Enabling Your Channel – Part II

In Channel Enablement – Part I, we laid out some air cover for the territory SE to demonstrate responsibilities best owned by corporate. In Part II, I want to both recap how an SE should be contributing to corporate channel initiatives as well as show what functions an SE should manage on their own within their region.

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Enabling Your Channel – Part I

For most SEs, part of your responsibility includes supporting your channel partners. These partners are a direct extension of your sales coverage. In large companies there are teams of SE’s dedicated to these functions. For most, however, this responsibility falls to the local territory account team and SE. In this two-part article we’ll first explore ways to manage this organizationally and secondly how to manage this locally.

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Reducing Home Lab Clutter with Synergy

As someone that had quite an extensive lab set up at home, this application is a lifesaver. Synergy basically allows you to control multiple machines using the same keyboard or mouse–even across multiple OSs. The main difference between Synergy and a KVM is the “V”. Synergy assumes you use different monitors. I would typically have 3-4 monitors on so I could see multiple views at once. Plus, the clipboard share is a huge timesaver.

From the Synergy website:

Synergy lets you easily share a single mouse and keyboard between multiple computers with different operating systems, each with its own display, without special hardware. It’s intended for users with multiple computers on their desk since each system uses its own monitor(s).

Redirecting the mouse and keyboard is as simple as moving the mouse off the edge of your screen. Synergy also merges the clipboards of all the systems into one, allowing cut-and-paste between systems. Furthermore, it synchronizes screen savers so they all start and stop together and, if screen locking is enabled, only one screen requires a password to unlock them all. Learn more about how it works.

Virtual Lab (cont)

 In this part 3b we’ll explore the requirements and options for building out a virtual lab environment. Every sales organization will get varying degrees of benefit from this strategy. I’ll assume you are selling a product that can be virtualized at least to a certain extent. Here is an outline of the basic steps to follow:

  1. Create a project team– This needs to be made of up of SE management/enablement, subject-matter product experts, and ideally representatives from IT, PM, Sales, and Marketing. Services and Support may not be a bad idea either depending on scope and politics of the company.
  2. Define strategy – In most organization, central labs will not completely replace regional and home labs. Determine the yearly budgets for each one. This is also extremely important because in any large company you will have staunch detractors from those that value the ability to “touch” their labs.
  3. Set the requirements – make sure all stakeholders have a say in the requirements so that all functions are on board with the desired outcome.
  4. Evaluate solutions.

I’m going to stop there and expand on your options. There are three basic approaches:

  • Outsource
  • Purchase a solution
  • Custom build a solution

Each has its pros and cons.

Outsource
The first option is to completely outsource the solution to a vendor to manage. I am aware of a handful of these vendors with Surgient being the current leader in this space based on my previous research. Back to the Microsoft example: They leverage Citrix XenServer through a demo partnership portal service runaware. I do find it a bit amusing they rely on the competitive platform of Xen instead of something built atop their Virtual Server platform, but I’m sure each business unit is free to leverage the vendors that best fit the need. As for the pros/cons of this approach:

The pros include:

  • No in-house expertise needed
  • No system administration
  • No upgrade and support processes required (i.e. always up-to-date)
  • Benefit of the vendor’s expertise
  • Subscription pricing (less up front costs)

The cons include:

  • Static environment. You’re locked into the features provided by the vendor
  • Limited to virtual hardware (you can’t add your own hardware)
  • Disk is expensive, meaning growth is expensive under the subscription pricing
  • Highest price tag, though depending on the organization could still be the best value. This depends heavily on your companies resources in housing something like this in your own environment

Purchase a Solution
A purchased on-site solution is the middle ground between doing it yourself and outsourcing. You can buy software that can manage the environment for you with your company providing the hardware and connection resources. Surgient also plays in this space as does VMLogix and VMware through its recent acquisition of Dunes.

Pros:

  • You can tailor to your environment without the need to build it from scratch
  • Expansion is less expensive and tied more closely to memory/disk costs than anything else
  • Your own hardware needs can be integrated into the virtual environment

Cons:

  • Far more management intensive. You need to manage all aspects of the environment. This can be a definite challenge for some IT organizations

Custom build a solution
Most virtual machine platforms like Xen, Microsoft, and VMware provide some access to the software through APIs which means you could theoretically build a virtual machine management platform from scratch.

Pros:

  • Exactly tailored to your requirements. You are not locked in to a vendor’s solution beyond the virtual computing platform, though you could even build one of those if wanted to using XenSource
  • May be the only option for certain types of product requirements

Cons:

  • Highest up front costs
  • Requires extensive expertise
  • Dependent on yourself for upgrades

Costs
Each method has its own cost considerations. Depending on your company, any of these might provide the best value. Your organization’s finance rep and IT can help you more accurately estimate the cost of each over time.

The remainder of the project can vary greatly depending on the course of action you choose. Though the SE organization may often times drive the initial project requirements for this type of project, it is best of it does not live there from an ownership standpoint. To gain the most out of this solution, all of the product sales tools and documentation need to be aligned behind the same common themes and storylines. This is ideally a marketing function but I’ve seen it live in several others. The constant challenge is making sure it is being widely adopted, consistently implemented, and always up-to-date. These functions should be kept where the appropriate expertise lives and this is not (well, should not be) the core competence of the SE organization.

Still, given the importance and potential value, the SE management chain should not have any reservations about spreading the word and enlisting the help of others to get it off the ground. Once the sales organization reaches a certain size you almost can’t afford not to investigate a virtual lab. Your ROI sheet could easily show 4 figures.

This concludes my three-part series on lab use and design. I hope it has been useful. My next set of topics will be the review of several SE resources. It may take a little longer to do the research on these, so look for something in 10-12 days from now.

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.

Demos
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.

Training
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.

Running an Effective SE Lab

   For most of my SE career I have been fortunate to either have enough resources to build out home labs or be close to a local lab facility. With the availability of cheap hardware (craigslist!) and virtual computing there really is no excuse for not being able to have some testing resources available at your disposal. With that in mind I’m going to talk about setting up an effective lab so that you are maximizing the value of time spent using them.

The Shared Office Lab
The shared lab space poses the biggest difficulty for ongoing management. With shared resources comes the need to manage multiple user profiles as most of the time the users do not use the same configuration. To compound the issue shared resources typically lack ownership and are heavily underutilized as the management burden becomes so great people stop finding as much value from them. Here’s a few steps that can keep the environment useful and engaging.

  1. Define the purpose.Like most endeavors, it helps to plan out the desired purpose and capabilities of the lab before getting started. Will customers be present? Will it be used to deliver demos? Is it for staging? Etc…
  2. Assign ownership. Without clear lines of ownership you will usually find that no one steps up to run the lab as it’s difficult to pull yourself away from opportunities for lab work. If it’s an equally shared lab, consider quarterly sentences among the group.
  3. Define process up front. The hardware and image build/teardown process should be clearly defined. Specifically address allowances for the temporary nature of the hardware that can enter and exit the lab.
  4. Automate. Money spent up front on automation of builds and image management presents a huge ROI. Waiting around for manual copy/installation procedures is not a good use of your time.
  5. Document religiously.Anything that goes undocumented or that is not defined will have its process defined ad hoc. Over time these inconsistencies prove frustrating when people enter the lab. I go so far to recommend you treat it like a mini-business.
  6. Enforce policy. Have a published consequence for not following procedure and stick with it. This is an important point for SE managers.
  7. Schedule spot checks.Put a calendar invite in for 30 minutes for the last Friday of each month to go in and do basic housekeeping. Procrastination is a killer.
  8. Invest. Budget quite a bit more money then you think you need. Don’t rely on mismatched equipment unless absolutely necessary. Having non-standard equipment makes it really hard to automate. Spend the money up front to save on huge hassle in the future.
  9. Location is key.If all you get is a closet, are people really going to want to spend any time there? No. Make it as attractive as possible given your resources. Having a good location also makes it possible to work with other SEs on shared tasks.
  10. Virtualize. Leverage virtual machine technology and it can really save you by allowing you to get by with less hardware.

The Home Lab
Having a lab that belongs solely to you has some pros and cons. You usually won’t get the same resources, it costs money (space/utilities/etc), and you have to maintain it yourself which makes it easy to get lazy about its upkeep. On the positive side, you can tailor it to your needs, need less supporting infrastructure, and you can deduct a lot of it on your taxes. Pretty cool stuff. Though you may need to go through most of the above steps (to a lesser degree) to get the most out of the home lab, here are some specific recommendations.

  1. Consider size.That’s what she said! (sorry, Office fan). You’ll usually want to sacrifice computing power and money to save on space. The noise and heat will be a lot lower and you can fit more into a smaller space.
  2. Consolidate.Get a good physical or virtual KVM. It makes the rat nest more manageable too.
  3. Design efficiently.Keep everything in arms length with good KVM design so that you minimize time swicthing between systems.
  4. Organize.Take the time to set up the cables everything else correctly and stay on top of it. It’s easy to let this slide when it’s just you, but eventually your environment gets unwieldy and you stop using it.
  5. Beware of power issues. Your home is a lot less equipped to deal with grid issues than your office (hopefully). Get a good UPS and test it a couple times per year.
  6. Laptops.If you can get away with purchasing a few laptops in place of desktop/server hardware, you may be able to get a small fraction of the footprint without much sacrifice.

Like most things, a lot of these issues can be avoided with simple proactive planning and support from SE management.

There is one other possibility I have not addressed and that is the central lab resource that may be beneficial for larger companies. I’ll address this next.

The Lab Day

As an SE, I always highly valued my lab days. To me, a lab day was simply a day that was informally spent learning about technology. Though it could take many forms, this most often meant investigating aspects of our products I wasn’t familiar with, getting hands on installation time, and sharing experiences with other SEs. Having done this for many years, I have formulated some tips, tricks, and best practices for getting the most out of this time.

Benefits
The benefits of implementing a regularly scheduled lab day were huge to me. The primary ones included:

  • Sharpening the saw – …as Dr. Steven Covey would say. Staying current with your products and supporting technology allow you to remain sharp in front of the customer. Credibility takes a hit when you have to say “I’ll have to get back to you on that” for the thirteenth time.
  • Customer follow up – My rule of thumb is to always answer a customer question within 48 hours. For the more detailed questions that you need to proof out yourself, it ensures the customer doesn’t wait more than a week.
  • Housecleaning – Use the lab to physically separate yourself from your daily sales routine and tasks to allow you to wrap up weekly loose ends with minimal interruption.

With the benefits clearly in mind, here are some tactical recommendations you can implement to get the most out of this time.

Frequency
Though once a week always worked best for me, make sure you’re getting one day out of the field for research at least once every two weeks. Any longer than that and things start to suffer: Customer questions go unanswered or you can’t provide the depth they need. You’ll find yourself getting dull and having too many follow up questions from meetings.

Scheduling
Mondays or Fridays work best; pick the day that isn’t typically used for team calls and other administrivia. Once you have the day selected, make sure it is marked as out of the office in Outlook. I find that is a stronger indicator than just blocking off the time. Make sure you stick to the date as much as possible as one of the next steps is to encourage others to do the same and this make synchronization easier. Fridays always worked best for me but your mileage may vary.

Communication
The first person you need to involve is your manager. Most enlightened SE managers clearly understand the need, but if they don’t you may need to perform a little justification. You need your manager on board first in case you run into difficulty with your rep(s). In my experience there is a wide variance in the response you can expect. If you clearly can state the benefits from a customer satisfaction and revenue case, most reps won’t take too much issue with it assuming you are performing your job duties well. When you invariably get a new rep I would state this right up front as your method of operation and not leave it to debate. For the few times you run into vehement disagreement, let your manager and the sales manager work it out.

From a scheduling standpoint, my recommendation is to always enforce use of your free/busy status to schedule meetings. This is even so much more important if you support more than one rep. If you get them in this habit for day-to-day meetings, they will learn to respect your time when you book your lab day, which will minimize headaches on both sides.

Involve Your Peers
One of the greatest benefits of having the lab day is being able to get a few of the SEs on the team in the office at the same time. There is a distinct educational element that happens when you get together that is hard to replicate. This is especially true when you support a wide product portfolio and you can’t be an expert on everything. This point is very important for SE managers as well. SEs that are in contact with others in their region tend to exhibit higher performance and higher levels of morale that stem from a sense of teaming.

Set an Agenda
I learned this one from a good friend and colleague of mine. Every time we ever got into the lab he had a distinct picture of what he wanted to accomplish that day. It kept us on track and we seemed to veer of course less frequently. Setting the agenda ahead of time even allowed us to ensure we involved others that may have had an interest in the topic (specialist SEs, services, etc.) or been critical to our success.

Control the Environment
In a related post I will dive into the intricacies of managing an effective lab environment. For now, the SE should be cognisant of a few items.

  • Keep the environment scalable and modular as hardware tends to come and go frequently.
  • Have a process where you can reset the environment quickly so you don’t waste time on repetitive tasks.
  • Leverage virtual machine technology wherever possible. If you have quality laptops you can then take what you create on the road with you to the customer if needed.
  • Limit access where possible to discourage interruption. Having a room full of SEs is more temptation than some reps can handle.

I would even extend that last bullet to the SE group. Some interruptions are unavoidable, but try to come to an understanding about limiting email and cell phone calls. Having to switch gears frequently, especially inside a group, really dents the usable time in the day.

Recommended Activities
There is a wide range of activities that you can pursue during this time. A few of them really stand out as having a lot of value for me:

  • Install and tune the product – It’s one thing to memorize technical specs and value props, but having a tactile understanding of the product allows you to make mental connections between features/benefits and customer needs that may not present themselves otherwise. This is especially important for visual learners.
  • Run through highlighting the features of the product – This is practice for demos and product trials. If you have formal guides that have been created for product walkthroughs, this is your time to absorb and practice and learn (read: make mistakes).
  • Create your own guides – If this hasn’t already been done for you, plan and document your demos and trials so that you are creating repeatable technical sales process. Sharing this information with your peers will absolutely skyrocket your credibility and will make getting assistance from other SEs and PMs a breeze.
  • Test customer scenarios – In a small company the SE usually ends up doing some QA work for scenarios that were not tested in the lab. Oftentimes you’ll get questions like “does product x conflict with product y” or “what is the performance hit on this arcane OS or platform”. Since not everything can be tested, and because some of these are gating questions to the sale, this is a great opportunity to provide a better answer than “it should work” or “let’s test during the trial.” Plus, the more time you can demonstrate to a customer that you spent working on the project with their interest in mind, the more compelled they will feel to buy the product.
  • Explore new segments – For bonus points, try to evaluate the product to see if there are other customers (or divisions within existing customers) that might benefit from your product in some way. How does the product fit in with where you believe the industry to be going? How does it address customer pain points you are hearing? Write up your findings and present them to product management/marketing as whitepapers or additional sales collateral. Not only is that a fast track to promotion, but it’s essential you build your personal network before you ever need it. See Never Eat Alone and Meatball Sundae for more detail as it pertains to relationships and ability to market/sell.

Implementing these recommendations not only should get you an approved lab day, but can hopefully allow you to get the most out of them. 20% time out of the field is a big number. Make it count.