Those BIG A/E Commission Checks: The Other Side of the Story

By Ken Lambert

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This article of course will be more relevant to the sales engineer who works alongside a separate
Account Executive/ “Sales Rep”. This very topic, which can involve jealousy and other quandaries, is the
standard in the software world- but is not necessarily such in the non-software world of technical sales.
From my experience, between 50%-65% of non-software SE’s do NOT work with an AE. In other words,
they handle and do everything- including prospecting, account management, preliminary sales calls,
financials/credit, etc.
That said, I have worked on both ends of this, as a sales engineer. I’ve had jobs where I did work with an
AE, and I’ve also had jobs where there were none and I handled everything. Also, twice in my career
(early on) I had positions that were 100% commission-based compensation. Some AE’s do work on
100% commission, but many have a base salary (typically $50k- $60k), plus bonuses & commissions.
I have heard several people over the years gripe that it is not fair that they (as sales engineers) do not
make the kind of money that some AE’s earn. This can foster resentment and other issues that damage
the working relationship.
I believe before resentment and jealousy develop, a sales engineer should consider the following:
 You earn solid money! Per the BLS, the average SE makes $100k- $105k per year. Keep in mind
the average compensation for someone with a bachelor’s degree in the USA is $58k. So
generally-speaking, you are doing OK.
 Yes, there are AE’s that earn $200k or $300k (or even more) per year. But, for every high-earner
like that there are some that are making $60k. According to payscale, the average account
executive (across industries) earns $86k per year- total. Typically software AE’s will be slightly
more, so that might be around $90k-$95k/ year as an average. So while some make a small
fortune, many others do not.
 When all or most of your compensation comes from sales commission/ sales bonus, there is a
high level of anxiety and pressure involved. I can assure you of that, from my 100% commission
days. Many people in this kind of arrangement brag “We eat what we kill”, which is not very PC
but is still said. The issue there is that if you don’t make the sale, you have no income (or very
little income). That can sway an AE’s judgment; this is just human nature.
 It is not ideal or healthy to begrudge people that earn a lot of money; more often than not- they
earned it and worked for it. They are doing something right; maybe you could learn something
from them. I worked with an AE a year or so ago and she always had her “A” game showing; she
was very intelligent and was a hard worker and a great planner. And she made a lot of money,
much more than I- but God bless her…. She deserved it.
Some SE’s eventually go on to become AE’s, as they think it is a better fit and/or they will make more
money. In some cases they give up their $110k per year and might spend the next 2 years making $75k
annually. That is not easy to take and deal with, and it is a possibility.
Of course some will flourish in their new role, and will have some great earning years. That’s great, and
good for them. But it also won’t work for everyone.

In conclusion I think anyone who has been working for more than a few years knows that there are
positives and negatives in every position, and at every company. Being a sales engineer is a solid career
and one that can be fulfilling on a variety of levels. And, as the old saying goes, the grass in not always
greener on the other side.

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