Articles on sales

I’ve sat through a lot of software demonstrations over the past 11 years – both in-person and online. As part of my first job with Legg Mason Funds Marketing I was often asked to help evaluate a wide variety of products ranging from entry level VOIP customer support tools to enterprise level content management systems. In my current role I frequently evaluate products for use by clients or my internal team. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of online demonstrations for social media monitoring and analysis software. Some account executives and sales reps do a great job with these presentations; most don’t.

Here are some common mistakes that people make

  1. Don’t pause for questions. Many reps make the comment to “interrupt them at any time” – and then proceed to run through the presentation without stopping for 5 minutes at a time. It’s hard for a customer to interrupt over the phone. I’ve tried to stop people multiple times and wasn’t heard. When giving remote demos make sure to pause frequently to allow for questions.
  2. Don’t clear their screen. Close other files especially email programs so that notifications aren’t popping up during the demo. Clear other Web browser tabs and clear your Google search history box. You might not want others to see what you were searching for before the call!
  3. Don’t think about screen resolution. Some reps seem unconcerned with how the resolution they’re running will appear on a customer’s screen. For example, demos from wide screen laptops don’t look good if the customer is using a desktop with typical screen resolution.
  4. Don’t present from somewhere quite. It’s obvious when a demo is being presented from a cube farm, Starbucks, or the airport. Background noise is distracting – especially if you’re on speaker phone.
  5. Don’t take time up front to understand the customer’s specific project needs and what they’re expecting from the presentation. This gets into the overall strategy of planning and executing demos. Make sure you understand the customer’s needs and expectations. Customize your demo accordingly.
  6. Don’t know the company they’re selling to. This seems like a given, but I’m always surprised how infrequently reps do their pre sales background work.  The lack of effort is even more apparent when the next vendor’s rep clearly knows a lot about my company and our work.  I understand sales reps and account executives are generally short on time, but even 10 minutes of upfront research can make a great impression.  If you have time, do a bit of research on the individual you’re going to be talking with. Most people aren’t hard to find online – blog, website, LinkedIn, etc.
  7. Don’t know their product’s technical details. Or don’t have a sales engineer with them. I’ve been surprised that most companies I’ve been speaking with lately haven’t had sales engineer on the call. This is often typical of relatively small companies in an emerging market.
  8. Don’t know their competitors. Or don’t know their competitors beyond the top 5. One vendor I spoke with hadn’t heard of a number of the competitors I was looking at. The customer shouldn’t know their market better than them.
  9. Don’t follow up on customer questions. Don’t go more than a week without responding to questions that could not be answered on the call.
  10. Don’t seem prepared. Some reps seem to think they need to squeeze in a demo that day. Yes in general the sooner the better, but definitely take adequate time to prepare.
  11. Don’t contact customers to arrange a demo quickly enough. There may be dozens of potential products I’m potentially interested in, but given time constraints I’ll probably only arrange calls with ten or fewer. A product may not make the short list simply because their vendor took too long to respond.
  12. Don’t double check to make sure their software is running well before the call. Check with your admins or product development team to make sure no upgrades or outages are planned. If you anticipate any issues reschedule.
  13. Don’t recap the call and make sure they have all the follow up steps and questions correct.

If you’re interested in reading more about similar topics check out Dave Sohigian’s Tech Demo Guy – which is a blog I enjoy about sales engineering.

Find it on Amazon

I’ve seen this book recommended by a number of people and finally had a chance to dig into it. I definitely recommend this to anyone who’s responsible for providing software product demos. This book focuses mainly on the presales/sales engineering role, but it’s also applicable to account reps and anyone else who conducts software trainings or internal presentations.

The author does a great job of summarizing the key concept of this book into one concise page.

Do the last thing first

  1. Begin by showing the best, most compelling screen(s) in less than 2 minutes. You want to leave them asking “wow, how did you do that?”
  2. Walk through how you created the result (compelling screens). Do it rapidly, smoothly, and without any detailed explanation in less than 4 minutes. Only show features that solve customer needs.
  3. Let the audience guide where the presentation goes next based on their needs and interests (i.e. critical business issues). Obviously you still need to have structure and control the flow. But this customized portion should be the bulk of the time (20 -30 minutes).

It’s that simple. If most sales engineers and account reps followed this principal there would be a lot less bloated, boring, uncompelling, and ineffective sales demos every day.

Here are some additional interesting points made by the author.

  • Showing “extra” functionality can make the customer feel that they would be paying for features they don’t need. Stick with what’s relevant to the client.
  • Start a demo with two general confirmation questions. 1) What are the expectations/needs, and 2) what are the time constraints. Yes you should have already nailed all this down, but you still need to confirm that nothing has changed.
  • Don’t close with Q&A. Close with a summary that you control. This is true of any presentation.
  • Sales engineers should always run through their demo with the sales team before demoing to the client. Obviously.
  • There are three types of questions during a demo. This is a really interesting section of the book.
    • Great questions – support and move a demo along. Answer immediately and briefly
    • Good questions – Pose the biggest risk of derailing a demo. Put these questions on a “not now list” for the Q&A portion
    • Stupid questions. Also go on the “not now list” but likely you won’t need to answer
  • When dealing with an unexpected, relatively large audience (up to 30 people) take time at the beginning to identify the audience’s needs and expectations. Create a “to-do list” for everyone to see. Cross out features your product doesn’t have, star each item you will demo, and bullet the items that are relevant but that will not be demoed. Once the audience understands what you will be covering give them a chance to stay or leave based on the outlined agenda items. Then run through your demo based on the structure you originally intended addressing the starred items along the way.

I recently had the misfortune of dealing with a technical sales rep that seemed to make every wrong move possible. It was like they followed a script from How to Suck at Sales and Drive Away Customers for Dummies or Used Car Sales 101. The company’s software is solid, and a good sales rep probably could have persuaded me to go with their product. Here’s how this person did just the opposite.

  1. Call a potential client right away, and without doing any research on the individual or the company. It’s great to respond to unsolicited inquires in a timely manner. But it doesn’t have to be within 2 hours. It’s always a bad sign when a rep opens with “tell me what your company does…”
  2. Don’t know the competition. I shouldn’t be introducing legitimate competitors he’s never heard of. This rep seemed to only know of one industry research report on their sector – and referred to it as the Bible. There are actually three by Forrester alone. He should try reading them, and not continuously referencing one that is actually older and less relevant. Furthermore he shouldn’t tell me they’re the only vendor with technology ABC, when in reality several others have it and are doing a better job with it.
  3. Discount competitor’s strengths.  Just because the rep tells me their competitor’s products aren’t as good as theirs doesn’t make it so. Continuously referring to his competition (the ones he knew about) only made him seem unconfident and disingenuous. He should have differentiated their product by focusing on their own features and strengths.
  4. Discount a potential customer’s concerns. This should be pretty obvious, but it wasn’t to this guy. “That’s not important” or “you don’t need that” is probably not the best approach when dealing with a potential customer who obviously is well versed in their market and competition.
  5. Have no recollection (or record) of talking to a potential customer. Really? How is this possible? I had already had two separate conversations and exchanged emails with this rep. Three months later and “my company sounds familiar” to him… Are they tracking their leads on a public chalkboard? If I ever decided to do business with his company I would make sure to request a different account rep, mainly because I now think he’s too incompetent to ever have confidence in him managing our needs.
  6. Suggest delaying our conversation until I’m “close” to buying. With that attitude and approach we’ll never get close. Why would a rep ever pass up the chance to build rapport and trust from a potential customer who has already expressed that they are serious about finding a vendor in the near future? Did my needs not match his quarterly sales goal timing?
  7. Don’t follow up after a potential customer has used your free trial. I really don’t know how any company lets this slip. I had already expressed interest in their product. I’d spoken to their rep multiple times. A month later they made a free week trial available; which I took advantage of and formed a favorable impression of their product. I never hear back from any of their reps. Very strange. My only guess is that the original rep left the company and the cleaning person erased their sales leads chalk board.

If you’ve read your share of sales books the following titles probably aren’t new to you. But if you’re new to sales, or  just haven’t taken time to wade through the mountains of sales books available, these two are a great place to start. They’re straightforward, practical, timeless, and two of my favorites.

Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets (Michael Bosworth)
Bosworth spends time discussing how selling should be about helping people buy, not forcing sales. What this boils down to is adding value to the process through honesty, helping the buyer realize a shared vision/solution, and making the buyer generally feel good about the process. For anyone with a consulting background this philosophy is very familiar.  In consulting we take time to truly understand the client and their unique challenges and needs. We don’t quickly jump to assumptions or push generic solutions. Selling should be no different. Selling is about helping customers arrive at vision of a solution, and then providing (or facilitating) that solution.

3 Stages of Buying Cycle

This book provides a great road map for identifying and staying inline with the various stages of the buying cycle. Bosworth defines these 3 stages as:

  1. Define needs
  2. Evaluate alternatives
  3. Risk evaluation and action

If you’re not in tune with where the buyer is in the buying cycle – you have little chance of success.

3 Levels of Need

Another critical concept for salespersons to understand is the 3 Levels of need. These three levels are defined as:

  1. Latent pain/need – buyer doesn’t know what they need, or that a solution is even possible
  2. Active pain/need – buyer realizes that there is a problem or opportunity, but doesn’t know of a solution
  3. Vision of solution – buyer has a solution in mind, but may or may not have a provider/vendor in mind

Potential customers/clients need to be approached very differently depending on their level of need. The difference between a latent need and a active need is HOPE. It’s a salespersons job to create hope.

95% of potential customers in most markets have no hope or VISION of a solution. They may have a latent need or pain, but they don’t have a vision of how that pain can be alleviated. Therefore 95% of potential customers aren’t looking for a solution. It’s in this space where the most sales opportunities exist. It’s a salespersons job to help a potential customer realize a shared vision. However, this process takes time, hard work, and earned trust and respect. This book provides great examples and strategies for moving clients through the 3 levels of need.

The One Minute Sales Person (Spencer Johnson)
This quick read, originally published in 1984, focuses on basic concepts and approaches that are easy to comprehend, but not always easy to adhere to. The main emphasis is Johnson’s “One Minute secret” that the key to selling is not selling… it’s helping people fell good about buying. Yes it’s essentially semantics, but the underlying message is an important concept to understand. Johnson also wrote the widely popular Who Moved My Cheese?

Partnering with the CIOI recently read Partnering With the CIO: The Future of IT Sales Seen Through the Eyes of Key Decision Makers. It’s good context for anyone partnering or selling to C-level execs or senior government staff. The main takeaways:

  • CIOs have evolved and now need to be thinking more like CEOs. IT today is about providing value, efficiencies, and revenue streams. Therefore, technical sales reps need to focus more on how their products can provide business value and competitive advantages (the 80% of the sale) and less on their company and platform/product (the 20% of the sale).
  • “What happens after the sale?” is a CIOs #1 concern. “Will we be left out to dry?” or “will we receive effective, ongoing support?” Sales reps often disappear after the sale. Reps need to stay involved or else the client will have no loyalty to that rep – and likely lose respect for the product and supplier.

Sales Engineer - Part Sales Rep. Part EngineerThe role of a sales engineer isn’t widely known outside the world of large software and hardware companies. Naturally a sales engineer combines skills of both a engineer and sales representative. I like this definition from Pragmatic Marketing.

Sales engineers (SEs) are the technical glue of a technical sale. Sometimes called “systems engineers,” “pre-sales support,” or “field consultants,” SEs act as the sales team’s technical encyclopedia during the sale, representing the technical aspects of how the product solves specific customer problems. They perform technical presentations for the product. They own the demonstration script for the product

Others have argued that sales consultant is actually a more accurate name for the role. SEs almost always work together with one or more sales reps. Although startups and smaller software companies often combine the roles of SEs and sales reps. SEs don’t typically don’t exist in most consulting companies. Certainly not my company. The SE role is typically covered by a collection of other individuals including project/program managers, business development staff, and technical experts/engineers. My position as a senior/project manager often requires me to fill the role of a SE and sales representative in selling our services and demoing our products.

It’s a specialized profession that requires deep technical knowledge, as well the ability to think creatively, quickly assess people, and handle difficult situations. Many programmers or engineers would not make good sales engineers because they lack the right mix of personality and initiative.  However, for those that are able to make the transition it’s generally an exciting and rewarding career.

Here are some useful sales engineering resources.

Blogs/websites:

Books: