As a PreSales leader, what’s the biggest and consistently the most challenging aspect of your job? For me, the answer is simple. The big, hairy monster that has always been near the top of my list of the problems associated with leading global sales engineering teams is the issue of enablement. Specifically, it’s difficult dealing with the huge variability in quality of field execution from one PreSales consultant to the next, and it’s hard for the organization to swallow the typical time to value for new talent that joins the organization. These are big challenges for sure, but fortunately, they can be solved. I’ve done it myself and I’ve helped others to do it as well, so I wrote this article to help other PreSales leaders solve these ubiquitous problems.
Defining the Enablement Problem
Let’s start with the problem and work our way back to the solution. In my experience, PreSales leaders commonly face three key issues pertaining to team enablement. First, the typical time to value, even for experienced talent, is somewhere in the range of six to twelve months with nine to twelve months plus not being at all uncommon in complex, enterprise software sales. In this context I define time to value as the time for an SE to win his/her first deal and to be relatively self-sufficient in the field. This reality goes against the general expectation of corporate leadership by a factor of about 2x. So already this is a problem because the perception quickly sets in that PreSales is failing to meet the expectation of fielding move-the-needle talent in a timely fashion. Strike one.
Second, even when an SE team reaches a relatively steady state of tenured talent, I’ve found that there’s consistently an uncomfortably wide swing in the quality and caliber of technical execution across the spectrum of individual contributors. This problem is doubly difficult because evidence of its existence is often anecdotal and therefore difficult to quantify. Plus, too often the organizational reaction to performance below expectations is for executive leadership to ask the pre-sales leadership, “Why are you folks not doing a better job enabling your people to be effective in the field?” Ouch! Strike two.
Third and finally, in the world of high-growth SaaS, new product releases and features come so fast that it’s virtually impossible for PreSales to consume the new material and master pitching it consistently, effectively, and in a timely manner across the entire SE organization. Strike three.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Sadly, every PreSales team I’ve ever worked on as an individual contributor has suffered from these exact same problems. This experience followed me into my management career and misled me to believe that these issues were systemic realities about which little could be done. Maybe your experience has been different to what I’ve described, but I’d be willing to bet you’ll find yourself identifying with me as you read further.
For reasons that remain a mystery to me, companies often expect PreSales leadership to bear the primary burden of enabling their own staff. I find this puzzling when many of these same companies make significant investments in sales enablement and do not place the same expectation on the sales leadership to enable their own account executives and coach them into becoming top flight performers while simultaneously managing teams, influencing deals, traveling constantly, and building client relationships.
This dichotomy between experience and expectations caused me for a long time to swing like a pendulum between accepting enablement mediocrity as grim reality and self-loathing that I was failing as a pre-sales leader to be what I needed to be for my team and my company. Then finally the light dawned on me as to the true root cause of the problem: Most companies grossly over-expect pre-sales leadership to support revenue acquisition and to enable their own staffs while chronically underinvesting in the people, processes, and tools required to accomplish full spectrum enablement.
OK, so if we accept this as a working hypothesis, what do we do about it?
What is PreSales Enablement?
Before we go further, I’d like to take a moment to define what I believe PreSales enablement is. I’ll start with what it’s not. PreSales enablement is not exposing the PreSales team to the same training that sales gets, sprinkling in a webinar or two from Product Management (or Engineering) to “get everyone up to speed” on the new features, and an enormous slide deck from Product Marketing that contains about 122 slides, 3 of which might be useful if properly tweaked before showing to a customer. I say this in jest – actually, not really – because I’ve lived this home movie.
At this point you might be asking, “So, smart guy, exactly what is PreSales enablement?” I’m glad you asked. Following is how I define enablement that focuses on the technical sales professional: Pre-Sales enablement is the intentional, systematic, and consistent training for skill and practice for mastery of the disciplines required for success in the domain of technical sales.
Using this working definition, PreSales enablement, in my opinion, logically consists of three parts. The first part is creating a culture that values and expects continuous learning and improvement. Sounds simple I know, but you’d be shocked at how many companies give lip service to the importance of SE enablement and make little to no actual investment in it. The second part is investing appropriately both in terms of time and money to achieve the desired outcomes. The third part is executing effectively against a well-defined plan for PreSales enablement.
I could write an entire article on these three points, but that’s not the purpose of this article so suffice it to say it’s about setting proper expectations, making the required investments, and executing consistently to achieve the desired result. Now we come to the question of, how exactly do I as a PreSales leader operationalize the goals my company sets for enablement?
How to do Enablement
This section will address of variety of topics pertaining to the nuts and bolts of enablement. By no means is it designed to be a be-all, end-all guide to enabling a PreSales organization, but it is designed to provide a full spectrum of useful, actionable ideas to begin better enabling your team.
Set the Culture. First, you’ve got to set a cultural expectation that learning and development in the PreSales craft is both expected and rewarded. It’s easy to set the expectation verbally, but the way to truly do it is to put your money where your mouth is so to speak. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Encourage your PreSales staff to engage in personal and team-based experimentation just like professional athletes do (more below).
Make room for learning and personal growth during the work week. For example, have the staff set aside two to three hours per week to focus strictly on professional development. Nothing says, “We value your growth” like investing in it during the work week.
Figure out ways to weave development and improvement into comp plans and career development tracks.
Hire the Staff. If you expect your team to grow and become the best in the business in their respective domain, then you’ve got to invest in dedicated staff that focuses strictly on the PreSales team and their learning, messaging, and collateral needs. Sometimes people say to me, “Zach, we can’t afford to invest in dedicated PreSales enablement staff.” I tell them, “You can’t afford not to, because if PreSales is done right, it’s the most strategic element of your sales team.” So as not to bury the lead, I believe that having qualified, dedicated SE enablement staff is the single most important factor in whether or not you will accomplish effective enablement. Some ways to do this:
If you have a PreSales team that’s 15 people or more, then you need a dedicated pre-sales enablement resource. Plan to add a headcount for approximately every 15 to 20 additional staff (managers and individual contributors) you have in your PreSales organization. Depending on your business and the complexity of your products, domain, and subject matter as well as your global distribution, you may require more or less staff than I’ve indicated. Remember, you can give or take on these numbers, but you need enough staff to meet the needs.
If you’re just starting, often the best choice for this role is a solid performer on the current team who gets promoted into this new role. It’s also a good way to get your management to buy in. Start small, get solid wins, and build your case for larger investments down the road.
The PreSales enablement team should own the following: new hire onboarding and certification, demo framework and value pitches, enablement calendar, supplemental learning technologies, collateral library, training event agendas and topics, demo skills training, presentation skills training, technical feature messaging, relationships with Product Marketing and Product Management, demo and presentation coaching, and any other items pertaining to field execution excellence. It’s a big job.
Finally, in my opinion, you absolutely need someone in the role who has done the job of a sales engineer and has been a solid performer in the role at some point in their career. It gives them credibility that it’s virtually impossible to earn otherwise.
Ideas to Operationalize. The following list is a grouping of additional ideas on how to operationalize enablement. As I mentioned above, for me, the key is investing in a dedicated resource once you get to the appropriate size. If you’re smaller and growing, you may have to wing it for a while. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Some ideas on how to accomplish this:
If you don’t have a solid onboarding plan with milestones, timelines, and activities, then start here, particularly if you’re growing fast or suffer frequent attrition.
If you can’t invest in a dedicated resource, then consider having someone who wants to grow start taking up the responsibilities mentioned above as part of a growth track.
Establish a liaison with Product Marketing and Product Management who is responsible to facilitate interactions and shape collateral into a usable format for PreSales.
Create a formal enablement calendar and take topic feedback from the PreSales team, sales leadership, and the pre-sales leadership. Make the topic list visible and show how you’re checking off topics as you do training sessions on them. People feel more engaged if they feel like their voice is heard and progress is being made. I’ve found the optimal cadence for sessions to be bi-weekly. Monthly is too infrequent and weekly becomes burdensome on both teachers and students (trust me on this one).
If you don’t have a resource, partner with sales enablement and round-robin the training topics and have leaders and individual contributors lead or co-lead enablement sessions.
Create a sense of ownership by tasking pre-sales consultants to work with enablement and leadership to bring training topics to life for their peers.
Adopt a demo/value framework for your organization. First build it, then train it, and help first line managers become effective field coaches just like in professional sports.
Insofar as possible, have your first line managers focusing on coaching, not on playing.
For key topics create a certification process that focuses on training how you fight. There are different ways to do certifications and I’ve tried several with varying degrees of success. The key is to pick a skill or topic and train it effectively, then your certification could be to have your management coaches verify the outcome in the field. Or you could have small team calls to alternately pitch and coach. Or perhaps you certify in a larger pitch setting like a quarterly meeting. Regardless of how you decide to certify, it must be done consistently so people continue to focus on getting better at their craft.
Remember that people like to show off when they do something cool that works, so leverage that. In your weekly team meetings, make room sometimes for people to share new ways they’ve had success with to pitch features or value with the rest of the team.
Once you get rolling, you’ll find that the list of ideas for effective enablement is virtually endless. Remember, the key is to create a culture of lifelong learning and make the proper space and investments for people to learn and grow to their maximum potential. As you make consistent deposits in your staff, they will flourish before your very eyes, and you’ll be amazed at what they will grow to become.
Zach Bolt founded Demo Boss to empower PreSales organizations to improve win rates, increase deal size, and structure for scale.