Why is it that Sales Engineers do a great job for some Salespeople and not for others? What can a Salesperson do to get the best possible performance out of their Sales Engineers. Although the talent of the Sales Engineers you work with will vary (I will do another post on how to get the best Sales Engineers assigned to your deals) you can follow these tips to get the most out of what you have:
Treat them like they are special.
There are times when you may need a stellar performance in the demo to seal the deal. Or you may need a Sales Engineer to complete a long (but important) RFP. But even when the Sales Engineer is not critical to the deal (e.g. a deal where political connections are more important than product functionality) you still need to treat them as if they are special. Most Sales Engineers see themselves as the “talent” with a special set of skills and a role that requires ability to sell AND deep technical/product knowledge. They are typically well-connected in the company they work for (because they deal with so many different departments) and since they are on display at customers on a regular basis they are sensitive to their reputation. It may be annoying to ask them politely to take on work that you feel is just part of their job, but it will pay back dividends when you really need their help on a difficult deal.
Learn how to brief them before a demo
I have only encountered a handful of Salespeople who have mastered this skill; you will be among the very best if you can do it consistently. Briefing a Sales Engineer (or any team member) before a demonstration or presentation is a critical role for the Salesperson. You are the quarterback as well as the coach on the deal, and the team members will be looking to you to call the plays. A great briefing outlines the roles for every individual, what you need the Sales Engineer to accomplish, and what topics should be avoided during the demo or presentation. A briefing should also determine who takes on what questions and identify any key individuals that will be present from the prospect side.
Tell them what outcome you want, not what they should show
Although, as a Salesperson, you may think you know what the Sales Engineer should show in their demo, you should focus more on what you want to impress on the prospect and pass that advice on to the Sales Engineer (as part of your briefing). For example, rather than saying, “Let’s make sure to show them the scheduling administration screens” you could say, “There will be a couple of managers in the room that are going to want to know how easy it is to manage staff schedules. Let’s make sure they come away convinced it is easy and powerful”. This gives the Sales Engineer the information they need without boxing them in too much. This is part of the trust mentioned earlier: tell them the desired outcome and let them figure out how to get there.
Help them get set up for the demo or presentation
When a Sales Engineer arrives at a prospect site they often have a lot to deal with: setting up projectors, getting their demonstration equipment prepared, teleconference setup and arranging the room all require focus from the Sales Engineer. The more of these tasks you can handle, the better. Even if you can’t help with the task at hand, you can assist by keeping the prospect off of the Sales Engineer until they are completely set up. Getting them water, snacks or just asking what they need during this often stressful time will score you points for Rule #1.
Handle all non-technical tasks during the demo
Whether it is documenting the list of follow-up items, keeping track of time or writing down the names of attendees, if there is something you can do as a Salesperson that does not require the skills of the Sales Engineer, then you should do it. Although they may be menial tasks, they will free up the Sales Engineer to focus more on the thing that they do best: impressing the prospect with the value of your solutions.
Make sure they can work the room at the breaks
A good Sales Engineer will want to get feedback and inside information from the prospect during the breaks. As soon as there is a break you should ask the Sales Engineer if there is anything they need. Short of going to the bathroom for them, you should handle calls, water, taking notes, etc.. so that they can focus on interacting with the prospect. A good Sales Engineer can quickly build credibility with the prospect and they will want to talk honestly with them 1:1. Don’t let this great selling opportunity go by just because the Sales Engineer had to make a call that you could have handled for them.
Give them direct, honest feedback, but only after you have won them over.
My favorite Salespeople were those that gave me clear and direct feedback on how things went after a demonstration. They did not pull punches and gave me their perspective on what they saw in the presentation. But to accept that feedback I first had to have a sense of trust with the Salesperson, and understanding that the feedback was meant to be constructive and was about winning more deals. If the Salesperson was new (or new to me) and hammered me after a demo, I was unlikely to want to work with them in the future. So building that trust (by following rule #1) first allows you to give criticisms that will be heeded.
There are lots of mistakes that a Sales Engineer can make in a demo, but these, in my opinion, are the worst:
Show up and throw up:
This is a common mistake of experienced Sales Engineers. If you have done a lot of demos of your product you may be tempted to just show up at the demo without knowing much about what the prospect is looking for in your product. You may not have been given the chance to do proper discovery (see below). You might just be in too much of a hurry to slam out the demo and get on to more important things. But if you don’t customize your presentation and demo to each prospect then you might as well not do the demo to start with. I have also heard this called the “Stop me when you see something you like” approach to demonstrations and I know Sales Engineers that have made a career of it. You can win deals with this approach, but you will win more if you know exactly what the prospect values and can demonstrate your product’s ability to meet their needs.
Prepare too much
Lots of Sales Engineers seem to think that it is impossible to prepare too much for a demo, but I disagree. You can definitely go overboard when it comes to preparation, especially if you either focus too much on one feature/function or try to meet ALL the prospects stated needs. A demonstration should be proof of your applications ability to meet the needs of the prospect. If you try to cover all the requirements outlined in an RFP or demo script rather than focusing on some key items first, you will probably spend way too much time preparing. And if you do an equally mediocre job on all the sections of a demo script you will be judged much more harshly than if you knock it out of the park on several and miss entirely on a couple. Focus your attention to limit the required preparation.
This goes along with “prepare too much”. Being well rested and ready to present on demo day is more important than tweaking that last slide or changing the color of that button. Know when to say when and get a full night of sleep before your demo.
Although this is often not under the control of the Sales Engineer, experienced pre-sales people know how to push for discovery. Preparing your presentation based on what you hear from a sales rep, or worse, from your educated guesses based on previous customers, is a mistake. Good discovery reduces the amount of preparation required (see above) AND often results in fewer demos because you show them just the stuff they are interested in (avoiding the “show up and throw up” problem).
Take too long to show product
This ties in with my post on the 30 second demo. People who come do a demo want to see product. If the sales rep stands up and talks about your company for 1/2 an hour and then you get up and discuss the demo scenarios, requirements, etc.. for another 1/2 hour, then the prospect is left squirming in their seats for an hour. Do yourself a favor and show something, anything, in your product as early in the demo as possible.
One of my signatures in product demonstrations is to start with a “30 second demo”. In most cases this is a demonstration of a key feature of the software, such as a simple configuration, that I do right at the start of my presentation. There are a lot of good reasons to start a presentation in this way.
When I say, “the start of my presentation”, I really mean at the very beginning, even before I introduce myself. Studies have shown that people are most focused at the start and end of an activity, including a presentation. The first few minutes of a presentation are critical, and often wasted on introductions of both individuals and companies. To take advantage of this phenomena, the first words out of my mouth once I am introduced are:
“Hi, before I get started, I wanted to show you something quickly”
Then I dive right into the application and show a 30-second demo of one key feature that I want to highlight. Immediately after that, without pausing to allow for questions:
“My name is Dave Sohigian, and that is just one quick example of the power of our applications. We’ll refer back to what you just saw in that demo as we go through these topics…”
Here is an example (actually about 45 seconds) showing how to add a plugin to WordPress:
Where you go from here is up to you, but the point is to get the product in front of the prospect as early as possible. In the example above I could refer back to this quick “demo” whenever there were gaps in WordPress functionality that required a plugin (“you already saw how easy it would be to add a plugin…”).
The 30-second demo accomplishes many things:
Shows them product while their attention is very high at the start of the presentation
Gives them comfort that they will see your product before the end of the demonstration
Many people that attend a demo are itching to see how the product performs. Although it is very useful to give them a context for your demonstration and you need to build your credibility with an effective introduction, there will be people in the audience getting impatient right from the start. “Would you just do the demo?” you can almost hear them saying during the obligatory company introduction and list of key features. By doing a demo, even a ridiculously short one, you can put these people at ease so that they are more likely to hear your initial message.
Ensures that everyone sees the product, at least a little.
Often people come and go during a demonstration, but most try to at least make it to the beginning. By doing a quick and effective demo you can ensure that everyone will have a chance to see something powerful about the application.
Avoids starting at the beginning This post from Kathy Sierra at Passionate Users outlines how you should start “after chapter one” in your presentation, and doing a quick demo does just that. You get to the compelling stuff first and add a bit of mystery about where you are going right from the start.
So instead of making your audience squirm in their seats while they “wait” through your introduction and setup slides, why not just give them a quick taste of what is to come. Try it in your next demo!
The Dry Run. I have yet to meet a Sales Engineer who really enjoys them. The idea is that you practice your demo and presentation in front of an audience of your peers before you do the real thing. They are both time-consuming and often embarrassing. It’s hard enough to prepare for a demonstration without the added pressure of being criticized by your peers. And since you often need to do them days before the actual demo, they require you to prepare well ahead of time. And to get an entire sales team together for a dry run can be expensive if they are geographically distributed.
In 7 years as a Sales Engineer I cannot think of a single dry run that went particularly well. Often the participants are not ready completely ready to present or the material they have prepared misses the mark. I have seen presenters stumble through a dry run and watched the morale of the sales team drop. You can sometimes hear the audience thinking,”This is terrible. There is no way we are winning this deal if we demo like that!”
But that pain and discomfort is exactly the reason that you should do dry runs as often as possible. By making sure that the entire team (even at an added cost) has a chance to try out their material and get feedback is invaluable. There are a few rules you should follow to make dry runs as productive and pain-free as possible:
Set them up at least 2 days before the demonstration. Otherwise you won’t have time to change your material if the team decides that something is wrong. A dry run the night before the demo does not accomplish much (except to make everyone more nervous because their dry run sucked).
Require at least one team member (probably the sales rep) to attend the entire dry run for consistency.
Find a good space to conduct the dry run with a setup that mimics what you will have in the actual presentation. This includes projectors, white boards, flip charts, online meeting (i.e. Webex) and speakerphones as required. Using a “real-world” setup will ensure you will catch problems with your setup before the actual demo.
Bring plenty of snacks and drinks for presenters to enjoy. Anything to make a dry run more enjoyable is worth doing.
Give honest feedback in front of the group, but save anything that would really bite for a 1:1 discussion. People are uncomfortable in front of their peers, so try to go easy on them in front of the group. Whenever possible try to direct your comments at the product or the speaking material rather than at the person. I like to give feedback following this rule of thumb: give three positive pieces of feedback for each negative. People tend to focus on the negative, so you need to tip the scales in the other direction to keep confidence up.
Have audience members take notes on presentation style and content, but only discuss the items that need explanation when debriefing. You may have a long list of little things that the presenter should change, but rattling them off will just confuse the presenter. Tell them just a couple during the feedback session and then give them your notes afterwords for them to study further.
Let the presenters get through their presentations without questions, unless you feel that you absolutely need to make a point. If you see the presenter falls into a competitive trap you might ask a pointed question to make them realize their mistake. But most of the time you should save your questions for the end so that the presenter can get comfortable with the pace of the presentation.
Ask some typical competitive questions as well as one or two really screwball ones at the end. Seeing how well a presenter can reframe a question is important, but you also need to give them a softball or two to warm up with.
Depending on the culture of your company, you may want some sort of “grading sheet” for the audience to fill out. Some groups like to leave feedback fairly free-form, but if you want to add structure you could create a sheet that includes things like “eye contact”, “posture”, “question handling” and gives the audience a chance to grade. This can add some pressure but can also be useful to get a (somewhat) objective view for the presenter.
As I already mentioned I have never seen a dry run during which the presenters did a great job. But I have seen many demo’s where we had great presentations because of a lousy dry run. It’s a great way to harness the intelligence of the entire sales team and get the bugs out at the same time. Sales teams that consistently dry run have consistently great demos.