This article focuses on sales engineering and what makes a great sales engineer.
Hans Bahnsen was a Sales Engineer and now heads up Industrial Sales (Industrial Boilers) for the UK and Ireland at Robert Bosch GmbH. Here he shares his experience and career story.
Head of Industrial Sales for Bosch with a team of sales engineers
Were you interested in science and technical things as a child?
Yes, as a child I was curious and interested in lots of things. I liked to look at things around the home, like the microwave, and wonder how it works. So, for example, my mother found me with the TV open so that I could see the inner workings. As well, I loved toys like Lego and would build cars and spaceships.
Was there a particular person who suggested that you study engineering?
Not really, but my mother was always good with numbers, and I took after her in this way. So, once I was at school, I found maths and physics easy as the concepts didn’t seem difficult to me.
Engineering is in my blood though. My paternal grandfather was German and moved to South America. He was an electrical engineer and worked on the first dams which were producing hydroelectric power. He worked in Argentina and Colombia and settled in Colombia.
Why did you switch from mechatronics engineering to industrial engineering?
I started studying mechatronics as it led on easily from maths and physics. However, it was very theoretical, and I wanted something which was more practical and active, so switched to industrial engineering.
At this stage did you consider a career is sales engineering?
Not really at this stage, but I had an open mind.
You were involved with AIESEC whilst you were a student. What was your role?
AIESEC is a community of young people, passionately driven by one cause: peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential. The organisation AIESEC (pronounced eye-sek) was originally an acronym for Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales. AIESEC is no longer used as an acronym but simply as the name of the organisation.
What were the benefits to you of being part of this organisation?
It gave me cultural understanding and opened my mind.
You had your first experience of selling at AIESEC. How did this happen and what did you learn?
I had natural people skills, and so could relate easily. My mother had worked in sales, and I had watched her as an example.
The more I worked approaching companies to sponsor us, either with products or with cash, the more I succeeded. I also began to enjoy the process of selling. It gave me experience in approaching senior people and convincing and persuading them.
I learnt that the key thing is to understand people and their truths.
Cultures and languages
Hans was born in Colombia and speaks Spanish with a Mexican accent. He has a German passport but only speaks basic German, and his German sounding name means that emails from Bosch in Germany often come to him in German. His wife is Mexican, and his daughter is bilingual in Spanish and English, with a strong English accent. Hans has lived in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and the UK.
What has your multicultural/multilingual experience given you in terms of work skills as a sales engineer?
I think the key thing is empathy and relating people. By that I mean having an understanding that your truth is not the only truth. Everyone has their own truth, and it is true for them. A vital thing is asking questions to understand the person you are speaking with.
In what way has it enriched your understanding?
When you live in another country, you understand that people live in a different way and speak another language – or a different version of the same language. For example, when I moved to Guatemala, I could speak Spanish but not the same type of Spanish. So, at social events, I could understand some things but not everything and definitely not the jokes and cultural references.
It made me realise that we are all very different and understanding is not always automatic. All my international experience has opened my mind.
Start of career and steps to becoming a great sales engineer
What was your first full time job after university?
I wanted to work in a big country so applied to jobs in Mexico, Brazil, and Malaysia. The role I chose was with Robert Bosch GmbH in Mexico. It was a one-year apprenticeship as a Corporate Purchasing Analyst. At the end of the year, I wanted to stay with Bosch and my boss gave me the chance to work on the development of the industrial boilers market in Mexico. At this time, the market in Germany and a few other countries was strong, but there wasn’t any presence in Mexico.
So, I became a Sales Engineer for industrial boilers. I started by going to Germany to learn all about the boilers, and then came back to Mexico and was very hands on as I needed to cover all aspects of the work. As the market grew, we recruited and so I did less and less of the hands-on engineering.
What were the roles you recruited as the team grew?
The first role I recruited was an after sales engineer to take on the specific technical work. After that another sales engineer, then a project manager, and then we kept growing.
Then once the market in Mexico was established, I started to expand into the rest of South and Central America. There was a huge amount of travel involved so I moved back to Colombia because it was more central and so meant less travel overall.
How to move to Sales
Hans took his passion for people and socialising to a career away from engineering and into sales. He feels that having a Latin background and ‘Latin blood’ means that he talks to people everywhere. So, the move into sales and business development was inevitable.
What was your first ever sales job?
I worked in a sales role whilst at university selling financial services. In addition, I used my sales skills while volunteering for AIESEC to obtain sponsorship and free products for events.
Why does your engineering background still help you?
I feel that I have validity as a manager and as a business developer because I have worked as an engineer and understand engineering. I can advise and discuss from a knowledge base.
Moving to the UK during the pandemic
You moved to the UK during the Covid pandemic and experienced lockdown in a new country. What sort of lifestyle did you have?
I moved to the UK with my wife, who is Mexican, and my young daughter. We had no chance to meet anyone in the usual way: neighbours, colleagues, people in shops, in the street, at the playpark….. In the first 12 months I worked remotely all the time and visited the office twice. The first time was to collect my laptop and the second time was to sign some paperwork. It was a very strange time.
Current role working with a team including sales engineers
In your current role you have a team with sales managers, project managers, site installation managers. Then there is a separate team with after-sales engineers.
What is a typical week like for you?
I don’t really have a typical week. So, I can give an example of last week.
Last week, I was in Scotland for four days. So, I was travelling, supporting one of our sales managers, speaking at an event we had for people from the distillery industry, making site visits etc.
Most of what I do is really in the role of a ‘sales consultant’ because I understand where the sales managers are, and what they need in terms of support and development. My team all need different things and different sorts of support.
As well, I go to sales meetings with members of my team.
Sometimes, I’m also a pure manager or leader, for example, when we are setting goals and targets.
What differences have you found between the industrial boiler market in Europe and the market in South America?
There is very little difference to be honest. Most differences are related to the legislation. For example, here laws and emissions control are very key.
In Latin America emissions are not as key.
The main differences are in the way people relate to each other. In the UK there is more of a divide between professional relationships and friendships, whereas in South America, they overlap.
Qualities of a great sales engineer
What in your opinion is the key quality for a great sales engineer?
Empathy. It can’t be taught so when looking for a sales engineer, I look for potential.
What is your advice to an engineer who is considering moving into a sales role?
First of all, they should ask themselves why they want to do it. If the reason is money, then I would say that you can make a lot of money or be miserable in any job.
Then visualise yourself doing it. If that is difficult, then visualise yourself in other social situations.
For example, if you are invited to a wedding and you don’t know any of the guests. If at the end of the night you have ten new friends, then a sales engineer role is going to be a good career for you. If you haven’t spoken to anyone, then perhaps it is not the right role for you.
Sales is all about people as it is the people who buy and sell things. Things are not sold by buildings or machines; it is all done by people. Therefore, if you are a sales engineer you need to understand people and have empathy.
Meet the author – Head of Industrial Sales
Hans Bahnsen is Head of Industrial Sales UK & Ireland – Industrial Boilers for Robert Bosch GmbH. Industrial boilers are used in many industries including dying clothing, food and beverage manufacture and tyres for vehicles.
Hans was born in Colombia speaks Spanish, English and basic German and Portuguese and is currently living in the UK.