John Care is currently Managing Director of Mastering Technical Sales, having spent numerous years building world-class Sales Engineering organizations at companies such as Oracle, Sybase, Vantive, Clarify, HP, Business Objects and most recently Vice President and Area Manager of Pre-Sales at CA. MasteringTechnicalSales.com
“How Do I Justify Incremental SE Headcount?”
“What’s the ROI for an SE?”
“How Do I Calculate Presales Effectiveness?”
Have you ever heard one of those questions? Have you ever been put in the position of
having to justify your business impact (or that of an entire presales organization) to a
sales leader, sales operations, or to someone in finance or even HR?
It’s a topic I’ve wrestled with over the years, and with the help of Michael Lohr, Sean
Cullen and Jim Sargent from out there in the SE community we’ll look at the costs, the
benefits and a few ways to calculate the ROI of a presales engineer.
The Costs. So let’s look at the basic costs associated with an SE. These are all
approximations based on an average SE salary in the software business in the US. So your
mileage will vary depending upon location and industry – but the basic structure remains
Base Salary and Commissions $150,000 Average SE ; 5-7 years
Overhead/Burden $ 60,000 40% for Benefits and Overhead Expense
Training $ 14,000 External Training/Certifications etc
Travel $ 36,000 $3k/month
Approximate Overhead $250,000
So – figure that even a 40 person SE organization is going to cost you $10m if you get
them travelling. From a financial point of view, only 10-15% of that $10m budget is
variable – the rest is fixed no matter what happens to sales quota.
The Direct Benefits: The first obvious benefit is that the SE team drives a massive
proportion of new product revenue – where product is defined as what you are selling. If
your product is renewable in terms of being software, hardware or other goods that
require ongoing support – then there is an annual support or maintenance payment stream
as a result of the sale too. In most industries the sales force is credited for at least the
first year of such support. There may also, for example in the Telecommunications space,
be recurring annual revenues instead of an upfront-payment. Plus, your product may
require installation, setup, education or configuration services – which is also revenue
driven directly by the sale.
So, at least for a first approximation, you can count all this revenue as SE-driven
revenue. For accuracy you can factor out upgrades and increased customer use due to
natural growth and expansion (i.e “more seats”). This applies only to the current solution
set. For example if you are selling medical supplies/pharmaceuticals and a new indication
is approved which causes additional sales – someone still has to “push” that.
The Indirect Benefits: There are a number of these softer benefits so I’ll focus on
three common examples.
1. Post-implementation visits. A typical presales organization spends 5-8% of its time in
post-sales activity fixing something that is broken – either in support or services. Happy
customers buy more products and this is an area we can influence outside of the
traditional role. You can also include planned post-implementation visits such as
performing a "health check" with the goal of making some recommendations to improve
the product usage as well as explore other opportunities in accounts. This is very hard to
measure because these visits are not always attributed to another sale but I'm certain
they contribute to these deals.
2. Enhancement requests. In general, SEs are the foot soldiers who know what customers
want and where they want to go. Product Managers would be very blind to the market
without the SEs input. Hiring one more SE does not necessarily increase this feedback
but this information cannot be underestimated.
3. Collateral. As the typical organization of last resort – if a piece of collateral, training
or general infrastructure is required then presales will usually create the content when
no-one else does. This also extends to covering marketing events, partner training, trade
shows and so on.
The Extreme ROI. Having looked at the SE-driven revenue, it’s important to understand
that sales is primarily driven and rewarded for generating revenue. Just as it’s easy to
say that if there were no SE organization then revenue would plummet, the same could be
said for sales. An extreme and simple ROI would be – using our 40 person SE organization
and an overall sales quota of $100m. (So even though most SE’s do not have a personal
quota, for the purpose of the calculations Quota = (100m/40 = 2.5m per SE)
------- = ROI ----------- = 1,000%
Clearly not a credible calculation for many reasons.
Alternate Views. There are now two approaches to the ROI calculation. The first is the
overall ROI on the entire pre-sales organization. I personally find this is almost
impossible to calculate and is not a feasible business number anyway – what is more
important is the ROI of the next SE hired. So let’s look at that instead.
The New Hire. The annual costs for a new hire using our same example are still around
$250,000. Training and travel costs may be lower, balanced by a possible internal
referral fee, cost of laptop and other equipment etc. In terms of potential quota
contribution, industry guidelines are:
Years in Organization Qutota Contribution
1 40% (1,000,000)
2-4 100% (2,500,000)
5+ 120% (3,000,000)
This takes the conservative approach that the first six months are pure ramp-up time
spent in training and ride-alongs with other SE team members. The second six months the
SE is placed in lower-value and lower-risk situations – typically smaller deals, RFPs, trade
shows etc. thus freeing the more experienced members of the team to focus even more
of their time on the high-value revenue targets.
Given the typical ramp-up time for an SE, there is also a case to be made for building
bench strength for each of your major solution sets. Under no circumstances should
activity in a vital geography or product line be single-threaded because there is only one
SE who can cover the opportunities. Sometimes hiring needs to occur prior to a projected
increase in activity, regardless of current ROI.
An Introduction to ROPE “Return On Presales Effort”. The other assumption in the
calculations that will follow is that a new-hire is placed in the optimum position to benefit
the company. One way to assure this is by using an analysis of activity against revenue –
hence the ROPE acronym. In essence you are checking that (a) sufficient demand (and
pipeline) exists for an incremental head and (b) sufficient revenue is associated with that
demand. ROPE examines revenue, utilization, time and win-rate broken down by
geography, product line and activity. For example – by geography:
Geography Revenue(m) Heads Rev/hc Utilization (%) Win-Rate
North 15 8 1.88 82 36
South 18 6 3.00 66 42
East 24 8 3.00 65 42
West 22 9 2.44 58 44
Strategic 12 4 3.00 54 53
Federal/Gov 20 5 4.00 74 56
There is a lot of analysis and definitions of terms that we’ll skip over here, as you need to
examine all three dimensions (and that’s one of the things I consult upon), but looking
through the data it seems the Federal/Government group is producing the most revenue
per SE, has the highest win-rate and is heavily utilized. It is the logical place to add a
head as there is both demand to satisfy and revenue to gain. The criteria for each
parameter are highly dependent on each individual company, but in general the higher
When dealing with sales you can also factor in the size of pipeline. Usually 3.5 to 4x quota
in a pipeline is considered healthy enough to justify additional SE-power. Assuming the
pipeline is large enough then none of the other geographies satisfy the ROPE criteria.
There are two options – either hire a new SE directly into Federal or transfer from the
North or West into Federal and then backfill.
New Hire Direct Into Federal --4.00m x 40% = incremental revenue of 1.60m
Transfer North to Federal and backfill -- (4.00-1.88) = incremental 2.12m. Plus 1.88m x 40% = 0.75m -- Total incremental revenue of 2.87m
Based on this data you could incur the additional $250k cost of a new SE and recoup
anywhere from $1.6 to $2.87 million in return – both a payback in way less than a quarter.
It’s important to realize that these calculations are based on the marginal rates of
adding a small number of heads. Adding ten new SE’s to Federal wouldn’t return ten times
these results. That said, what financial controller could turn down these numbers?
Article By John Care