2021: Your Solution Engineering​ Roadmap

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Daryn Mason


Jan 20, 2021


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I know what you're thinking...

Why do PreSales professionals need a roadmap for one specific year? Let's face it. 2020 was a year of seismic disruption for every industry on the planet. 2021 will present you with more unique challenges. In this article, I want to stand back and look at what just happened, what it means for you as a Solution Engineer (SE), and the five strategies you need to thrive in a changing world.

2019 BC* (*Before COVID)

In 2019 BC, two mega-trends dominated business thinking: Customer Experience and Digital Transformation.

2020 was meant to be the year when experience trumped product and price as the primary purchasing criteria for consumers. This inexorable shift opened the door to many new entrants into traditional markets (think AirBNB in hospitality, or Uber in the taxi business). They were able to rapidly leverage digital technologies to gain a foothold without the baggage of legacy systems, processes or physical infrastructure.

But more importantly, they completely changed the business model in their target industry.

Traditional industry behemoths needed to react quickly to defend their position and respond to their customers' spiraling expectations. Digital Transformation projects pervaded most industries.

When the customer experience changes dramatically, organizations need to respond quickly or suffer a slow and painful demise. Hold that thought.

2008 BC - Lessons from History

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has precipitated a dual crisis in terms of population health and global economics. For most crisis situations we can learn lessons from history. The last global recession was the result of the financial crash of 2008. If you need reminding, this wiped out trillions of dollars in global GDP, caused runaway unemployment and saw governments invest eye-watering amounts of money to bail out financial institutions.

Despite these headwinds, some sales people continued to sell and over-achieve. But what was special about these individuals when compared with their peers? What made them so special? One small research company resolved to find out.

CEB -- later to be acquired by Gartner -- catalogued the key behavioral differences of hundreds of sales people and also surveyed a large number of customer buyers to see if there was any commonality between those sales people who bucked the economic trends. They discovered a specific persona who were repeatedly successful. The Challenger. In 2011 they published their detailed findings and recommendations in “The Challenger Sale” [Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson; 2011].

Challenger sales professionals brought decision makers new insights into their markets by reframing the customer's industry challenges. They carefully tailor their solution messaging to address these new challenges, and take 'expert' control of the purchasing process through their selling experience. In a nutshell, Challengers teach for differentiation, tailor for resonance, and take control of the sale.

Implications for Solution Engineers

What does this add up to for SEs to thrive in 2021?

During and after this global pandemic, customer expectations will change dramatically. You need to rethink, reframe and recommend how your customers should respond. Customer priorities will change as elaborate CX strategies give way to more basic safety and security issues (just as Abraham Maslow predicted with his "Hierarchy of Needs").

You need to rebuild relationships with customers who will have a whole new set of purchasing selection criteria. Specifically, they will...

  • Stop many projects and investments while they re-evaluate their customers' future needs and attune to their adjusted sentiment. (Many companies have already started this cycle in 2020.)
  • Proceed cautiously to see what's changed in their customer's world and what has stayed the same.
  • Reset and accelerate their Digital Transformation projects around this new Experience Economy.

Smart companies will recognize these behaviors and adapt; others will flounder as they struggle to make sense of what just happened.

Five SE Strategies for Success

I consider the global economy as like the tide. High tide (an 'up' economy) and low tide (a 'down' economy) is an inevitable cycle. But unlike the tides there are no accurate charts to work out when they're occurring!

If you have shallow skills, then at low tide you're grounded with no way of making it back into the water. If you have deep skills, you'll be sailing in open water. In my opinion, these are the five skill areas you should nurture and deepen:

  • Be a Challenger. Your customer's customer has changed. Use lessons from history to adopt a Challenger approach in Solution Engineering and your broader sales team. Here is my detailed blog on exactly what to do.
  • Strengthen Your Value Proposition. Your value proposition dictates the trajectory of your sales cycle. Just like a plane flight, a shallow trajectory will put you in the turbulent air of storm clouds and your competitors can easily shoot you down. Even if you keep flying, it'll be a long sales cycle. A steeper trajectory will put you in clear air and it'll be a smoother, shorter sales cycle. [See image below.] There are four engines to your value proposition: (1) Why should your customer buy anything; (2) What benefits will your solution deliver? (3) How will your solution achieve this? (4) Where have you done it before? (Proof!) Make sure you have nailed all four. Planes can fly on three (or even two) engines, but your trajectory will be shallow!
  • Know YOUR Sales Process. Take time to understand where your presales skills can make the biggest difference in your company's sales process. If you use MEDDIC (MEDDPICC, or similar), you can find out exactly how in my recent blog.
  • Sharpen Your Core Skills. If you thought Solution Engineering was just about doing demos, forget it! It's WAY more interesting than that when delivered expertly. Do you have what it takes? Where do you stand on the SE skills hierarchy? And do you have the emotional intelligence (EQ) to put it all together? Find out how you're doing here.
  • Adopt a Growth Mindset. Winning performers -- in sport or business -- always learn from their failures as well as their successes. A growth mindset means that you forensically analyze your performance, identify areas for improvement, and implement these even if they're minor improvements. In the area of enterprise selling the difference between success and failure in often a very small percentage. By applying the aggregation of marginal gains (AMG) principle you can turn a narrow failure into a resounding success.

2021: Seizing the Opportunity

One of the few certainties about 2021 is that your customer, and your customer's customer have changed. They have re-evaluated their priorities; what is important in life and business. Those who correctly identify these changes have the potential to thrive in uncertain times.

By taking lessons from history you can get a 'head start' over your competitors. This is what I want to impart on Solution Engineers in this 2021 Roadmap article.

We work in an environment where small, marginal positive changes can make a massive difference to our fortunes in sales. It's up to you to make the choice to make a difference.

As the tide goes out on global economies, don't be grounded in shallow water. Invest in deeper skills and hoist your sails. In the words of the American author and professor, John A Shedd, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."

Daryn Mason coaches PreSales and sales professionals to reach their next level of performance. He writes and blog about B2B enterprise selling and Customer Experience (CX).

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The Leadership collective is a group designed for PreSales leaders in a management capacity (Manager+ title) who are looking to network, grow professionally, and actively participate.

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