Throughout my 30+ years in PreSales Engineering, of which 25 have been in management, I’ve spent a significant amount of time recruiting and hiring.
If you’re a PreSales leader and you’re finding it challenging to identify the right kind of talent, I know exactly what you’re going through. And, while I certainly don’t have a magic formula for finding the ideal candidate for every open position, I do have some advice to share.
Evaluating Soft Skills
Why are soft skills so important in PreSales roles? The reason is that it’s not just about what a candidate knows. It’s about how they engage with others and handle themselves in various sales scenarios.
Every qualified SE should possess the following fundamental soft skills:
- Strong communication skills, especially having the ability to deliver a powerful business and technical value presentation and demonstration
- Problem-solving skills, including the ability to address objections
- A great attitude and solid personality
- A strong work ethic
- Willingness to work as a member of a team
A good way to evaluate a candidate’s soft skills is through behavioral-style interview questions. For example, if I’m trying to determine whether a candidate is able to drive two-way communication, read nonverbal cues, and identify unanticipated customer needs, I ask …
- How do you get customers to talk about their business priorities?
- What nonverbal cues do you look for during sales interactions?
- Describe a time when you proactively addressed an unstated customer need.
To evaluate a candidate’s problem-solving abilities, I ask …
- Give an example of how you applied knowledge from a previous issue to a later, perhaps more complex issue. Did you recognize you were doing so at the time?
- Give a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem. What steps did you take?
- Give an example of a time when you used your fact-finding skills to locate data from different sources to solve a problem. How did you filter the data after it was collected?
To evaluate whether a candidate is coachable, I ask …
- When was the last occasion you asked for direct feedback from a superior or a customer? How did you then use this knowledge to improve your personal performance?
- Describe a situation where you had to request help or assistance on a project or assignment. How did you apply what you learned to similar projects after?
- Describe a time that you volunteered to expand your knowledge at work? What compelled you to seek out the opportunity?
To evaluate a candidate’s work ethic and initiative, I ask …
- Tell me about a time when you did more than was expected of you. Were your extraordinary efforts noticed by your managers or peers?
- What is your first reaction when your senior manager assigns a task that you think is impossible? What steps do you take in developing a plan of action?
To evaluate whether a candidate is a team player, I ask …
- Describe a situation in which you had to arrive at a compromise or guide others to a compromise as part of a team in order to accomplish a project on time. Was there fallout after the project was over?
- Give an example of a time you had to approach a member of another team or function within your company for assistance on a project. How did you go about making the request?
Evaluating Sales Skills
The most critical part of the interview process is to ensure the candidate can SELL. So, I ask them to select a product about which they are most knowledgeable, and explain the value of that solution.
During the interview, I’ll ask the candidate the following questions:
- In 3-5 minutes, please explain the business and technical value of the product.
- Who is the one competitor you face most often?
- When you win a deal, what are the three main reasons customers buy, and what does your product do well?
- When you lose a deal, what are the three main reasons why customers select your competitor? What does your product not do well and what does your competitor do better than you?
Then, in the second-round interview where I’ll include myself, the SE Manager, and a Sales Manager, we have the candidate deliver a 15-20 minute demo, which reveals whether they can talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk and deliver an effective demo showcasing their presentation skills, technical knowledge, deep product knowledge, and knowledge about their market and their competitors in a high-pressured situation.
During the demo, as a customer would do, I will use the differentiation the candidate provided in the earlier interview and raise them as objections. If they handle these objections confidently, succinctly, without hesitation and precisely, and deliver an effective demo … they will most likely be working for my company within a few weeks!
Finding the Perfect-Fit Candidate
When I was a first-time manager and I had an open position on my team, I often wondered how “technical” candidates needed to be.
One night, over drinks with a mentor, I asked this question. He grabbed a napkin, of course, and drew what he called the Sales/Technical Continuum. (See below.)
He went on to explain that determining the level of technical skills required is completely dependent on the type of product you’re selling and the audience to whom you’re selling.
Remember, prospects buy from people they trust and respect; hence, you need to develop trust and respect from the customer. How do you do that? By showing the customer you’re an authority in the most critical subject matter.
If you’re selling your product or service to a C-level executive or a Marketing Director, for example, then the candidate probably doesn’t need to be as heavy on technical skills. In this case, the critical subject matter or the product is more of a business sale than a technical sale. And therefore, domain expertise is most important.
Of course, ALL products are business sales where you need to show an ROI and both business and technical value, but with a C-Level executive or Marketing Director, the focus is really on the business side, not the technical side.
So, for example, if the product is a marketing workflow automation solution or a business intelligence solution, then I look to attract someone with stronger marketing or process automation and domain expertise rather than technical skills.
On the other hand, if you’re selling a complex Dev/Ops solution like release automation where knowledge of operating systems and scripting languages is important (especially when working with customers during a trial, evaluation, or proof of concept), then the best candidate would be someone who specializes in release management, a former developer, or former systems administrator. Some products of course fall into the middle, where you need someone with both domain knowledge and technical skills.
Finding the unicorn is sometimes challenging. It’s unlikely to find the perfect candidate. If you do, congratulations! If you don’t, then hire the person who is perhaps missing only easily and quickly coachable skills – because technical skills can usually be taught to a candidate with a can-do-attitude. On the flip side, it can be quite difficult to train a candidate who lacks those key soft skills.
As Senior Director of Global Presales and Technical Account Management for Kaseya, Frank Tisellano helps customers gain greater value and maximize ROI. Throughout his 30+ year career, Frank has held a variety of PreSales leadership roles and established deep industry knowledge, technical expertise, and relationship-building skills. His specialties include Sales Process Development, PreSales Consulting, Channel Development, and Application Development/DevOps. Connect with Frank on LinkedIn.