Updated: Aug 27, 2020
I think I have the best job in any technology company (PreSales), but it’s only one of the many great options on a career journey. While this is written from my perspective as a PreSales Professional, this post is meant for anyone with or aspiring to a customer facing role (sales, success, services, support, etc.). It covers an approach I’ve consistently seen deliver results: being 5 minutes smarter for (and sometimes than) your customer.
Does this mean I think customers are dumb? Absolutely not. “Customer” can mean an internal colleague you need to influence or an external company you’re looking to partner with. In the software sales context, I’ve been on both sides of the table of a technology purchase as a customer and as a vendor, having served in post sales and PreSales functions. In my experience, the best results I’ve seen or been a part of involved someone at a software company being viewed as a trusted adviser and a customer champion driving organizational change and impact. For now, we’ll focus on the trusted adviser part of that equation and how to be 5 minutes smarter when you’re in a customer facing role.
So what do I mean by 5 minutes smarter? Let’s start with the value you bring when you serve in a customer facing role at a software company. More often than not, you work with multiple customers, multiple partners, and in multiple industries. If you’re committed to customer outcomes and driving results, you offer your customers something they struggle to get: an in-depth view into what others in their positions are or are not doing. They know the intimate details of their own organizations but don’t have a lot of context around what the rest of their peer group is up to. You can 100% offer that perspective and collective wisdom, all while remaining ethical and not divulging anything confidential. What are the common risks? What are the common opportunities? What is keeping people up at night? What is it everyone is scared of missing out on? What are the trends that are really driving change? What are the trends that are being ignored? What are leading organizations doing with your software? You have a unique point of view given your skills and experience, so make sure you do everything you can to take advantage of the vantage point you have and do the work that makes you credible.
It’s also important to remember what you’re not. This isn’t about you being Don Draper of the Demo or the next great visionary in a black turtleneck. If you try to be 15 minutes smarter you risk coming across arrogant or out of touch. Be honest and remember your stats class: odds are low that you’re the genius that’s two standard deviations or more on the high end of the bell curve. Being 10 minutes smarter is tricky as well. If the ideas you bring are either extreme or vague or lofty, they don’t seem actionable at best or you’re viewed as simply trying to sling software at worst.
I really like the framing of 5 minutes because it helps thread the needle. Sometimes you’re inspiring
your customers, but other times you’re challenging them and calling what they’re currently doing ugly. It’s imperative that you do so with humility and self awareness, but also an acknowledgement that you may see things that they can’t. Stay only 5 minutes ahead and you keep a posture that says you’re looking to be a partner and want to work together towards a mutually beneficial outcome.
There’s unfortunately no way around it, you’ve got to put in the work. There’s no amount of cleverness, polish, prestige, credentials, presentation skill(s), speaking ability, messaging, or PowerPoint slide that replaces the actual work. To help your customer and credibly lay out a vision and path to change, you have to understand your customer’s business. I repeat, you have to understand their specific business.
You must start with answers to the following types of questions: What are the company’s current priorities? What are the biggest challenges they face? If they’re public, what was the latest discussion on the earnings call with analysts? If they’re private, what are the initiatives they talk about in their town halls? What is their competition doing to take market share? What has their recent news coverage been? What are your main contacts being measured against? Where are they struggling against the competition? Where do they dominate the competition? What markets are they under serving? What are the trends in their industry?
Next, you’ve got to ask hard questions about your own organization: How are we performing for them? Are they getting value for what they’re already investing in us? How happy are they with us? Do we have a good track record? Do we have access to executive leadership at the customer? If so, how do they view our partnership? If you don’t acknowledge and deal within reality, you’re actually starting off 5 minutes dumber because you come off completely disinterested at best and disingenuous at worst.
Now the fun and equally hard part. You can’t be generic. You must put it all together in their terms, not yours. Presumably you have a perspective on the industry and/or other leading organizations. You also have knowledge of the company you’re trying to partner with and you’ve acknowledged the reality of the existing relationship. Don’t do all of that and then come at them with the “Gold Deck” or standard pitch deck or anything else that is solely from your company’s perspective. Tailor your vision, your recommended approach, or your call to change to their company and its limitations and opportunities. Get a copy of their corporate slide template and put your presentation into that format. Take out your company logos. Is that tedious and time consuming? Sure. But it also communicates that while you’re trying to push your customer contact(s), you’re doing it within their own existing realities and with their goals in mind. You’re acting like a colleague and not a vendor. You’ve thought through their specifics, come up with a purpose built solution, and laid it out in their terms. Imagine going to the gym, hiring a personal trainer, and then at your first session they hit play on a fitness DVD and tell you to follow along. You’d be furious and demand your money back right? Well how often do we (myself very much included) turn around and do the same thing with our customers.
So what’s the point of all this? In the end, you’re asking someone to potentially risk their reputation (and sometimes job) in order to have them either give or continue giving you money for the software you provide. There’s no sense in hiding from that because everyone is aware of the dynamic anyway. What’s important to always remember is that the exchange of mutual value is this: when you’re asking someone to give you $1, you either show them how to save $2 or generate $3.
So let’s say you get there. You’ve inspired action. What now? Bringing the idea, the perspective, or the experience isn’t enough. Once you and your customer have determined what is the best approach, you’ve got to partner up and make it a reality for them. Guess what, at this point, you’re now equals at best. You were only 5 minutes ahead anyway and now they’ve caught up. That’s the point of only being 5 minutes ahead. Earn trust, gain the right to challenge, and then become partners. Going forward, they know their organization, they have a feel for internal dynamics, and they know what it takes to get something done. Are you still trying to lead and/or dictate? Are you acknowledging the realities of driving change in a large organization? Are you taking into account all the headwinds to being successful?
I would argue that it is now your role to champion and support your customer’s ideas and efforts after they’ve done the same for yours. Do more research, think through more risks, and highlight the challenges ahead. It might feel that you’re working against everything you just proposed, but what this approach communicates is more important than how you feel. You’ve demonstrated your value to this point, now prove you’re in it until the end and will be there when, not if, things don’t go as planned. Mike Tyson said it best, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.” Be the kind of partner that will be there when things change. Show your commitment to driving the mutually beneficial outcome, not just the one you care about. Connect your contacts with other customers who have done what you’ve proposed. Let them know it won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
And always remember, you’re trying to be 5 minutes smarter, not 5 minutes ahead at all times. We all aspire to be “customer first.” If that’s true, even if we’re out ahead at certain points, they always have to eventually win. Because the day your customer stops winning is the first day you start the march towards losing as well.
For 16 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.