It is a truth universally acknowledged among manufacturing companies who make custom-engineered products, that engineering and sales teams need to work together...but don’t.
It’s almost impossible to avoid absorbing and internalizing the industry stereotypes, which don’t help much in promoting cross-departmental understanding. Engineers see salespeople as deal-hungry wolves on a constant quest to keep their engineer-to-order (ETO) customers happy and win business at any expense, including the engineer’s. Salespeople see engineers as slow, killjoy roadblocks that lose them shiny deals and ruin customer relationships.
Sales and engineering alignment heals this divide between ETO teams. Like sales and marketing alignment, harmony between engineers and salespeople is not only possible with the right platforms and mindset, but also a business imperative for companies that make custom-engineered products.
In this post, we’ll define sales and engineering alignment (and what it isn’t), components of successful alignment, common problems that aligned sales teams and engineering teams can solve together, and some steps your teams can take toward alignment today for better customer retention tomorrow.
What is sales and engineering alignment?
Sales and engineering alignment is the maintained state of continuous cross-team coordination of all data points necessary to sell and produce a custom-engineered product. This can include project objectives, component costs, customer requirements, and any other details during the process of defining, designing, selling and producing engineered products.
True alignment looks like:
- Working collaboratively from the beginning of the quoting process
- Constant two-way communication, especially when changes are requested
- Total customer transparency and satisfaction from concept to delivery; great customer experience
- Production levels from engineers matches sales’ pace of winning deals and moving along opportunities (one team isn’t slowing down the other)
- Creating, managing and sharing detailed product information on the same cloud platform
- Syncing product data across all sales channels
Note that sales and engineering alignment is not the same as sales engineering. Sales engineers are specific roles within B2B sales teams who sell technically complex products. You may find sales engineers in helpful roles that “sit” between their sales teams, marketing teams and product development teams, which assist in alignment, but often get shuttled back and forth between sales and engineers and can be the recipient of a lot of yelling and stress. Alignment isn’t one role’s job — the responsibility lies with the entire sales and engineering organization as a whole.
Why is sales and engineering alignment important?
Misalignment in custom-engineered product manufacturing companies can damage the top and bottom line, resulting in lower new product revenue, lost business, a decrease in revenue, lower product margins, and unhappy customers.
The ultimate goal engineers and salespeople share is the same.
The ultimate goal engineers and salespeople share is the same: Both want to respond to sales inquiries faster, differentiate from the competition, create products that are truly innovative, achieve more precision in each quote, and prevent lost engineering time by developing quotes with more speed — all without last-minute adjustments adding up and making the deal less profitable. The faster sales can respond to customers, and the faster engineers can work off of correct specifications, the more accurately the two teams can collaborate, reducing costs, saving time, and keeping customers happy.
After all, customization is a profitable business, which offers a special service the customer quite literally would not be able to find elsewhere. Alignment empowers ETO companies to deliver consistently on that unique value.
Components of successful sales and engineering alignment
It’s hard to stay focused on delivery goals when your two teams are measured by different key performance indicators. How could they possibly be aligned when they answer to different authorities? Shared KPIs create a shared feedback loop for both teams. Without it, they speak two different languages and data points can get lost in translation.
According to Oleg Rogynskyy and Ben Thompson writing in people.ai, effective sales and engineering KPIs should also increase visibility into workflows and the movement of work, not just statistics about arbitrary points in time.
Align your sales and engineering teams with twin sets of metrics that work in harmony with each other and reflect your values and goals. Measuring speed from two standpoints, for instance — time to close (Sales) and build and queue times (Engineering) — can provide a helpful set of metrics for ensuring customers are being served quickly and identify roadblocks for both teams.
Quote accuracy is crucial for preventing stacking costs.
It seems simple, but ask any ETO salesperson or engineer and they’ll tell you different cautionary tales of customers who keep adding on requirements every week or salespeople over-promising specs to customers and handing off double the original budgeted work to their engineers. Quote accuracy is crucial for preventing stacking costs with every change and feature request down the road.
Sales and engineering quote alignment comes down to clear communication. Make sure your teams can confirm the answers to these questions before taking on your next ETO client:
- Is sales able to quote accurately, knowing the actual value of different product features?
- Can engineering and operations provide accurate schedules for production?
- Is engineering fully aware of all of the customer’s technical requirements at every point of the product lifecycle?
- Can engineering access sales process activity in real time, and vice versa?
- Has sales done their due diligence confirming customer needs before handing off the project to engineers?
- Is sales able to submit features requests to engineering in a timely manner, and can engineering review them quickly?
Clarity is key. Taking the time to deliver an accurate quote will save costs down the road and save your team from a lot of headaches.
On-time product delivery
When sales reps and engineers are aligned on KPIs and have been able to provide the customer with a correct quote, delivering the product on time should be straightforward. But without those other two components in place, ETO companies can often end up in a tangled fulfillment timeline that gets weighed down by last-minute features requests.
Teams can choose which route they can afford to take, between attempting to fulfill the order within the initial schedule, or upset a customer by extending that schedule. Both get expensive quickly.
The urgency of added requirements within the initial timeline creates an unhealthy workload for the whole team, generating more risk: Job insecurity and workplace stress can cause turnover, burnout, illness, absenteeism, and can even jeopardize safety in operating machinery.
With your best engineers working overtime to hit an unrealistically close deadline, not only do you risk putting out a second-rate product, but risk injuring or turning over those team members as well. Plus, training new hires midway through a custom project is not cheap — that is talent you definitely can’t afford to lose.
However, moving a delivery date further down the timeline to avoid burning out your team can upset customers or even risk losing their business if their schedule is firm. Custom-engineered product companies should prevent this dilemma earlier by ensuring alignment.
Steps toward alignment
To achieve sales and engineering alignment, ETO companies must get their two most personality- and workflow-opposite teams to function in total harmony with each other while selling and manufacturing products that have never existed before — sounds easy! — and it actually may be more attainable than you might think.
- Look at the data you already have. Your last few deals have left breadcrumbs behind. Ask your HR team to pull an hours report for both teams to look at overtime. Who is burning the midnight oil? On which accounts and project types? With which salespeople? How's the conversion rate and churn on high time-investment deals? Locate the burnout and overwork on your team and note it.
- Build empathy. Visibility is great, but do your salespeople and engineers know what to do with it? Set up a recurring rotation for engineers to listen in on initial sales calls. Salespeople should receive basic training for factory floor safety and be familiar with your manufacturing and design processes. Plan your next quarterly goal-setting meeting to include both teams in the same room.
- Unite on the same platform. If your PLM and CRM live in different places and don’t talk to each other, you simply won’t be able to achieve full alignment. ETO business changes fast. Sales and engineering need to be able to pull up product and customer records with to-the-second accuracy and communicate using a shared source of truth. Does your current system support two-way, constant, clear communication? If not, your largest barrier to true alignment will be your systems.
Keep reading about ETO challenges and best practices in The Ultimate Guide to Making Custom-Engineered Products.