Practice, Perform, and Perfect –Habits of Highly Effective Sales Engineers & Leaders (Part 2)

Aaron Sun Avatar photo

In my last guest appearance on the Vivun blog, I dove into the first 3 habits (Partner, Probe, and Prepare) from my book The Six Habits of Highly Successful Sales Engineers. In this second post, I share my final thoughts from habits 4-6 (Practice, Perform, and Perfect), along with some topics for my next webinar with Vivun CEO Matt Darrow. Sign up for The Habits of Highly Effective PreSales Leaders: 2021 Edition, to unearth how we can be a “catalyst for change,” influencing our entire organizations’ success. I hope to see you there.

For now, let’s recap the last 3 habits that are critical for everyone in PreSales, and I will offer some additional points of discussion to be continued in the next webinar.

Habit #4: Practice

This is the easiest habit in principle and yet, quite often, the most difficult in practice. (Yes, pun intended.) Here’s the simple rule. The first entire “click through” of the demo should NOT happen in front of the customer. Period. But be honest with yourself. How often does this happen? This habit goes hand and hand with Habit #3. As sales engineers, we are tempted to squeeze so many things into the demo thread at the very last minute. But succumbing to this temptation is a “double whammy.” It takes away from valuable practice time, and it increases the risk of issues arising because we’re adding more “clicks” to the plan. As SE leaders, we can mitigate this a great deal by requiring test runs or “dry runs” of demos – particularly before important meetings with strategic accounts and/or large opportunities. Double down on this by requiring sign-off or acknowledgment by sales and see demo success skyrocket.

So how is this measured? Again, it comes down to process and capturing data points along the journey. Are your SEs required to do dry runs? Do their sales counterparts get the opportunity to sign off on the practice run? Is sign-off a requirement? And do you have any metrics that show a correlation between those engagements that involve practice runs and demo and/or deal success? What about tracking the problems incurred during a demo? Some problems are avoidable. Some issues are limitations in the platform – or worse, bugs. Are they tracked in a meaningful way and used to inform product management? Incidentally, in our conversation, Matt shared a story worth repeating. A PreSales leader told him about an interview question she always asked. “What do you do when the demo blows up?” She said in 15 years, only once did an interviewee respond with, “Did the prospect notice”?

What’s the point? Not all issues have to derail the demo. When they don’t, let’s count our lucky stars. But that’s not a reliable plan. So what sort of issues should we be tracking, and how can we do so for the good of the team, not the detriment of morale? Again, to be continued… 

Habit #5: Perform 

In every scenario, there will be a time to “stand” and deliver the demo. Regardless of how effectively we partnered with sales, discovered the customer’s needs, prepared, and practiced, the spotlight will shine on us, and the pressure is on us to perform in that moment. At the end of the day, what we say and do – and how we say and do it – is often the difference between success and failure. The difference between winning or losing. We need to leverage very specific techniques when presenting to our customers if we want to get the Technical Win – or at least achieve the goal of the meeting. There is no room in this article to go into those best practices other than to say that much has been written about how to give an effective, engaging, compelling demonstration. As SE leaders, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our teams are well versed in those best practices, have ample opportunity to practice their delivery, and get consistent feedback on their performance in front of customers.  

From a measurement perspective, Matt observed that in this virtual business world that we all find ourselves operating in, it’s arguably easier than ever before to capture data related to PreSales activities, such as discovery, performing demos, etc. Organizations can gain insights into the amount of time spent discussing various areas of the product or platform, the percentage of time customers speak or ask questions vs. the sales teams or SE’s, the overall length of the demo, time spent answering questions, etc. This kind of analysis can be used to cross-pollinate best practices across the organization. By identifying the techniques that top performers are leveraging, others can learn and replicate their approach.  

This also allows product teams to hear direct feedback from prospects and customers and gain insight into where the market is heading. Not only are these insights invaluable to product teams, but it also gives PreSales a strategic “seat at the table.” One of the questions this may introduce is, how can product teams harvest meaningful insights from the mountain of data collected from hundreds, if not thousands, of customer meetings? To be continued…

Habit #6: Perfect

Habit #6 is the habit of constant and consistent improvement. It’s based on the principle of continuously seeking to perfect our craft. Think verb, not noun. There is no such thing as “the perfect demo.” And investing the time to create such a thing is not a good use of our time. (See Habit #3) However, to stay on top of our game – to avoid “resting on our laurels,” if you will – we need to adopt the habit of consistently striving to improve, whether that’s the demo itself, our delivery, or what and how we prepared. There is always room for improvement. It begins with seeking feedback from our sales counterparts. And just like that, here we are back at Habit #1 – developing the partnership with sales. In large part, the quality of our relationship dictates how frequently and often we debrief with one another after meetings and deals closed – won or lost. The irony is that the frequency with which we debrief with one another – and the openness and honesty of the conversation – has a significant impact on the quality of the partnership. It’s either a positive cycle or a negative cycle. Measure or assess one, and you will have a good indication of the other.  

So how do we measure the effectiveness of this habit? It’s really a question of are we improving? Are we learning from our mistakes? Are we holding “post-mortem” sessions to understand what went wrong and what we can do differently? Or are we sweeping things under the rug, hoping that next time will be different? And as Matt stated during our talk, with the tools we have at our disposal now, we can track every aspect of the sales/PreSales process. We can track when certain aspects of a platform are demonstrated in particularly effective ways or sequences. We can identify what steps or processes are affecting the outcome and velocity of deals. PreSales can and should be informing the business of what works and what doesn’t. The key deliverables, activities, and sequences that move the needle are right there in front of us. We need to measure them, look for patterns, and deliver those insights back to the business. The question is, are we doing so in a manner that is telling the right story? Sales operations has been doing this for years. It’s time for PreSales operations and insights to get into the game. How can we integrate these insights into sales insights without posing as a threat? To be continued…

In summary, Matt and I covered a tremendous amount of ground in our first conversation on The Six Habits – what SE leaders can be doing to enable them and how effectiveness can be measured and enhanced. But the conversation has just begun. These are challenges that everyone in our industry faces, and no one has all the answers. The progress this industry has made in the past 12-24 months is staggering. But there’s more work to be done. There’s more innovation yet to come. That’s why I’m incredibly excited to continue the conversation with Matt and the Vivun team as we continue to explore and answer leadership questions. How can we as sales engineer leaders enable The Six Habits and move the needle through metrics-driven change?

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Aaron Sun Avatar photo March 9, 2021