You’d be hard pressed to find an SE who thought they didn’t have enough work to do. We’re all short on time for keeping touch points with our customers and looking for ways to reach farther. I covered this conceptually with communications platforms. Today I want to highlight a particularly effective piece of content you can create for that platform—the standing tech briefing.
Poor Resource Utilization
You would be hard pressed to find someone that disagreed with the notion that PM should be spending a lot of time with customers. The disconnect I find is that Sales believes those visits should predominately be alongside reps and tied to opportunities. PM believes that most visits should not be tied to specific opportunities.
Because of this inconsistency, you have reps and SEs that get fired up that a PM is never available to visit their customers. Compounding the issue is that many times we do get PM in front of the customer it is either as a crutch (you reached a sales cycle impasse) or as an accelerant (wanting to artificially increase velocity). While there is an exception to every rule, what this creates is very poor resource utilization and it’s very common because PM is technically a “free” resource to Sales (though some companies do in fact use charge backs).
Here is what I recommend.
- Only request sales assistance on opportunities where direct PM commitment is required to move or expand a high-value (on a company-wide basis) opportunity
- Do a little leg work to get PM some face time with other, existing customers in the area without your presence and without a specific sales objective.
Not only will PM appreciate your respect for their time, over time they will also respond to you first if you can get them access to customers that can help them with their market research.
Finally, when you get that really esoteric product question, don’t assume it hasn’t been answered and not check the documentation before sending it on to PM. I shake my head when I see SEs email questions to PM that are answered numerous places online. Not only do you ruin your reputation, but that of your peers. What you are basically saying is that you do not value the PM’s time. I can’t think of anything more insulting personally.
Part 2 of 3 on Creating Exceptional Relationships with Product Management (part 1)
A Disregard for Formal Process
Let’s assume our PMs have listened to the need to establish formal process in how they enable the SE force. In reality this will be hit or miss most of the time. What I have noticed is even in areas where PM has established a well-functioning, documented process, there will be a certain number of SEs that want to negate that process because they feel their deal warrants immediate attention.
For example, say PM has a web form for submitting feature requests. A big customer says to us in the middle of a sales call they would buy if only it had this certain feature. What do you and your rep do? I know many that would go straight to the PM via email, phone, and door knocking if possible. “To hell with process, this is million dollar opportunity” they say.
I’ll stop short of saying process always needs to be followed, but I do recommend you commit yourself to a short thought experiment before you do attempt to circumvent established channels.
The concept is based on moral universalism. Simply put: Take your intended course of action and imagine if everyone else did the exact same thing. Would it lead to a net benefit for your company or not?
In our example, what if every time a SE went to PM directly with a feature request of in this situation instead of using the submission form? If you can unbiasedly say that this deal really is worth breaking the rules for the benefit of the company then go for it. If you hesitate, it probably isn’t.
Of course this rule not only applies to PM but to other internal groups and customers as well. Give this a try next time you’re thinking about making a request of someones time and energy.
I just recently published an article in the Pragmatic Marketer magazine for product managers entitled How to Turn Sales Engineers into Your Biggest Fans. I thought it fitting to write the corollary article for how we can best interact with PM.
Having been a student of both professions for quite some time I have observed many points of contention between the two roles—beautifully illustrated at The Cranky PM here and here. There are three areas in particular that I feel cause the most frustration:
- Vague understanding of the PM role
- Lack of and/or disregard for formal process
- Poor resource utilization
Because these are lengthy topics I will address each area one post at a time.
It wasn’t until I began reading PM blogs, books, and even attending a few training sessions, that I developed a keen appreciation of PMs as I had come to for SEs. In this case I am as guilty as the rest of us in what I describe…
Let me begin directly and work back from there: as an SE you are not responsible for setting or determining product direction, product quality, or product marketing. Yet that never seems to stop us from getting frustrated, stressing out, and trying our best to influence product direction based on feedback from OUR ultra-important customers. I wrote about this at length here for additional detail.
We do have a crucial responsibility, however. We have the responsibility of providing customer/market feedback to the company in an unbiased manner. That means we have an obligation to do those things we dislike even if it is not demanded of us. This includes trip reports, honest win (and loss!) reports, and forwarding on the 150 feature suggestions we hear every day.
The critical difference (and source of so much stress) is that we have the incestuous need to expect a direct response and action based on that feedback. Shouldn’t we get something back?—we think to ourselves. Yes, but that doesn’t mean we need to expect it. Our responsibility ends when we have provided our feedback to the appropriate location. We get paid enough to worry about our sales cycles, let someone else worry about the roadmap!
Finally, if you’re reading this blog you’re already a few steps ahead of your competition as my anecdotal research suggests less than 30% of SEs actively subscribe to blogs/feeds. Do yourself a favor and read a couple of books and subscribe to some PM blogs to round out your knowledge. I guarantee not only will it make you a better SE but it will begin to lead to some great relationships with your product managers. Here’s a few sources to get you started:
After you’ve had a chance to do a little digging at the links above I’ll continue on with part II next week. If you have strong feelings or feedback on the subject I encourage you to weigh in over in the comments section on the site.
Usually I don’t insert entire outside posts but I think this one from Seth Godin is exceptionally relevant to our industry:
Why aren’t you (really) good at graphic design?
Ten years ago, you had a wide range of excuses for being a lousy visuals person. Starting with no talent, leading to no skill and going from there.
But now, in a world where it is expected that professionals will be able to make beautiful powerpoint slides, handsome business cards, clever bio photos and a decent website, it’s as important as driving. And easier to learn and do, and requiring less talent.
No, you and I will never be gifted designers or breakthrough designers. But there’s really no reason not to be really good.
I put together a page with some blogs, books and sites you can check out. An hour a day for a month and you won’t have to hide your face in shame. Sure, hire the very best in the world when you need a breakthrough. But you don’t have to pay for better-than-mediocre design. You can do it yourself.
I have heard more than once that you should leave marketing materials to marketing. I disagree. It is your responsibility to develop your own keen sense of design. Too often you need to create custom material for your customers. If you show slides like the one below to your customers, I guarantee you’re leaving a hell of a lot of money on the table. I know I’d have a tough time buying from you.
Every SE organization has them. The “go-to” SEs are the ones you turn to when you absolutely need something to go well. I’m certain you can think of several off the top of your head. If you want to be considered as one of them, these are the steps you need to follow.
Choose your niche
THE expert denotes a singular entity. This is true, but only as it pertains to a specific subject (see Ch 17). The go-to SE for one product is almost certainly not the same for a separate product. Or there can be different go-to’s for different parts of the technical sales cycle (e.g. presenting versus proof of concepts).
Find one particular subset of study within your organization where you are uniquely qualified to be the best in the world at something. Like any company competing in a free market, if your niche is too big you can be out-niched, if too small you risk not having the requisite demand.
Become the expert
Expert and go-to status are not the same. You need to have sufficient knowledge before you’re given the chance to leverage it.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes a case for a 10,000 hour practice requirement before someone can be considered a top expert. For broad topics I can definitely agree, but regardless of the time requirement, the key takeaway is that you need to outpractice everyone around you. Expertise is not simply a bestowed genetic legacy!
This means you need to immerse yourself in your niche, reading every book, subscribing to every website, blog, and relevant news outlet. It means you need to actively seek out and connect with other experts pertaining to your niche inside and outside your company.
Even if you haven’t written the book on the subject, you need to be able to if someone asked.
Become the go-to
Thankfully if you’ve reached this phase the difficult part is behind you. Luck is 9/10ths preparation. And if have truly put in the sacrifice to master your subject, SEs and reps will find you with amazing speed and precision.
But, in the tradition of The Sales Engineer, we don’t leave ANYTHING to chance. Here is how you can accelerate your mind share in the sales community.
- Seek opportunities to help – If you had to remember one this is it. Just like becoming the expert, becoming THE go-to means people can, well, actually feel like they can engage you. So prime the pump for them. Monitor your company bulletin boards religiously for topics meeting your niche. Do the research on their behalf even if you don’t know the answer. Get in touch with Marketing and see if you speak or attend specific events as an expert. Offer to do lunch and learn presentations to your local sales/SE team. This list is only limited by your creativity.
- Broaden your exposure – Don’t limit yourself to internal advertising. Seek out industry associations to get involved with. Though it may not seem important initially, the difference in being perceived as an industry expert is more directly tied to your external credentials than your internal ones.
- Advance your niche – The real experts contribute toward the body of knowledge on their subject. Start a blog, write whitepapers, perform original research, etc. This can be very time consuming but also extraordinarily rewarding.
Despite what you may hear, there is such a thing as job security. It just doesn’t come from a company. In lean times, the truly helpful and knowledgeable will always have positions.
Have you ever felt like you were tasked with selling something like this?
Watch the full Onion spoof. It is hilarious (and props for the special effects!).
When you are speaking with a customer and you feel like this, you are either:
- Selling the product to an unqualified customer (defined as: outside the target market segment)
- Selling a product that does not meet a market demand
The scenario is almost always #1 (we hope). There isn’t much you can do about #2, but we recommend you switch the product you sell. So let’s only focus on #1.
Product Management is responsible for defining a persona, observing a need, and then solving that need. A persona is an extrapolation of themes observed in the market. It is fictitious by definition and will never perfectly match your customer.
The first implication for your role is that you provide value by helping Sales qualify. This means you assist in reviewing prospects for potential matches to your target business segment. The better you help determine fit, the quicker the sale can be closed.
But, what if you are in a position where you have a very limited customer list and product portfolio? The real value you bring is your ability to show the customer that your square peg fits into the round hole better than anyone else.
In essence, your true value lies in your ability to craft general market solutions to specific customers.
So next time you’re feeling a little down because the product doesn’t have the features you think it needs, come back to this post. Realize that this imperfection is what makes your ability so critical to your company. Finally, re-watch the video. Be thankful you don’t have to sell THAT thing!