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(Aka Sales Engineer, Pre-Sales Engineer, Technical Consultant, etc.)

Written by Patrick Lannigan - Winter 2010

You won't find the word "presales" in any career choice lists (at least I never did). Too bad. My presales experience laid the foundation for later career advancement (because I was exposed to so many business environments). I also racked up plenty of career satisfaction.

Presales as a Career Foundation

My lengthy presales background served me well later in my career when I got involved in mergers, acquisitions, business development, and marketing. It seems my exposure to a wide plethora of business and technology environments helped me understand a particular company's strengths and weaknesses.

Presales Travel

In many presales jobs, you can have all the travel you want! (All expenses paid.) I got to visit my favourite cities (New York, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, and Vancouver) dozens of times. There are also "presidents club" trips that are some times awarded for exemplary performance. As an example, I took my wife on all-expenses-paid trips to Portugal and Hawaii. Awesome fun.

Presales Work Ethic

But don't get me wrong. It isn't all fun and expenses-paid travel. There's plenty of hard work. There's the "night before a big demo" where something inevitably goes wrong and you have to solve that network or application issue before the sales prospect arrives at 9AM tomorrow. There's the times you're flight's been cancelled out of LaGuardia and the hotels fill up in five minutes and you find yourself bonding with other stranded passengers over a 48 hour period. Of course, the younger you are, the easier it is to put up with these sorts of adventures.

Presales Aliases (Pre-Sales, Sales Engineer, Solution Advisor, Presales Engineer, etc.)

Then there's the title itself. Presales. For the record, I've seen presales positions referred to as "Pre Sales", "Pre-Sales", "Sales Engineer", "Solution Advisor", and a host of other names.

Presales Key Responsibility

Essentially, the presales person is responsible for helping a sales person explain product capabilities (as they apply to solving a particular business or technical problem) along with, in most cases, demonstrating those capabilities. Helping the salesperson actually land the sale, of course, trumps everything.

The exact responsibilities of a presales person vary widely depending on the type of product being sold, the size of the presales force, and the sophistication (and price) of the technology being sold. In larger companies there are often areas of specialization within the presales force itself. As an example, when I worked for Progress Software in the early nineties, I would often be called in on sales situations that involved complex Unix questions, while another person might be called in to demonstrate detailed report writing capabilities, etc.

Generally speaking, the more complex (and expensive) the product, the greater need for a presales person.

Is Presales a Dying Breed?

It could be said that in today's age of open source software, $99 software, and pay-as-you-go cloud software, there is no need for presales. Sadly, there is some ring of truth to this. Yet, for more sophisticated applications (manufacturing software, banking software, distribution software, etc.), presales still plays a significant role in the sales cycle.

Without hesitation, I would recommend a presales career choice for younger, outgoing people who generally enjoy people and have a hunger to learn all they can.

Presales: Success Factors

While an outgoing personality is vital to succeed, subject matter expertise (of a particular type of software or technology) is mandatory. Ultimately, it is imperative that presales individuals convey a sense that they know what the hell they're talking about, coupled with an air of integrity. The minute you come across as saying anything to get the sale, you're cooked. You become unbelievable. Another important thing to remember as a presales person is that you don't have to know all the answers on the spot. Follow-up, an area where many presales people fall short, was my specialty. Coordinating my efforts with the sales person, we'd cook up any number of reasons to follow-up. As an example, if a prospect asked if the software ran on Version 5.1 of a particular operating system, I might follow-up the next day to clarify that it runs on 5.1, but only if the xyz patch is installed. In most cases, this is music to the prospects ears. It demonstrates integrity. Of course this is also the part where you get to lay down some innocent questions in an effort for the prospect to share more than they would share on the sales call itself (it was not uncommon for the prospect to share something with a presales person than they didn't share on the sales call). Of course, I'd communicate what I discovered to the salesperson immediately.

As a presales person, it is important to let the sales person drive the sale. After all, the salesman has more riding on it (namely, their commission) than you do (you may be a bonus based on overall sales numbers but, in most cases, the salesperson's compensation is more incentive-based than yours).

Presales Teamwork

I'd say the best teamwork (between presales, marketing, and sales) I ever witnessed was when a specific sales methodology was being used (e.g. Solution Selling). Everybody knew their role and had sufficient tactics they could employ (and had trained for) to achieve the goal. It was not unlike a football team in the level of coordinated effort required.

If you're company is going to adopt solution selling, I believe it is important to attend a real class and not simply read the Solution Selling book by Mike Bosworth (it's a very dry read, anyway). In Solution Selling it's the real-time role play that I believe is the most important.

As an example, in Solution Selling, there is a specific 9-block model employed and a way to determine where a specific sales prospect was in a sales cycle (suspect, prospect, etc.).

In less mature sales organizations, the product demonstrations become a "and it does this, and it does this, and it does this" kind of affair (in Solution Selling they call it verbal diarrhea). And often this kind of talkathon takes place without asking the prospect the appropriate questions ahead of time (and during the demonstration itself).

At my current company, if we have a banking software demonstration to perform, we spend days preparing by loading up the right scenarios that they'll want to see. And then sales meets with presales to formulate a strategy that can be executed.

Pre-Sales as Magic

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

—Arthur C. Clarke

I found that there is nothing more pleasurable from a presales perspective than to have a prospect drop their jaw in disbelief at what you've just demonstrated to them. Some of those jaw-dropping moments include:

  • At a PowerBuilder seminar with over 100 prospects in the room, I remember hearing gasps in the audience as I demonstrated how easy it was to build a windows application.
  • In the early nineties, while demonstrating the Progress 4GL and database, I remember dozens of clients having that worried look as I turned off my computer in the middle of a database transaction. Then they'd stare in disbelief after I restarted and the transaction gracefully backed itself out.
  • These days (2010), the biggest vicarious "presales thrill" I get is when SIT sales prospects find out how easy it is to use the Portfolio Plus term deposit system and how, with a few clicks of a mouse, they can raise millions of dollars through the CANNEX exchange in a single day.

Presales: My Experience

From a technological point of view, over the years my career path has transitioned from proprietary hardware vendor (Concurrent Computer), open hardware vendor (AT&T), horizontal software (Progress and Oracle), through to vertical software (SIT, where I am now). The vertical software that I'm now involved with (banking software) has required the most in-depth presales knowledge to date. As a matter of fact, each module (loans, term deposits, retail banking, and investments) often requires a different presales person. Why? Each area of the bank typically has their own language and they can spot, in seconds, if someone hasn't worked in that particular area (e.g. loans) by their language alone. As such, the company I work for doesn't generally hire on the basis of technical knowledge in a particular area of banking. Rather, they hire on the knowledge of a banking specialty first, technology second.


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This page was created and/or refreshed on April 12, 2017 @ 14:50:56
by Patrick Lannigan (or one of his cronies) in Markham, Ontario, Canada
The page subject is: presales