Pre-Sales is an overloaded term that commonly refers to a set of parallel activities that occur during the sales cycle, generally more technical in nature. This may include product demonstrations, technical presentations, solution discovery, proof of concepts, RFQs, and more.
So what makes for a good sales support person?
Job titles given to Pre-Sales positions present an interesting insight into the expected breadth and depth of the role:
Field Applications Engineer
Notice the emphasized terms: Engineer, Consultant, Solution, Systems, Architect, Applications, Specialist.
Hey, that’s not so bad!
Pre-Sales must simply be as technical as an engineer, know applications like an end user, employ the domain knowledge of a business consultant, and last but not least, sell as well as a salesperson while maintaining strong credibility with the customer. No problem! But hold on, that’s still not the whole story.
Pre-Sales continuously adapt these roles to the climate at hand in the midst of customer interactions. And on top of this, they must be able to tell stories – not the fun ones we love to tell our kids – but stories that resonate with prospects. Stories about their business, their battles, and the life preserver you’re about to throw them.
These three traits encompass the myriad of skills witnessed in the broad range of titles and expectations attributed to this role. Understand that Pre-Sales is the blending and morphing of these traits…they do not operate in silos. Every customer engagement, even different sales to the same customer, requires a unique balance.
Strong technical aptitude – Technical Prowess – is the most obvious and examined trait. Many Pre-Sales job descriptions contain a laundry list of required skills akin to developer or administrator roles.
Why? Pre-Sales is often considered the “technical” side of sales. It’s no wonder. In addition to the technical aspects of the solution, tasks can include hardware administration, virtual demo environment setup, configuration management, software installation, customer support, and a host of other items. However, many people make the mistake of translating this required breadth of technical knowledge into hard position requirements. No Java? No Job.
Many Pre-Sales professionals are really “geeks” at heart. These individuals love to learn, configure, install, setup, reconfigure…they love technology. The propensity to learn and master technical skills is “built-in.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of technical skills have been learned during each of their careers.
Granted, certain skills may be required for a specific type of Pre-Sales role. However, before disregarding a candidate missing a specific checkbox item, take a look at the bigger picture. Review the history and breadth of skills. And most importantly, take a look at the other two traits.
Perhaps the most “innate” trait of Pre-Sales is Sales Presence. Whereas technical and business skills can be learned and acquired, the natural ability to work comfortably within a sales context is typically not. And if it wasn’t hard enough to simply stand up and present publically, the hurdles that arise within Pre-Sales may trouble the faint of heart:
- Dealing with mixed audiences that range from the highly technical to business-driven senior executives.
- Handling personalities such as “the vendor hater,” “the tech expert,” “the person who’s been here forever and doesn’t see a need for change,” “the guy who loves the other vendor,” and so on. Many sales training courses have been developed around this area alone.
- Technology failures: the laptop crashes right before the demo, the projector bulb burns out, the web conferencing session goes dead, and anything else Murphy cares to throw at you.
- Travel woes including delayed and canceled flights, working on the presentation with your laptop jammed under the fully reclined seat in front of you, and checking into a hotel a few hours before you check out.
- A million others…
It is often said that good sales people are made, not born. Fair enough. It is also known that public speaking tops the phobia chart for most people. Pre-Sales is public speaking on steroids, with hail and lightning thrown in. If the natural inclination is missing, the transition can be tough, regardless of the technical and business expertise.
Understanding the customer’s world – their business, challenges and pain – is critical to translating how a given solution will bring value. No value – no sale. In some respects, this can be the most challenging trait…any solution is just noise to the prospect if it doesn’t speak in their terms. How will the solution help the customer tomorrow?
Business Proficiency is the ability of Pre-Sales to harness relevant business domain knowledge for a particular customer. This includes specific customer needs and requirements, and may also incorporate a broader context, such as industry domain knowledge (e.g. healthcare, insurance).
Can a Pre-Sales professional become an expert in all business domains? Absolutely not. The good news – they don’t need to. Some people spend their entire career establishing themselves as an expert in a single domain; expecting a Pre-Sales professional to do so is unrealistic and unnecessary.
In most cases, the need to be a ‘specialist’ falls outside the domain of Pre-Sales. Yes, Pre-Sales must “talk the talk and walk the walk,” but only in the sense of communicating the value of the solution to the point of sale. Pre-Sales professionals have sold to every imaginable industry, but most would not be considered a master of any.
The value that a particular solution provides serves as a foundation that spans customers and domains. Using this foundation, and adapting as necessary, is the key to Business Proficiency.
Pre-Sales professionals are indeed a rare breed. Technical Prowess, Sales Presence, and Business Proficiency seamlessly meld to form the nucleus of this role.
Finding the right balance of seemingly contradictory traits is challenging, but not impossible. Technical skills are key, but this requirement should not cloud out the other two equal, if not more important, traits. Don’t take shortcuts here – finding and working with a professional that embodies the right Pre-Sales traits will have an unmistakable positive impact on your sales.
Dwayne DeSylvia currently works as Senior Sales Engineer with Newmerix. During his 12+ years in sales engineering, Dwayne has sold and supported a wide variety of enterprise solutions including Security, ERP, CRM, Development, and Change Management applications.