Rachel Wakelin has worked in field sales – Industrial Components and Electronics – for some time and now works for Phoenix Contact covering East Anglia in the UK.
Phoenix Contact UK is a global market leader and innovator in the manufacture of automation and control, e-mobility, power, networking and smart technology. It started in 1923 in Essen, Germany and celebrates its 100th birthday next year.
Rachel has shared her career progression and advice.
Working as a Field Sales Engineer
Working as a Field Sales Engineer, as with other jobs has its ups and downs. Thankfully the downs are few and far between, if you are on the right team.
I have worked in Sales for many years originally starting out in my twenties selling washroom products. I then chose to go to internal and office-based sales due to family commitments. Even though my passion lay with the buzz and excitement of getting those big sales or big customers. I missed being out on the road.
Before my current role, I worked for Quantum Controls as an Area Sales Manager specialising in VSDs (Variable Speed Drives). My beginnings in automation sales come from RS Components and BPX Electro-Mechanical. I am extremely grateful to for the knowledge and personal development opportunities.
At Phoenix Contact they have a structured sales team with Product Managers within each area, so you are never without expert technical help. I work in the Industrial Components & Electronics business area, otherwise known as ICE. Our customer base can vary from System Integrators, Panel Builders, Machine builders to Renewable Energy Solution partners.
How much travel do you do?
I cover the East Anglian region of the UK. The furthest I would drive for an appointment would be around 2-2.5 hours which works for me. I do know that some FSEs cover the whole of the UK spending many nights away. Something that just wouldn’t work for me at this moment in time.
What do people think of your role as a Field Sales Engineer?
Usually when people ask what I do for a living, I receive a puzzled or disinterested, bored look.
I try to change this. While I was at RS Components, I was a STEM Ambassador and helped on Titan 2.
So, I visited schools, colleges, and universities:
encouraging children particularly girls that the Engineering field comes in many different forms and isn’t gender specific.
explaining that it can be exciting with VR headsets and 3d printers, robots, sensors, and smart technology.
Being a Nerd helps
I am a little bit of a nerd and get excited over new and innovative products that emerge within the industry.
At the Phoenix Contact Distribution Conference this year we showed off the Contactron Speed starter and PLCNext to name but two.
These products in my opinion have been so under-marketed and are both phenomenal in their own rights. Everyone in the Automation world is aware of the worldwide shortage of certain products and lead-times and availability coming in as late as June/July 2023.
The Contactron Speedstarter is cost effective and space saving with easy plug ad play setup for those who for whatever reason are waiting on VSD availability.
PlcNext takes programming to a whole new level. With PLCNext no matter what programming language you are competent with, you can use PLCNext. Older generations and younger ones just out of college can work on the same project using their own programming language they are familiar with. This really is next level technology (excuse the pun). A community website is available:
Did you want to work in a technical field when you were a child?
As a child I had the usual ideas of what I wanted to do when, ‘I grew up’. Become a vet (US veterinarian). Join the RAF. I think at one time become a pizza waitress after seeing Julia Roberts in one of her movies. My parents however tried to push me into secretarial work. When I informed them that I would be working at the local Peugeot Garage as a car mechanic they may have been a little disappointed.
Working in engineering as a woman
My working life has always been in a male dominated field. Even now you would still be shocked to hear that within some companies there is still a large gender pay gap. Even when both sexes are doing exactly the same job. I still find this more than frustrating.
As a single mum to three girls, I’ve always tried to teach my daughters that:
they can do anything they set their minds to
not to be dissuaded by other people’s opinions of their choices.
Find something you enjoy doing, something you’re good at and passionate about. Then focus on it giving it 100% and work hard. Hopefully your future career then will be less of a chore and something you get excited about doing on a Monday morning.
Work life balance especially during Covid
It hasn’t been easy to bring up a family alone, with little external support and to try and build a career for myself at the same time. As many other parents know Covid was a particularly testing time with all the uncertainty, lockdowns, furlough etc. Having my eldest back from university trying to finish her dissertation, trying to work from home with online meetings, home-schooling the other children, keeping them upbeat and entertained with no real face to face socialising. It did get a little lonely at times and there were good days but also some low days too for everyone. It was almost like you had to take turns building one another up which did help with the loneliness and kept us looking out for each other.
What is your typical week like?
I find that being an FSE (field sales engineer) you are constantly on the road (which to be honest during the furlough/lockdown days I missed tremendously – not the stuck in traffic for hours part though). This too can get lonely some days if you don’t have a good back-office team, work colleagues or boss. Most emails and quotes etc are usually completed late at night when family duties have been completed.
The biggest challenge for me is logistics. Where I need to be during the week, where the children are and how it all ties in together. This all takes some planning and doesn’t always work the way I had planned.
What are the qualities and skills needed to be an excellent FSE?
I love the technical side of my role and even though I say I’m not technical I don’t honestly think I give myself enough credit.
Sales takes a lot of confidence, resilience, and courage.
Appointment making can be tough which is where the resilience comes in. Don’t take knock backs personally. People are busy.
I still believe in the old school sales technique that the customer can hear your smile down the end of a phone.
You need a lot of empathy and to listen and hear what people are saying to you. At the end of the day, yes, we are trying to make sales and build customer relationships, but if you hand on heart honestly believe that what you are selling is going to make a huge difference to that person’s day to day life, somehow then you build up resilience and persistence. So, I didn’t get the appointment that day, maybe they have too much going on.
Keep learning and improving
‘What could I do differently?’ is something I am always asking myself. I try to have some time put in my diary for self-assessment and evaluation on a Friday afternoon. A recap of the previous week. What I have learned and what I feel may have worked better. Everyone has different ways of doing things, but I find this works for me.
Making sales calls excellent
Planning and having a purpose for your calls makes a difference. Ask yourself,
‘What do I want to achieve out of this phone call or appointment?’
Then purposefully go ahead and own the meeting/call. Keep it brief and outline what your purpose is.
Face to face meetings are always better as you can see the environment people are working in and what their day to day challenges are. You can also make new contacts and see what other opportunities there may be at the premises.
Who supports you in your work as an FSE?
We are very lucky (not sure luck has anything to do with it really, it’s a well-chosen set of employees) at Phoenix Contact in that we have a great internal team:
product knowledge managers
not forgetting the IT team who I am not surprised if they get sick of my voice. ‘Have you actually connected to the VPN?’… ‘Erm…ok that seems to be the problem solved’.
Everyone is keen to help one another, and the office vibe is positive and makes it a great place to work. I am keen to have a game of pool with someone at HQ when I’m next up there. I have never worked somewhere before where they have facilities like this for their employees.
What sort of personality do you need as an FSE?
To be an FSE you need to be:
Have strong time management skills (still working on this one)
Technical knowledge can be taught, but personality and character cannot.
What should someone consider before taking a job as an FSE?
There are four main things to consider:
Loneliness – If you always like to be around people this job wouldn’t be ideal.
Driving – if you don’t like driving or not a confident driver, again something to consider.
Logistics – Will it suit your lifestyle? What other responsibilities do you have?
Learning – Every day is a school day. There is always something new to learn so for people that don’t like change, possibly not a good fit.
What are the best parts of your job?
There are seven key things for me:
Majority of the time I run my own schedule.
I LOVE driving and discovering new places.
I’m quite happy to work alone.
I love sales, winning customers, and getting those BIG projects.
I like helping people to resolve issues.
I love the area of work that I’m in and get passionate about new products that come out.
I am confident and can talk to anyone about anything. (My children would probably say that isn’t a good thing). So, a meeting with several people is enjoyable for me.
What is your advice for anyone working as an FSE?
My advice would be the same as it is to my children,
“Love what you do and it will seem like you never have to work a day in your whole life”.
Our recent Med-Tech Field Sales Engineer story is here: