Customer Success Engineering is the continuation of product development by other means. — Carl von Clausewitz (loose translation)

During my brief time at Jut, I was in marketing as a Customer Success Engineer, which also tends to be known as a Forward Deployed Engineer (and hence they will be used interchangeably throughout). At Jut, this role was under marketing, and I never gave that placement a second thought. Our role was to onboard customers, teach them Jut (and our DSL, Juttle), and basically do whatever was necessary to make them happy with our product. The unspoken corollary is that we took our observations back to Product and Engineering to improve the product/market fit.

Since the dissolution of Jut-as-I-knew-it1 I’ve talked to several companies about this role in their organization. In almost all cases, the role reports into Sales, and may even include some sales-type KPIs, such as upselling or whatnot.2 With all due respect to these companies, I believe this is a mistake. In some cases, they may just be naming (pre-) sales engineers as FDEs/CSEs; however, if they actually mean to have FDEs/CSEs as such, they should not be reporting into Sales. Doing so will gut the usefulness of this role.

I’ve never been very good at defining the difference between sales and marketing, but I think a simple definition for the purposes of this post is this: Sales is going to sell the product they’re given; marketing is going try to refine the product/market fit, whether that entails changing the product, the market, or both.

FDE’s role is ostensibly to onboard the customer and make them happy. In my opinion, their real purpose is to close the feedback loop between customer and company. By seeing how the customer is using it in real situations, what works and what doesn’t work, the FDE can supply crucial feedback to product and engineering teams on how to refine the product.

This will not happen with FDEs under Sales. First, making the customer happy and selling things will not necessarily coincide. If you measure performance on the latter, sales is what you will get, not customer happiness. In startup-land this is the raising of money via issuing junk bonds. Second, by focusing on selling the product, the FDE will be accustomed to seeing every customer problem as a nail requiring the hammer of more product. Basically, the FDE is now a secondary sales channel instead of part of the product feedback loop. And, frankly, has anyone ever enjoyed being told by a company that to fix their problem they need to spend more money?

Competent employees will act in accord with the incentives you place before them. If you want your CSEs to sell, then put them under sales, but call them sales engineers, because that’s what they are. If you want your CSEs to make customers happier3 in the short term - and even happier in the long term owing to product improvements - put them under Product or Marketing or Engineering.

  1. I fear I will be writing this footnote whenever I reference Jut. See my not-yet-written-Jut-memoirs for an exact description of Jut’s status. TL;DR (since you can’t) - Jut is still around, but in a different, much, much smaller stealth form. 

  2. I really do not know much about metrics for sales teams. However, I think I’m pretty safe in assuming they exist to encourage selling. 

  3. Apologies, I know Strunk and White, Startup Edition tells me I should be using “delight” and “delightful” instead of happiness. 


comments powered by Disqus