Career Guides

Career Guide for Sales Engineers

Sales engineers help provide technical support and advice during the sales process to help firms sell highly complex products and services. Sales engineers have a technical background combined with business acumen to help design solutions to meet customers’ needs.

In this career guide, you will learn how to become a successful sales engineer.

Sales Engineer Summary

  • A bachelor’s degree in engineering usually is required; many sales engineers have previous work experience in an engineering specialty.
  • Competition for jobs is expected.
  • Earnings typically are based on a combination of salary and commission.

Working as a Sales Engineer

Many products and services, especially those purchased by large companies and institutions, are highly complex. Sales engineers—also called technical sales support workers—determine how products and services could be designed or modified to suit customers’ needs. They also may advise customers on how best to use the products or services provided.

Sales engineers specialize in technologically and scientifically advanced products. They possess extensive knowledge of these products, including knowledge about their components, functions, and the scientific processes that make them work. They use their technical skills to explain the benefits of their products to potential customers and to demonstrate how their products are better than the products of their competitors. Often, they modify and adjust products to meet customers’ specific needs. Some sales engineers work for the companies that design and build technical products, while others work for independent sales firms.

Many of the duties of sales engineers are similar to those of other salespersons. They must interest the client in purchasing their products, negotiate a price, and complete the sale. Some sales engineers, however, are teamed with other salespersons who concentrate on marketing and selling the product, enabling the sales engineer to concentrate on the technical aspects of the job. By working on a sales team, each member is able to focus on his or her strengths and expertise.

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

In addition to retaining current clients and attracting new ones, sales engineers help clients solve any problems that arise when the product is installed. Afterward, they may continue to serve as a liaison between the client and their company. Increasingly, sales engineers are asked to undertake additional 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.

Work environment. Workers in this occupation can encounter pressure and stress because their income and job security often depend directly on their success in sales and customer service. Many work more than 40 hours per week to meet sales goals and client needs. Although the hours may be long and often irregular, many sales engineers have the freedom to determine their own schedules. Consequently, they often can arrange their appointments so that they can have time off when they want it.

Some sales engineers have large territories and travel extensively. Because sales regions may cover several States, sales engineers may be away from home for several days or even weeks at a time, often traveling by airplane. Others cover a smaller region and travel mostly by car, spending few nights away from home. International travel to secure contracts with foreign clients is becoming more common.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Sales engineers generally are required to possess a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and many have previous work experience in an engineering specialty. New sales engineers may need some on-the-job training in sales or may work closely with a sales mentor before they can work on their own.

Education and training. A bachelor’s degree in engineering usually is required for a person to become a sales engineer. However, workers without a degree, but with previous experience in sales and technical experience or training, sometimes hold the title of sales engineer. Also, workers who have a degree in a science, such as chemistry, or even a degree in business with little or no previous sales experience, may be called sales engineers.

University engineering programs generally require 4 years of study. They vary in content, but all contain courses in math and the physical sciences, as well as general education courses such as English and communications. In addition, most require the development of computer skills. Some programs offer a general engineering curriculum; students then specialize on the job or in graduate school. Most programs, however, require students to choose an area of specialization. The most common majors are electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering, but some programs offer additional majors, such as chemical, biomedical, and computer hardware engineering.

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

It is important for sales engineers to continue their engineering and sales education throughout their careers. Much of their value to their employers depends on their knowledge of, and ability to sell, the latest technologies. Sales engineers in high-technology fields, such as information technology and advanced electronics, may find that their technical knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete, requiring frequent retraining.

Other qualifications. Many sales engineers first work as engineers. For some, engineering experience is necessary to obtain the technical background that is needed to sell their employers’ products or services effectively.

These workers must possess excellent communication skills, because interacting with customers is one of their main job functions. They also must be strong in math and have an aptitude for science as they work with complex, technical products.

Advancement. Promotion may include a higher commission rate, a larger sales territory, or elevation to the position of supervisor or marketing manager. Alternatively, sales engineers may move into different occupations, such as consulting.

Employment as a Sales Engineer

Sales engineers held about 78,000 jobs in 2008. About 34 percent were employed in wholesale trade establishments, and another 24 percent were employed in manufacturing establishments. Smaller numbers of sales engineers worked in computer systems design and related services organizations, as well as telecommunications firms. Unlike workers in many other sales occupations, very few sales engineers are self-employed.

Job Outlook

Job growth for sales engineers is projected to be about as fast as average, and competition for jobs is expected.

Employment change. Employment of sales engineers is expected to grow by 9 percent between 2008 and 2018, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Job growth will stem from the increasing variety and technical nature of the goods and services to be sold. Competitive pressures and advancing technology will force companies to improve and update product designs more frequently and to optimize their manufacturing, sales processes, and general business processes, thus requiring the services of sales engineers.

Growth will be fastest in technology companies, such as software publishers and computer systems design firms. Increasing demand for the latest, most sophisticated technological products will spur demand for sales engineers with expertise in the field. Conversely, as manufacturing organizations continue to outsource their sales functions to independent companies, employment in the manufacturing industry will fall.

Job prospects. Competition for jobs is expected because the relatively high earnings potential of this occupation creates significant interest in sales engineer positions. Prospects will be best for those with the personal traits necessary for successful sales work. In addition to new positions created as companies expand their sales forces, some openings will arise each year from the need to replace sales engineers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Sales engineers 41-9031 78,000 84,900 6,900 9
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings as a Sales Engineer

Median annual wages, including commissions, of sales engineers were $83,100 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $63,340 and $108,470 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $49,640, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $136,770 a year. Median annual wages of sales engineers employed by the computer systems design and related services industry were $95,580.

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. Those working in independent sales companies may just earn commissions. Commissions usually are based on the value of sales, whereas bonuses may depend on individual performance, on the performance of all workers in the group or district, 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.

In addition to receiving their earnings, sales engineers who work for manufacturers usually are reimbursed for expenses such as transportation, meals, hotels, and customer entertainment. Besides receiving typical benefits, sales engineers may get personal use of a company car and frequent-flyer mileage. Some companies offer incentives such as free vacation trips or gifts for outstanding performance. Sales engineers who work in independent firms may have higher, but less stable, earnings and, often, relatively few benefits. For example, most independent sales engineers do not get paid vacations, a common benefit for many other workers.