Proof of concept best practice #2: The POC must have a client-side business and technical sponsor

November 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

In the introductory post for this series, I present a list of POC suggestions that I’ve learned – too often the hard way. Next up, I describe why it’s so important to have client-side sponsorship.

I’ve already written about why a POC should only happen when there’s an active sales opportunity. Assuming that there’s indeed a live deal, there are still many ways for things to go off the rails. First, every substantial technology sale I’ve ever been involved in was impacted by client-side politics. After all, any significant new systems, processes, or technologies will affect large numbers of people. Some will be strengthened by the purchase, and others will be weakened. These machinations are often invisible to the sales team, but trust me: there are definite winners and losers, your client’s employees know this, and this impacts how every one of them will behave regarding your POC.

This means that there’s a very good chance that some individuals will be rooting for your POC to fail. Resistance may be passive, such as taking a leisurely three days to respond to your emails and calls, or giving you wrong or incomplete information. You might also encounter active opposition, even to the point of deliberate sabotage of your POC.

Given that every POC is a potential minefield, you need at least two trusted guides to help you get through safely. These sponsors should represent both the technical and business side of your prospect. It’s a huge red flag if your client won’t assign anyone, or if they assign people who don’t seem to have the respect of their colleagues.

Good advocates will help remove barriers to your success. They know the landscape far better than you do, and they can head off the active damage to your POC – often without you even knowing that they were acting as your guardian angel. In particular, a technical benefactor will quickly get you access to the resources you need – which is helpful, since time is of the essence on a POC. And a business champion will be intimately involved in drafting up the rules and goals of the POC.

As a sales engineer, you need to speak up – to your sales rep – if you determine that your sponsors are weak, disinterested, or not giving you the resources you need, because guess who will get blamed if the POC fails?

If you’re interested in POCs and all things related to sales engineering, check out my posts on the habits of the most effective sales engineers.

Proof of concept best practice #1: No POC without a valid sales opportunity

October 18, 2013 § 3 Comments

Recently, I shared some of my observations about guidelines for successfully carrying out proofs-of-concept (POC). In this installment, I want to point out how important it is for the POC to occur – always, without exception – in the context of an active sale.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I heard about a huge deal that was about to come in, if only we diverted all sales engineering talent to work for 72 hours straight (usually through a weekend, with bonus points for a holiday) to crank out a last-minute POC. In nearly every case, I discovered that my company was being used as “POC fodder” (i.e. leverage against another vendor that was much further along in the sales cycle), or there was something else strange about the opportunity.

Unfortunately, sometimes even the most levelheaded salespeople get excited and fantasize that there’s a deal when the customer is just kicking tires, comparison-shopping, or finding an excuse to continually evaluate technology without making a decision. I won’t name names, but I personally witnessed one firm – a major credit bureau – spend 8+ years evaluating Web service infrastructure offerings without ever buying anything. They went to conferences all around the world and ran their vendors ragged on custom demos, POCs, and other free work without ever spending a dime on software.

To prevent these time-wasting wild goose chases, remember that no POC should ever be done without an active sales opportunity underway. Look for an RFP or other documentation that describes a well-planned purchasing process. If the prospect starts getting cagey, changing the subject, or otherwise trying to avoid the question, there’s no deal there.

In fact, you actually strengthen your position by – politely – walking away from abnormal POCs. Prospects are notorious for trying to squeeze free research out of vendors, particularly hungry startups that are desperately trying to win a deal at a large customer.

If you’re interested in POCs and all things related to sales engineering, check out my posts on the habits of the most effective sales engineers.

Five fundamental proof-of-concept guidelines

July 31, 2013 § 5 Comments

If you’re selling a sophisticated or costly technical solution, it’s highly likely that your prospect will demand a proof-of-concept (POC) before committing to a purchase. Failing to successfully complete this vital task means that you won’t make the sale. Yet over the course of many years, I’ve seen a surprising number of botched POCs. Sadly, most of these fiascos had less to do with product or service shortcomings, and more to do with the process and people who were involved in the POC.

To help  you deliver better POCs, I’ll be writing a series of blog posts that showcase some best practices. For now, remember these five essential guidelines when you agree to perform a POC:

  1. The POC must always occur in the context of a sale. Otherwise, it’s just a costly and time-consuming demo.
  2. The POC must have a client-side business and technical sponsor. Otherwise, nothing will come of your hard work.
  3. The POC must have a clearly defined set of goals. Otherwise, the client will keep moving the goalposts.
  4. The POC must have an agreed-upon timeline. Otherwise, the POC will stretch to infinity.
  5. The POC must have internal support from the company that’s trying to make the sale. Otherwise, you won’t get the assistance you’re likely to need.

Another instance of a successful ROI calculator

December 17, 2012 Comments Off on Another instance of a successful ROI calculator

A while back I wrote about an ROI calculator that we created for Sybase at Think88. That calculator was meant to assist customers in determining the economic benefits of putting Sybase’s new compression capabilities to work in their data centers.

At WiseClouds, we help many customers design, develop, and test highly intricate distributed systems. One of the most important tools that we use is soapUI Pro. In fact, we believe in that product so much that we created a training course to help customers learn how to derive the most value from it.

During our engagements we always encourage customers to make the switch from the free version of soapUI to the professional version. After seeing the benefits of this upgrade in dozens of environments, we’ve come up with a concrete set of numbers that highlight these efficiencies from three viewpoints:

  1. Labor savings
  2. Time-to-market
  3. Software defect reduction perspective

We then used this information as the foundation of an ROI calculator to help showcase these advantages and thus justify the upgrade to soapUI Pro.

7 Essential questions to ask when creating technical marketing collateral

November 3, 2012 Comments Off on 7 Essential questions to ask when creating technical marketing collateral

A while back, I put together a list of five of the most typical technical marketing mistakes we see at Think88. Over the years, we’ve also observed that the most successful technical marketing collateral initiatives have a certain number of things in common. We’ve distilled this into a list of seven questions that we ask whenever we work with a client to start the ball rolling on one of these engagements. In fact, it’s a core part of our methodology. These questions include:

  1. How will this new material fit in with the company’s overall messaging and strategy?
  2. How will you present it to the market?
  3. Who are the targeted readers for it?
  4. Will other content refer to this material? Will this material refer to other content?
  5. What do you want the reader to do after they’ve finished reading this material?
  6. How will you measure and quantify its impact?
  7. Will the sales department be involved throughout the design and development process?

Going forward, I’ll be writing blog posts about each of these questions. In my opinion, the only way to succeed and justify the investment in time and money for new collateral is to have satisfactory answers to the above list.

Winning sales engineer trait #7: Self-directed

August 22, 2012 § 1 Comment

We’ve finally reached the end of my series on the seven characteristics that define the most successful sales engineers. I saved this one for last, because all the traits I described earlier don’t really matter if you’re not self-sufficient.

In a nutshell, if you’re looking for day-to-day guidance on what you should be doing, sales engineering is not for you. I’ve seen many people that possess each of the six traits I described earlier, yet still flail when it comes to day-to-day SE work.

Here are just a few of the realities of being an SE today, each of which demands self-reliance:

  • You work from home. You may not see a manager or peer for days on end.
  • You’re on the road – a lot! Sometimes these trips last one day; sometimes they seem to go on forever.
  • You’re dealing with flattened management. In fact, many companies have abolished dedicated sales engineering leadership altogether. Instead, these outfits have their SEs report to sales management. One byproduct of this approach is that many SEs have managers who fundamentally don’t understand what an SE is supposed to do.
  • You serve several sales reps. Naturally each rep has his/her own idea about how you should prioritize your work.
  • You’re responsible for multiple sales opportunities. These deals are almost never in sync, which means you must juggle different timelines.
  • You represent multiple products. Sometimes your firm built these offerings, and sometimes they’ve been assembled piece-by-piece through acquisitions.
  • You’re the first line of technical support for your prospects. Don’t believe me? Ask a sales rep about their thoughts on letting your standard technical support organization care for potential clients that haven’t signed on the dotted line yet.

Taking the initiative is the best way to prosper in this challenging environment. Here are three core ways to make this happen:

  1. Be an active participant that drives the sales process forward. Since prospects will reveal things to an SE that they never would to a sales rep, the SE serves as the eyes and ears of the entire company. Of course, you need to coordinate your efforts with your sales rep: when done right, this teamwork is beautiful to behold.
  1. Build – and nurture – relationships. It’s my contention that the SE must cultivate a wider range of relationships than anyone else in the entire company – except the CEO. Think of all the people that the SE must work with in addition to prospective customers:
    • Salespeople
    • Other SEs
    • Post-sales professional services
    • Technical support
    • Marketing
    • Engineering
    • Partners
  1. Stay current on technology. Obviously, you must keep up with your portfolio: driven by competition and innovation, your products are always in flux. This means that there’s never a time where things are static. And since far too many companies have slashed training budgets, it’s up to you to do the necessary research. But you must also stay current on the larger technology landscape outside of your firm. After all, continual evolution demands continual self-driven study. As an SE, clients will look to you for credible knowledge, and appearing out-of-date or blissfully ignorant is a sure-fire way to torpedo a sale.

Winning sales engineer trait #6: Diplomatic

July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

“No one ever won an argument with a customer” is a time-tested adage that is doubly true when interacting with a prospective client. In this next installment of 7 Habits of the Most Effective Sales Engineers, I depict why diplomacy is such an essential talent for the sales engineer.

To begin, it’s vital to remember that the solution that’s being pitched during the technical sales cycle will typically require alterations to the way the prospect conducts business. In some cases, the proposed new technology will displace existing solutions – often developed, supported, or sponsored by the prospect’s employees. And let’s face it: new solutions really can cost them their jobs. For example, an insurance company doesn’t need a whole team of programmers to build and maintain an internally developed ERP package when they can acquire and support a best-of-breed product for a fraction of the cost.

For these reasons – and many others – it’s very common for the prospect’s technical staff to feel threatened by new products, and to find innovative ways to monkey wrench a sales cycle. These can range from passive aggressive techniques all the way up to belligerent confrontations. Every SE faces these types of situations but only the most diplomatic SEs can gracefully cope with these intimidating circumstances with dignity and poise.

Here are some simple recommendations about how you can incorporate the fine art of diplomacy in your technical sales cycles:

  1. First and foremost: you should always maintain professionalism, even when being berated by a socially maladjusted engineer during a sales call.
  1. Maintain credibility by having a solid and relevant technical background without feeling the need to throw your PhD in engineering from MIT in your prospect’s face.
  1. Demonstrate extensive product knowledge without denigrating your competition.
  1. Don’t be too sales-y: that’s the sales rep’s job. And it’s the rep’s job to alert the prospect’s management if their technical staff are acting in bad faith to disrupt a legitimate sales cycle.
  1. Communicate clearly and concisely, both verbally and in writing: stick to the point, back it up with facts, and avoid hyperbole.
  1. When you have proof that someone from the prospect is wrong on a technical matter, point it out gently: there’s no need to celebrate your victory.
  1. Finally – although passion about the job is a good thing, don’t get too emotionally involved in the sale. Win or lose, you’ll be on to the next deal soon.

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