Effective AE-SE Partnership.”

“Why are we even having this conversation? I actually believe that the AE/SE partnership is one of the most important relationships in business, especially for technology companies, but I believe that in many cases you have to look far and wide to find two more dissimilar individuals and personalities.” 

Somehow, these two opposite personalities have to find a way to work together. Those familiar with Chris’s book will recognize this as the number one habit of highly effective sales engineers. This partnership is the foundation of everything we do. Striving to learn Presales best practices and leadership is a worthy endeavor, but we are only going to be as successful as the partnership between AEs and SEs enables us to be.

What Does a Win Look Like?

Before we start talking about what makes up an effective team, we should outline what it is that the team needs to do in order to be successful. Just like when playing a sport, the objective for sales is clear: score a point or close a deal. 

For SEs the concept of a win is a little different and a little harder to nail down. From Chris’s perspective, “Our objective is to provide the information and evidence necessary for the key decision makers to become convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that our solution is a worthwhile and valuable investment compared to other options and or the status quo. We should inspire them to want to make a change.”

This concept of inspiring change is critical since it’s not good enough to convince our prospects and customers that our solution has value. Every solution on the market has value. Instead, we need to convince them that the pain of their current situation is bad enough that they are willing to go through the pain of change to implement a new solution. 

Chris says, “I believe our role is to provide validation at every stage of the customer journey. I literally looked up the word validate and when I did so, the definition I found was incredibly inspiring, ‘to demonstrate or support the truth or value of something.’ What a great way to think about our role. We are responsible for demonstrating and or supporting the truth or value.” 

If these are the objectives, what are the kinds of things that get in the way of achieving them? 

  • Unreceptive prospects 
  • Competitive landscape 
  • Tightening budgets 
  • Keeping up with technology 
  • Competing demands 
  • Time constraints 
  • Dealing with difficult clients 
  • Technical limitations 
  • Balancing precision and productivity 
  • The fear of overselling 

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means. There’s a hundred other obstacles that get in the way of closing a deal. So with so much we’re fighting against already, we can’t let the lack of teamwork and collaboration become one of them. 

“Truth is we all play a critical role in sales. I can’t say this strongly enough. Opportunities would not exist without AEs prospecting, knocking on doors, opening doors, and deals wouldn’t close without SEs establishing the technical win based on the definition that I just gave you. And no one gets paid without the team closing the deal, therefore we need to develop a mindset that sales is a team sport. We are in this together.”

Chris used a cool baseball analogy to make an important point about how a winning demo, for example, is a team victory. “Does a baseball pitcher who throws a no hitter today deserve all the credit? They threw the pitches, but what about the catcher, the infielder, the outfield, the coaches? Think of the prep and the practice. It’s preposterous to think that a baseball team would stand a pitcher up on the mound and say ‘Throw your pitches. We’re just going to stand around and watch.’ No hitters are team victories as are our sales demonstrations. Why would we ever consider doing something similar with our Presales engineers?” 

What makes an Effective AE/SE Partnership?

If you ask a room full of Presales professionals (like Chris did in his session), you’ll get answers like:

  • Collaboration 
  • Trust 
  • Respect 
  • Communication 
  • Collaborative 
  • Complementary 
  • Synchronicity 
  • Divide and conquer
  • Alignment 
  • Performance 
  • Openness 
  • Flow like water 
  • Willingness to learn 
  • Bonding 
  • Integrity 

Chris’s own definition looks like this, “Goals and objectives are clarified and aligned. We have effective communication between us. Mutual respect for one another. Again, trust communication, respect almost universally the top three answers. Division of roles and responsibilities are established and clarified each party takes responsibility for their part of the sale. We clear expectations on a consistent basis. It takes constant and consistent syncing. A feedback loop is built into the process. We prioritize the customer and the opportunity over our own personal agenda. In every engagement we need to prioritize the customer input and the opportunity. We show loyalty to the company, to the product, and to one another. We proactively engage one another and our customers.”

Already, we’ve gathered an extensive list of what good looks like. So if we all know what good looks like, why can it be so difficult to recreate at times? 

Fundamental Differences in Personality

One of the reasons could be that AEs and SEs tend to be wired differently in some fundamental ways. None of these are written in stone, but these are the traits we tend to see in each role.

BackgroundBusiness or non-technicalEngineering, software, or data
Thought ProcessTribal or think like other peopleIndividually, independently, or think like a maestro

The first two rows you’re probably familiar with, but the last one requires some context. 

Chris explained it as, “How do we tend to think compared to other people?”

In his work with a professional career development organization, they test this to see how people think. Do they tend to think like other people or do they tend to think very independently and individually? 

“The way they test for this is very insightful. They give participants a list of words or phrases one at a time and they invite people to respond with the first thing that comes to mind. Baseball for example might be one of the words, but they’ve discovered that about 70 to 80% of the population tends to respond with the same four or five things. What they discovered is that sales professionals tend to ‘think like the tribe’ meaning they tend to think and tend to respond with common responses and score higher on that side. This gives them the ability to connect with people very quickly and very easily. Engineers on the other hand tend to be maestros, they tend to be independent thinkers. In fact studies have proven that it takes creative thinking to be a creative problem solver. It takes very independent thinking.”

If you overlay this characteristic with extrovert and introvert (like this professional career development organization does) an interesting thing happens. When you take these two dimensions: introverted or extroverted and pair them up with tribal or maestro, you get one of the most accurate indicators of job success and job satisfaction.

Again, these are generalities, but these are the common personality pairings for each role:

Extroverted + Tribal = Very good and satisfied sales professionals 

Introverted + Maestros = Make very successful and satisfied sales engineers

Note: Extroverted + Maestros can also make very successful and very effective technical spokespeople.

Looking at the combinations above, it seems like a no brainer. You pair an Extroverted + Tribal with an Introverted + Maestros and you’re good to go!

Unfortunately, pairing these two personalities together is like mixing oil and water. These disparate personalities get paired together to do one of the most important things in business: generate revenue.

AEs tend to be relatively accepting, trusting, and very quick to extend the benefit of the doubt. SEs tend to initially perceive other things and other people with skepticism. It’s why we’re engineers, we need logic before we are readily convinced. Fun fact, studies have shown the easiest profession to sell to sales professionals while the most difficult profession to sell to engineers. 

AEs tend to round up with our answers and are on the side of favorable outcomes. They want their answers to be well received. What about SEs? How do we tend to answer when asked a question? We value precision. We make sure the way we respond is precise and accurate. 

What do we fear most in the context of the deal? AEs fear losing the deal, missing their numbers, and risking their livelihood which is all very understandable. That’s the kind of AE we want to work with; one who’s determined to hit his or her numbers. 

On the flip side, what do SEs fear most? Losing credibility. That doesn’t mean we aren’t hungry to close this deal, but we’re talking about our reputation. It’s a totally different level that causes us to be on the lookout for anything that sounds untrue or exaggerated. 

When AEs round up, from their perspective they’re giving the customer the best view of things, but SEs see it differently. To an SE, this leaves room for interpretation. At the same time, that AE is looking to you to provide that precision, but not at the expense of slowing or halting the deal. 

Both parties tend to fall into the trap of thinking the other has no idea how hard their job is. “The truth is, we are the same animal, we are the same beast, but we are wired very differently in some fundamental ways. I call this the DNA principle because we are wired so differently we need to work hard to understand one another.” 

Bridging the Divide 

“I believe that most problems are not communication problems, they are interpretation problems. It’s how we interpret what we see and what we hear and the response to those interpretations that creates many of the challenges.” 

Don’t project motives and intent onto a situation. Think about the last thing your sales counterpart did that frustrated you. Then think about how you interpreted that situation. Considering your answers, is it possible you’re assuming the worst?

Chris provided some examples from some actual workshops he’s run, “I invited the groups that I worked with to do the very exercise and then asked those in attendance to share. This is what happened” 

Scenario one:

AE: My SE pushed back on a meeting request because of blank. 

Interpretation: They don’t care about hitting the number! 

Scenario two: 

SE: My AE asked me to do a demo with limited time to prepare.

Interpretation: They don’t care about my time!

Scenario three:

AE: My SC gave a demo that was nothing but features. 

Interpretation: They don’t know anything about sales!

Scenario four:

SE: My AE asked me to demo something unexpected right in front of the customer, 

Interpretation: They don’t know anything about our product! 

Scenario five:

AE: My SC expects to know everything before meeting. 

Interpretation:They don’t know how to do their job! 

Scenario six:

SE: My AE expects me to give a demo with almost no information up front. 

Interpretation: They don’t know how to do their job! 

“Let’s give one another the benefit of the doubt. We’re all working hard to achieve the same objective.” 

In these workshops, Chris was able to identify four simple things each side could do to improve the overall partnership.

What AEs want from SEs:

  1. Elevate your ability to build technical champions
  2. Increase your sales acumen
  3. Better initial and or early qualification
  4. Be more structured

What SEs want from AEs:

  1. Account and or opportunity strategy and planning
  2. Elevate and or improve your product knowledge
  3. Focus on business outcomes over technical capabilities
  4. Be more flexible

We can see some very interesting parallels between what both sides are looking for. “I believe the truth is that no matter where we are in our relationship, if we both take a step towards the middle, we will build a stronger healthier more collaborative relationship. It really begins with developing appreciation and empathy for one another.”

Three steps to facilitate change:

  1. Get the right mindset – Sales is a team sport. We have individual responsibilities, and not unlike a baseball team, they keep player stats for a reason. But it is a team sport and we’re in this together. 
  2. Clarify roles and responsibilities – Who does what when and how. We need to put the process in place so everyone knows what the standard is.
  3. Set and keep expectations – We need to hold one another accountable. What does it take to be held accountable? It takes an openness, it takes recognition that we’re not always right, and we’re not always perfect. What does it take to hold the other person accountable? It takes courage, it takes difficult conversations, but if we’re gonna be professionals, this is what we need to do. 

How Demo Automation Can Help

Demo automation is one critical quiver in the bow of improving  AE/SE partnerships. Since SEs no longer support sales exclusively, having a library of interactive video demos prepared by Presales and ready for AE’s to send on-demand means AEs don’t have to delay in giving buyers a demo experience, they empower them with choose-your-own adventure resources and can move away from holding buyers hostage to their calendars. 

Ways to use automation effectively:

  1. Increasing deal velocity – Sales shouldn’t always have to wait on pre sales for introductory demos or unqualified demos. Using intelligent demo automation tools in the space to give our prospects and customers the introductory demos they want when they want them without putting extra pressure on Presales. 
  2. Maximizing Presales value – Presales shouldn’t be giving unqualified, introductory demos that can be done with automation. Having guided, on-demand and interactive demos allows SEs to spend their time on more high value activities such as deep dive demonstrations, discovery conversations, proof of value, or proof of concepts.
  3. Improving communication – Demo automation is as much discovery automation as it is demo automation. Presales can’t do a proper demonstration unless they have enough information beforehand. Demo automation tools can gain information and insight into what the customers and prospects are curious about. 

It’s All About Respect

When it comes down to it, empathy and appreciation for each other makes any partnership better. Chris made some parting remarks on how AEs and SEs can show appreciation for each other. 

“Respect the pressure that AEs are under. We are simply not under the same kind of pressure they are. First of all, it’s their livelihood; their compensation is tied to closing deals. They have a tremendous amount of pressure that they put on themselves, they have a tremendous amount of pressure that they receive from management, but there’s another sort of pressure they deal with. Everything they say is viewed somewhat suspiciously by customers. 

“Customers have a tendency to put a question mark after everything our sales counterparts have to say because they’re in sales. In sales we are guilty until proven innocent. SEs show up as the experts. We are far less likely to be questioned or challenged by our prospects and customers because we’re the technical representative. They feel pressure that we simply don’t. On the other side of the coin, how can sales professionals show appreciation and respect for SCs? Respect our time. SEs value our time arguably more than anything. We want to believe that we are using our time in the most high value manner.”