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Selling to businesses: the job of the technical sales engineer; this article examines the job and function of the business-to-business salesperson who sells production equipment, components, or finished materials used in the manufacture of other products. Extensive knowledge of the production methods and operations involved play a significant role in such salesperson's set of skills.

MANY products and services, especially those purchased by large companies and institutions, are highly complex. Sales engineers, also known as manufacturer's agents, sales representatives, or technical sales support executives, work with the production, engineering, or research and development departments of their companies to determine how products and services can suit customers' needs. They often advise customers on how best to use the products or services.

Selling is an important part of the job. Sales engineers use their technical skills to demonstrate to potential customers how and why the products would suit the customer better than a competitor's products. In some instances, there may not be a direct competitive product. In such cases, the sales engineer's job is to demonstrate the usefulness of the product or service, for example, how much money a new production machinery would save.

Sales engineers require at least a diploma in a related discipline. Most hold a bachelor's degree in engineering and some experience in a related industry is a prerequisite. This experience is crucial as engineers apply the theories and principles of science and mathematics to solve technical problems. Their work is the link between scientific discoveries and commercial applications. Many sales engineers specialise in an area related to an engineering specialty. For example, sales engineers selling chemical products may have chemical engineering backgrounds, while those selling business software or information systems have qualifications in computer engineering.

Many of the duties of sales engineers are similar to that of other "normal" salespersons. They must interest the client in purchasing their products, many of which are durable products such as turbines or components used in manufacturing other finished products like printed circuit boards.

Sales engineers often are grouped with salespersons who concentrate on the marketing and sales, enabling the sales engineer to concentrate on the technical aspects. By working on a sales team, each member is able to focus on his or her strengths and knowledge.

Selling Techniques

Sales engineers tend to employ selling techniques that are different from those used by most salespersons. They generally use a consultative style; that is, they focus on the client's problem and show how it could be solved or mitigated with their product or service. This selling style differs from the benefits and features method, where the salesperson describes the product and leaves the customer to decide how it would be useful.

In addition to maintaining current clients and attracting new ones, sales engineers help clients solve problems that may arise when the product is installed. Often, they continue to serve as a liaison between the client and their company. Increasingly, sales engineers are asked to undertake tasks related to sales, such as market research, because of their familiarity with clients' purchasing needs. Drawing on this same familiarity, sales engineers may help identify and develop new products.

They may work directly for manufacturers or service providers, or they may work in small independent sales firms. In an independent firm, they may sell complementary products from several different suppliers and be paid entirely on commission.

Working Conditions

It is common for sales engineers to work more than 40 hours per week to meet sales goals and their clients' needs. Selling can be stressful because their income and job security often directly depend on their success in sales and customer service.

Some sales engineers are required to serve clients spread over regions and travel extensively. Some companies have a head office in Singapore and clients in southeast Asia and Australia. If they represent such major manufacturers, sales engineers may be away from home for several days or even weeks at a time. Others may only service Singapore clients. However, international travel to secure contracts with clients is becoming more common.

Although the hours may be long and often are irregular, many sales engineers have the freedom to determine their own schedule. Consequently, they often can arrange their appointments so that they can have time off when they want it.

Training and Advancement

It is increasingly common to find staff with a degree in a science, such as chemistry, or even in business with little or no previous sales experience, being appointed sales engineers.

A bachelor's degree in a related discipline is required to become a sales engineer. However, talented staff with experience in sales combined with technical experience or training may sometimes be asked to do the job.

Many sales engineers first work as engineers. For some, the engineering experience is necessary to obtain the technical background needed to sell their employer's products or services effectively. Others move into the sales field because it offers better earnings and advancement potential or because they are looking for a new challenge.

New graduates with engineering degrees may need sales experience and training before they can work as sales engineers. Training may involve working with a sales mentor who is familiar with the employer's business practices, customers, procedures, and company culture. After the training, sales engineers may continue to partner with someone who lacks technical skills, yet excels in the art of sales.

Career advancements include a higher commission rate, larger sales territory, or promotion to the position of supervisor or marketing manager. Alternatively, sales engineers may leave their companies and form independent sales agents that may offer higher commissions and more freedom. Independent agencies tend to be small, although relatively few sales engineers are self-employed.

It is crucial for sales engineers to continue their engineering and sales education throughout their careers because much of their value to their employers depends on their knowledge of the latest technology and their ability to sell that technology. Sales engineers in high-technology areas, such as information technology or advanced electronics, are particularly affected as they may find that technical knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete over relatively short periods.

According to industry sources some 35 per cent of sales engineers are employed in wholesale trade and another 27 per cent are employed in the manufacturing industries. The rest work in information industries, such as software publishers and telecommunications; professional, scientific, and technical services like computer systems designs, and architectural, engineering, and related service industries.

Earnings

Compensation varies significantly by the type of firm and the product sold. Most employers offer a combination of salary and commission payments or a salary plus a bonus. Commissions usually are based on sales, whereas bonuses depend on individual performance, performance within the group or sales region, or on the company's performance. Earnings from commissions and bonuses may vary greatly from year to year, depending on sales ability, the demand for the company's products or services, and the overall economy.

Entry level salaries are pegged between S$30,000 and S$40,000 per annum. Top sales engineers make more than S$100,000 annually. Annual salaries of between S$50,000 and S$80,000 are common for senior sales engineers who travel extensively. In addition to their earnings, sales engineers are usually reimbursed for expenses such as transportation, meals, hotels, and customer "entertainment". They may get personal use of a company car or be reimbursed for mileage and fuel used on personal transport. Some companies offer incentives such as free vacation trips or gifts for outstanding performance.

Job Outlook

Employment of sales engineers is expected to grow over the next decade. Projected employment growth stems from the increasing variety and technical nature of goods and services sold. Competitive pressures and advancing technology force companies to improve and update product designs more frequently and to optimise their manufacturing and sales processes. In addition to new positions created as companies expand their sales force, some openings will arise each year from the need to replace sales engineers who shift to other occupations.

Manufacturers, especially foreign manufacturers that sell their products in the region, are expected to continue outsourcing more of their sales functions to independent sales agencies in an attempt to control costs. This should result in more job opportunities for sales engineers in independent agencies.

In the wholesale trade, both outsourcing to independent sales agencies and the use of information technology are expected to affect employment opportunities for sales engineers. Although outsourcing should lead to more jobs in independent agencies, employment growth for sales engineers in wholesale trade likely to be dampened by the increasing ability of businesses to find, order, and track shipments directly from wholesalers through the Internet, without assistance from sales engineers. Since direct purchases from wholesalers are more likely to be of commodity products, their impact on sales engineers should remain somewhat limited.

Employment opportunities and earnings may fluctuate from year to year because sales are affected by changing economic conditions, regulation issues, and consumer preferences. Prospects will be best for those with the appropriate knowledge or technical expertise, as well as the personal traits necessary for successful selling.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Singapore Institute of Management
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Author:Ravindran, N.
Publication:Today's Manager
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Feb 1, 2007
Words:1460
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