It’s right there in the name - as solutions engineers and architects, we in PreSales love to solve problems. But are we sure we’re always solving the right problems - the big ones - for our customers, or are we focused on the wrong outcomes? At the recent PreSales Leadership Collective Executive Summit, we heard an interesting systems thinking session from:
Andrew Braverman, Area VP of Enterprise Systems Engineering at Pure Storage
Is PreSales Solving the Right Problems?
In order to effectively solve a problem, you need to first understand the problem fully. PreSales is a field of solutions-oriented people - we love to charge out and solve a problem head-on. But it’s important to first take a step back, think about why the problem exists and understand what we’re trying to do before we solve anything. Doing great work in the wrong direction will get you further away from a solution than doing poor work.
In PreSales, we tend to think that by understanding the problems our technical buyers have, and trying to solve them, we produce outcomes. And we do produce outcomes, but they’re narrowly focused only on the technical needs of technical buyers. We talk about app performance, the total cost of ownership, etc. and we think of outcomes a lot.
But generally across the industry, we rarely tie those outcomes back to bigger initiatives for our customers and their organizations. Outputs are different from effects - and we need to maximize effects.
Customers as Systems
The most effective way to achieve these broader outcomes is to consider our customers as systems.
What is a system? There are a few definitions. It can be an entity that maintains its existence through the mutual interactions of its parts. Or an entity that produces essential characteristics that can not be found in any of its parts. Either way, the whole is greater than the parts.
Analysis (which we in PreSales love) is only half of the picture. In fact, the word comes from the Greek: “to break up”. When we break something up and analyze it, we’re only looking at its parts -and this view doesn’t show us the essential characteristics of the system.
If you break up a car and look at its components only, you wouldn’t understand how a car operates. None of the components themselves can get you where you need to go - but when they interact together, that’s when they can.
Why We Need Systems Thinking
We need to understand the context in which the entity is operating. What is the product of their interactions?
It’s important to understand four things about our customers. The solutions our technical buyers provide back to their customers, their customers, the interactions between buyers and customers, and the context in which they interact.
But the reality is that we already know our technical buyers. Most companies have initiatives for us to learn more about the companies who are our customers - but there are still large gaps. We don't have great access or understanding, even though we’ve tried to get beyond just talking to our technical buyers. There have only been pockets of success. How can we do it?
We need to leverage our technical buyers because we know them the best and have an existing relationship with them. They might be resistant - they want to control the narrative of their interactions with customers. So we need to deliver them something of value, and then we can exchange that for this access. What is of value that we can offer? Our understanding of their companies.
When we need to develop a deeper understanding of the companies who are our customers, there are four key areas to investigate and get context.
- Stated purpose - look at SEC filings, press releases, websites, etc.
- Actual purpose - read about them, look at what industry analysts say, talk to their customers, read reviews, become a customer if it’s a consumer brand
- Initiatives for changing purpose - vision, roadmap, job openings and how they’re written (look on Linkedin, get job alerts, and look broader than just your tech sphere)
- Markets where they play - look at other areas but from market perspective, take a big step back and understand those markets
Consuming all this as SEs might be heretical. How often have we heard “that’s not your job”? It's typically the job of sales to understand a customer's business. But it IS our job. Our SE brains can make us better at it than the salespeople. The way we think and organize information can help us connect those dots.
Sales and PreSales is a team sport, at heart. When we do things in a vacuum and let sales alone work at this, we both have huge blindspots. We’re not helping sales to understand the customer, and they’re not getting the value of our input and understanding. This leaves everyone a little bit in the dark.
So how can PreSales participate? We need to assign this task to everyone we possibly can (SEs, reps, specialists, whoever). Everyone does research to gather and understand the four key areas of context on their own. Next, bring them all together for collaboration, and hold a session where everyone presents, discusses, and argues.
Both SEs and sales reps have blind spots about the customer, so to minimize those, make sure everyone can provide their perspective. Put it all together and synthesize it, and try to develop a collective understanding and distill shared context into wisdom. It’s important to do this collectively, and to expand its scope as far as you possibly can.
Learning About Customers of Technical Buyers
Think about all the interactions taking place in the companies that are our customers. Our goal here is to gain far better access to customers, they might be in business units or other places in the business. We need our technical buyers to facilitate these interactions for us. And so we must deliver value to technical buyers so they’ll give us that engagement and context.
How much do technical buyers know about their own business? They tend not to know things like their big corporate initiatives and stated vs. actual purpose, so everything we’ve learned is really valuable.
The first thing to do is deliver value by teaching them about their own companies and ask for access to their customers. How do buyers feel about their initiatives? What about consumers of consumers? Ask for customer perspectives on technical buyers: how is the relationship working? What value are they seeing?
When you deliver value about the context of the business back to the technical buyer, you’ve earned the right to participate in those interactions between the buyers and their customers. And this gives you the opportunity to think about customers as systems - connecting all those dots like we do for technical solutions and truly understanding the outputs customers are looking for.
And we can present the impact and effects our solutions have on our customers and their customers as well. We no longer have the disconnection between technical solutions we have as SEs and the solutions our customers are looking for. Then when we deliver, we can’t be replaced.