500 Connections and a Picture, period.

used-car-salesmanI came across this article a few weeks back and it got me thinking about how SEs leverage (or don’t leverage) social media. I’m pretty sure that just about every SE in the world uses LinkedIn, even if it’s just to find out a bit of background about a company before a meeting.

But I know from experience that there is a significant portion–maybe 20% or more–that don’t actively manage their own profiles. The minimum bar for all the reasons mentioned in Keenan’s post are: actively connecting to people, keeping your job history up-to-date, and (yes) a picture.

If you are a librarian or an accountant for example, I don’t see you needing to spend as much effort building an online presence. But, to be frank, if your resume comes across my desk for an SE (read: sales) position, and you don’t have a picture and have only 80 connections, what am I supposed to think about your abilities to represent our company in the best possible light?

And I would argue the above criteria are the absolute minimum bar. As presales we have several possibilities to help build credibility in the minds of both potential employers and our customers:

  • Writing on sales-related topics
  • Writing on technical-related topics
  • Sharing industry news and events
  • Contributing to group discussions
  • Re-sharing company announcements (do this sparingly and only on valuable content)
  • Filling out your accomplishments (certs, technical competencies, courses you’ve completed, etc.)

I generally don’t need a reminder to do this as I’m frequently on LinkedIn and other services for daily business, but if you have a hard time incorporating these into your schedule, put something on your calendar like Friday early afternoon when you typically have office time to spend 20 minutes contributing content.

Some groups to help get you started:

  • Sales Engineering Professionals – https://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=160398&goback=&trk=prof-groups-membership-name
  • Engineers in Sales – https://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=2331982
  • Sales Best Practices – https://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=35771
  • Presales Professionals – https://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=64542
  • SE Certification – https://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=3296013
  • Technical Sales Group – https://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=81075

Comments here.

Just, Why… People?

cartoon5929Have you ever had that annoying conversation with someone where it took you having to ask several questions before you could get a simple explanation as to “why”? Those who are around young kids a lot are usually on the other end of that conversation with a seemingly endless stream of “why’s” when trying to communicate. As SE’s our primary job function is to communicate information to others. We all tend to be pretty good at telling customers the who, when, what, how of the problem or solution, but far fewer of us are adept at the why portion. And as you probably already intuitively know, the why is often the most interesting element of communication.

Let’s look at three examples to understand to see what I mean.

Why do I need this solution?

A common trap for seasoned SEs is that they understand the problem so well that they instinctively think the customer understands the problem as well as they do. So they “don’t waste the customers time” and instead jump into the product. The customer, happy to just get to the technical “meat” of the meeting, responds favorably, and no one thinks to probe deeper to really uncover all of the use cases and intricacies of the customer’s business processes and situation.

The problem isn’t that customers are unwilling to have a discussion around the business problem, it’s that you (or rep) aren’t challenging the customer’s assumptions. And if you aren’t challenging assumptions, they really aren’t learning anything about their business or trade. And when that happens, your only value is your knowledge about the product. Instead, your job is to know much more about your niche than your customer, and thus you should be in a position to coach. This should be self evident in the fact that you work on solving this one problem all day long over and over with other customers. There is no way your customer will be able to match that depth nor should they. Tell them why your other customers found your solution so uniquely compelling.

Why doesn’t the product do xyz?

I always love the opportunity to bring product management into my meetings. I always learn something new I didn’t know. Most people believe their greatest power lies in their intimate product knowledge or in their control over the roadmap.

I disagree.

The two things they can do better than I can do as an SE is demonstrate a knowledge of the market as a whole. They work daily to out-strategize the competition. And because of this knowledge, they are in the best position out of anyone to understand why a product functions the way it does, or why a particular trade-off was made. So whereas I might have to tap dance around why we don’t support that database version, they can tell the customer the reason we don’t support it is because they decided to prioritize this big feature that these large customers of ours were really pushing for which should help other customers as well. Customers get angry when your company makes seemingly stupid technology decisions. When you have someone that can illuminate the bigger picture on which that decision was made, the customer usually comes to the same conclusion as the product manager, realizes it was a smart move, which actually increases the confidence the customer has in our team and solution. Your job as an SE is to pick up as many of these anecdotes as possible and have them ready around your product rough spots.

Why am I experiencing this issue?

This question has caused me some grief as I’ve been working with startups for quite some time. Where I get into trouble is when I’m going through a POC and I encounter a bug–especially if it is clearly something that should have been caught in QA. Sometimes I will get a support answer back akin to “we are aware of the issue and it will be fixed in the next release”. If you would pass along an answer like that to a customer, then please let me know if you’re looking for a job and I’ll connect you with my competition.

If you’re a customer and you hear something like that, wouldn’t you think something like:

  • They must not have very good QA
  • They must not have any customers using this thing
  • I’m testing their beta code for them

So when I get an answer like that from support, I tend to drive them crazy getting to the why: Oh, so this customer is getting a conflict with this driver that is really old and only present in a minute portion of our install base and we caught it while beta testing with one of our large customers and we just posted it to knowledge base yesterday? That’s what I can communicate to my customer to ensure they maintain confidence in our release process.

I’m sure there are many more variations on this theme and I am just scratching the surface. The takeaway here is to act like seasoned parents do and provide the “why” before the child (or customer =) has the chance to ask.

Comments here.

Death By Committee

committee-meetingMaybe it’s just me, but it seems like more and more product/buying decisions are being delegated to large cross functional groups or formal committee’s. Now, this is likely due to procurement changes that have been implemented post recession. But selling to groups presents a unique challenge to sales teams and SEs that require special considerations. I personally dislike this scenario, but here we are.

I dislike the scenario because I believe that relying on a committee is an overly conservative approach that, in aggregate, greatly slows innovation in all departments–but decidedly so in R&D and IT organizations. From an SE perspective, it makes the job of determining the highest priority business problems and technical drivers difficult, as opinions within the group will vary greatly.

When you have a key decision maker or technical evaluator, you can focus–laserlike–on only the important use cases. Conversely, every member of a committee will have their pet criteria, and ignoring any of them may loose you votes, even if they don’t align to the broader organizational goals.

To net this out: You always had groups involved in the buying decision, but now each of those members has a direct vote.

This makes it critical that we’re on our game in terms of our fundamental ability to navigate these political waters. In a recent discussion with some reps, here is what we came up with for some good tactics to implement. These can be used on every opp, but are especially valuable when you’re selling into a Fortune 500, Govt, or committee-based buying center:- In every meeting, especially those with many participants, take the time to get everone’s name, organizational affilitation, and role

  • If you know a meeting will be large ahead of time, schedule in 10 minutes to make sure both sides understand proper introductions are part of the agenda. If you don’t, you risk alienating participants
  • Follow up after the fact with each committee member to “make sure you had a chance to answer all of their questions and understand his/her particular criteria–given the short amount of time on the initial call”. Your goal is to treat this person with the same attention as the committee chair or reporting director. Too often, certain group members are ignored by Sales because they didn’t speak up much in the meeting to command their attention. It would be our mistake to assume these members didn’t have something unique they brought to the equation.
  • Learn who each committee member will leverage or consult in formulating their opinion. Often, it will be 1-2 folks who aren’t on the committee themselves
  • Determine the pecking order of the committee. You can’t spend equal time with everybody, so make sure you are directing your communication efforts to those in the best position to act on them. I’m not a fan of playing politics because of its propensity to backfire, but not understanding political realities is also equally detrimental
  • Arm your supporters with inside information. Use private information such as non-published technical collateral, competitive writeups, and most importantly insider industry data affecting your market. Coach your supporters on how to get the most out of this. Example, if a top notch think tank publishes insights on your market that puts you in a favorable light, that committee member should be distributing that to the whole group as though they found it. Essentially you’re helping them build credibility for their opinions they can tap later

You and your rep should each be aware of these factors and tactics and discuss the game plan to execute. As the SE, you should be focused on understanding the specific committee members who the others will likely turn to for technical validation or leadership. You should also be making the followup calls to those members as well as the confidants the members will turn to for validation. You should also be sending (or suggesting) that specific collateral and resources get sent to specific individuals as you uncover more information about the committee dynamics.

SE Managers: Consult with marketing so that the whole sales team is receiving (and can contribute to) a running list of indistry validation articles that they can send out to prospects as needed. Unless you’re at a bigger firm with depth in technical product marketing, SEs will need to pitch in and help curate this content.

Other suggestions? Comment here.

Hi, and you are…?

2d72eca66a2eaa9fb1a8f98a5cac5a32I came across this really good quote on LinkedIn the other day. Of course, while that sounds all well and good, until that time: how we are introduced (or how we introduce ourselves) is supremely more important than most realize.

Please rewind to your last joint sales call with your rep. After he (or she) introduced himself, what did he say about you? Consider two introductions during your next demo:

Option A (most typical)

“With me is Darrin, he’s my SE and will take you through the demo today.”

Option B

“With me today is Darrin. Darrin and I have worked together for the past two years. He has spent over 15 years in the widget industry. He came to us from <respectable company xyz> where he was in charge of their field implementations. He’s also got <this certification or achievement> and he is one of the top experts in this space. I had Darrin come in today specifically because I know you guys are super good at what you do and will want to go very deep to fully understand our technology.”


Now, before you go off thinking this is just SE-porn that couldn’t actually happen, think about this from your reps point of view if they start doing this:

  1. Establishes your credibility right off the bat which makes the audience more receptive to your message
  2. Wins them points with the customer for a) making the extra effort of bringing in an “expert” to talk with them, and b) showing genuine appreciation for technical abilities–something almost everyone in the audience has
  3. Establishes that your firm can and does employ top talent, meaning the solution must be top notch as well

In short, this should be an easy sell to your rep, most SEs just never think to have the conversation.


Closing the Sale in the First Meeting?

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You or your rep routinely schedule 1-hour meetings only to find that when your time is up, you haven’t been able to cover your full agenda. Worse, probably the most important part of the meeting was shoehorned into the last 2 minutes of the meeting. That’s right: understanding the next steps in the buying process and using the opportunity to influence that process. If this is a routine occurrence, there is one simple reason why. [Read more…]

Seamless Integration with your Account Team

How well you communicate with your reps is a key determinant to your worth in a sales organization. It determines how well you’re aligned, the level of mutual trust, and ultimately how effective you are in your accounts. Given its importance, I’m surprised at how little thought goes into managing this more closely. I think many SEs feel they get to take a backseat to the discussion and simply wait for their reps to call them. Now, if you’re looking for a sure-fire way to get top of mind with your account teams while demonstrating leadership to management, read on.

Being that all of us have by now established the critical practice of a weekly review, leveraging your broader account teams for input into your process will greatly ease much of your decision-making effort. If it seems obvious that you should have a weekly review with your account teams that mirror your own review schedule, you’re already functioning at a high level of self-direction.

Before going further, understand that your rep is indeed accountable for the communications of the sales team. If you have a senior rep, they will have already organized some sort of review schedule that works best for them. This is ideal and you can simply plug right in. For now, we’ll assume you’re working with a newer rep or just coming into a sales team. Here’s some things you can initiate immediately:

  • Bring together all of the technical resources working on your accounts. This includes support and consulting personnel with active engagements or escalations. Schedule this weekly or as needed
  • Create a whitespace with all of your assigned accounts. Note deployment counts, active opportunities (such as status of POCs), escalations, and services engagements for each customer
  • Solicit these team members in the creation of the document. Note that many larger firms will have ready-made templates as part of the CRM or forecasting tool

While it is certainly optimal to collaborate with your rep on this document, you can manage it yourself if required. You can slowly reel other account team members into the process over time.

  • Ask your rep to review your document and add any holes or clarify any points you might be off on
  • Then determine what the top priorities are for the quarter and for the year. While this intuitively boils down to the largest opportunities, there is some nuance here. For example, there may be a large opportunity that the rep feels able to win on reference or political advantage. A smaller opportunity might be a highly competitive technical shootout. S/he is going to want you more focused on the latter
  • The output of this exercise for you is an active project list that can now be prioritized and worked into your systems

After the document is done, I also recommend reviewing this with your manager (assuming there is a dedicated SE management role).

  • Let them know early the process you’re working. They may be able to point you to specific templates they’ve used before
  • Once completed, incorporate it as part of the agenda for your periodic meetings (or status emails) as s/he desires
  • Word of caution: the last thing you want is to create a rift between you and your rep because you’re sharing details that the rep was not (intentionally) communicating to sales management. You can set that as a group rule when you undertake this with your rep

After it’s been going (well, hopefully) for a number of months, you can offer to your manager to present your process at the next SE meeting. Your goal here is to show some leadership, and help smooth the way for other SEs who may have had a harder time getting their reps to the table for a discussion.

For SE managers, you can help the process greatly by establishing a formal periodic technical opportunity review with your team. Collaborate with the district manager to enable you’re synced up. It looks better if the message comes down from the sales side whenever possible.

Read this Now

I’ve long considered two important questions before talking to any customer. The first is “Why should the customer be buying a solution?” and the second is “Why should they be buying it from us?”. In recent conversations with a colleague, I realized that he had been doing an especially good job articulating the answer to a third, very important question. That question was “Why should the customer buy the solution NOW!”.

When I later thought about the conversation, I also realized I was making an implicit assumption when presenting my story. I assumed that if I provided a good enough answer to the “why buy” question, the “why buy now” answer was self evident. And while maybe that is in fact true in many cases, why leave it to chance? Let’s explore how we as SEs can best help our customers see the value in moving quickly toward our solution and removing the tendency towards procrastination.
[Read more…]