Lessons in presales

By | 2016/12/29

Working for system integrators for 15+ years in a variety of implementation, management and other roles, I’d never formally worn the title of presales engineering, or systems engineering, yet it was something I’d found myself doing from time to time. Smaller companies are like that – you might have a specific title, but your role will vary depending on the circumstances. So as an engineering manager looking after 20+ staff I still had to roll my sleeves up on customer and internal support; as a support engineer I still had to do implementation work, and as an implementation engineer I’d regularly conduct training courses and keep a close eye out for new customer opportunities.

So when I finally stepped out of implementation into a presales engineering role in May 2015 I felt that while there’d be undoubtedly additional things I’d have to do, the core of it would be straight-forward.

Climbing the technical ladder

Oh what a naive idiot I was. I was lucky in a lot of ways – that long-term work for integrators had given me a wide scope for skill development, from management to time management, from documentation to training, from architecture to implementation. But doing ad-hoc presales engineering as part of other duties is nothing like doing presales engineering as your primary role.

Looking back over the first 18 months of my full-time career as a presales engineer I’ve learnt a lot. I’m not professing to be an expert presales engineer – I’ve worked with a variety of people over the last 18 months who I hope to one-day emulate. I have, I hope, picked up/developed some habits and attitudes that might help others making the transition from implementation and consulting roles into presales.

You will be predictably busy

There’s an element of presales that is undoubtedly customer driven. The activities that you may be doing on a week to week basis can at times be significantly more difficult to predict than a simple prediction that you’ll always be busy.

When I primarily did implementation work, there was a definite peak/trough cycle in activities. While the time-scale may change, if you graphed the busy state it would often look something like the following:

Busy % States for Implementation Work

Under no circumstances does this mean that implementation work is never intense or productive – but it’s always customer driven. Is the work there in the first place? Is the customer there? Are the customer systems ready? There’s a plethora of factors that influence the percentage of usable time that can be occupied with billable time. For most businesses, achieving 75% to 80% implementation utilisation is a goal – a dream, in fact. Unless your business is managed services, your implementation staff will have peak times of high activity (with the level of the peak imposed by customer constraints), and troughs of significantly lower activity.

On the other hand, with presales, there’s always something else to be done. The work never stops. There’s always:

  • Another customer,
  • Another looming sale,
  • Another strategic focus,
  • Another tactical focus,
  • Another product,
  • Another product that interacts,
  • Another presentation,
  • etc.

So that activity-state graph looks something more along the following lines:

Presales Activity State

If you’re in implementation work and think the implementation peak/trough cycle looks familiar to your experience, you might think the presales peak/trough cycle is a wee bit scary. If that’s the case though, let me put a bit of a different perspective on the graphs.

For implementation work:

Implementation Min/Max

For presales work:

Presales Min/Max

To me, that puts a completely different spin on the activity levels of the roles; for implementation work, there can be a significant gulf between your peak busy state and your trough quiet state. For presales, that gap is significantly constrained. What does that mean? Depending on how you work, quite a lot. In particular for me, I found that I’d always be a little grumbly and a little stressed as I moved out of a trough quiet time into the busy peak states. You’re constantly adjusting your window of cope as your work comes and goes. Maybe you like the quiet times, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you like a predictable level of activity presales could very well be more compatible with your approach to work.

Document your meetings

OK, I’m a touch-typist and I’m actually pretty good at keeping up with stream-of-consciousness conversations during meetings. I think my record so far has been 8,000 words over an 8 hour enterprise briefing meeting. That doesn’t mean I’d think everyone who works in presales should be prepared to do the same, but I’d suggest a simple rule: if you’re not currently speaking or presenting in a meeting, you should be taking notes. That might be hand-written, or it might be typed, but as your note-taking improves you’ll realise what an invaluable resource those notes can be after – not only for yourself but for anyone else in the meeting you distribute them to.

If you’re a touch typist, take advantage of it. If you can avoid looking at the keyboard and type with a sufficient degree of accuracy, you can not only capture the key content of what is being said in meetings, but the various reactions: who focused on specific points, body language and everything else that can later contribute to better understanding the needs of the customer and the areas to focus on in not only the current engagement, but future engagements.

There’s an easy way of determining if you should be taking notes during a meeting:

  • Are you talking or presenting?
    • Yes: You’re excused from taking notes while you’re talking or presenting (if no-one is there to write action items though, you need to stop and jot those down if they come up)
    • No:
      • Do you have an executive assistant?
        • Yes: (Why are you in presales?) But sure, get your EA to take your notes
        • No: You should be taking notes during the meeting

I don’t have an eidetic memory; I may be able to tell you what happened in an episode of Stargate SG-1 based on a few random lines of dialogue, but that doesn’t extend to my work. So those notes become a huge boon for me – I keep them electronically (even when I hand-write them I’ll then transfer them to an electronic notebook after) and I’m able to search them whenever I need.

Also, on that front: come up with a consistent naming or filing method for your notes and their titles. I’ve found “YYYYMMDD: <Customer Name>: <Meeting Purpose>” a useful heading because I could always keep my notes identifiable by the time they were taken.

Practice your presentations

There’ll undoubtedly be times you have to get up and give a presentation with practically no warning. You might go to a meeting planning to discuss X with a customer only to find based on the first few minutes of the meeting (or even something that happened before you arrive) that instead you need to talk about Y. In those circumstances, yes, you’ll need to wing it.

But there’s plenty of times in presales you’ll have time to prepare for a meeting. It doesn’t matter whether you’re intending to present via PowerPoint or whiteboard, you need to practice what you’re going to talk about. Ideally you want to sound natural and know your material sufficiently to the point that you can concentrate on the important things: what the customer is asking you or saying to you, and what the body language in the room is. If you’ve not practiced your presentation you’ll at best sound wooden, you’ll find yourself tempted to read stiffly from notes or slides, and you’ll miss everything important about the meeting – if you don’t kill the meeting mood!

I actually practice key presentations at home as well as in the office or in front of colleagues. My cats have listened to a large number of customer presentations that I’ve projected onto our main TV and walked through – walked through multiple times until I’m successfully ad-libbing jokes or anecdotes. Why is that important? It means I’m confident enough of the base material that I can think freely while I’m talking. It doesn’t mean you’re faking familiarity – it means you know your stuff enough that you can engage more openly and completely with your audience.

Equally, I have a whiteboard at home too so that I can practice those more free-form  sessions too. I’m not a good drawer, so having an idea of how I’m going to draw concepts side-on while talking again lets me build up that “muscle memory” required to give more in the presentation than just wooden facts.

And a side-point: if you’re using PowerPoint, kill every animation and transition in your slide deck. Simple tip: your slides should be visual queues only. If the people you are presenting to are concentrating on what’s on screen, it means they’re not concentrating on what you’re saying.

It’s always and never about the technology

As a presales engineer, you have to be able to talk about the technology, but the technology is not the solution – the technology should enable the solution. The solution will be everything else you wrap around it – your experience, your understanding of the customer, your understanding of business processes and requirements, your understanding of the industry, and your understanding of what the customer is trying to address.

When I managed a team of consultants and engineers, I realised there was a very strong distinction between the two. Both are essential, but they behave differently. A dyed-in-the-wool engineer, when asked a question by a customer will attempt to answer it as accurately as possible. A consultant though will answer the question with another question – why? Why is the customer asking for this?

As a presales engineer you have to be able to answer questions like an engineer, but your value to your employer and your customer comes from being able to answer questions like a consultant. And that ability isn’t driven by the technology.

Keep an eye on the bigger picture

Unless you’re doing technical presales exclusively for a never-ending stream of SMB and mid market customers – cookie-cutter activities – you need to not only work towards short-term operational objectives (“scope this solution”, “answer this question”, “have this meeting”) but also strategically and tactically.

Don’t confuse strategic and tactical activities, either. Your strategy might be convince a customer to replace a competitor’s product with your own, which may be a lengthy engagement. You’ll have short term operational activities that are either strategy-neutral or actually unaligned to that strategy. That’s normal. However, you’ll also build up a variety of tactical plans to help achieve your strategy, and those tactical plans will have operational activities that are aligned to the overall strategy. You need to juggle them all – “business as usual” (BAU), tactics and strategy.

Find your passion and add it to your work

If you think presales is just a job, it’s not for you. (Indeed, this is true of so many consultative professions.) You need a passion, a fire in your belly, for what you’re doing. If you can’t be passionate about what you’re doing, how can you possibly convince someone to be passionate enough about it to buy it from you or your employer?

For me that means I’ll happily get up at the end of a two or three hour multi-product briefing and say, “I’m so glad I get to talk about backup and recovery last, because it’s the most exciting!” I may say it with a hint of irony because I know what most people think of it, but for me it’s the truth. Data protection is something I’m passionate about, and if I can’t transfer a bit of that passion and energy during a meeting, I’m not doing my job properly.

Don’t be apologetic about geeking out over your passion: own it, and impart that passion to your customers.

You can do presales even if you’re an introvert

I’m an introvert. OK, maybe I sit pretty close to the fence, but there’s definitely a strong core of introversion for me. I recharge in quiet times, I’m more comfortable around people I know than strangers, particularly in social situations. In a typically male-dominated IT world, I have an added disadvantage – I’m gay and I have no interest in sports. So there’s a metric tonne of small-talk that I just don’t get to engage in. I don’t have kids, I don’t follow a football team, I couldn’t tell you who played cricket on the weekend and I can’t say who won the grand-final. You get past that by knowing your products. If you know your products you can be natural about the topics you do talk about, and that bridges the gap.

And the rest

That’s not everything of course. You need to be organised, you need to stay abreast of your products, you need to engender trust and build rapport with your customers, and a myriad of other items. You need to build up an understanding of sales jargon and become comfortable with spreadsheets. You need to build up a portfolio of templates and diagrams that you can readily adjust to fit new customer requirements to avoid re-inventing the wheel every time you start building a solution. You could fill a book with all the things you’d need to do, and it still wouldn’t be a definitive list. Instead, the above things I’ve listed are the ones I’ve found to be most beneficial.

One thought on “Lessons in presales

  1. Vishal Gupta

    I can relate to most of it 🙂 very nicely put through. I will definitely drop the animations from my ppts 😉 and couldn’t agree more with the suggestion of building a portfolio of templates and diagrams.

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