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Better Forecasting, Lower Churn. How Sales Engineers Positively Impact the Sales Process at Optimizely

Better Forecasting, Lower Churn. How Sales Engineers Positively Impact the Sales Process at Optimizely [Interview]

Salespeople are notorious for having rose-colored glasses and happy ears. Many think every deal will close—and at the highest possible number.

Heck, sometimes I find myself being that way.

And you know what? I want my sales team to be optimistic and positive. I want them to be confident—to believe that they can and will close whatever deal they’re working on.

It keeps everyone motivated, and I like the hopeful outlook that comes with that.

Note: At Troops, we’re building solutions that help salespeople close more deals as a team. Want to know more about how it works? Sign up for a free trial.

Sales Optimism Is Not Great for Forecasting

Sales engineering: Today I crushed it.

There are side-effects of salespeople’s natural optimism, however. Two that happen in almost every sales team are:

  1. Pursuing prospects who aren’t a great long-term fit for the product (which leads to churn)

  2. Inflated forecasting (because optimistic salespeople almost always predict unrealistic numbers)

Sales engineering: An interview with Joe Casson of Optimizely

Joe Casson sees both of these issues on a daily basis.

Joe is a Senior Manager of Solutions Engineering for Optimizely, and he manages a team of five sales engineers.

A big part of his team’s responsibility is to bring objectivity to the sales process.

As you’ll read below, by integrating sales engineers into their process, Optimizely has achieved two uncommon results—especially for software startups:

  1. Lower churn

  2. Accurate forecasting numbers

We spoke with Joe to ask him more about how his team works at Optimizely.

How Sales Engineers Reduce Churn and Improve Customer Success

Joe joined Optimizely as a sales engineer in 2014. His role is to speak with customers about products along with the technical features of Optimizely—how the product works, how they can use it, and the benefits they’ll get from using it well.

“We’re the people who are in the weeds talking to customers about how the product actually functions,” Joe said.

When Joe first started working for Optimizely, the company wasn’t as good at forecasting as it is today.

“Forecasting is really difficult for startups,” Joe said. “When I first joined, we didn’t have a process with the same level of rigor we apply today.”

They got better, however, in part because they started integrating sales engineers into the sales process in a way they never had before.

Deals Start with AEs and SDRs

Sales engineering: Good stuff!

As is true at most sales organizations, deals at Optimizely start with SDRs and AEs.

SDRs identify sales prospects and qualify them. Then AEs take over to move the deal forward.

It’s here—when AEs take over an opportunity—that Joe’s team of sales engineers gets involved.

“At this point in the deal, the prospect has been qualified and we’ve identified some sort of business driver that answers the question ‘Why Optimizely?’” Joe said.

The sales engineer can assist the AE in a number of ways, including demos, discovery, security reviews, or anything else that requires technical expertise.

In many sales environments, the sales engineer’s role is essentially a support one—to be available to help AEs move deals forward.

But at Optimizely, sales engineers do much more than that.

Sales Engineers Have Their Own Qualification Process

In addition to performing demos and providing whatever technical support is needed, Joe and his team also focus on discovery—trying to decide if this prospect is a good fit for the Optimizely product.

At this point, the SDR and AE teams have already handled initial qualifications, of course. But the sales engineers (with their extensive product knowledge) are uniquely equipped to validate the qualification of customers.

Optimizely is an experimentation platform—a way for companies to test design and feature variations in both their products and their marketing experiences.

It’s a process that requires an experimentation mindset as much as it does anything.

“One of the biggest things we try to focus on is the customer’s ability to adopt the practice of experimentation,” Joe said. “We’re demoing to give prospects an idea of the product. But we’re also trying to gather information to make sure it’s going to be a good fit if they become customers.”

In that way, Joe’s team is looking beyond what happens in a normal sales cycle.

The SE Team Isn’t Just Forecasting Sales

The sales engineering team is not just trying to predict if an opportunity will convert into a sale. They’re trying to predict whether the prospect will become a great user of the product.

“We’ve formalized this into a checklist that has all our validation criteria,” Joe said. “There are about 20 criteria we look for that will put us in a much better place to understand the health of the customer once they come onboard.”

This rigorous process gives Optimizely a deep view of the prospective quality of each sales opportunity—allowing sales engineers to educate prospects on the approach they’ll need to adopt when starting with experiments. This allows the entire sales team to move on from prospects that do not appear to be good candidates for the product.

Taken together, this helps improve retention and reduce churn among customers.

“It sometimes takes over a year to see a return on investment from experimentation,” Joe told us. “If we just sell them a one-year contract for software they don’t need, they’re just going to opt out, and that doesn’t help anyone.”

The Role of Sales Engineers in Forecasting

There’s one more unique role that Joe’s team of sales engineers perform at Optimizely: forecasting.

“We have weekly forecasting calls to go over how we’re shaping up week over week on our opportunities,” Joe told us.

As they are in the qualification process, the sales engineering team is more than a support team for the AEs and SDRs. Sales engineers actively provide their input into the quality of the opportunities currently in the pipeline.

Since they are less connected to each individual deal (compared to SDRs and AEs), the sales engineering team brings a level of objectivity to these conversations—one that helps the entire team have a realistic view of each sales deal.

“It just becomes a dialogue,” Joe said. “Even if there are problems, most of the time we can figure out solutions.”

Experimentation as a Culture

Optimizely has cultivated a culture of experimentation that extends well beyond its software platform.

“We believe in experimentation because it creates innovative business practices,” Joe said.

One example of their approach is the “pain index”—an idea Joe learned from Optimizely’s product engineering team. It’s a score that measures how painful it is to be an engineer at the company.

“It looks at how long it takes to get up and running, how long it takes to push out an update, make a pull request, or to do a merge or a test,” Joe said. “We applied the same thinking to the sales engineering team.”

To help make the team’s day-to-day experiences less painful, Optimizely implemented Troops, our sales automation platform, to help sales engineers stay current with all the various accounts assigned to them at a given time.

“In Salesforce, sales engineers may be attached to say 20 opportunities at any given time, but only five of them are actually active,” Joe said.

Troops uses automated Slack messages to prompt sales engineers for updates to their open opportunities, but only the ones that are active—not everything they’re assigned to in Salesforce.

Troops uses automated Slack messages to prompt sales engineers for updates to their open opportunities.

“We’re trying to prevent people from letting data slip through the cracks just because they’re working a lot more accounts,” Joe told us. We’re hopefully making them more efficient by just prompting them for an update on a regular cadence.”

Note: To try Troops automation for your sales team, sign up for a free trial!

The Result of a Rigorous Process: Happier Customers & More Accurate Forecasts

When we spoke with Joe, he consistently used the word “rigor” to describe the process he and his team used throughout the sales journey at Optimizely.

After hearing his story, I can see why.

Toward the end of our conversation, Joe summed up his thoughts on the impact of this rigorous approach to qualification and forecasting.

“If you have a rigorous approach to your forecasts and to the way you approach your deals, you can have an understanding of what the customer is going to be.”

And perhaps most importantly of all:

“That does all kinds of things for future planning,” Joe said. “It gives you clarity, and there are not nearly as many surprises.”

If you currently have a sales engineering team and aren’t incorporating their insights into the qualification and forecasting process, you may be missing out on an opportunity to have a more precise forward-looking view of your business!

Note: At Troops, we’re building solutions that help salespeople close more deals as a team. Want to know more about how it works? Sign up for a free trial!