We are what we repeatedly do.
There isn't a self-help guru in the world who hasn't talked about habits and for very good reason. By definition, a habit is something we do by default - we don't have to think about it. For instance, the way you take your favorite beverage. I'm a coffee person, and I'm quite exacting about how I take it. I can, of course, make my cuppa with my eyes closed, with my brain and mouth on the phone with a colleague. Often, I find myself holding a cup, without conscious memory of having made a cup. How? Habit.
Our brains are just that good. Whatever we regularly do, gets encoded into our brains as a pattern. Think of it as chunking - you don't see a collection of legs, cushions, wheels and levers… you see an office chair. That's your brain chunking information and labeling the pattern. My brain knows which pattern to pull from when I walk into the kitchen and pick up my mug. No conscious attention is required - it's automatic.
Habits are, in a sense, automated competence. By automating the behaviors that work for us, we're able to improve our outcomes. As a seasoned sales engineer who has a lot of sales engineer buddies, I've seen my share of good (and bad) habits that propel (or sink) sales engineering careers.
Here's my humble list of those habits that I've seen the best of the best exhibit.
Habit #1: Practicing being a Sales Engineer
I swear by deliberate practice: not just a practice that involves repetition, but one that involves improvement with each repetition. It involves paying attention to the times when we do anything badly, and examining what contributed to it. As sales engineers, some of our most important skills include asking questions, listening, speaking clearly, starting conversations, and doing demos. Within demos, there are a number of habits that we can cultivate that gives us an extra edge.
But do we practice? Well, to be fair, where is the time… right? Let me give you the keys to the kingdom. It's a technique called…
Habit #2: Time Blocking
This is when you set aside time in your calendar to do what needs to be done. This doesn't need to be a 3-hour block in the middle of Tuesday. It can be chunks of 15 minutes when you check your email (so you don't spend the whole day in reactive mode), 20-minute mock demos with your peers, 10 min blocks for scanning Reddit, and so on. I swear by this method today, but if I'm being honest, in the beginning, I completely rebelled against it.
It went against all my ideas of going with the flow and being flexible. I didn't want to stick myself into a rigid schedule, and I didn't think it was an effective use of my time to spend an hour each morning just planning my day (recognise the hyperbole here?). Of course, no one was asking me to do that in the first place.
Time blocking isn't about blocking every 5-minute window in your schedule. No! How could you ever answer the phone if that were so? Time blocking is about giving me better control over my time. Do I need to be available to everyone else all the time? It may feel like it, but no. Can I take 10 mins to check Reddit post-lunch? Of course. Dedicate 15 mins at the top of each hour to email so that I can spend the other 45 minutes doing the things I need to do? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Start small, and course correct till you work out what works for you.
Habit #3: Reading about new technical topics
You're the expert. The only way you'll stay that way is if you stay on top of the latest in your field (and adjacent to it). Subscribe to the right newsletters, the right subreddits, and discord channels. Join hacker communities and keep up with the conversation. Explore what the competition is offering, attend their demos when possible, and keep up with their announcements. When any of this comes up in a demo, you aren't caught unawares.
Habit #4: Regular and random contact with customers
Depending on your company's sales process, this can also involve potential customers. There have been several occasions when I've reached out to a prospect after the demo, just to say hi, and ended up clarifying several questions they had in mind, but hadn't had time to put on email yet. Was I instrumental in winning these deals? No idea. But I know these calls moved the needle by eliminating objections.
Similarly, I make it a point to be in contact with my customers regularly and randomly. If they're co-located, I visit. If not, I get on calls. The advantage here is the same - questions get answered and issues get tackled before they have a chance of becoming irritations. The customer perceives the relationship as a smooth one because I am around to nip several issues in the bud.
Moreover, the customer may have been meaning to contact me with a new opportunity, but hasn't had the time yet, or just plain forgot. When they meet or talk to me, it jogs their memory. This way, I'm able to get into on-the-spot discovery questions and bring more of my solutions to an already happy customer.
Habit #5: Questioning what the customer is stating
If only our customers knew what they wanted, right? More than anyone else in sales, sales engineers understand how far apart the stated wants of the customers are, from what they really need. When a customer asks for a particular feature, probe further. Why do they think they want that feature? How do they plan to use it in their process? What is the problem they're trying to solve?
That last question is gold. Your customer may think a particular feature is critical to his process because he's seen it in action somewhere/a friend recommended it/he saw an ad and believes it to be the solution. Once you know the scope of the problem, you get to show them why your solution might be a worthier match.
Habit #6: Taking notes
I can't tell you how anxious it makes me when I see sales reps and sales engineers sit through sales meetings, without noting anything down. We're fallible human beings, with very full lives! We forget stuff all the time, and sales processes can sometimes take months. Months from now, you won't remember all the details of the initial conversation with the customer, but the customer will remember telling you about the functionality they needed. Making a customer repeat themselves is never a start to a good working relationship.
Making notes also gives you the ability to easily share information with, and get consultations from your sales reps, solution consultants, account executives, product teams, and the many cogs that make up your sales juggernaut. If others are also making notes, it means nothing gets missed or misunderstood (something that is often obvious when we realize our notes differ on key items).
Also, when you take notes, the customer can see that what he's saying matters to you. When you send out a summary of your notes to the customer, it gives them the confidence that you understand. It also helps you move the conversation forward, as they comment on your notes, make corrections, or help expand key points with more detail.
Habit #7: Keeping track of their action items
This is a given, and yet, so many of us struggle with it. Usually, it boils down to the lack of a unified system. You read email on your laptop, turn on your phone, use messaging apps, make notes all over the place, you receive calls and voice notes… and where does it all go?
You need a system. One source of truth that captures all your tasks in one place. There are a number of paid apps out there, and they're all great if you use them. Some people simply use their mailbox as task central. I used to maintain a daily list of deliverables that I emailed myself at the start of the day (after reading all my morning emails and texts and voice notes). I would then hit reply on this email and keep adding to the list and knocking off the items I completed. At the end of the day, I'd hit send, so in the morning, I already had a ready list of carried-over tasks that needed to be done. It was a very low-tech option, but it worked for me. I didn't need another app, I could always send myself an email, and I could drag and drop follow-up emails into the calendar.
I'm not trying to evangelize email here, of course. The point I am trying to make is that I had a master system that contained all my tasks, and was convenient to point out all my other sources. Did I miss tasks from time to time? Sure. We all do. But it was as close to a failsafe system as possible because it made it hard for something to slip through the cracks.
Let me give you a bonus habit: accepting feedback. Most of us aren't self-aware enough to catch our own blindspots. So seek feedback, and seek it from people who are invested in your growth. At the same time, beware of those who criticize you in the name of tough love - this isn't something any salesperson needs. Ever. What we all need is a kind, gentle hand that guides us to see the places where we need more polish and more effort.
Seek it. Act. Make it a habit. Greatness is waiting.