Saturday, April 15, 2006

What I Want from Sales People

I've been sitting through quite a few technical presentations over the last few months. It seems like most IT consulting and VAR marketing departments all develop their PowerPoint slides according to the same basic script:

1. Here's who we are (History, People, Philosophy)
2. Here's who our customers are (huge impressive companies with the implication that all of GE or AOL Time Warner uses the app)
3. Here's our solution

Yesterday, we had a company come in to present to us. The sales guy brought two technical guys with him. It was easy to see why pretty quickly: he couldn't speak, he could only describe the solution in vague generalities and he was a slave to his PowerPoint presentation.

None of us were listening to the presentation because, frankly, it wasn't relevant. I really don't care about the history of the company. I care about what their solution is and about the capabilities of their people. For an introductory meet and greet, I want to know about the solution, the architecture, implementation (especially since new technology implementations is what I'm responsible for) and post-implementation relevance of the solution.

Fortunately, the more savvy pre-sales guy read the signs (all of us making no eye contact, not viewing the screen, frequent watch glances, no engagement) and tactfully interupted the sales guy and asked us a couple of provacative open-ended questions of us.

Bam. We were off to an hour and a half of meaningful discussion. This experience has motivated me to put together a list of wishes for IT sales presentations:

I wish IT marketing departments would actually do some anaylysis of what potential customers look for in a presentation. I wish presentations were short -- less than 10 slides.

I wish IT sales calls were more about asking evocative questions instead of blabbing through a bunch of pretty slides.

I wish PowerPoint had never been invented. Not because it's not a useful tool but because too many people don't know how to stand in front of other people and attempt to inform or persuade them without relying on a PP presentation.

I wish pre-sales teams would have a few slides about the solution and then run the meeting with a white board (come prepared or know in advance whether we have one or not). I am most impressed when I see someone white board a solution in response to one of our statements or questions. This ability conveys not only "talking point" knowledge of the solution but also that they possess a broad and deep understanding of how the solution fits within a company experiencing some kind of pain. Talking off a PDF fact sheet is relatively easy. Being able to articulate how a solution fits requires knowledge and good questions that draw input from people. It is frustrating that few technical sales people have these abilities.

Yesterday's solution was an analytics package -- big, scalable, powerful, expensive.

If I were the sales guy, I'd make some reasonable assumptions and ask questions based on those assumptions. Companies looking at data integration solutions probably have:

Fragmented Data: Multiple platforms (Mainframe, SQL, Excel ad-hoc databases, Access databases, CRM, ERP, etc.), siloed databases scattered and duplicated across departments and work groups
Incoherent Data: No data model that is used by all departments to organize data
Dirty Data: Bad data that has typos, duplicate entries, etc.

Ask questions like:

"Do you find that your data is scattered all over the company?" [Good probabillity that the answer will be Yes]
"Do your departments have their own versions of data that could actually be used by other departments?"
"What do your users and management staff say are the consequences of this?"
"Do your decision-makers trust their reports?"
"Does the lag time between reports and the reality they are supposed to reflect affect responsiveness?"
"How does the fragmentation affect your IT infrastructure?"
"How does the existence of siloed databases affect your business processes?"

These are good guesses at open-ended questions that will lead to useful sales information. A skillful sales guy isn't primarily a talker (although I think that's important) but is first good at asking high-probability open-ended questions that draws people to participate and disclose information about the environment. With this information, the sales person can then make intelligent decisions about what to communicate about the solution based on what he or she hears back.

This is the difference between blabbing from a PP presentation and selling from knowledge of the solution and relating it meaningfully to the customer's environment.

Few tech sales people really understand this. The average sales person understands schmoozing and talking the salesy talk but in my opinion, few sales people really know how to sell a solution in a meaningful way. At least, I should say, in a way that is influential for me. It seems like so many times, I have had to help the sales guy fill in the gaps of their approach by essentially selling myself on the product.

On the other side of the spectrum are the sales support techs who just inundate you with feature/function demos of the software. This happened last week during a presentation on an ERP application. It was mind numbing and was completely ignorant of what the people in the meeting wanted to see. No due diligence, no surveying of the attendees. Just boot up, load and walk through all the menu options. Seriously lame.

A good sales team has people who share skills and knowledge in areas like business process; mapping program functionality to resolving customer pain; the ability to identify selling points and buying signals; the ability to build relationships of trust and knowledge of how various technologies in the solution come together during implementation. When sales teams talk about solutions, they ask questions about existing business processes and what is and is not working in those processes. They use that information to contrast the current mode of operations with what could be with their solution. It's not a comprehensive demo but a representative one. It's not detailed but it is a good survey of how the solution solves the customer's problem. It creates a vision for what could be.

Instead, what I see are sales teams come in where the sales lead stumbles through a PowerPoint presentation that is achingly long. The presentation used as a platform to speak at the customer rather than as a basis for inciting a conversation. Then the "tech guy" boots up his laptop, fumbles with getting it to work and systematically works through the entire band of menu options. So many times, I see tech guys boot up and they don't have the demonstration configured properly. They don't have a disaster recovery plan. In contrast, I have seen numerous Microsoft tech presentations where the demos just work. And when they do have glitches, the team has practiced how to recover and the demo is designed in a way to assist recovery.

So in summary, to impress me and sell me on your solution:

1. Keep the dog and pony show short.
2. No more than 10 PP slides.
3. Don't talk at your customer. Talk with them from the first minute. Ask what they want from the meeting. I'd be willing to bet what they want isn't on the average IT solution provider's agenda or PP presentation.
4. Save the history and client list to a point during the meeting when it's actually relevant.
5. Know your market well enough to understand what most customers' points of pain are likely to be. Most customers have common business problems. Understand the relationship between those problems and the solution.
6. Design and ask open ended questions that address the pain points to not only draw people into the discussion but to disclose information about the environment that can help you sell. In order to sell a relevant solution, you must have information about the environment. Sometimes that information is closely held. Encouraging a discussion helps expose that information.
7. Demonstrate deep knowledge of the solution and the customer's environment by white boarding a lot.
8. Make sure your answers are always oriented toward relating the customer's pain to how your solution specifically solves the problem. If you're really good, do this in a way that the customer doesn't even perceive. Most people know when they are being sold. When a sales team is really good, they are trusted and people lose their awareness of being sold.