The Four Essential Roles of Systems Engineers in Software Sales

Presales is often underappreciated in the sales cycle, but it arguably serves the most important function on any successful team.


The value of systems engineers cannot be overstated.

Think of it this way: Even an average sales rep can win a deal with a really good systems engineer (SE). But a good sales rep with a below-average SE? They hardly stand a chance.

A few years back, McKinsey studied the total worth of presales to overall sales results — and the findings were clear. Companies with strong presales capabilities consistently achieved win rates of 40 to 50 percent in new business and 80 to 90 percent in renewal business, well above average rates.

The research highlighted a sales reality that is somehow even truer today. With increasingly diversified solutions more available to customers than ever before, the need for effective technical selling is only rising.

In other words, it’s high time for sales leaders to turn to their most talented presales experts — those prepared to embody the SE roles necessary for success in 2021.

The Educator

SEs are often — rightly or wrongly — viewed as more objective than their sales peers, thanks to their abundance of technological expertise. A clear-eyed and evenhanded approach is, in fact, necessary for those in presales, as customers need to believe they’re there not just to sell to them, but to build for them. Good SEs should educate more than they “pitch,” as they’re in a prime position to enlighten the customer regarding what they need and where they need it in order to pull off a successful software transformation.

The Warrior

Anyone on a sales team knows that in any room, there’s always one person ready to go to battle with the SE, someone aiming to test them on how deep they can really go. The best SEs can fight these “boardroom battles” with grace and ease, proving why their company and its solutions are best equipped to help the customer meet its goals. It requires a unique combination of soft and hard skills that enable flexibility and reactivity in every moment.

The Salesperson

Never forget that the SE is an essential part of the sales team and the sales cycle. In the absence of a technical win, the deal will grind to a halt. Sometimes, you may not even make an RFP shortlist without it. A skilled SE’s ability to read a room (whether it’s five, or 50, people) paired with their technical know-how and industry knowledge is not something to lose sight of either. It’s a rare combination. A truly great SE can even consistently steer the conversation toward what’s best for the customer — and show why their team is the clear choice to deliver it.

The Partner

That brings us to the most important role of all. Above everything, a strong presales team must be at the customer’s side every step of the way. They must tie a clear and consistent customer narrative into each and every slide, ensuring the customer’s priorities, markets and objectives are always at the forefront. For instance, my team once had a customer come to them saying their CEO wanted to deploy machine learning technology. The problem was they had no idea how to apply it. Our SEs were able to guide them in the right direction, explaining the ways machine learning could help reduce repetitive tasks and guide them toward a more efficient future. It’s about not just giving the customer what they want, but giving them what they need.

Last fall, data from Manpower Group revealed 69 percent of U.S. employers were struggling to fill open positions — and tech was among the 10 industries struggling the most. This can be all too true when it comes to presales, as finding the unicorns who can fill the various roles of an SE can be extremely challenging. That makes it all the more important to emphasize SEs in your sales process. And make sure that when you get some good ones to show appreciation for their unique, but valuable skillset.

John McGee

John McGee is SVP and Managing Director West Region for SAP North America.

Datacap - We Solve Payment Problems
John McGee

John McGee is SVP and Managing Director West Region for SAP North America.