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.

Comments here.


Virtual Lab

   In the last of my three-part series on the SE lab, I want to cover the concept of lab centralization and virtualization. Once a sales organization reaches a certain size it stands to gain from economies of scale in various areas, labs being one of them. Because of the length of this entry I have divided it into 3a and 3b.

When a sales organization is small, for the most part the SE’s lab is his/her own set up at the office or at home. When the organization grows to the point of supporting regional sales teams with several SEs per region, it usually makes sense to create regional labs where SEs can experience the benefits I outlined in my previous post. When the organization grows large enough, or has extensive technology requirements, it makes sense to take the lab to the next step.

Creating a central lab environment has several benefits:

  1. Focused investment – Budget can be pooled within the organization to invest in hardware that would not be feasible at the regional level.
  2. Better management– Pooling resources allows for the possibility of dedicated personnel to managing the environment, meaning SEs don’t have to.
  3. Formal strategy – A project of this size will require proper planning and maintenance to ensure success. This is often a problem that afflicts regional labs.
  4. Higher utilization – Better resources mean more value for the SE which lead to increased adoption.
  5. Remote access– SEs can leverage the environment from home and at the customer site which may be invaluable for proof of concept.

If you are in the business of selling software, you can also heavily benefit from virtualization. While up to this point I have used lab in a very generic sense, a central lab can be used specifically to enhance product demos and as proof of concept.

With everyone having access to the same virtual environment, SEs can use this as a launch platform for creating enhanced demos that would not be doable with a laptop. SEs should be able to share these demos with others. Having a standard demo catalog with the best of the best content is a great way to drive additional revenue. SE management/enablement and marketing can also leverage the work that SEs create and incorporate them into the master library. If you really want to get fancy, you can start tracking this in your CRM to statistically determine which demos work better than others. This is all part of building a repeatable sales process.

Proof of concept
Some companies use evaluation and proof of concept interchangeably. Sometimes a customer just wants to kick the tires without an SE. Sometimes the customer needs to see the product in action to validate the technical specs and sales presentation. Allowing SEs to build a environment that matches the specific requirement of the customer can be a huge time saver for both sides. It also reduces risk to the opportunity be being able to run the POC in a controlled and familiar environment.

Microsoft goes even further and has integrated this strategy into their corporate marketing efforts on their website. With many of their products, you can register onlineand get access to a virtual environment with a demo script to evaluate the product remotely–without an SE! This can take a huge load off the channel or SMB SE’s shoulders. It also gives your corporate SEs an alternate option of letting a customer self evaluate in a controlled and scripted environment. This is especially useful for opportunities that you would not deem appropriate for a full SE-led evaluation.

One other very valuable use of this type of platform is as a training aid. Instead of trying to get access to a classroom with a purpose-built set up, or messing around with virtual machines on laptops, you can configure the labs ahead of time, virtually, and allow students to access them through the browser on their laptops. Whereas the demo and proof of concept provide additional revenue opportunity, this is an easy way to demonstrate cost savings to the company.

In the follow up post I will detail the process and considerations for building out a virtual lab.