2022 SE Trends: Listening + Discovery with John Care

Natalie Marcotullio
September 21, 2022

We spoke with John Care an author, speaker, and professional trainer at Mastering Technical Sales – a training and consulting company specializing in the skills improvement and development of presales engineers.

John is also the co-author of Mastering Technical Sales, the number one worldwide book for presales engineers and solution consultants. To date, John has trained 45,000 presales professionals, including more than 15,000 in his whiteboarding for sales engineers seminars.

To start, give a high-level introduction of your background

I’m the author and managing director of Mastering Technical Sales, and my company serves the professional skills needs of SEs around the world. We have 20 facilitators operating in 9 or 10 countries, and we deliver in English, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish, and German.

We’ve been doing this for 20 years or so based on the popularity of our 3 main books.

I started out as a mechanical engineer at an oil refinery but quickly realized that wasn’t for me. I’d heard about a thing called software so decided to start a job at Avanda, a tech company in the US. The rest is history.

What are some tips for SEs to level up their skills?

First, read the book! There are a number of things in there that I’d like to highlight.

One of the things I always counsel new SEs on is the art of patience. Although you might love your technology and you really want to talk about it, always take the time to pause for a second or two before someone asks a question. Or ask one more question before you start diving in.

You’ll be surprised how much additional information you can gain from the customer that puts you in a better position to start talking about your tech and your portfolio.

There’s a lot of content and training around asking the right questions. But you should also focus on what you want to hear back from the customer. I like to say you should be hoping to get information on the magic 3: time, people, or money.

Listen for comments like, “we want to cut down the time it takes to get to market from 3 weeks to 3 days,” or “we have a $250,000 maintenance payment to another vendor that we don’t want to pay,” or “we’d like to free up 2 analysts to work on another project.” All of these are fungible and exchangeable.

And if you get an answer like that from a customer, you, as an SE, have done your job, and you can validate that you are uniquely qualified to solve the customer’s business challenges.

It’s a fantastic time to be in the presales profession. It’s getting far more respect than when I started doing it 35 years ago.

You can tell because of the investment in this area. Companies like Navattic, for example. There have been nearly half a billion VC dollars going to this industry.

Companies are also letting SEs “run loose” within accounts. Before, sales reps would talk to the higher-up business people, and SEs would talk to the techies. But now, that’s not the case. Instead, people assess the sales team, see who would fit a stakeholder best, and let SEs build their own relationships.

Don Carmichael, another leader in the presales space, says that the unofficial title for sales engineers is “the person the customers really wants to talk to.” That is a position of trust that the sales team didn’t leverage enough in the past.

I’m thrilled to see that, more recently, SEs have been able to demonstrate their value.

We need to get rid of this focus we have on the demo. The dash to do a demo is holding the field back.

Demos are a great proof point; companies like Navattic are helping automate some of that. But you still need to do discovery. You can’t hope to hit the target unless you paint it first.

So I think sales engineers need to take a more consultative role with their clients.

When we published the book’s new edition, we surveyed over 2,300 mid- to senior-level executives at large companies to find out what skills they valued most in their vendors’ presales teams. The top five skills were:

  • Understanding their business
  • Being able to design innovative solutions with their staff
  • Communicating effectively with them
  • Someone they could trust would do the right thing for them and their company
  • Someone with deep technical knowledge

Twenty years ago, the primary skill you needed was deep technical knowledge, so soft skills are becoming critical.

What are some of your favorite resources or tooling for SEs?

Before, there were only a few books SEs could read, and their “training” often consisted of sitting in the back of the room and watching sales training. But now, there are so many resources out there for presales professionals.

SEs can listen to great podcasts like We the Sales Engineers, and Two Presales in a Pod. They also have many more books at their fingertips. I’ve written three books, Peter Cohan published some fantastic books, and Patrick Pissang has as well.

Plus, there are so many resources online. A wonderful example is The Presales Collective. They even have a Presales Academy.

And, of course, there are a ton of companies like Navattic helping automate certain parts of the job, streamlining demos, filling out RFPs, or tracking key KPIs about the SE org as a whole.

Presales is truly how companies can differentiate themselves from their competitors, so I am excited about the growth in this space and where it will go in the next 5 - 10 years.

Tell us more about Mastering Technical Sales

My company focuses solely on sales engineers around the globe.

Our instructors cover everything from fundamental classes to business discovery through applied training. We help SEs with their demos and presentations; our whiteboarding class is a big favorite.

We also have more advanced classes for the top 25 - 30% of sales engineers to help them become trusted advisors to executives. In addition, we have improv classes and negotiation classes.

Mastering Technical Sales is the only company in the world that trains SE leadership using the role-specific training outlined in the book I co-wrote called The SE Manager’s Handbook.

Last week, we delivered our 100th SE leadership class. That is probably our most popular course, making up 15 - 20% of our global business. And that will continue to be a big area of emphasis for us for the rest of this year and next.

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