Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Female PreSales Engineer

I've long been a big fan of getting more women into the profession of Pre Sales Engineering. Although I feel the industry has made some progress over the past 10 years, it is absolutely not enough. The overall percentage has wavered between 10-15% and I'm not seeing much of an upwards trend.

It's important because companies are missing out on a vast potential talent pool, and (accuse me of being sexist) women just listen better and generally do a better job of asking questions and conducting discovery. I'm not even going to touch the empathy situation or the attention a female SE may receive when presenting to an all-male customer/IT group. Yet I do feel I am entitled to say that as my daughter is a presales engineer (with an Engineering Degree) and I know what she has gone through.

A few recent experiences this year have brought this to bear.

1. Wow!

For the first time ever - I had a class where there were more women than men. First time. Amazing! Thanks Christine and Stephanie!!

2. Industry Variations
Let's say , for math simplification, that my typical workshop has 20 SE's in it.
The numbers I've tracked over the years show that the number of women varies from 0 to 8. Breaking that down further. IT infrastructure/"plumbing" companies have by far the lowest percentage. The more technical/geeky the product is, the lower the percentage and diversity drops and rapidly approaches zero. I've had three classes this year with zero women - and the class represented the entire national or worldwide SE team.
Hardware companies are little better.
General software companies seem to hover around that 10-15% level.
Application type companies (ERP, CRM and HR) trend higher and the ratio can reach 25% or more.
3. Hiring and Recruiting.
Many SE leaders tell me that they cannot even find experienced candidates to hire. So how about a grow-your-own associate program? Or look at your technical support / customer relations team?
4. Global Implications
Much as I bemoan the stats here in the US - it is even worse in most parts of the world. Asia-Pacific-Japan-China has a long way to go. Parts of Europe are better than others. Yet there is hope -  Early this year I ran 2 workshops in India and there were a significant number of young female SE's in the class. With just a little encouragement to speak up and try new things - they stole the show and put their male colleagues to shame.
When I look back at my career, some of the best SE's who ever worked for me (and I like to think that I did make a point of hiring women to diversify and improve my teams) were women. No question about it - and you know who you are. Two of my best ever SE managers were women.
Lets make a difference and take a positive step to improve the profession. Evangelize what we do - and lets recruit the next generation of SE's in a 50/50 mix - it will make us all better.
What do you think?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Check The Calendar!

For those of you whose fiscal year ends Dec 31st, or even if it is just the end of the quarter it is time to check the calendar. Last week I sat in on a North America business review for a technology company that was focused on closing as much as they possibly could in their Q4. “Drain The Pipe” was the phrase of the day.
Except ..

50% of their deals were going to close between December 20th and December 31st. (15% were closing on December 25th!)

90% of those late December deals were scheduled for a Proof Of Concept or heavily customized demo between now and December 20th – (which is 35 actual days and in reality 32 or 33 business days because of the US Thanksgiving Holiday).

The math didn’t work.

First – given the timing of the holidays, a massive proportion of the buyers, recommenders, approvers and signers will be celebrating the holidays and taking off the entire week of the 23rd and most likely the 30th and 31st as well. No-one is going to be there to complete the sale.

Second – looking at the number of days required to either run a POC to completion or create a custom demo (it’s a highly configurable system) , there were too many days and not enough SE’s – by an overage factor of 100%.

Something had to give. In the end we scrubbed the pipeline, developed some prioritization guidelines and “borrowed” a couple of engineers/consultants who could quickly configure a number of similar demos. They’re still 20% over.

The message – you may the greatest goals in the world for this quarter – but are they logistically and socially achievable? It’s not just the responsibility of sales to look at these things. How does your calendar look for the next 7 business weeks?

(And then next quarter we have the Chinese New Year ….)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

PreSales Engineers, White Boards, and Mojo...

As an IT executive I suffered through far too many really awful PowerPoint Presentations. That was back in the days when everyone threw in a piece of clipart (remember the duck with sledgehammer?) and bullet points had to twirl, whirl and fly in from all sides of the screen.

Sadly, many sales presentations haven't improved since then. Mostly it isn't even the "fault" of sales and presales engineers, they just use what is given to them. Since customers universally say they want conversations instead of presentations - it's time for a change. And that is where the Lost Art Of White Boarding comes into play. Drawing pictures was once natural for us, yet we've grown out of that skill. Yet if you can make a customer say "I see what you mean" - you're on your way to the sale.

Last year I wrote up a study on The ROI Of WhiteBoarding. Give it a read. Because recently, a startup, Zamurai, has developed a fantastic mobile whiteboard application. I stopped by their offices and had a conversation with Michael Parker, one of their founders. This is the short 2 1/2 minute version of that conversation.



Thursday, October 10, 2013

Sales, Sales Engineers and Discovery

One of the biggest disconnects I see between sales and pre-sales teams lies in the area of Discovery. In many sales organization there is a chasm between the sales implementation of Discovery and what pre-sales think they actually need. One of my clients said “my rep thinks that Discovery is telling me who is on the phone before a webex demo starts”. Thankfully it’s not always that bad.

Here is the basic problem, and I am generalizing a little here:- Sales views Discovery as something that gets in the way of the deal and slows it down. “Why do you need to ask all those questions – all they want is a demo.” Sales is also concerned that they may discover something that will prevent the deal from happening or may totally unqualify the deal out of the pipeline. (I have never figured out why they regard that as a bad thing – doesn’t it make sense to stop wasting time on something you are never going to win?)

Pre-sales engineers believe that there is no such thing as too much Discovery. The more you learn about a customer the better you can target the demo/presentation/proof-of-concept. That’s true – up to a certain point. Repeating the questions that someone else may have asked, or simply asking them a different way, can really annoy the customer and make it look like there is no co-ordination. SEs also start to stray into deal qualification (do they have a budget?) which is the #1 way to annoy a rep as they hear that from their manager all the time.

The trouble is – there is no perfect line to be drawn between sales and presales responsibilities in this area. Given the usual sales:presales ratio it is virtually impossible for the SE to be included in every single first call or discovery call that sales conducts. There are not enough hours in the day. Plus the relationship between every account rep and every SE is different. Some reps are more technical than others and some SE’s are more business/sales oriented that others – you need to adjust.

My usual advice is this:

1.       Discovery is a mandatory and necessary phase of the sales cycle. It is not to be rushed through. It’s also a constant process as you should always be learning more about the customer in every interaction.

2.       Sales and Presales need to agree on what needs to be ‘Discovered’ before a demo / presentation / pitch takes place.

3.       It doesn’t matter who does it, or if it is a combination of rep/SE – as long as it is done well.

4.       If you don’t understand why the customer might want to buy from you, and what the business drivers are behind the technology decision – then you shouldn’t move into the next phase of the sales cycle. Known collectively as The Dash To Demo, The Push to Present or the Sprint to Solution.

5.       Put a simple process in place to capture the info agreed upon in (2)

The outcome will be much better sales calls (and probably fewer of them) , less unqualified deals, a better pipeline and fewer back-to-back-to-back-to-back demos by SEs. Everyone wins.

Friday, September 13, 2013

You Are Only A Trusted Advisor When ...

You Are Only A Trusted Advisor When ... The Customer Says You Are!

I had the opportunity to participate in the Amazon Web Services for Public Sector Conference in Washington DC earlier this week. An very impressive event with over 2,500 people registered and a host of 3rd party vendors and partners in attendance.

It's very obvious that Amazon are serious about this market, and that judging by the number of customers (as opposed to prospects) present, the market is serious about them. Between the massive scale, competitive pricing, and the adoption of major US Federal and International standards they are here to stay.

The presentations were varied and informative, BUT ... as I am in a Trusted
Advisor mindset right now (writing the book) there was one slide that bothered me. It's the one where Amazon call themselves a "Trusted Advisor".

It doesn't really matter what you call yourself in a Trust relationship, it's what the customer calls you and how they view you that's important. Now, the Amazon Trusted Advisor is actually an automated system that checks your configuration and usage and makes recommendations on ways you can save money or optimize the system. Aside from the psychological human-machine implications of trusting an automated machine, you still have to deal with the issue that

a. A human programmed it with the algorithms
b. No matter what it says, you'll double-check it anyway. (Minimal Trust)

So .. You Are Only A Trusted Advisor When ... The Customer Says You Are!
(Even if you are a machine)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Should SE's Participate in SPIFF Programs?

Before I answer – a quick piece of trivia about the origin of SPIFFs. Although there have been numerous explanations about the SPIFF acronym (like the humorous Sales Performance Incentive FFund) it is not an acronym. The use of “spiff” or “spif” derives from the 1850’s. It was a term used by tailors to describe a payment in kind of fine cloth they gave to their best salespeople. The salespeople would then use the cloth to have suits or shirts made to “spif” themselves up.

As far as data, the one number I can share is that about 45% of software companies allow presales to participate, to some degree, in SPIFF programs. I continue to collect data within other industries as I don’t have a large enough sample size yet – but I feel that hardware, services and devices are all about the same.

That said, I am a firm believer in presales participation, when appropriate. Here is the reasoning I have always used with VPs of Sales and Finance.

1.       If we are truly engaged in team-based solution selling, then you need to encourage team-based rewards to reinforce the behavior.

2.       Salespeople bear far more risk (both financially and job stability) than presales, so they should clearly receive the largest portion of a SPIFF.

3.       Most presales people care more about inclusion in a program than the actual payout amount. (The best thing a VP of Sales can do to gain the respect of a presales team is to show that he/she considers the impact of every program and initiative on both sales and presales.)

4.       I define “where appropriate” in this manner:

a.       A SPIFF to encourage linearity of bookings in all three months of a quarter, or to include faster payment terms to reduce DSO (Days Sales Outstanding) is a SALES SPIFF only.

b.      A SPIFF to encourage the uptake of a new product, or cross-selling across multiple product sets is a joint SALES/PRESALES SPIFF.

c.       A SPIFF To encourage customers to upgrade from an old version of a product to a newer version is a PRESALES SPIFF.

5.       I define ‘sharing” using this great example. A hardware company was originally planning to rollout a 10,000 Euro SPIFF to salespeople who sold a certain amount of new product to new accounts in a quarter. Their goal was E40M. After looking at who would truly be doing most of the work (demonstrating, configuring, benchmarking etc.) they elected to modify the SPIFF. The revised version gave E7,500 to sales and E2,500 to presales. The result was maximum engagement, team selling and E62M of new product sales into the new accounts market.

6.       I once helped the finance department of a software company analyze the historical results of multiple SPIFF programs over a three-year period. Those that included presales had an average incremental effectiveness of 26% over those that did not.

So the summary is that presales should participate in SPIFFs when a case can be made that they drive a significant part of the end goal – although to a lesser extent than sales.

FINALLY – A WARNING. One of my customers decided to implement a 20% additional sales quota credit for all deals that were implemented through a new partner program. In one quarter, partner deals increased from 17% to 85% - resulting in 5/6 deals going through partners, even when they shouldn’t have – to the detriment of the customer. Presales, who received no credit – had to clean up the mess alongside services and support. Compensation drives behavior.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why Businesses Buy Technology

I talk about “The Three Wise Men” a lot in my workshops. They are the guiding principle why businesses make technology decisions – being:

1.       Increase Revenue
2.       Reduce Costs
3.       Mitigate (Decrease) Risk

So it was heartening to read the “connect” article in the September issue of CIO Magazine, which showcased the advice of CIO’s to their peers. In particular, the advice of Rick Roy – the SVP and CIO of CUNA Mutual Group. I quote his advice in full.

“We use three macro-level business metrics to prioritize IT investment decisions and set strategy: revenue growth, cost reduction and risk management and compliance. For line of business spending, it’s rare for someone to introduce a major initiative without a strong connection to one of those. But at the enterprise level it’s more challenging. How does that Windows 7 upgrade really help the business? Whoever presents that case has to make the connection.

Risk mitigation and compliance are the hardest to quantify. We must distinguish between the need-to-have and the nice-to-have. We can’t just say we need to invest in something because the risk is high. What does that mean? Will we lose money? How much? Will we lose customers? How many? We take advantage of our in-house actuarial and risk-modeling expertise to quantify risk.

We look at IT spending in business terms, reporting our costs as an expense ratio. It changes the conversation from “IT costs too much” to a conversation about priorities. It requires more rigor, but it benefits IT to have a clear focus on our top priorities”

Beautiful – well said Rick!! A lesson in there for every single Sales Engineer and every single sales representative.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Take A Break!

At least here in the US, the week before the Labor Day holiday (Monday September 2nd) is usually a quiet week for me. It's the last week of summer, the last week of freedom for children before they go back to school (so many customers take the week off) and it's also my Wedding Anniversary - all good reasons not to travel.

So I use the time to catch up on paperwork, make some calls, and most importantly of all - do some writing. As I am now working on both the Third Edition of Mastering Technical Sales and an add-on book with a working title of "The Trusted Advisor Sales Engineer" I have about 60,000 words to write or revise before the end of the year.

That means I need to focus and concentrate on a single task. That means I turn off email for 3-4 hour periods. And that means I get almost no distractions and get a lot done without the annoying "ding" or the temptation to check my inbox. I know if someone really wants to reach me they'll call me.

Try it. Take baby steps. Next time you really need to focus on a task ..

  1. Turn off all the visual and sound notifications that you have new email. Don't forget to silence the phone and tablet too.
  2. Then - go into your email settings, and set the synchronization time for email to 60 minutes.
  3. Finally - shut down your email for a couple of hours.

If you are working on your #1 most important, critical task - there is no reason why you shouldn't treat it the same way as being in front of a customer. No interruptions!

Give it a try ..

For other email tips go read "Are You Really Paid To Read 200 Emails/Day?"

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

You Might Be Wondering ...

Yesterday I sat in, as a “dummy guest”, on a remote demonstration and presentation that my newest client had set up. As part of my Discovery process I often like to listen in on a typical sales call. This call was going wonderfully, to the point where I was wondering what I could contribute as feedback other than a few minor cosmetic changes. The team had performed an admirable job of discovery, had identified two painful key business issues of their prospect, and had tailored their pitch to solving those problems and showing the economics of their solution.

There was budget, there was pain, and there was an agreed-upon approval process. I was seeing a deal leap forward in the sales cycle towards a successful close. The pre-sales engineer executed a masterful finish and handed back to the rep.
Who then said “you might be wondering..”

Everything fell apart because the salesperson decided to answer a question that had not been asked about deployment and support. The question was NEVER going to be asked because the customer was in “lets-go-mode”. The entire atmosphere of the call changed into suspicion and uncertainty over this late revelation, and ended with the dreaded “Thanks - we’ll think it over.” Disaster. Deal gets de-committed from the quarterly forecast.

Two lessons learnt from this call.

1.       It’s not always the Pre-Sales Engineer who opens his mouth at the wrong time and supplies too much information.

2.       There is a place for a rhetorical “you might be wondering” when it logically leads onto the next topic of conversation, and it is early in the sales cycle. But never at what was essentially the solution proposal phase.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

Channeling The Channel

Back in the mists of time I can still remember the very deal I ever helped to close as a Sales Engineer. I remember it for two reasons. Firstly, it was in Newark, New Jersey - not the nicest place in the world back then. Secondly it was closed with a major assist from an SE at one of our channel partners.

Perhaps it made a great first impression, but I have always had a soft spot for the channel organization in any technology company, as what could be better than getting paid to have other smart people do the heavy lifting work for your company?

Over the years, the Channel SE has moved in and out of favour with technology companies - large and small. Often it is a cyclical affair - channel partners are loved for a couple of years, then they start to take too much business (in someone's opinion) away from the sales or services organizations. Process and compensation barriers are put into place, the channel fades, internal sales rise for a short period, and then a sales dip happens as your competition uses their channel to beat you in territory coverage, RFP and POC support and general deal-making. As a channel SE you get used to being whip-sawed around the sales and SE org-chart every fiscal year, and sometimes at mid-term.

At least in 2013, and globally in the software business, the channel is seeing a resurgence - which means increasing demands are being placed upon Channel SE teams. As usual, demands and responsibilities increase faster than headcount and budget. The secret to a successful SE team is a combination of factors.

1.  As many companies are phasing out the Generalist SE ("Jack of all trades, Master of none") - the channel is a fantastic place for these folks to live and to make a living.

2.  Decide on the "Commander's Intent". That's a military phrase which reflects the reality that no plan survives contact with the enemy. No sales and go-to-market strategy survives contact with customers, competitors and channels. For example - is the overall intent of the Channel SE to (a) educate and enable the channel partner SE's or (b) fight side-by-side with channel partner SE's in the trenches or (c) work with your channel salesrep to sign up more channel partners?

3.  Teach your Channel SE's how to teach and train - quickly. They don't have time to do it twice. It needs to be short, sharp and effective.

4.  Aim for repeatability. There is no room for "heroic efforts" in a Channels team, the SE: Partner ration won't allow for it. That means have a sales process that everyone follows, a capture and onboarding process for new partners, and a comprehensive training and enablement program for existing partners. On that sales process note - many external companies have a great "sales" system for salespeople and are clueless on the channel SE side of things - so beware!! (You wonder why they ignore potentially 40% of their audience, but that is another story)

5.  If you are a large enough company - share globally! I just facilitated a meeting with one of my customers worldwide SE channels leaders and encouraged them to "share their toys". Three great ideas came out of New Zealand, Belgium and Thailand that saved the collective organization 3-4 hours per SE per week and increased their channel conversion rates by 12%.

6. Cast a large shadow. Don't rely on the sales or business development managers to publicize your efforts. When you contribute to the good of the greater SE team, or help land a big deal, or provide an assist to marketing or support - make sure they know about it. Don't be the best-kept secret in SE-land!

7. (Controversial). If a choice has to be made as to which outside partner should get attached to a deal - that selection CANNOT be made just by sales alone. I have seen too many deals get ruined because the partner was selected on the basis of expected commission, bonuses or golf course etiquette. Presales needs a say too - on the basis of who will make the deal easier (and faster) to win.

That's it. Go Channel!!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who Wants To Go First?

In this Month's "Ask John" I was posed the folowing question by Bethany:

I work for a small software company here in the Americas. For the past five years, we have focused on the lower end of the Small-Medium Business (SMB) market and have been very successful with our one product. We have now made an acquisition, revamped our sales team and moved upmarket with our target audience. Because of this, we are now involved in many competitive situations with larger companies and are having to give a lot more presentations and demonstrations.

My question is: When a client asks you to make a sales presentation
(as one of four possible vendors)
is there any advantage in going first, last or in the middle?

Thanks for the question. Certainly many sales professionals have debated this question over the years. My personal preference has always been that you should
either be first or last, but never in the middle. There is some basic psychological research around the
primacy and recency effects – the classic example is reciting a list of ten items to a person. They are far more likely to remember the first and last items when asked, than any of the ones in the middle. This applies to sales as well.

Classic sales theory is that if you go first you get an opportunity to redefine the battlefield, set some competitive traps and generally set the high bar for everyone who follows. The other part of the theory is that by going last you have an opportunity to sense how others have performed, possibly adjust based on insider (coaching) information, and leave the final impression in the review committees mind.

Many well-known companies promote the “go-last” strategy. One of the most famous examples was Siebel Systems when selling their SFA application – they always wanted to go last; to the point that their salespeople would find any excuse to reschedule their presentation to go last. It was a standing joke in the industry that Siebal salesreps had to attend their grandmother’s funerals so many times each year that it was a wonder they ever got any work done.

Fortunately there has been a small amount of scientific survey work undertaken to investigate the first-middle-last quandary.
Judy Wagner and Noreen Klein
published a paper titled “Who Wants To Go First? Order Effects Within A Series of Competitive Sales Presentations” in the Journal of Personal Sales and Selling. (A link is here – the article is free if you access it through a US library). The summary of their research is this.
    Sellers who present in the middle are least likely to gain any boost from that position.

    A market-leader does almost equally well going first or last. When market leaders go first, the primacy effect afford more credence to the information people hear first from sellers they already perceive to be the best.

    A “me-too” up-and-coming company does much better presenting LAST. They benefit from the recency effect – meaning that the information people hear last makes the biggest impression – especially if the time between final presentation and decision is short. They gain almost no benefit from going first.

So – the science, and John, says that in your situation you should always go last.

Good selling (but try to be more creative than killing your relatives off every year!)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Original Elevator Pitch

I'm partial to telling SE's to "give the elevator pitch the shaft" and its essentially been rendered useless except as a training exercise.

Yet, reading an article last week reminded me about the original elevator pitch. Here's the story.

It is 1853, and Elisha Otis was trying to figure out a way for him to demonstrate his remarkable solution to what was one of the major engineering problems of the day. Very simply - it was designing a SAFE elevator. Many buildings had elevators, which were incredibly complex rope-and-pulley powered systems, which were prone to failure .. and as a result .. the elevator cage would go hurtling downwards, resulying in death and destruction.

Elisha figured out a solution (which I won't explain) - and a way to demonstrate it. He rented out some space on teh main floor of New York's kargest exhibit hall and announced to everyone at the convention that they would see a remarkable demonsration the next afternnon. He set up his elevator and had his assistant hoist it 45 feet off the ground to the top of the platform. Grabbing an axe, he cut the support rope. The crowd gasped, the elevator lurched .. and nothing else happened. Elisha Otis had developed a safety brake! Saying "All safe, gentlemen, all safe" he then descended.

Elisha Otis went on to found Otis Elevator, but more importantly he developed the very first, (and a successful one at that) elevator pitch.

How impactful are your pitches?


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Third Edition Is A Go!

OK. It was complete March Madness for the blog and my writing.

The good news is that the Third Edition of Mastering Technical Sales is now starting production. We're still mapping out the full details, but it looks like we'll be adding five or six new chapters, ripping out a couple, and giving a complete revamp of most of the middle section around presentatiosn and demos. Exciting stuff! If there are particular topics you'd like to see covered please let us know.

Combined with a totally ridiculous travel schedule (which included Singapore and Thailand) the newsletter got behind schedule. It's now going to come out on Tuesday 9th April instead of April 2nd.

Final note: Interesting note from Simon Reynolds in Forbes Online titled "Is Complexity Ruining Your Business?" It looks at the issue from a corporate point of view, yet the four points he makes in a very brief article can apply to you both on a personal and a professional branding level. Worth a 60 second read.


Thursday, February 28, 2013

Winning The RFP Game

How to Increase Your Win Rate and Decrease Your Costs
The standard small to mid-range technology company expends over 15% of all customer facing pre-sales time in responding to RFPs. Most of these companies do not have a centralized bid response team, so the workload falls upon the field sales engineers to balance RFP work against what they view as “real and worthwhile” sales activity.
A two-year study conducted by a larger software company within one of its areas concluded that they spent €2m per year in direct time and materials to capture €9m in revenue. However, the opportunity cost of the time was €18m (meaning potential sales made if that time had been spent selling instead of responding), leading to a net loss of €11m.

Simple mathematics shows that there are only two ways to improve your RFP win rate. Firstly, by responding to fewer, more qualified, RFPs; and secondly, by increasing the quality of your responses. So how, when leads are rare, when customer relationships are precious and when revenue is everything, do you inject some discipline into the RFP response process yet still maintain the morale of the field sales engineering team?

Respond to Fewer RFP Documents.

Just because you receive an RFP doesn’t mean that you have to respond to it. You could be column fodder or the request may be outside your sweet spot.

1.       Fire your worst customers. Almost every company has customers who send them multiple RFPs every year, yet you derive zero revenue from them. A previous employer of mine had a ‘strategic’ customer who sent us 11 RFPs in a 26-month period – and we won exactly zero. Time for a tough conversation with that customer instead.

2.       Score the RFP. Figure out a way to assign a score to each incoming RFP, corresponding to how likely you are to win it. A sample scorecard can be found here. This isn’t a win percentage, but it gives you a way to compare RFPs and prioritize, and also to correlate your score against eventual outcome.

3.       Set the bar higher. Set up an RFP intake process and ask the account team (sales and presales) to justify why there should be a response. Do not make this complex and bureaucratic – it needs to be just enough to put some skin in the game. I am sure you could look at 25% of the RFPs you completed last year and throw them out because you knew you wouldn’t win. Presales leaders around the world routinely quote me estimates of those 25-33% guaranteed “no-win” responses. I’m not making it up! 

4.       Use the Sales Process. Any sales process is the best friend of the Sales Engineering community as it injects discipline into the opportunity. Agree with your SFA/CRM guru at what point in the cycle an opportunity needs to be at, before you respond to it. Hint: it needs to at least be at the Qualified stage. 

5.       Put in a System. Any system! One company instituted a “three strikes” process to restrict the unlimited resource checkbook attitude of sales. Each manager was allowed three RFP losses in a year. A win reset the count to zero. After three strikes, the account team had to present a full justification up to the Regional VP to obtain the OK to proceed.

Improve the Quality

Once you have decided to respond, take a good look at your finished product. Pass a couple of RFPs to someone in Marketing and Technical Writing and ask for their honest feedback. Then think carefully about roles, responsibilities and execution. You will notice that I do not recommend purchasing an automated RFP response tool – they can save a lot of duplication, but require considerable upfront effort and ongoing maintenance to make them viable.

1.       So exactly who is responsible? My belief is that the account manager is ultimately responsible for the RFP, as she owns the customer relationship. There may be a centralized response team if you are an Oracle or SAP, or the work may fall upon local field sales engineers, or there may a local project manager running the response. Yet ultimately, the salesperson owns the final product and delivery.

2.       Paint the boilerplate. Customers do read the boilerplate about company history, corporate support, headcount, financials etc. Take care over it and have it professionally written, formatted and updated every quarter. Boilerplate should still actively sell your solution and your company.

3.       Build a ‘rigged’ RFP. I am constantly amazed by the number of technology vendors who do not have a pre-written RFP stacked with highly favorable questions they can provide to a customer when asked. Unless you have ever written an RFP yourself, you have no idea how tedious and mind numbing it can be to collect requirements and write the document. Offering someone a short cut, even if they only take a few questions, can help out both sides. Just make sure the questions are reasonable and defendable. Twenty years ago, customers would accept pre-written RFPs, now they just accept a few suggestions. It’s much harder to “write” or “wire” an RFP – but be prepared just in case.

4.       Think about alternate responses. Sometimes you will receive an RFP asking for a solution outside of your sweet spot, yet with a little tweaking and vision, you can suggest an alternative way to accomplish the end goal. Tell the customer that, and write up/document your alternate response. At worst, you will lose anyway; at best, you will disrupt the process and cause them to rethink their strategy. I’ve seen the technical and business agenda reset on multiple occasions using this approach.

5.       The executive summary and the delivery. The executive summary is your shortcut to the recommender and/or decision makers within the customer. Treat that one page the same way you would a meeting with that individual. This is 100%, undeniably the responsibility of the account manager. Even better, ask for a meeting to deliver the RFP and present its highlights as to why your company is uniquely qualified to win the business.

Measure the Results

After expending all this effort and incurring the costs, you should track and measure the results. Over 50% of technology companies surveyed while researching the Mastering Technical Sales book indicated they didn’t track any of this information. So how do you know if you’re any good? More importantly, how do you know if you’re getting better?

1.       Define the win-rate.  Make an early decision on defining your win rate. Some RFPs are cancelled before a contract is awarded, others are postponed etc. Use a simple rule: Win Rate = Number of RFPs awarded / Number of RFP responses. No special cases, exceptions or asterisks.  

2.       Why did we lose (or win)? You will lose some RFPs – it happens. Learn from the experience and ask the customer why you lost so that you can improve the next time. Don’t accept weak and vague answers such as “too expensive” or “not enough functionality”. Drill down into the details – although be warned it is tough for most sales teams to explore a perceived failure.

3.       Publish a league table. Based upon your own business model, publish a league table every month showing wins, losses, responses , costs and revenue by individual rep, sales manager or product line – whichever way makes sense for you. The important fact is publicizing what is working and what is not. 

4.       Track your costs.  Track both the direct and indirect costs for every response. Direct costs are time and materials for the RFP. Include any time spent by marketing, support or engineering in answering questions on your behalf. Indirect costs are the opportunity costs lost by completing the RFP. For example, if you are an SE supporting two reps with a combined quota of $6m, your time is worth $24,000 of quota achievement a day (6,000,000/250).


Make the RFP response a part of your sales process and apply Solution Selling to it, just as you would any other sales interaction. Throw out your bad customers and your “no-win” RFPs and do not be suckered into “we have to respond just for the sake of the account relationship”. Put into place a RFP intake mechanism if you don’t already have one, and then measure and report on key metrics. Never let RFP stand for Really Fast Paperwork.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Built-In Advantage Of The Sales Engineer

I was listening to a recent Dan Pink lecture as part of the Authors@Wharton series. He said three things that just struck a chord.

  1. The first was that 1 in 9 US workers are in Sales.
  2. The second was that for all workers, on average they spend 41% of their time in a “sales-like” mode (defined as convincing or persuading people to give up something they value for what you can offer).
  3. The third was that the profession of sales has a stigma attached to it – see the nearby word cloud.

OK – so #3 is no big surprise, but the first two were. I’m not sure I know what I thought the numbers would be, only that these stats are larger than I expected.

So what does that have to do with being a Sales Engineer? Well – no question that we are in sales and it is our responsibility to assist the salespeople in “making the sale”. It’s a question of how we go about it. The great thing about being an SE is that you have immediate trust and credibility – at least relative to your sales partner. All else being equal, if you and the rep walk into a room, who is the customer more likely to believe? Exactly! You!!

That trust comes at a steep price in that you can never afford to lie or mislead a customer, or even give the perception of doing so. What is interesting is that very often the questions that may trip you up are not technical in nature (the “do you support iOS 6.1?” type) but are business related.  The trust test is with a question like “will this really work in my environment?” or “will this really save me all the money he says it will?” or the infamous “can you get this up and running in 6 weeks?”.

Your customer will believe you (at least the first time) – so be careful what you say and how you say it. I joke that you know you are an SE when everyone in the room turns to look at you after the rep finishes speaking - but take the test of trust seriously.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Wizard Of The Whiteboard 1

If you are a regular reader of the blog, or my newsletter, you know I am a big fan of Visual Selling and of closing the laptop during a sales call. So far, I’ve had over 6,000 Sales Engineers go through my whiteboard training and I often start with a quick go-up-to-the-board and draw-out-pros-and-cons exercise. One of the top items we discuss is that of credibility.

Why is using a WB related to credibility? It’s because it’s YOUR WHITEBOARD (actually it’s a jointly owned WB if you do it right – but that’s another story). Think about it. The idea goes from your brain straight to your pen and onto the board. It’s not a PowerPoint that some marketing dweeb has created that you are reusing. The degree of personalization and therefore credibility is immense. Just the fact that you can draw out the solution rather than depend on PPT gives you the aura of being a subject matter expert. Since Credibility is one vital factor in building Trust and becoming the Trusted Advisor SalesEngineer, it is an important skill to learn.

Having bad handwriting, no apparent artistic ability, no idea how to get started, or even claiming that you cannot possibly explain something so complicated as your solution on a little sheet of paper (or even an iPad screen) are NOT excuses to put down the pen and give up. My elementary school teacher would be stunned that I make a living teaching people how to draw. I could probably justify my claim that I had the worst handwriting and the least art talent in my class – yet for over 25 years in the presales business, I have readily picked up a pen and drawn “stuff”! When I joined Oracle, as a $80m company, you were required to sketch out the Oracle database architecture on a blackboard or via transparencies. If you couldn’t draw the infrastructure and illustrate it – you couldn’t do your job.

So how do you start? Remember that the best whiteboard of all is one that you plan beforehand, rather than create ad-hoc. You’d never give a demo or a presentation without running through it first, would you? Pick just a couple of PPT slides, a question you are always asked, or even a concept your audience struggles with – and create a 5-8 minute board. Focus more on imagery and icons and less on words – words kill whiteboard time. Have some fun.

(Then sign your company up for one of my classes!)