The Art of Pre-Sales Part II: Showing Value

Part I of this post http://www.definethecloud.net/the-art-of-pre-sales received quite a few page views and positive feedback so I thought I’d expand on it.  Last week on the Twitters I made a comment re sales engineers showing value via revenue ($$) and got a lot of feedback.  I thought I’d expand on the topic.  While I will touch on a couple of points briefly this post is not intended as a philosophical discussion of how engineers ‘should be judged.’  Quite frankly if you’re an engineer the only thing that matters is how you are judged (for the time being at least.)  This is about understanding and showing your value.  Don’t get wrapped around the axle on right and wrong or principles.  While I don’t always follow my own advice I’ve often found that the best way to change the system is by playing by its rules and becoming a respected participant. 

A move to pre-sales is often a hard transition for an engineer to make.  I discuss some of the thought process in the first blog linked above.  This post focuses on transitioning the way in which you show your value.  This post is focused on providing some tools to assist in career and salary growth, rather than job performance itself.  In a traditional engineering role you are typically graded on performance of duties, engineering acumen and possibly certifications showing your knowledge and growth.  When transitioning to a sales engineer role those metrics can and will change.  There are several keys concepts that will assist in showing your value and reaping the rewards such as salary increases and promotion. 

  1. Understand the metrics
  2. Adapt to the metrics
  3. Gather the data
  4. Sell yourself

Understand the Metrics

The first key is to understand the metrics on which you are graded.  While this seems to be a straightforward concept, it is often missed.  This is best discussed up front when accepting the new role.  Prior to acceptance you often have more of a say in how those things occur.   Each company, organization and even team often uses different metrics.  I’ve had hybrid pre-sales/delivery roles where upper management judged my performance primarily on billable hours.  This means that the work I did up front (pre-sale) held little to know value, no matter how influential it may have been on closing the deal.  I’ve also held roles that focused value primarily on sales influence, basically on revenue.  In most cases you will find a combination of metrics used, you want to be aware of these.  If you are not focused on the right areas the value you provide may go unnoticed.  In the first example mentioned above, if I’d have spent all of my time in front of customers selling deals, but never implementing my value would have been minimized.

Understanding the metrics is the first step, it allows you to know what you’ll be measured on.  In some cases those metrics are black and white and therefore easy.  For instance at the time I was an active duty Marine, E1-E5 promotion was about 70-80% based on both physical fitness test (PFT) and rifle marksmanship qualification score.  These not only counted on their own but were also factored in again into various portions of proficiency and conduct marks which counted for the other portion of promotion.  This meant that a Marine could much more easily move up focusing on shooting and pull-ups than job proficiency. This post is not about gaming the system, but that example shows that knowing the system is important.   

Adapt to the metrics

Let me preface by saying I do not advocate gaming the system, or focusing solely on one area that you know is thoroughly prized while ignoring the others.  That is nothing more than brown nosing, and you’ll quickly lose the respect of your peers.  Instead adapt, where needed, to the metrics you’re measured on.  It’s not about dropping everything to focus on one area, it’s ensuring you are focusing on all areas that are used to assess your performance.  Maybe certifications weren’t important where you were but they’re now required, get on it.  Additionally remember that anything that can be easily measured probably is.  Intangibles or items of a subjective nature are difficult tools to measure performance on.  That doesn’t mean they aren’t/shouldn’t be used it just a fact.  Due to that understand the tangibles and ensure you are showing value there.

Gather the data

In a sales organization sales numbers are always going to be key.  Every company will use them differently but they always factor in.  Every sales engineer at a high level is there to assist in the sale of equipment, therefore those numbers matter.  Additionally those numbers are very tangible, meaning you can show value easily.  Most organizations will use some form of CRM such as salesforce.com, to track sales dollars and customers.  Engineering access to this tool varies, but the more you learn to use the system the better.  Showing the value of the deals you spend your time on is enormous, especially if it sets you apart from your peers.  Take the time to use these systems in the way your organization intends so that you can ensure you are tied to the revenue you generate.

Sales numbers are a great example but there are many others.  If you participate in a standards body, contribute frequently to internal wikis or email aliases, etc. gather that data.  These are parts of what you contribute and may go unnoticed, you need to ensure you have that data at your disposal.  Having the right data on hand is key to step four; selling yourself.

Sell yourself

This may be the most unnatural part of the entire process.  Most people don’t enjoy, and aren’t comfortable presenting their own value. That being said this is also possibly the most important piece.  If you don’t sell yourself you can’t count on anyone else to do it.  When discussing compensation, initially or raise, and promotion always look at it from a pure business perspective.  The person that you’re having the discussion with has an ultimate goal of keeping the right people on board for the lowest cost, you have goal of maintaining the highest cost possible for the value you provide.  Think of it as bargaining for a car, regardless of how much you may like your sales person you want to drive away with as much money in your pocket as possible.

If you’ve followed the first three steps this part should be easier.  You’ll have documentation to support your value along the metrics evaluated, bring it.  Don’t expect your manager to have looked at everything or to have it handy.  Having these things ready helps you frame the discussion around your value, and puts you in charge.  Additionally it shows that you know your own value.  Don’t be afraid to present who you are and what you bring to the table.  Also don’t be afraid to push back.  It can be nerve racking to hear a 3% raise and ask for a 6%, or to push back on a salary offer for another 10K, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.  Remember you don’t have to make demands, and if you don’t there is no harm in asking.

Phrasing is key here and practice is always best.  Remember you are not saying you’ll leave, you’re asking for your value.  Think in phrases like, “I really appreciate what you’re offering but I’d be much more comfortable at $x and I think my proven value warrants it.”  I’m not saying to use that line specifically but it does ring in the right light.  In these discussions you want to show three things:

  1. That you are appreciative of the position/opportunity
  2. That you know your value
  3. That your value is tangible and proven

Intangibles

There are several other factors I always recommend focusing on:

  • Teamwork – this is not only easily recognizable as value,  it is real value.  A team that works together and supports one another will always be more successful than a group of rock stars.  Share knowledge freely and help your peers wherever possible, even if they are not tied to the same direct team.
  • Leadership -  You don’t need a title to lead.  Set an example and exemplify what you’d like to see in others.  This is one I must constantly remind myself of and fail at often, but it’s key.  Lead from the front, people will follow.
  • Professionalism – As a Marine we had a saying something to the effect of “Act at the rank you want to be.”  Your dress, appearance and professionalism should always be at the level you want to be, not where you were at.  This not only assists in getting there, but also in the transition once acquired.  Have you ever seen an engineer come in wearing jeans and polo one day, shirt and slacks the next after a promotion?  Appears pretty unnatural doesn’t it?  If that engineer had already been acting the part it would have been a natural and expected transition.
  • Commend excellence – When one of your colleagues in any realm does something above and beyond, commend it.  Send a thank you and brief description to them and cc their manager, or to their manager and cc them.  This helps them with steps three and four, but also shows that you noticed.  Y
  • Technical knowledge – While it should go without saying, I won’t let that be.  Always maintain your knowledge and stay sharp. 
  • Know your market value – This can be difficult but there are tools available.  One suggestion for this is using a recruiter.  A good recruiter wants you to command top dollar because it increases their commission, this combined with their market knowledge will help you place yourself.

Do’s and don’ts

  • Do – Self assessments.  I never like to walk into a review and be surprised.  I do thorough self assessments of myself in the format my employer uses prior to a review.  When possible I present my assessment rather than allow the opposite. I always expect to have more areas of improvement listed than they do.
  • Don’t – Use ultimatums.  The best example of this is receiving another offer and using it to strong arm your employer into more money.  If you have an offer you intend to use to negotiate make sure it’s one you intend to take.  Also know that this is a one-time tactic, you won’t ever be able to use again with your employer.
  • Do -  Strive for improvement.  Recognize where you can improve.  Apply as much honesty as possible to self-reviews and assessments. 
  • Don’t- Blame.  Look for the common denominator, if you’ve been passed multiple times for promotion ask why.  Don’t get stuck in the rut of blaming others for things you can improve.  Even if it was someone else’s fault you may find something you can do better.

Summary

In any professional environment, knowing and showing your value is important.  Most of this is specific to a pre-sales role but can be used more widely.  The short version is knowing how to show your value and showing it.  Remember you work to get paid, even if you love what you do.

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The Art of Pre-Sales

On a recent customer call being led by a vendor account manager and engineer I witnessed some key mistakes by the engineer as he presented the technology to the customer.  None of the mistakes were glaring or show stopping but they definitely kept the conversation from having the value that was potentially there.  That conversation got me thinking about the skills and principles that need to be applied to pre-sales engineering and prompted this blog.

Pre-sales engineering in all of its many forms is truly an art.  There is definitely science and methodologies behind its success but practicing those methods and studying that science alone won’t get you far past good.  To be great you need to invest effort into the technology, the business, and most importantly you’re personal style.  If you’re already good at pre-sales and don’t care to be great than the rest of this blog won’t help you.  If you’re an ‘end-user’ or customer that deals with pre-sales engineers this blog may help you understand a little of what goes through the heads of the guys on the other side of the conference table.  If your job is post-sales, implementations, managed-services, etc this may give you an idea of what your counterparts are doing.  If you’re a pre-sales engineer who could use some new ideas or tools, this blogs for you.

Joe’s 5 rules of Pre-Sales Engineering:

  • You are a member of the sales team
  • You are not a salesperson
  • You must be Business Relevant
  • You must be Technically Knowledgeable
  • Know your audience

These are really rules of thumb that I use to get into the right mindset when engaging with customer’s in a pre-sales fashion.  They aren’t set in stone, all encompassing or agreed upon by teams of experts, just tools I use.  Let’s start with a quick look into each rule:

You are a member of the sales team:

This one is key to remember because for a lot of very technical people that move into pre-sales roles this is tough to grasp.  There is not always love, drum circles, group hugs and special brownies between sales and engineering and some engineers tend to resent sales people for various reasons (and vice versa.)  Whether or not there is resentment it’s natural to be proud of your technical skill set and thinking of yourself in a sales perspective may not be something your comfortable with.  Get over it or get out of pre-sales.  As a pre-sales engineer it’s your job to act as a member of the sales team assisting account managers in the sale of the products and services your company provides.  You are there to drive the sales that provide the blanket of revenue the rest of the company rises and sleeps under (if you missed that reference watch the video, it’s worth it: http://bit.ly/dqTzU7.)

You are not a salesman:

Now that you’ve swallowed the fact that you’re a member of the sales team it’s time to enforce the fact that you are not an account manager/sales representative etc.  This is vitally important, in fact if you can apply only the first two rules you’ll be significantly better than some of your peers.  I’m going to use the term AM (Account Manager) for sales from here on out, allow this to encompass any non-technical sales title that fits your role.  An AM and a pre-sales SE are completely different roles with a common goal.  An AM is tightly tied to a target sales number and most likely spends hours on con calls talking about that number and why they are or aren’t at that number.  An AMs core job is to maintain customer relationships and sell what the company sells.

A pre-sales engineers job on the other hand is a totally different beast.  While you do need to support your AM it’s your job to make sure that the product, service or solution you sell is relevant, effective, right-fit, and complete for the particular customer.  In the reseller world we talk about becoming a ‘Trusted Advisor’ but that ‘Trusted Advisor’ is typically a two person team consisting of an AM and Engineer who know the customer well, understand their environment, and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.

As the engineer side of that perfect team it’s your job to have the IDEA:

  • Identify
  • Design
  • Evangelize
  • Adjust

Note: Before continuing I have to apologize for the fact that I just created one of those word acronym BS objects…

So what’s the bright IDEA?  A pre-sales engineer you need to identify customer requirements, design a product set or solution to meet those requirements, evangelize the proposed solution, and adjust the solution as necessary with the customer. 

You must be business relevant

This is typically another tough thing to do from an engineer standpoint.  Understanding business requirements and applying the technology to those requirements does not come naturally for most engineers but it is vital to success.  Great technology alone has no value, the data center landscape is littered with stories of great technology companies that failed because they couldn’t capitalize by making the technology business relevant.  The same lesson applies to pre-sales engineering.

To be a great pre-sales engineer you have to understand both business and technology enough to map the technical benefits to actual business requirements.  So what if your widget is faster than all other widgets before it, what does that mean to my business, and my job?  A great way to begin to understand the high level business requirements and what the executives of the companies you sell into are thinking is to incorporate business books and magazines into your reading.  Next time you’re at the airport magazine rack looking at the latest trade rag grab a copy of ‘The Harvard business Review’ instead.

You must be technically knowledgeable:

This part should go without saying but unfortunately is not always adhered to.  It’s way to often I see engineers reading from the slides they present because they don’t know the products or material they are presenting.  Maintaining an appropriate level of technical knowledge becomes harder and harder as more products are thrown at you, but you must do it anyway.   If you can’t speak to the product or solutions features and benefits without slides or data sheets you shouldn’t be speaking about it.

Staying up-to-date is a daunting task but there are a plethora of resources out there for it.  Blogs and twitter can be used as a constant stream of the latest and greatest technical information.  Add to that formal training and vendor documentation and the tools to be technically relevant are there.  The best advice I can offer on staying technically knowledgeable is not being afraid to ask and or say you don’t know.  If you need training ask for it, if you need info find someone who knows it and talk to them.  As importantly work to share your expertise with others as it creates a collaborative environment that benefits everyone.

Know your audience:

This may be the most important of the five rules and boils down to doing your homework and being applicable.  Ensure you’ve researched your customer, their requirements, and their environment as much as possible.  Know what their interests and pain points are before walking into a meeting whenever possible.

Knowing your audience also applies during customer meetings.  As the customer provides more information it’s important to tailor the information you provide to that customers interest on the fly.  Any technical conversation should be a fluid entity ebbing and flowing with the customers feedback.

Practicing the art:

Like any other art pre-sales must be practiced.  You must study the products and services your company sells, develop your presentation skills, and constantly work on your communication.  From my perspective the best way to build all of these skills at once is white boarding.  White boards are the greatest tool in a pre-sales engineers arsenal.  They provide a clean canvas on which you can paint the picture of a solution and remain fluid in any given conversation.  Unlike slides white board sessions are flexible and can easily stay focused on what the customer wants to hear.  I firmly believe that a pre-sales engineer should not discuss any technology they cannot confidently articulate via the whiteboard.  You cannot take this concept far enough, I’ve instructed 5 day data center classes 100% on the white board covering LAN, SAN, storage, servers and networking because it was the right fit for the audience.  The white board is your friend.

If you don’t have a white board in your home get one.  Use it to hone your skills, help visualize architecture, and practice before meetings.  Look through the slides you typically present and practice conveying the same messaging via the white board without cues.  As you become comfortable having technical discussions via the white board you’ll find you can convey a greater level of technical information tailored to the customers needs in a much faster fashion.  White boards also don’t require slides, projectors, or power, they don’t suffer from technical difficulties.

As you white board in front of customers think of painting a picture for them, start with broad strokes outlining the technology and add detail to areas that the customer shows interest in.  Drill down into only the specifics that are relevant to that customer, this is where knowing your audience is key.

image

In the diagram above you can see the way the conversation should go with a customer.  You begin at the top level big picture and drill down into only the points that the customer shows an interest in or are applicable to their data center and job role.  Don’t ever feel the need to discuss every feature of a product or solution because they are not all relevant to every customer.  For instance a server admin probably doesn’t care how fast switching occurs but network and application teams probably do.  Maybe your product can help save a ton of cost, great but that’s probably not very relevant to the administrators who aren’t responsible for budget.  Always ensure you’re maintaining relevance to the audience and the business.

Summary:

Pre-Sales like any other skill set must be honed and practiced.  It doesn’t come overnight and as with anything else, you’re never as good as you can be.  Build a style and methodology that work for you and don’t be afraid to change or modify them as you find areas for improvement.  The better you get at the more value your giving your customer, team, and company.

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