Many products and services, especially those purchased by large companies and institutions, are highly complex. Sales engineerswho also may be called manufacturers’ agents, sales representatives, or technical sales support workerswork with the production, engineering, or research and development departments of their companies, or with independent sales firms, to 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.
Selling, of course, is an important part of the job. Sales engineers use their technical skills to demonstrate to potential customers how and why the products or services they are selling would suit the customer better than competitors’ products. Often, there may not be a directly competitive product. In these cases, the job of the sales engineer is to demonstrate to the customer the usefulness of the product or servicefor example, how much money new production machinery would save.
Most sales engineers have a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and many have previous work experience in an engineering specialty. Engineers apply the theories and principles of science and mathematics to technical problems. Their work is the link between scientific discoveries and commercial applications. Many sales engineers specialize in an area related to an engineering specialty. For example, sales engineers selling chemical products may have chemical engineering backgrounds, while those selling business software or information systems may have degrees in computer engineering. Information on engineers, including 17 engineering specialties, appears elsewhere in the Handbook.
Many of the duties of sales engineers are similar to those of other salespersons. They must interest the client in purchasing their products, many of which are durable manufactured products such as turbines. Sales engineers often are teamed with other salespersons who concentrate on the marketing and sales, 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 knowledge. (Information on other sales occupations, including sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, appears elsewhere in the Handbook.)
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 could 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 maintaining 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 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.
Sales engineers may work directly for manufacturers or service providers, or they may work in small independent sales firms. In an independent firm, they may sell complementary products from several different suppliers and be paid entirely on commission.
Many sales engineers work more than 40 hours per week to meet sales goals and their clients’ needs. Selling can be stressful because sales engineers’ income and job security often directly depend on their success in sales and customer service.
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. Others work near their home base and travel mostly by car. International travel, to secure contracts with foreign clients, is becoming more common.
Although the hours may be long and often are irregular, many sales engineers have the freedom to determine their own schedule. Consequently, they often can arrange their appointments so that they can have time off when they want it. However, most independent sales engineers do not earn any income while on vacation.
A bachelor’s degree in engineering usually is required to become a sales engineer. However, some workers with previous experience in sales combined with 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 termed sales engineers.
Admissions requirements for undergraduate engineering schools include a solid background in mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus) and the physical sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), as well as basic courses in English, social studies, humanities, and computer science. University programs vary in content, though all require the development of computer skills. For example, some programs emphasize industrial practices, preparing students for a job in industry, whereas others are more theoretical and prepare students for graduate school. Therefore, students should investigate curriculums and check accreditations carefully before making a selection. Once a university has been selected, a student must choose an area of engineering in which to specialize. Some programs offer a general engineering curriculum; students then specialize on the job or in graduate school. Most engineering degrees are granted in electrical, mechanical, or civil engineering. However, engineers trained in one branch may work in related branches.
Many sales engineers first work as engineers. For some, the engineering experience is necessary to obtain the technical background needed to sell their employers’ products or services effectively. Others move into the occupation because it offers better earnings and advancement potential or because they are looking for a new challenge.
New graduates with engineering degrees may need sales experience and training before they can work directly 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.
Promotion may include a higher commission rate, larger sales territory, or elevation to the position of supervisor or marketing manager. Alternatively, sales engineers may leave their companies and form independent firms that may offer higher commissions and more freedom. Independent firms tend to be small, although relatively few sales engineers are self-employed.
It is important for sales engineers to continue their engineering and sales education throughout their careers because much of their value to their employers depends on their knowledge of the latest technology and their ability to sell that technology. Sales engineers in high-technology areas, such as information technology or advanced electronics, may find that technical knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete.
Sales engineers held about 74,000 jobs in 2004. About 35 percent were employed in wholesale trade and another 27 percent were employed in the manufacturing industries. Smaller numbers of sales engineers worked in information industries, such as software publishers and telecommunications; professional, scientific, and technical services, such as computer systems designs and related services and architectural, engineering, and related services; and other industries. Unlike workers in many other sales occupations, very few sales engineers are self-employed.
Employment of sales engineers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2014. Projected employment growth stems from the increasing variety and technical nature of 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 and sales processes. 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.
Manufacturers, especially foreign manufacturers that sell their products in the United States, are expected to continue outsourcing more of their sales functions to independent sales agencies in an attempt to control costs. This should result in more job opportunities for sales engineers in independent agencies.
In wholesale trade, both outsourcing to independent sales agencies and the use of information technology are expected to affect employment opportunities for sales engineers. Although outsourcing should lead to more jobs in independent agencies, employment growth for sales engineers in wholesale trade likely will be dampened by the increasing ability of businesses to find, order, and track shipments directly from wholesalers through the Internet, without assistance from sales engineers. Since direct purchases from wholesalers are more likely to be of commodity products, their impact on sales engineers should remain somewhat limited.
Employment opportunities and earnings may fluctuate from year to year because sales are affected by changing economic conditions, legislative issues, and consumer preferences. Prospects will be best for those with the appropriate knowledge or technical expertise, as well as the personal traits necessary for successful sales work.
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. Commissions usually are based on the amount 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.
Median annual earnings of sales engineers, including commissions, were $70,620 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $53,270 and $91,500 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,430, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $117,260 a year. Median annual earnings of those employed by firms in the computer systems design and related services industry were $86,980.
In addition to their earnings, sales engineers who work for manufacturers usually are reimbursed for expenses such as transportation, meals, hotels, and customer entertainment. In addition to typical benefits, sales engineers often 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.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,
Sales Engineers, on the Internet at
(visited June 21, 2006).