Building Champions with Technical Workshops

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By

Sean Carolan

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Sean Carolan

Mar 14, 2022

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The PreSales Engineer can help accelerate the technology sales process by educating potential customers, removing technical blockers, and clearly demonstrating business value. One of the tools in the PreSales Engineer's kit is the technical workshop. In this blog post we'll discuss the pros and cons of this important selling tool.


What is a Technical Workshop?


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a workshop as “a usually brief intensive educational program for a relatively small group of people that focuses especially on techniques and skills in a particular field.”


A technical workshop is a hands-on session where prospects or customers learn how to use your product in a lab or training environment. Typical workshops may range from an hour long lunch-and-learn session to a full day of virtual training with an instructor. In either case the pre-sales goal is the same: to get new or existing users to understand the technical and business value of your product or service.


I don’t recommend using the terms "Workshop" or "Technical Workshop" to refer to architecture reviews, whiteboarding sessions, or hackathons. These are also useful tools but should not be conflated with a properly planned hands-on technical workshop.


When Should You Not Have a Workshop?


Let's get this out of the way first. If your sales rep asks: "Should we do a Technical Workshop?", the default answer is always NO.



NO is a perfectly acceptable answer.


Technical workshops are an easy way to waste everybody's time while feeling productive because you organized an event with the prospect. If you don't plan carefully, qualify your opportunities, and prepare your users, throwing a technical workshop at the prospect won’t help and can sometimes make things worse.


Let's go over a few of the reasons not to do a technical workshop with your users:


A Bad Workshop is Worse than No Workshop


A poorly planned workshop that does not have clear learning objectives, goals, and outcomes can cause more harm than good.



The memory of a poorly designed workshop lingers on…


Maybe you’ve seen this scenario before. The sales rep, a VP, or even the CEO will offer the customer a day or two of training with a senior pre-sales engineer. This gesture is intended to score some points, soothe an unhappy customer, or unblock a stuck deal or renewal. The poor SE is tasked with throwing together content for an architecture review, hands-on training, or Q&A session. Often the content created by the SE doesn't match the prospect's needs or maturity level. In the worst case scenario the users end up feeling even more confused or discouraged by your technology stack because it can be perceived as hard or complicated to use.


Users Love Free Training


Nobody ever says no to a free workshop. After all, who wouldn't want a break from their normal day job to take some free training? The problem here is the technical users don't sign the checks. You may get the entire DevOps team to come to a free workshop and find out later their manager already decided to go with another solution vendor.



Who doesn’t love free training?


Make sure you actually have a legitimate opportunity before promising anyone a technical workshop. In my own career I have taught dozens of these workshops, many of which ended up being a complete waste of time.


Time Consuming and Labor Intensive


Sometimes inexperienced sales reps will dangle the free workshop as a way to build goodwill with the prospect. The sales rep isn't the one spending hours developing custom content or preparing for the technical workshop. The sales rep buys a box of donuts, shakes some hands, and sits in the back of the room while the SE has to carry the weight of the preparation and presentation.



This is your SE after building custom workshop content all weekend


Don't let your pre-sales engineers become a free professional services team! If the technical workshop is really a pretense for free training or consulting hours, you should encourage the user to engage with a services partner instead. These deeper engagements are often better suited to a dedicated education or professional services team.


The technical workshop should not serve as a crutch for poor documentation or gaps in  functionality. It should also not be a replacement for a proper professional services engagement.


Technical Workshop as a Sales Accelerator


We've reviewed some of the reasons not to do a technical workshop, let's look at the positive benefits of a properly planned, well qualified workshop:


Sets You Apart from the Competition


If you're competing against another vendor the technical workshop can be a great way to differentiate your company's solutions. And if the competition also does a workshop you'll want to keep the playing field level by doing your own workshop. In many opportunities you’ll be able to secure the technical win early in the sales process because the prospect had such a great experience with the workshop.


Break Down the Barriers of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt)


One of the questions I like to ask at the beginning of a workshop is "How many of you have ever used our technology before? How many have even heard of our solution?" Usually almost none of the people in the room had used our kit. Perhaps a few had heard about us or read an article.




Technical Workshops can help overcome preconceived notions and FUD


Some of these users may even have preconceived notions about what your solution is and what it does. Others may have formed opinions based on incorrect or old data. The technical workshop is your chance to win over even the most hardened skeptics by showing them that your solution is easy to use and will help them solve even the most complex technical challenges.


After one of the workshops I presented, an engineer told me, “Wow, if only we’d had this tool a year ago, we could have saved so much time and trouble…” Sometimes people need to sit down and try out the tools themselves for it to really sink in.


Involve Your Users & Build Champions


The workshop offers a chance to identify the different personalities on the team(s) that you are selling to. This is your opportunity to look for some champions who like your product or service and have the technical savvy or influence to convince their managers to buy your solution. The technical workshop is a non-threatening way to build relationships directly with the engineers who will be using your technology. They will help sell your solution to their teammates and managers. Those of you who follow the MEDDIC or MEDDPIC sales methodology will recognize the importance of the last letter C, or champion.


The champions you build with technical workshops are valuable allies who have much more influence over purchasing decisions than an outsider. After all, these are the folks who will be using your product or service and you want them on your side.


Plants the Seeds for Future Growth


Even if your customer doesn't purchase your solution right away, you are planting the seeds for future growth and expansion. Some of the people who attend your workshop may move on to other jobs or departments and try to bring your tools with them. Doing a workshop also increases the pool of resources who understand your platform. There are few things worse for a technical  sales cycle than losing the only champion who understood your product.


"We lost our champion because he took another job," is an all-too-common refrain among enterprise sales reps.


Prospects Experience Working with Your Company


Users like getting personal attention from their account team. If they have a great experience with the pre-sales team it will build confidence that they will get good support even after the sale.


(Something about customers like working with friendly account teams.)


Grab the Undivided Attention of Technical Users


Developers, engineers and system administrators are all busy. Enterprise IT workers rarely get even 30 minutes to an hour of free time. They are attending meetings, writing code, fixing bugs, or dealing with outages. None of these people has the time to properly evaluate your solution, let alone even read a blog or watch a three minute video.



Distracted engineers too busy to learn about your new product


The technical workshop provides some protected time for you to speak directly to your prospect and educate them without all the usual distractions that they face everyday. "I'm in training today." is a perfect excuse to not have to answer email or attend more meetings.


How to Run an Effective Technical Workshop


The following steps offer some guidelines to help ensure your success with technical workshops.


Cloud or On-Premise?


One of the shops I worked at had in the past had a beast of a machine called the Training Laptop. The hardware specs on this machine were impressive even by today's standards. It had at least 32GB of RAM and a large enough hard drive to run multiple virtual machines. It worked in on-premise environments but was really inconvenient and difficult to transport.


If your software or solution is able to run in the cloud, I highly recommend using cloud resources for your workshops. Not all users will be able to take advantage of this method but it is the easiest and most convenient way to build technical labs and workshop environments.


In either case you need to figure out what the user’s sandbox or lab environments will look like and where they will be hosted. I don’t recommend allowing users to BYOL (Bring Your Own Laptop) because you’ll have no idea how their laptop was configured or whether it will even work with your software. It’s much more efficient and consistent to use VMs or cloud instances for the workstations and servers in the workshop labs.


Ok, the “beast” wasn’t quite this big but you get the idea…


Thankfully these days we have cloud computing and fast broadband almost everywhere.


The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the use of remote learning technologies like teleconferencing and cloud training environments.


Define Your Goals and Roles


Talk with your sales team or sales leadership about the purpose of the workshop, who is qualified for a workshop, and the desired outcomes and goals. You should also identify the different stakeholders and what role they play in the workshop program. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Content developer (may be the SE, could be a dedicated person or team)
  • The sales rep or field marketing sponsor, or customer success manager
  • The instructor (could be the SE or a dedicated trainer)
  • The customer champion (if it’s a private workshop)
  • Optional: teacher's assistants (TAs). Useful for larger workshops.

Build and Test the Content


Don't wing it! You should never walk into a workshop without a fully tested lab environment, curriculum, and learning goals planned out ahead of time. Ideally you should go through all of your content and have some co-workers help test it out as well. Make sure your workshop content flows well and can be understood and completed in the time frame you've allotted.


Keep it Interesting


Nobody wants to sit through several hours of boring lectures and PowerPoint slides. A good technical workshop combines lectures, labs, quizzes and checkpoints to create variety and reinforcement of key learning objectives. A good rule of thumb is to keep lectures and slides short and to the point, introducing key topics but allowing the hands-on labs to explain more.


Conclusion


The Technical Workshop, when used effectively, removes technical blockers, builds goodwill, and accelerates the sales cycle. Here are some dos and don’ts to remember when building the technical workshop program in your own organization:

  • Do: Be judicious; don't give free workshops to every prospect.
  • Do: Clearly define what the workshop is and what it will include.
  • Do: Allow users to provide feedback at the end of the workshop.
  • Do: Have next steps planned for your workshop participants.
  • Don't: Give away workshops to every lead and prospect.
  • Don't: Have unstructured free-form workshops.
  • Don't: Use your SEs to patch over poor documentation or process.


Sean Carolan is the Head of PreSales at Instruqt. He has experience in pre and post-sales environments and spent seven years as a system administrator. He has experience architecting and building on all of the major cloud platforms (Azure, GCP, AWS). [Connect with Sean on LinkedIn]


Instruqt is built for fast-growing software companies looking to educate and sell to today’s modern buyers. We transform the way you reach prospects, enable buyers, sellers, and partners by removing barriers that prevent them from experiencing what makes your product great. With a browser-based private sandbox environment, it’s never been easier or faster to see how your product adds value in real life!


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