Do Customer References Matter More than Product Features?


I was recently pointed to this WSJ article entitled The Secret to Turning Consumers Green. The topic of the article is irrelevant, but the techniques documented inside paint a very interesting picture about how individuals make decisions. These findings should not be ignored by Sales Engineers when designing a pitch.

Let’s look at one of the experiments from the article:

The second paper described a study involving public-service messages hung on the doorknobs of several hundred middle-class homes in San Marcos, Calif. All urged residents to use fans instead of air conditioning, but they gave different reasons for doing so.

Some residents learned they could save $54 a month on their utility bill. Others, that they could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month. A third group was told it was the socially responsible thing to do. And a fourth group was informed that 77% of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning, a decision described as “your community’s popular choice!”

Meter readings found that those presented with the “everyone’s doing it” argument reduced their energy consumption by 10% compared with a control group. No other group reduced energy use by more than 3% compared with the control group.

When attempting to influence, the (lesser seasoned) SE’s primary staple has always been the Logos approach. It’s the easiest and most familiar given our backgrounds. We talk about how feature x is unique and how our feed is 25% faster, etc. But as we present up the food chain the dynamic of a technology or featured-based decision erodes quickly in favor of a more Pathos-based set of criteria.

You might be thinking at this point that I’m suggesting you eschew your technology roots when presenting up the chain. Not so. I think there is a nuanced way you stay within your area of expertise while providing additional social proof.

A couple examples:

Customer: Your competition says they deploy in 3 months and you’re telling me you deploy in 1 month, why is that?
You (Before): We have a learning algorithm that  profiles your users activity to help us auto-configure the business logic before we go into production.
You (After): We had two early-stage customers of ours, Proctor and Gamble and General Electric, where they were desperate to get our product deployed quickly. Our product and consulting team worked with them to develop a capability to quickly learn about your users before deploying. Since then, our customer deployments that I’ve personally been involved in like AT&T and Chipotle have been completed in just a couple weeks, and they are so happy about the process they are all willing to talk to other clients of ours about the process.

Customer: Tell me about your data retention capabilities.
You (Before): We can store up to 1TB of data at a time, which has proven to be more than sufficient for other large customers.
You (After): We currently up to 1TB of data at a time. To put that into perspective, our largest customer General Motors has been using our software for 4 years now they have only reached half of their allotment. I also happened to be working with Exxon the other day and I was shocked they were only requiring a tenth of that amount. Since they are in your industry, would you anticipate having similar usage?

What you are subtly communicating with these answers is that your prospect will be in very good company if they select you as their vendor. You are also demonstrating your credibility in being able to address the business issue. There are many places you can work in these “micro-references” into the conversation including presentations, demos, competitive showdowns, etc.

The hardest part of this approach is that it requires a certain type of company culture. SEs have to be exposed to other accounts, customers must be publicly reference-able, recorded pitches and demos need customer anecdotes built in. Without this cultural aspect, it can be very hard for an individual SE to internalize enough reference points to reach critical mass. Thus it is essential that an SE or SE manager work up the organizational food chain to instill some of these elements where they might be missing today.

The final result is not that features become irrelevant in the conversation, they just will oftentimes become far less relevant than the reference points you provide.


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Getting Rid of Those (F)Ugly Charts

6a00d8341e992c53ef015433b3a9d4970cIt’s rare to see a corporate slide deck today that doesn’t start with “defining the business case” either via some statistics, charts, or newspaper clippings. Although not entirely inappropriate to throw up some charts (pun intended), I find most examples to be lacking in either punch, clarity, or aesthetics–sometimes all three.

Here is the process I use to maximize the effectiveness of any stats or charts that I’m presenting.

Narrow the Narrative

  • Determine what it is about the chart that underpins your primary value proposition
  • Figure out exactly what it is about the chart that drives your use case
  • Is there a way you can frame this point to give it urgency

By going through these bullets you should have a crisp sense of the key supporting evidence that aligns to the business case and conveys a sense of urgency.

Remove Extraneous Data

  • Remove any data or figures that don’t demonstrate contrast
  • Remove dimensions of the data that are redundant, if you can get by comparing two time series, don’t show three
  • For trends, you don’t need to plot every time series, most of the time it is good enough to show current state vs a historical time period that conveys the change in the dataset you want to demonstrate

After these steps, you’ll realize you’re not even working with a chart any longer. It will more closely resemble a fact or figure. This is exactly the point.

Maximize Visual Impact (but don’t cheat!)

  • With your greatly reduced dataset, determine the most interesting aspect of the figure. Rather than illustrate a change from 33% to 66% over a period of time, you want to emphasize a “100% growth” over that time
  • Use contrasting colors commensurate with the message. The “before” figure goes in green, the “after” in red to denote an urgent change
  • Use proportionately big visual indicators (thick, jarring lines; really tall bars; etc) to again increase contrast
  • Forego graph details such as series markers and legends in favor of bold text shouting out the key finding
  • Resist the urge to “cheat” by compressing the time series on an axis, for example showing a change in percentage using a y-axis range of 5-10%. Use the full 1-10% axis or come up with a better way to show the change. It rarely fools anyone and it’s a pet peeve of many an analyst

Before and After

Before – Here’s something I would expect to see from many vendors in my space:


After – Here’s what I would end up using:




  • The “before” has a lot of terminology that distracts from what I want my prospect to focus on
  • Note the imprecise use of qualitative terms “high” and “low”. What does that even mean to me?
  • There is a conflicting use of the y-axis for both tools and sophistication which move in inverse = confusing
  • This is the IT world, does anyone care what happened before 2005?
  • There is nothing visceral or memorable that a prospect can latch onto and remember

Thought Process

  • I need my prospect to understand exactly how easy it’s gotten to launch a sophisticated cyber attack
  • Forget about attack techniques, my customers know about them all too well
  • I need something quantitative that is alarming and memorable. There isn’t a datapoint in the “before” I can use
  • Research what it would take to launch an advanced attack if I’m less sophisticated
  • Wow, only $40, I didn’t realize that and I bet neither do my customers. That’s it!
  • Keep it simple, use a simple font, size it appropriately for impact, and use contrasting colors


TSE moral of the story: Never use a chart when a soundbite is all that you need!

Don’t Be This Guy


Click for larger image

While I have gone through a fairly rigorous set of writing/grammar classes in the past, I don’t consider myself a grammar nazi. Those who live in glass houses and all…

But there is a definite time and place to ensure that your communications (both verbal and non) are crisp and as perfected as possible. When I was just getting started in my professional career I would sluff off comments that a slide or email communication had some spelling or grammar errors. After all, when I sat through presentations they didn’t bother me at all.

As you meet with more and more customers you will eventually come to realize that there are those that 1) notice, and 2) care a lot about these things. Even folks like myself that are pretty lax start to raise an eyebrow if there are more than a couple errors in a slide deck.

And there is one group/situation in particular that should be hyper sensitive to accurate communications: managers and those helping screen applicants for job hires.

Enter: This Guy


Normally I don’t like to pick on individuals for posts, but if there was EVER a time to use proper language, it would be from someone asking for a job contact. Recruiters/HR are paid to find reasons not to send your resume along. Don’t make it easy for them!

What we should all take from examples like this is that people perceive us by the words we use and how we use them. Take the time to scrub your presentations, or better yet have a fresh set of eyes do it. Take the time to reread that important email a few times to make sure it’s perfect. Take the time to rehearse the beginning and ending of that important presentation. And, most importantly, be extra diligent when communicating with anyone who may have a say on whether you’re hired.

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Whiteboarding Mastery

Oh how the simple act of a technical whiteboard session has matured over the last 15 years since my humble beginnings as a newly minted SE. As a followup to my Storytelling Mastery article, I realized I had somewhat neglected one of my most important tools in conveying information. Here are a few things whiteboarding has going for it:

  • Better information conveyance – Despite a lot of good information on better presentation techniques, many in Sales do not leverage them. As a result, the moment a slide deck comes out is the moment a lot of prospects unconsciously switch off their brains only to be re-awoken (hopefully) during the demo. This same Pavlovian response does not seem to be nearly as acute when presenting via a whiteboard, hence this medium has an immediate and broad advantage
  • More tailored – Sales as a profession (including technical) has gained in maturity, and as a result customers expect a more tailored message and have less patience for a perceived generic progression of content
  • Customer responsiveness – Because of this mediums fluidity, it naturally brings the customer into the conversation. Senior SEs will tell you there is a world of difference in questions, answers, and feedback from prospects during a whiteboard session compared to a slide deck

Because of these trends, I believe SEs should be converting their slide offerings into flexible whiteboarding options. As they do, I think there are some compelling strategies that can be adopted to maximize this transition.

“There Can Be Only More Than One”

Most SEs only think of the “architecture” messaging when thinking about a whiteboard session. In reality there are several types and purposes behind whiteboarding sessions that be utilized as needed throughout the sales process.

  • Coaching whiteboard – If you’re not teaching your customers something new about their business (note I’m not talking about your product) than you’re wasting their time. You need to be able to articulate understanding of your prospects business challenge that you can build together on a whiteboard. This is essentially your opportunity to get them thinking about the opportunity before they are thinking about your solution
  • Solution whiteboard – After the customer is really ready to listen to you about your solution, now is the time to take them through the offering which can include technical and nontechnical content. This is closer to the standard “architecture” whiteboard that most SEs are familiar with, but as we will see not exactly the same
  • Differentiation whiteboard – After the customer is interested in a possible change to their business (e.g. looking at solutions) and they feel you are qualified to deliver a solution, the next question is why are you the vendor to provide the solution

There are others that account managers can perform, but you should have a practiced ability for these three options.

Coaching Whiteboard

These whiteboards are all about conveying to a customer a problem or opportunity they didn’t even know they had. It should be novel and interesting and provides a way for you to gain credibility with the customer. Without that credibility, the customer will not be an optimal state of mind to want to hear about a solution. Coaching sessions should include:

  • An upfront attention grabber
  • A relate-able customer example to get them to open up. People are afraid to talk about their problems unless they feel like they are not alone in experiencing the issue and that it is safe to talk to you about it because it isn’t something unknown to you
  • A walk through of how the business environment has changed such that this change is responsible for the current problem, not a reflection on the company or individual
  • Tangible numbers quantifying the problem
  • A late surprise. After they feel like they have a handle on the problem, there needs to be something that escalates the urgency of solving the issue now

Here are some examples of whiteboards that somewhat speak to the ideas above. Notice the process and formatting options that are involved, not the slide content itself.



Solution Whiteboard

Here we get into familiar territory for the average SE. If the product you’re selling is at all complex or network oriented you’ve undoubtedly spent a lot of time here in front of customers and are likely pretty comfortable leveraging the medium to this end. That said, here are things I’ve found beneficial to keep in mind:

  • Have the customer get up and draw their environment as it pertains to your solution. It gets them involved and gives you a starting point from which to imprint your own solution
  • Take pertinent notes right on the board. When you’re done, simply take a picture. You can commit the information to notes later on. You really want to encourage the customer to save your whiteboard for future reference
  • Have some predefined setups/configurations drawn out and practiced ahead of time. If you always find yourself drawing a router and firewall, practice getting really good at drawing unique and distinctive icons for them
  • Is your whiteboard really complex? If so, get a PPT slide that has an outline of the complicated portions on a white background. Then project that slide onto the whiteboard and simply fill in the more dynamic portions of the setup. It shows a great deal of preparation and professionalism, not to mention saving you a lot of time rebuilding complicated elements

tech 1


Competition Whiteboard

I find myself using this one more often during or after a POC while I’m onsite, sometimes during a POC summary presentation. I tend not to like to present this level of detail early on in the sales cycle because (depending on the solution) I find it is easy to overload a new prospect with too much information. Better, I think, to really hit competitive points home after the prospect has had exposure to both solutions. This isn’t to say you don’t lay competitive landmines immediately, I just wouldn’t go into this level of depth right away during a first/second meeting conversation unless the prospect clearly is ready for it. Some aspects to focus on include:

  • Recap the primary business drivers as they pertain to your competitive differentiators
  • Map features/benefits to these core areas
  • Use a red color to put the competitions negatives next to your strengths

A good example of this technique is below. The key to is keep this high level, but stick to quantitative value differences as much as possible. Saying you’re more “scaleable” is far less impressive than “we support Windows 8.1 and they don’t”.

competition whiteboard


Building Your Whiteboard

Here are several key questions you should be asking yourself before embarking on a formal project to put these together. Keep in mind that while this type of thoughtful sales planning should be owned and driven by marketing and sales ops/management, I would never presume that corporate content is flawless and not worthy of your careful review.

  1. Was your corporate collateral created more than a year ago? Markets in high tech change frequently and may not be as relevant as they could be
  2. Are customers already bought into your coaching messages? Meaning they are simply agreeing with something they already know to be true. If so, you need to evolve, you always want to be challenging the customer, not preaching to the choir
  3. Are you having difficulty getting to agreement to proceed with a POC? If so, either your message or demo is not compelling
  4. In certain verticals is your message not resonating? This likely means you need to work with your anchor accounts to get better case studies/customer stories so your message is better tailored to this new audience
  5. Are deals being lost to competition, or a specific competitor? They may have learned your pitch and come up with specific land mines that are devaluing your strengths

When deciding to move forward with constructing a new approach, it’s best to work with your rep in front of a large whiteboard where you can collect all the disparate forces that need to be included and positioned. These elements include:

  • Buying centers
  • Buyer personas
  • Market trends
  • Industry trends
  • Third party/industry analyst proof points
  • Likely objections
  • Specific use cases
  • Competitive differentiators
  • Unique coaching opportunities
  • Existing customer success stories.

At that point once these elements are captured and laid out, you simply need to practice drawing different layouts into you can capture the key messages in the clearest and most intuitive fashion. You want to shoot for at least 5-7 good ideas before starting to narrow down options. The difference will come when you really push hard here to exhaust many different options. A good problem to have would be walking away with two really good options–simply try both in front of customers to see which one sticks better.

Other whiteboarding tips I missed? Drop me a line below.

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Storytelling Mastery

story-telling-quotes-1Presentation, if done well, is essentially applied storytelling. And the practice and art of storytelling is one of the defining characteristics of a great SE. As I reflect on both the areas where I have excelled and the areas I would like to improve–interestingly–they wind up being the same thing. And that thing is the ability to convey a message in an understandable and memorable way. Everything else we use (e.g. slides, whiteboards, demos) are simply tools that helps facilitate that message.

I captured my basic thoughts on presenting in this article written (gulp) almost 7 years ago. Thankfully in rereading it I still agree with just about all of it, especially my number 1 tactical recommendation: Present stories, not data.

And that is where we pick up and continue the story.

The Holy Triad of Storytelling

There are three critical elements to consider when constructing your story: You, your audience, and your message. All of them are intertwined. Below are some of the more nuanced or complicated aspects of good storytelling that I will be focusing on incorporating moving forward. Many of these tactics I have covered in specific posts over the years since my original article. I pull them into a framework below for reference.


Before an audience will truly listen to you it must first trust you. These aspects below are all important factors in making that happen.

  • Proper introduction – I wrote about the power and structure of a proper introduction here.
  • Display of confidence – At the outset of your presentation, your audience needs to see that you feel at ease enough with your material that you warrant their undivided attention. This means that your attire is appropriate, you have an open and relaxed posture, and that you:
  • Script your intro – Your opening needs to be tight, well rehearsed, and impactful. More on this in a minute
  • Practice – When you are starting out or playing with new content, you should be delivering presentations to smaller or less strategic opportunities. Be prepared that your first several times through will be raw. Take every meeting you can to practice. There are very few things you can do to improve as fast as actually telling the story to a live audience.

Your Audience

This is perhaps the single most underutilized aspect of good storytelling. True, while the best stories have universal appeal, having finely tuned variability in your presentation based on audience is essential for attaining the most impact.

  • Understand motivations – An IT Admin will have different motivations than an executive. Utilize specific techniques when choosing how to deliver your message
  • Structure – Your structure needs to be tailored to your desired audience
  • The story – The techniques you employ as you construct your story need to align to the industry, product, and situation you find yourself in. More on this below

The Story

The “message” as it relates to being an SE is simply whatever it is that you’re selling. The message is your product or service and the story is the vehicle in which you convey that message.

  • Finding the story – The essence of the story you create should center around how someone that the prospect can relate to was able to solve a specific problem using your solution. Work with marketing if needed to get access to your reference case studies
  • Alter the protagonist – If you have many reference-able customers than you have a great situation where you can choose the most relateable story based on vertical and persona. Taking the time when you speak to a company to tailor the actors in the story to better align to their vertical will pay immense dividends
  • Experience the story – Take the time to visualize the backdrop to the story. From reading a case study you will only have a very basic set of details about the circumstance. You, on the other hand, have the task of making the story come to life with a bit of character detail, situational nuance, and results achieved. Have your rep ask you questions about the story that aren’t in your case study to uncover blind spots
  • Research the case – Using directed practice with your rep, research the finer points of the story with your reference (via your internal Sales team if needed). Where detail is scarce, use professional judgment to fill in the details on your own as long as you can point to similar examples supported by other accounts
  • Memory aides – Find a phrase or verbal device that you can work into your story and repeat a few times for emphasis. This should support your primary message, but it should relate to the story being told as well.
  • Cull and refine – When you’re telling the story, it should be full of the rich detail that will make it memorable and relateable. When you do that, you sacrifice the level of depth you can achieve. Your rep should generally be painting an overview before you begin, however, which affords you the ability to drill deeper. That said, remove aspects of the story that are non-essential for conveying your core message
  • Experiment with order – Taking a queue from Hollywood, some of the better movies are not told in linear progression. They will begin with a flash at the ending and then step back in time to show how they got there. In keeping with good demo principles, look for the opportunity to show some meat at the outset in order to draw your audience in for the details
  • Experiment with timing – You know you should pause occasionally for memory retention, but the timing and delivery of certain aspects of the story go along way. Some of the best cadence of storytelling uses pauses mid-sentence right before a main point. I have found it helpful to also introduce an upcoming pause so that I can address questions. For example, instead of just ending a sentence and asking for questions, say something like: “Now that you’ve seen how Customer ABC used this feature, I’ll ask for your feedback in a second. Before I do just consider how they were able to accomplish this in such a short time…” Whatever you say after “I’ll ask for feedback in a second” should be a review of the story since you are intentionally asking the audience subconsciously to stop listening to you and start formulating a response
  • Script the beginning and end – The middle portion of the story can go any number of ways based on audience and questions. But the beginning needs to have a captivating hook that should be performed flawlessly. And the ending is where you tie up or reveal the “message” of the story, and hence is the most important portion to get correct.

The eventual story that you arrive at can be leveraged in many different ways. It should ideally form the structure of your presentation, demonstration, and evaluation. You may opt for a less structured whiteboard session to convey the message or it may be used while delivering a product demo. Tying together the audience, their motivations, a relevant customer story, with the right message is difficult work. Marketing can only provide you the raw tools. It is up to you as the SE to tailor these tools for your prospect. I for one plan on doing a lot of work on this in the coming year. There is a reason why martial arts, meditations, and storytelling are referred to as a “practice”–you’re never done getting better at them.

Good selling in 2015!

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You’re Not Paid by the Slide!

dilbert_slide_thumbPicture this scenario: You’re sitting in the middle of a presentation. The presenter is on slide 5 (out of who knows how many) and you find yourself completely bored. Worse, you’re not really trying to hide how bored you are and it’s visibly apparent everyone else is bored as well, but the presenter roles on unabated. You silently think to yourself “how can this person not realize what they’re doing to us?!?”.

Now, I’ve noticed a propensity among sales/SE professionals in general to always stick to their slides no matter what. I’ve even written before about recapturing lost attention here. But for some reason, maybe as the comic implies, we become emotionally vested in our beloved deck and feel lost without our script.

As a presenter your #1 job is to get the message across and retained by your audience. They surely will not retain anything if they’re silently begging you to stop torturing them. You must have enough awareness of your audience to gauge when they’re tuned out, harder still over a web conference.

Here’s a few things I recommend to avoid falling into that trap:

  1. If you feel like you’re hurrying to get through the slides to get to something else, just skip to that something else
  2. Keep your deck to 5-7 slides, fewer if you can. If you must have more, break up the flow somehow
  3. Pepper in some questions in order to draw out your audience’s level of participation. You can’t rely on visual perception alone. Even if you are in person, some participants are too nice to let on they’re slowly dying inside
  4. If you find yourself repeating concepts you’ve already covered, go back and remove what’s prompting it in the slides
  5. Most importantly, be willing to abandon slides or even the WHOLE DECK at a moment’s notice if you’re missing the mark. Ask your rep politely to turn it over to you, or jump straight to the demo, or head over to the whiteboard. Your audience will realize what you did, will appreciate your personal awareness, and will allow you restore some credibility.

Still feeling sketchy about this? Think back to a time when you noticed your presenter fast forward, did you appreciate it or did you really want them to slog through?

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When All (Attention) Is Lost

BoredHave you ever made it several minutes in to your presentation only to feel like your prospect couldn’t care less what you had to say? I experienced that (thankfully rare) feeling the other day while my rep was presenting the opening to the call. It’s tempting to just blame the prospect and assume they aren’t interested. But here’s the thing:

They took time out of their day to speak with you. They MUST have a problem.

Once you realize that, you realize that you must have strayed somewhere in your pitch. You lost them for a reason. And that’s ok, it will happen occasionally to everyone, but you have to be mindful to get yourself back on track. First though, could you (or your rep) have prevented that issue in the first place?

  • Did your “hook” email promise something compelling, but you didn’t hit on any of those points at the beginning?
  • Did you assume you knew the customer’s problems and started down your normal spiel without verifying?
  • Did you waste 15 minutes of this poor soul’s life showing them several slides about your company, your customers, your awards, pictures of your corporate headquarters?
  • Did you not properly introduce yourself such that you had no credibility established from the start?
  • Did you not take a minute before unleashing your slides to attempt to build a bit of personal rapport with the audience?

And how do you know if you’ve lost attention? The most influential aide is simply paying attention while you’re speaking, and more importantly while your counterpart is speaking. Here are the things to watch for:

  • You hear them typing in the background
  • They have to unmute when you ask them a question (because they were smart enough to know you’d HEAR them typing in the background)
  • They decline to answer questions or they provide one word answers
  • They gave themselves an “out” somewhere after the call started (such as an urgent phone call they have to answer)

So you’ve taken care of the basic hygienics of managing attention, and you notice that attention has faltered, how do you get back on track?

  • Throw out a difficult or somewhat contentions question, something specific to your industry where everyone is likely to have religion on their point of view
  • Pause, and ask them sincerely if this is hitting the mark because “you’ve got a sense” that they might rather want to focus on architecture, or the competition, or a demo, etc.
  • Do the unexpected. Stop your PowerPoint. Cut to a story about an existing customer. Make a joke: “So, Dan, it seems like you totally get it, should we stop now and talk about a PO?”

The option I chose on my call last week was a combination of a touch question and something unexpected. I stopped my rep politely, suggested that it seemed like my prospect already had the problem solved, and suggested we should conclude the meeting if that was the case. In a very complimentary way of course.

In this case I was lucky: the prospect woke up, felt slightly challenged by the assertion, and then took five minutes to explain why he did in fact need a technology like ours. We responded by ditching the rest of the presentation, went right into a demo showing the use case he discussed, and the call ended on a high note.

I should point out that something like that is a last ditch effort, because you run a small risk of alienating a potential buyer. But, then again, based on verbal cues you probably weren’t reeling in a big fish either. Having thought it through, I realize now that my reps and I should have some phrase that signals the other that we need to shake things up, which also gives them the chance to veto that decision. Meaning, both of you are on the same page before attempting.

If nothing else, that should prevent the “WTF?!?!?” phone call after the meeting.