I read a book by Ben Horowitz that had a super interesting section on his view of the differences between good and great Product Managers. I really enjoyed his perspective as it felt like a behind the scenes look into a job I’ve never done and only witnessed from afar. I’m by no means as experienced or successful as Ben, but I went through the exercise of trying to do the same thing for the SE role. After finishing up the first draft of this, there was one sentiment ringing in my head: I don’t do all of these things well, or in some cases at all, but I really want to try.
Is there anything that I’ve left off? Anything you think I’ve gotten wrong?
- Require a prep meeting invite along with every customer meeting invite
- Research the prospect, the industry, and then tailor your talk track(s) accordingly
- Know the names, roles, and backgrounds of meeting participants ahead of time
- Prepare tailored presentations, workshops, and demos
- Plan for objections and what can go wrong with your rep
- Know everyone on the team’s role in the meeting, the customer’s purpose for the meeting, and the desired outcome/result
- Provide input on opportunity strategy and dynamics instead of just taking orders
- Leave nothing to chance; bring cables, dongles, markers, hotspots, backup presentations on your rep’s machine, etc.
- Slow down now in order to speed up later
This set of behaviors is what I probably spend the most time trying to get better at. My own character traits (or flaws depending on the situation) generally have me wanting to control as much as possible. Because preparation is 100% in an SEs control, it’s one of the activities that stand out to me right away. The great ones do it, everyone else just talks about it or worse.
- Become a great storyteller
- Present narratives that highlight the customer’s pain and connect your solution to solving it
- Do more describing and less clicking
- Add your own personality, style, and creativity to your presentations/content
- Work equally as hard on your presentations as you do your technical environments/demos
- Be ready to adjust to customer asks in flight
- Respond to questions with questions of your own
- Provide feedback on at least one good thing and one bad thing from the team’s performance after each meeting
Every development plan I’ve had as an SE has included a goal to improve this aspect of my performance. The SE role can naturally lead down the path of talking technology, solutions, and features. While these aren’t inherently bad things, the greatest SEs I’ve seen execute meetings in a way that gets everyone’s attention. From feeling like a chat in a living room with friends to watching someone give a TED talk, the great ones are engaging during meetings, let their humanity show, and find a way to connect during meetings that has participants feeling glad to have attended.
- Demonstrate every required capability to a non-technical audience
- Get additional discovery done during demonstrations and workshops to help further qualify an opportunity in or out
- Arm yourself with details on multiple customer stories
- Fight for an excellent reputation with Services and Support teams because you do not mislead customers or set unrealistic expectations
- Present with authority because you know where your solution fits in the market
- Speak to the product roadmap but do not make commitments on the Product team’s behalf
This is the foundation of the job. Don’t assume that this foundation is set. Every other part of the job could be at maximum awesome, but if you don’t gain credibility speaking to your solution, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The first step is knowing the product. The next step is having the ability to teach it to a non-technical audience in business specific terms. Great SEs then layer on an awareness of where their product fits in the overall market and in their audience’s minds.
- Have an opinion on and speak to each of the elements of an opportunity in a sales cycle
- Know what stage an opportunity is in the sales cycle
- Be aware of, suggest, and at times own next steps
- Own your demonstrations, technical workshops, technical champion building, and POC activities
- Participate in and provide input to Business Value Assessments
- Actively and continually provide feedback to your reps on gaps in an opportunity and suggest steps to address them
- Become someone who is often asked by leadership for your opinion on opportunities in the forecast
I’ve played a lot of different team sports in my life and there has been one common word yelled by every single coach I’ve ever had: talk! Team’s don’t work well if one person isn’t doing their job on the court/field/track. Teams also don’t work well if one person is doing their job in a vacuum. The SE role is no different. Great SEs know their role, understand how it fits into the overall team, and focus on the team's objective as opposed to just their part in it.
- Know the competition and proactively gather competitive intelligence
- Understand the competition’s strengths and how they set traps
- Have responses and follow-up questions for prospects who bring competition-influenced objections
- Know when an RFP has been written by a competitor and respond accordingly
If you find yourself in a PreSales role, chances are good that you're a competitive person. The job can really satisfy that itch, but there's one big distinction to how the best SEs I've seen handle competing: they study, know, and welcome competitors and competition, but rarely, if ever, speak about them directly. Know your customer, know their problems, know your market, and know where you fit in the overall market. Combine that with your knowledge of the other competitive solutions in the market to become that trusted advisor, but focus conversations on why you feel your solution best solves the customer's problem(s). If you focus on competitive solutions, chances are you won't have completely accurate information and worse, you're now indirectly talking about yourself as opposed to talking about your customer.
- Be aware of the most common objections and address them head on before a detractor deploys them
- Become familiar with the Buy vs. Build question being weighed by the prospect’s technical team and be prepared to influence it when appropriate
- Align with your rep(s) on the customer-centric response when a prospect immediately wants a demo, price, or POC.
- Know how to pivot or re-direct when a prospect shifts their focus from business value to a specific feature or function
As an SE, you will find yourself battling the bad behavior/tactics of every seller your customer has previously interacted with in their career. They've more than likely been burned by bad actors in the past or in the current situation have a preference (for whatever reason) for a competitive solution. When you're in this situation, your response is key because it set's the tone, demonstrates how you're different, and starts the process of building trust. The reality is that while they might range from great to mediocre to bad, customers always have multiple options that are not your solution. How you engage when met with objections goes a lot further than just saying you're customer-centric, it proves it.
- Give your rep(s) 100% confidence that you’re looking after their best interests; know your rep’s strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly
- View your rep(s) as your customer and make it easy to engage
- Allow reps to coach you and further develop your business and selling acumen
- Expect reps to have an appropriate level of technical knowledge of the product and the market
- Become comfortable telling your rep(s) a contact is too low in the org, that they need a different champion target, or that they need to get wider and get others involved
- Provide direct, fact based feedback using terminology from your team’s forecast methodology (e.g. MEDDPIC) so there's no confusion
This is by far the hardest part of the PreSales role for me. I consistently watch how great SEs interact with their reps and copy/pattern as much of it as I can. Most human relationships are complicated, most SEs support multiple reps, and no SE I've ever met is a match with all of their reps. When the relationship is working well, it's like you're making music together. When the relationship isn't where you want it to be, it can be the most draining part of your job. In either case, I've found that the most consistent way to improve the dynamic is to: (1) be honest, (2) speak directly, and (3) agree on the process and approach you're going to take when working together in advance. Every conversation you delay will only make the eventual conversation you have to have more difficult.
- Create ‘good work’ for leadership by identifying issues and potential solutions that move the business forward; celebrate successes but quickly focus on what’s next to move the needle
- Volunteer for opportunities outside of direct sales that move the business forward (e.g. conference participation, analyst discussions, panel discussions, thought leadership presentations)
- Attend, participate in, and answer questions on forecast calls
- You might not own the number, but speak to deals and stand side by side with your rep(s) at QBRs
- Remember that the ‘S’ in your title probably stands for ‘Sales’; a miss on a commit should pain you just as much as it hurts reps and sales leadership
- Understand you’re uniquely positioned to work with and influence teammates in Engineering, Product Management, Product Marketing, Services, and Support
- You’re the technical resource that has the most exposure to the market and prospects; great SEs find themselves consistently tapped by or recruited to the Product Marketing and/or Product Management teams
This is the set of behaviors I've seen most consistently separate the good from the great. The SE role requires that you have a very diverse set of skills and can have multiple types of conversations at different levels of a customer's organization. This dynamic also applies within your own organization and within the broader industry as well. The best SEs I've ever seen naturally do more than their job description because they can and are often asked to. They're talented, they're trusted, and they know what customers are asking for so their value is inherent. Sometimes the great ones are so good that they find themselves presented with opportunities to move on from PreSales roles, the good kind of problem we'd all love to find ourselves faced with.
For 15 years, Pabel has helped some of the largest companies in the world provide amazing experiences through customer experience, communications, security and emerging technology solutions. Passionate about the intersection of business and technology, he has worked across the U.S. with enterprises in the technology, retail, and financial verticals. Now residing in the UK, he is originally from the Dominican Republic, holds a B.S. and M.S. from the University of Florida and an MBA from Auburn University. Connect with Pabel on LinkedIn.