Review – Mastering Technical Sales

For my second review in this series, I now turn to Mastering Technical Sales by John Care and Aron Bohlig. This is a great book that provides some excellent insight and I was lucky enough to be able to speak with coauthor John Care. It was first published in 2002 with the 2nd edition having been released just several weeks ago.

Mastering Technical Sales
Hardcover: 340 pages
Publisher: Artech House Publishers; 2 edition (August 31, 2008); 1st edition (August 15, 2002)
ISBN-10: 1596933399

Background and Purpose

Both John and Aron got their start publishing the book back when no other texts or classes covered the specific role of Sales Engineering and saw a need in the space to provide some structure to the role. After collecting case studies and conducting dozens of interviews they were able to bring the book to market about a year after inception.

The 2nd edition includes a rewrite of most of the book and the addition of several topics and chapters. The main reason for the 2nd edition was a change in the underlying technology available to SEs and an expansion to audiences working at today’s large, multi-product organizations including enterprise software and hardware.

I will be focusing on the 2nd edition for the purposes of this review.

Content

Note that because of amount of information in the book (28 chapters) I am going to be focusing on chapters and ideas that I felt were unique or especially insightful among resources currently available. You can browse the full table of contents online here.

Lead Qualification

After hitting on most of the basics including the sales process and description of SE activities, the authors hit on a very good recommendation on making sure the SEs understand what qualification criteria are being used by the telesales organization. Those criteria should be aligned with the content of your presentations and discussions with the customer. As the SE becomes more senior in understanding the market and product set, they will be able to provide invaluable information back to sales and marketing that can be used to further refine the methodology.

Another great tip mentioned was the Rule of 200, that your personal quota can be divided by 200 to give you amount of revenue your activities are expected to generate every day. This rule of thumb can help guide you as to what value of opportunities you’ll need to focus on to be successful.

RFP

SEs, typically being more analytical in nature, will really enjoy their take on RFPs. The authors talk a lot about specific criteria that should be used to dictate your response. Of particular value is a scoring system (new to the 2nd edition) used to provide a more independent assessment of how to proceed.

In our talk, John added an excellent follow on to that saying that it is especially important in industries where a lot of business comes from RFPs as it gives you a quantitative way to evaluate and compare different them. It may not be as useful a comparison if they both score in the 70s, but if you have one that scores a 40 while another 90, you know where to focus. Organizations can then add upper and lower bands to establish best practices on when to respond and when to walk away.

For me, having worked in the public sector (RFP heavy) in the past, I really wish I had a tool like this. If nothing else it would be something I could use with my rep to define a process for filtering all of our RFP requests. As I have mentioned in my posts and is in this book as well, having defined process and consistent terminology goes a long way toward maximizing your effectiveness.

Needs Analysis and Discovery

In the chapter they provide a very valuable 7-step process for taking you through this phase in the sales cycle. As part of this process they provide templates to help you collect and work through the information collected.

John made note of the fact that it is very important to customize and adapt the framework to the company and individual over time.

I would even go one step farther and recommend that these templates be codified in your company’s CRM system so that this information can be systematically captured over time.

The Perfect Pitch

I was glad to see that John and Aron had gone back through this chapter to capture some of the more recent modern theory on presenting with PowerPoint. This includes making use of images to deliver meaning, staying away from death by bullet point, and stepping away from the computer to storyboard the presentation.

One other great insight was the use of proof points inside the presentation. All too often I have witnessed slide 1 of a technical presentation consist of a dizzying array of well known company logos designed to show the prospect that they would be in good company; but, that usually is the extent of the references. They make the point in the book that you should not always be relying on your demo to show proof points. Include your supporting facts, figures, and references inside your presentation itself (though not necessarily on the slide). So if you mention you have a scalable architecture, don’t just mention you can support x number of agents, mention you have a large customer in their industry managing 75,000 agents across the globe. John added: If any SE ever says “scalable architecture” they should be shot. Which software/hardware company ever says “we have a totally limited, non-scalable, closed, and proprietary architecture”? Just get right to the 75,000 agents figure.

Dash to Demo, Snap Demos, and Remote Demos

The most important take away from the Dash to Demo chapter is not to take shortcuts in the sales cycle by offering to proof out all objections during the product demonstration. Reps and SEs have a great degree of control over how they position the demo (a fact I often see overlooked). As they mention, the demo should be used as a proof point rather than a keystone of your sales methodology.

A new chapter this time around is on the snap (impromptu) demo. There is definitely some applicability to trade shows and certain “elevator pitch” scenarios. Though they basically advocate something similar, I personally have never had an issue talking my way out of providing a demo on the spot. I’ve found that customers are very understanding of the need to prepare when showing enterprise solutions. The broader message of the chapter which I agree with is to make sure you know your product/market well enough to be able to adapt to changing customer scenarios so you can generate interest in a short amount of time.

Another new chapter is that on performing remote demos over the web. I’ve seen increasing industry pressure to avoid travel unless absolutely necessary which means most SEs end up doing far more remote demos now than ever before. There is definitely a learned skill and art to navigating this medium so I highly recommend reading through this a few times. Some excellent points include reworking slides for lower color/resolution, anticipating a lack of whiteboarding capability, and moving slowly through demos to allow for screen refresh. My favorite tip was to have a 2nd computer available and logged into your session so that you can see what your audience is seeing.

Evaluation Strategies

Similar to the Needs Analysis chapter they provide a very good procedural task list and templates. Again, these provide excellent support for managing the sales cycle and should be incorporated into your CRM and SOP.

Getting Started

The authors put a lot of work into this onboarding section. It’s also an area where a lot of organizations overlook from an SE standpoint—just grouping them with sales in general. In a time with large and ever consolidating vendors, the ramp up process is extremely important. The detailed look and examples for the SE 30-60-180 day plan should be especially helpful to new SEs. I am a big believer in mentorship programs and John and Aron cover this and many other ramping areas.

The U in Technical Sales

I really enjoyed this chapter on what can be called personal branding. The chapter begins with the importance of goal setting for SEs. Once you know where you want to go you can work back and create milestones and metrics for progress. One of the best ways to progress is using what they call the PVP—the personal value proposition. It is basically a brand for yourself that differentiates you from other SEs and is a vehicle to increase your personal stock price within the company. To me it boils down: what specific service can you be best in your company or industry at.

I think a lot senior SEs stumble onto this idea or do it themselves subconsciously. I think the authors did a great job of articulating the concept and applicability for SEs. On a more general sense, one of my favorite writers—Seth Godin—covers personal branding more in depth at his blog. I highly recommend both the chapter contents and reading Seth’s blog.

Using a CRM System

As John said to me, the CRM has to be the SE’s best friend. Access to this corporate memory needs to underpin most of the SEs daily activities. Because most SEs and SE organizations don’t have direct management contribution into the system, most of the discussions I’ve had are around implementation and getting reps (let alone SEs) to use it.

I spoke with John at length on the topic. In his experience the only way to drive utilization was from the top down. A few specific examples include:

  • Not paying senior management unless deals are in the system
  • Management reviewing the opportunity record before going onsite and being transparent about it being reviewed
  • Driving participation of services and support so that each department sees value in the system

In both of our opinions it provides tremendous value to the SE, and good SEs shouldn’t wait for the top to push it down. It provides you proof of your contribution, drives common terminology, and ensures you cover your bases. Though not all SEs are subjected to this, you can inform your rep about how much smoother forecasting calls go when accurate and up-to-date CRM/forecast data is available. Point them to this book or my blog if needed 😉

Hybrid Sales Positions

This chapter notes that as company portfolios and sales organizations become larger, the trend is toward specialization at the account team level. They define 4 roles including the Account Director (or owner), the Account SE, the specialist “overlay” rep and the specialist SE. It is not uncommon these days to require 4 or more people from a vendor to attend a customer meeting. Striking the right balance is key and the chapter illustrates the complexity well and provides many solid recommendations. I think the most important take away is the extreme importance of clearly defined roles of each team member to ensure alignment. The follow on for SE management is to ensure that compensation is clearly aligned and roles up accordingly for each overlay position.

Organizational Structure and Building the Infrastructure

These are must reads for SE managers. John and Aron do a good job of providing specific examples of SE reporting structures for companies of different sizes. They also delve into the supporting roles of an SE organization including demo/collateral creation and SE trainers, something I have not really seen covered anywhere else—though they have existed for a while now.

John and I spoke about this topic in some depth as well. John’s observation is that the SE organization often becomes the organization of last resort. If demo tools, presentations, competitive information, etc. aren’t up to par or aren’t being created, SEs often are required to step up because they are necessary to close sales and posses the raw knowledge necessary to create them. His focus on enablement was an effort to bring some formalization to the sub-specialty which can take some work off of the field. He stressed that he has seen wonderful results rotating SEs into enablement roles for 1-2 years.

I’ve had similar experiences with SEs needing to step up to fill gaps in other organizations—especially in the post sales areas with support and consulting and even the training organization. I suppose we in the SE ranks should feel proud that we collectively have the ability to fulfill multiple roles but these activities do take us away from revenue generation which is our primary function. This is really the key take away from the chapter for SE managers. If they aren’t managing the expectations of surrounding departments and ensuring that infrastructure positions are established, it can and does have a significant impact on the ability to generate revenue.

Hiring Winners

Interviewing SEs definitely requires a specific strategy and they provide some good detail in the chapter about format and types of qualities SE managers should be looking for. I agree with them that having SEs perform presentations is important. I even go so far as to require potential hires to present about one of my products which also allows me to evaluate their research skills.  The other great point is that of involving the rep counterpart in the interview to so that you have the buy in that will make the onboarding process easier. As mentioned, having the rep and other SEs interview candidates and attend the presentation are also important to provide you with additional data points and allows them to see how the SE will respond under pressure when being asked questions during the presentation.

Managing by the Metrics

A subject near and dear to my heart, the section goes into the importance of constructing and managing by a balanced set of metrics. I have personally seen so many SE managers and organizations only measure SEs based on quota attainment that it drives me crazy; so I was very happy to see it covered here. They provide some good examples of MBOs and other objectives such as customer satisfaction, attending training, win rates for various activities, and number of new reference accounts. This is the only way to ensure the long-term viability of the organization. Focus only on quota leads to better short-term results at the expense of long-term growth. Speaking with John on the subject, this is an area of passion for him because of its importance to the long-term health of the organization and individual SEs. He has posted an example balanced scorecard on his website.

My Recommendation

I’m sure it’s clear by reading the write-up that I am big fan of this book. This is definitely the most comprehensive source of information about SEs and SE organizations I have come across. I particularly like how John and Aron cover all of the aspects of an SE organization including how to set them up and ensure they run smoothly. Anyone managing or running an SE organization should consider this a must read.

The 2nd edition went a long way toward rounding out the content and bringing certain sections up-to-date. While I still consider presenting and demoing so central to being an SE that I recommend SEs pursue them as their own specialized discipline with specialized resources, I think the revisions incorporate most of the basic points of modern theory in these areas. I’m glad they took the time to make the updates.

My bottom line: It’s a bit on the pricey side at over $60, but for SEs the first bump in your commission check will more than make up for it. Any new SEs of mine will certainly be getting their own copy.


I’d like to thank John Care for taking the time to speak with me regarding the book. It is apparent that John has a ton of great insight about the role of the SE—so much so that he now consults with SE organizations full time. He provides many resources including a very informative newsletter on his website. I’d enthusiastically recommend and encourage any SE organization to engage John, even if it’s just for a check-up.