B2B Sales: Being a great solutions architect/customer engineer

Celine Wee
5 min readNov 4, 2023

Recently I’ve been thinking about technical implementation, and particularly on the role of solution architects / customer engineers / implementation managers. I reached out to a former colleague, Vicky Zheng for her perspective. Vicky was an incredible customer/integration engineer at Stripe for strategic accounts. Thanks Vicky for the interview and insights! Her medium is located at Vicky Zheng.

Introduction

Definitions

In simplified B2B sales, there is a buyer (customer) and a seller (business). Sellers want to sell their product to a buyer and for the product to be used. In the sales process, the roles are usually:

  • [Pre sales] Solution Architect: Partners with sales to craft a technical solution for the buyer. Sell the value of the solution to the buyer vs other competitive options.
  • [Post sales] Customer/integration engineer: The customer/integration engineer ensures a buyer integrates and launches with a product, which should be a win-win for both parties. Possibly influences the client to buy more products as well in the future,

Sometimes there are other names (technical solutions manager, technical account manager, implementation manager) for the roles that cover those functions.

Goals and types of work

The main goals of each role are:

  • Pre sales: Develop a customized solution. Design solutions to get technical wins while pitching to a prospective buyer.
  • Post sales: Deliver on the solution by ensuring the solution is launched with customers.

Some buckets of work across pre and post sales include:

  1. Project management
  • Pre sales: understanding the clients timeline for scoping and solution delivery, and working backwards to making it happen.
  • Post sales: ensuring the implementation runs on track and meets launch goals.

2. Sharing best practices

For both pre and post sales, empowering the client with best practices and insights from industry in solution creation and delivery.

3. Technical troubleshooting

  • Presales: Partnering with the client on technical scoping, decisions/trade offs/workarounds
  • Post sales: Problem solving when technical issues crop up during the implementation and roll out (which will inevitably happen).

We could dive into each bucket, but I thought it would be more interesting to hear directly from someone like Vicky, who has worked on multiple technical integrations with large clients.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Interview

I asked Vicky some of my burning questions, especially now sitting on the side of a buyer who wants to see successful product integrations.

Question: What’s a common mistake that customer/integration engineers make?

  • Vicky: Usually the mistakes are in two areas — a lack of preparation and low confidence. Often people come unprepared, and like to say “let me check internally and get back to you”. It’s fine when someone is new, or when it occurs occasionally, but it shows that someone doesn’t know the product well or is unprepared. This is a waste of everyone’s time. It’s not the client’s job to have a meeting and listen to you say “not sure”. Next, confidence — if you’re prepared you’ll likely be more confident in your response, rather than being unsure about everything.
  • Celine: I resonate especially with the point on wasted meetings. “Check internally and get back to you” works for harder questions, but if it’s every question needs an internal check, then it slows down the implementation.

Question: What differentiates a good vs great customer engineer?

  • Vicky: There are a few traits. The basics involve answering questions clearly, following up on open items without having to be chased. The top differentiation is to discover and anticipate needs. Focus on understanding the underlying needs. Your customers questions might reflect problems on the surface, and you need to dig deeper to find the root cause so that you can craft the right solution. People may phrase questions differently, and a good customer engineer should recognise the underlying question and find the right solution to it. Finally, an underrated skill is to understand the decision makers and your stakeholders. Often, clients have large teams and questions could come from all of them, so try to understand their relationships.
  • Celine: Yes, the best salespeople understand how to map the organization and decision makers. They ask about the org and want to understand it (more here), as it makes them more effective.

Question: What’s failure mode as a customer engineer? Or conversely, what does success look like?

  • Vicky: While it’s common for clients to see customer engineers as tech support, the reality is a good one is more than reacting to questions. Success is being a trusted advisor. Success is when you start to anticipate needs for the customers, asking the right questions, thinking ahead for them to avoid or reduce roadblocks, identifying the right issues, and advocating for clients internally with a clear and accurate understanding of their needs. I am sure the customer will be appreciative.
  • Celine: “Trusted advisor” is a great way of framing it. I’ve felt that especially when I worked on an integration with someone who had been at a large bank for 20+ years. Their expertise and network within the bank helped move the technical integration along at an incredible speeds. We got to launch much more quickly than even smaller, supposedly more nimble companies.

Question: Overall, other than (1) Being prepared and proactive (2) Discovering and anticipating needs, what else has been helpful for when you were in the role?

Vicky: Formulate a mental model. This sounds a bit more philosophical, but it’s important to spend time thinking about the solutions / products you’re working on, and figuring out the correct building blocks. If you don’t build mental models or have frameworks, as products get more complex you may get dragged into the wrong areas.

Conclusion

Thanks Vicky for her insights, and taking time to explain them from her depth of experience across product and sales.

If anyone reading this has worked with some outstanding pre sales/post sales counterparts, or have been in the role too, please comment and add your perspective

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Note: Neither of us speak on behalf of our employers (current or previous) or anyone else. These opinions are our own.

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Celine Wee

Opinions are my own: a collection of Go To Market, Payments, Biz Ops learnings across Stripe, Coinbase, Twitter. I also write @celinewee.substack.com