min(s) to read
April 19, 2022

The Case for Implementing Direct Sales Specialists

Sales specialists have expertise in a specific technology, product, and/or service. Sales specialists support the core sales team by focusing on new, complex, or more profitable areas of the business and key strategic opportunities. They add an extra layer of value to the business that can translate into a high return on investment (ROI) and increased revenue.

Typically, as an organization increases in size and maturity, they invest in building out the sales support functions, which can result in the creation of sales specialist roles.

There are a few essential points to consider when contemplating whether to add sales specialist roles to a team. First, it is important to understand the three main types of sales specialist roles. Second, it is essential to weigh the benefits and risks of sales specialists and decide how these roles suit the business.  

Sales Specialist Types

There are three types of sales specialists: product specialists/overlays, sales engineers and maintenance/services specialists.

A product specialist (figure 1), or overlay, is responsible for selling a limited number of complex technical products and/or services within a single product line. This role typically carries an overlay quota, meaning that their quota is a sum of the direct quotas of the sales reps under them.  

To find the right talent for sales specialist roles, it is important to identify the skill sets and competencies that will make someone successful in this role. Core competencies for the product specialist role include:

  • Demonstrating product knowledge through effective communication of the product’s value proposition, showcasing the features and benefits that will most resonate with the customer’s unique needs and being able to speak to competitors’ differentiators.
  • Delivering effective presentations through product demonstrations for prospective customers and at marketing events.

Sales engineers (figure 2) are typically segmented into two types, pre-sales and post-sales. Pre-sales engineers provide technical support for the development and implementation of complex products, applications, and solutions. As their name suggests, post-sales engineers deliver technical expertise during the installation, implementation, and maintenance of a company’s products. Companies use a variety of familiar-sounding titles to encompass pre- and post-sales technical support and implementation activities, including solution architects, system engineers and solution engineers.

The core competencies for sales engineers are very similar to those of the product specialist role, with the following additional distinctions:

  • Pre-sales: Advancing solutions by listening to client’s needs, determining the best fit and then partnering with the client to shape the final solution.
  • Post-sales: Driving customer satisfaction through the adoption, onboarding and impacting phases of the customer lifecycle and continuing to assess needs to support the customer on an ongoing basis.

Maintenance/services specialists focus on the sale and renewal of maintenance and service contracts. This is often a hybrid role that sells to both new and existing customers. Care needs to be taken to make sure that this role does not devolve into one focused on “firefighting” when customers have emergencies. Those in this role need to collaborate in an effective manner with the field sales organization in order to maintain a balanced customer experience. A related role is the post-sales solution consultant, which focused on selling implementation consulting services and identifying gaps in the implementation roadmap.

Core competencies for the maintenance/services specialist include:

  • Cultivating long-term relationships, as maintenance and services often last far longer than the initial implementation phase.
  • Positioning the value of the maintenance/services contracts, often with the support of ROI data.

While product specialists, sales engineers and maintenance/services specialists play a significant role in supporting the technical sales motions, each has unique responsibilities as well:

  • Product specialists have extensive product or service knowledge within specific product lines. They are integral to introducing customers to new products. By positioning a product specialist as the expert, sellers can reduce fragmentation of knowledge.
  • Sales engineers are often considered the “glue” of the sales process. They can give the buyer confidence that they are choosing the right solution and can ensure that implementation goes smoothly. By leaning on sales engineers to provide technical customer support during and after the sales process, sales reps can spend more time managing relationships and their sales pipelines.
  • Maintenance/services specialists are important because these contracts are often overlooked by sales reps and account executives. This additional position allows for more specialization between both roles. In SaaS companies, these are often lower-margin products while in other industries, there can be a premium margin compared to the core product.

Sales Specialist Risks

While there are many benefits to using sales specialists, their involvement can come with some potential drawbacks that need to be guarded against. In our experience, the primary areas of risk around including sales specialists in the sales process are:

  • Costs: Sales costs may increase due to sales crediting, specifically in multiple crediting sales compensation scenarios when more than one person is on a deal. And, of course, the added headcount will bring higher fixed costs.
  • Coverage levels: There needs to be an appropriate ratio of sales reps to sales specialists. Having too many or too few specialists — or deploying them at the wrong point during the sales process — could negatively impact profitability.
  • Account ownership: Clearly defined rules of engagement are critical to avoiding potential disagreements in front of the customer.

How to Deploy Sales Specialists in a Sales Team's Process

To determine where and when to deploy sales specialists, start by mapping out the sales process and the key accountabilities of each sales team member.

In terms of when it is appropriate to involve sales specialists, it can be helpful to think through questions like:

  • Do representatives call the same point of contact? If no, specialists are rarely needed.
  • Are products sold unrelated or related? If unrelated, may want to consider specialists.
  • What is the switching cost for the rep if they have more products in their bag? If high, specialists are likely warranted.
  • Does selling the focused product require knowledge beyond the typical rep’s capacity? If yes, specialists should likely be engaged.
  • Are sales of this product or solution a critical concern of management? If yes, specialists are almost a must.

It’s critical to clearly define what role sales specialists will play and in what part of the process they will be engaged. Defining the roles and placement concentration can ensure alignment with the sales rep and other positions that might be touching the customer.

This will also help clarify the stakeholders and level of the buyers at the prospect. For example, since product specialists specifically understand how a new product’s average selling price will affect how the rep views its importance, consider if it would be beneficial to bring them on early in the sales process.  

Sales Specialist Compensation Structure

Typically, product specialists/overlays and maintenance/services specialists are given a quota. These roles also often have a commission plan with an accelerated quota, particularly in technology organizations. Sales engineers may or may not carry a quota, but they are typically given shared quotas to encourage teaming. Many organizations will pay sales engineers through a commission plan, although scorecard bonuses are used by some.

Sales specialists are involved in the sales process and customer interactions, but they typically are not the primary driver of customer purchasing decisions. Because of this, the target pay mix for these roles should be more highly leveraged toward base salary rather than variable pay. For those sales specialists on a sales incentive plan, pay mixes can range anywhere from 70/30 to 85/15 (base salary/target incentive as a percentage of total target compensation) depending on their involvement in the sales process, industry norms and product/service complexity.

Sales specialists with individual quotas must balance out expectations to avoid focusing their efforts on the top sales reps. Sales specialists need to enable the entire sales team to be successful:

  • The more technical the sale and the greater the importance of the product, the higher the sales-specialist-to-rep ratio needed.
  • Unless the product specialist/overlay role is going to market separately, consider the dynamics of the sales team and the best ways to enable the team to be successful.
  • Once the teams have been in the field together for an extended period of time, use data science to uncover customer and win-loss patterns and other ways to improve interactions.
  • Optimally, product specialists will share their knowledge and train reps to handle ongoing new product management.

Succeeding with Sales Specialists

Plain and simple, sales specialists help sales teams succeed. Once the pros and potential drawbacks of these roles are understood, the benefits should far outweigh the risk.

Over time, product specialist/overlays, maintenance/services specialists, and sales engineers also help to lead by training reps to manage new products and develop and implement complex products or solutions.