Since the 2021 SE Compensation and Workload Report was released earlier this year, you’ve probably thought about the trends developing in the Presales sector. One thing is sure, Presales is changing rapidly. The way that Presales has tackled hiring, training, enablement, and compensation is changing. To help explain the findings in this report, we asked three experts—Peter Cohan, Don Carmichael, and John Care—to share their insights behind the data that reflect trends you should prioritize.
The four most significant insights Peter, Don and John derived from the data are: what it takes to be a best-in-class presales engineer, how to make proper use of the SE’s time, how much of a time thief unqualified demos actually are, and much much more.
Applying these insights is not only integral to becoming an outstanding SE, it allows leaders to make changes to how they manage and direct their team.
What Does it Take to be a Best-in-Class Presales Engineer?
Before we get into some of the changes in the presales world, let’s talk about what presales is expected to be. As it stands, SEs are expected to be able to master several competencies that John referred to as the “3 lines of improvement.”
- Technical Specialist - Being the subject matter expert on the products you support.
- Industry Specialist - Understanding of the industry you occupy. Knowing your competitors' and partners’ space as well.
- Generalist - Being knowledgeable about all the products a company has and speaking about it to multiple levels of their customers.
The experts agreed that finding engineers that have a mastery in all three areas is a bit like finding a unicorn at the moment. And, if you’ve found your unicorn, you’ll have to fight to keep them.
If you’re currently struggling to hire new SE talent, it’s important to consider if waiting for a mythical candidate with all these skills is the best strategy, or if you should consider nurturing candidates that may only specialize in one or two of these areas.
Peter proposed another way to look at candidates, “If I [presales leadership] have to only pick one or, at best, two, where do we put our emphasis? Do we want situational fluency and knowledge of the industry and I’ll teach the Presales skills or is our industry such that it’s easier to overlay the technology?” Determine which skills are integral for success in your business and which you can easily teach after a new hire is brought aboard.
Training to Become an SE Master
How can SEs become masters of all the required competencies? When you consider that the report showed it takes somewhere between three to six months before an SE is able to demo independently, it’s no surprise that hiring is not the fastest solution for scaling Presales (page 42).
John asserts that, “SEs organizations are facing fundamentally the same pressures that our customers are facing. How do I get things done faster, how do I get my people upskilled faster and what does fluency mean?” With the need to get things done faster, Presales engineers are pushed to reach fluency with as little delay as possible.
Being able to automate demos can help ease some of the strain in several ways. Not only does recording demos remove the frequency of these repetitive tasks, it creates training for new SEs. Having new presales team members do ride along sessions with recorded demos removes the issue of tribal knowledge because they’re watching the standard in the recording.
Once the basics of their position have been learned, it can take SEs even longer to build the knowledge base of experience and credibility required to complete their job. There are so many factors that go into how long it takes to have a fully trained SE. Everything from the number of products supported and the complexity of solutions to the average deal size can impact the amount of training SEs require and explains why they are so highly sought after.
Solutioning and What it Means for Presales
Why is it important that Presales have so many skills? Because SEs are often key to defining and implementing a solutioning strategy within an organization.
In the 2021 SE Compensation and Workload Report, “Four out of five SEs teams support more than one product with the average being 8 products supported (page 38).” The SEs who only support one solution might be doing so because they are very specialized or maybe they work at what John refers to as the “low end of company size,” but either way, they are in the minority when it comes to what SEs can expect to support. This implies that SEs will require mastery of the skills we’ve already mentioned.
Not only should Presales leaders have a firm understanding of how their SEs fit into their Solutioning plan, but they should also be aware of what their overall strategy is for solutioning. Peter says “First and foremost, I think you need to ask the question, what is our strategy with respect to solutioning?”
If your strategy is to focus on a single solution first and build out to other solutions gradually, you’ll do things differently than if your strategy is to expand out rapidly with as many solutions as possible as early as possible. Once you know what your strategy is, then you can figure how best to position your Presales team to accomplish that strategy. As Peter aptly put it, “Presales is a precision business.”
Strategy and Solutioning are important, but it’s important to always keep in mind that Solution is an idea that lives inside your organization. John reminds us, “Yes, solution is on the way there, it's a step. Ultimately what you put in front of the customer is the outcome and results. The benefits, the technology, the Solution is just a byproduct of getting there.” Your customers aren’t looking to buy solutions; they are looking to buy outcomes.
The Solution you sell is a part of the process, but it’s not the main goal for the customer. What they want to know is what the outcome will be with your Solution. Presales need to guide their customers to see how their Solution will create the outcomes they desire.
How do you Architect a Solution?
Having your sales engineers fit within your solutioning strategy allows them to become the architects of your solutions. The way Don explains it, “There are a lot of roles that do solutioning to answer how products fit together and how to architect a final solution.”
SEs must be aware of things they can upsell and cross sell, and be technically familiar with all expansion products they can bring to customers. Sales engineers might not think suggesting multiple solutions to customers is their job when they're actually in the ideal position to do exactly that.
Don explains, “For a lot of presales people might not think that’s their job when actually they’re in the ideal position to do that because of your credibility and technical business domain and value authority.” Because they have such an understanding of the technical, industry, and general portions of their and their clients' business, they are poised to ask the kind of probing questions that can be used to expand their deal.
These questions include:
- “Who else would this solution impact?”
- “Is there another use case for this solution?”
- “What else in your process could be impacted by implementing this solution?”
These types of conversations might not be specified as part of an SE’s job, but they are often an implied portion of their tasks, especially if the SE is paying attention to the overall sales strategy or are masters of the generalist parts of their job.
What are Presales Teams Responsible For?
It’s already apparent that there are some unspoken or implied portions of an SEs job. But in order to best enable the Presales team, there must be clear expectations around what the key Presales contributions are (page 22 and 23).
Of the tasks on this list, presales leaders and SEs agreed that there are three that they wish they could focus on above everything else: discovery, technical demos (specifically deep dive), and architecting solutions. Looking back at the list of the things they are working on, what on that list is a distractor? What things could be automated and taken off their plates almost entirely? A large culprit is the intro demo. According to our research, “80% of all SE teams report that they are responsible for repetitive Intro Demos early in the buying process.” It goes on to say that those intro demos rank second to last as a key activity for success.
The only thing to rank lower is the dreaded RFP. Why bother doing them? Don explains a reason for why these are so prevalent, “If you’re top right of one of these magic quadrants, you’re probably going to get disproportionately more RFPs than you should have because if someone is going to put rigor in their procurement process they’d obviously want to to include what everyone else is doing in the top right.” If 87% of Presales are responsible for completing RFPs but only 9.4% think the practice correlates to success, you have to wonder if there’s a better use of your SE’s time.
Because presales is already responsible for so many tasks, it’s important to be mindful of what is most important and what can be removed or automated. As we all know, time is a precious resource and not one we can reclaim once it’s gone.
Making full Use of Your Time
With all these responsibilities and tasks, burn out and churn are very real concerns for those working in presales. According to page 36 of the report, the median work week for presales professionals is 45 hours a week with 43% reporting working longer than that on a regular basis. The cause for this issue could be multiple things, demand scaling, not enough headcount, or too many unqualified demos, but the reality is that presales has become what John referred to as, “the organization of last resort,” who goes on to say, “Presales often enables bad behavior by jumping in at the last minute and fixing any issues.” Don suggests this could be because presales, “Are the ones with the spotlight…[who] go beyond good is good enough.” Whether it’s because they’re the middle of the funnel, or a heightened sense of commitment to their customers, it’s obvious that presales often have too much pressure put on them. With this amount of demand being put on key talent, what can leadership do to ease the pressure before the whole process collapses in on itself?
This isn’t to imply that these experts were saying SEs need to work harder or more. In fact, John points out, “If you take your full amount of vacation, you're something like four times more likely to get promoted,” which he backs up with multiple articles. What they’re saying is, presales leaders need to provide cover so SEs have time to manage the important tasks they must deliver on. Peter suggests a strategy he’s employed in the past, “When blocking a demo, block 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after.” This cushion of time allows reps to prep before a meeting and document after without worrying about conflicts.
Presales leaders need to apply multiple approaches for scaling their presales teams. Strategies to automate demos can help, but removing as many unqualified demos as possible might be a better method for reducing wasted time and resources.
Why are so many Demos Unqualified?
The biggest bottleneck for presales continues to be unqualified demos. The responses to the SE Workload Report indicate that at least 30% of demos are under or unqualified with some of the respondents indicating that these types of demos take up as much as 50% of sales engineer’s time. These types of demos could be harbor tours, or “hand wave” demos, which take up a significant portion of the SE’s time without contributing to closing the deal.
Having these types of demos take up critical time is even more sinister when you realize that most of the audience for these demos don’t find this information useful or aren’t actually interested in the content to begin with. In fact, many customers don’t look at these types of demos as a source of truth.
When looking for credibility, customers are looking for things they deem as trustworthy and accurate. It’s becoming a painful truth that customers are considering vendors’ websites and sales reps among the least credible sources. Often, free trials and peer reviews hold the most weight for customer opinions. But even customers are realizing that SEs often have the authority due to all the knowledge and skills they possess. John somewhat jokingly said, “When everyone stops talking is the SE nodding their head? That’s a subtle indicator that what the sales rep says is accurate.” Buyers have worked out that demos and SEs are the most accurate information they can get, which is causing demos to be a requirement earlier in the buying process and also requiring more from presales.
So why spend so much time on unqualified demos that aren’t educating anyone? Making full use of your time first and foremost means automating the actions that don’t require your SE’s attention. Harbor tours are the first thing that should be automated. The report offers this solution, “Some organizations are reducing unqualified demos to near zero using self-service interactive video demos to bring qualified prospects and buying groups to the conversation ready to talk specifics (page 35).”
The ability to know when and to whom to send a demo is crucial to removing unnecessary strain on your presales teams. That means that becoming skilled at Discovery is essential and yet another skill that presales need in their toolbelt.
Discovery and Demos
When someone clicks the link on your site to request a demo, consider what they’re actually requesting. Who or what are they actually wanting to see? Peter clarified, “They (the customer) are trying to get an answer for what is possible.” But when the customer isn’t (virtually) walking up to your door and requesting a demo, how do you know if the time to demo is worth it? Peter’s analysis shows, “Discovery (far and away) is the area people want to invest more time doing for all deal sizes, but it was especially high for large opportunities.”
As Peter points out in his research, “Vendor teams know that doing Discovery is important, but likely (1) struggle to understand what information needs to be collected and (2) how to go about collecting it.” John affirms the Business Value Discovery class his company provides is always the most requested quarter after quarter. Investing in Discovery reduces the amount of time spent on unqualified or underqualified leads and given hours back to your SEs.
Meet the Panel
Peter Cohan is the founder and principal of The Second Derivative and the Great Demo! methodology, focused on helping software organizations improve their sales and marketing results – primarily through improving organizations’ demonstrations. He has experience as an individual contributor, manager and senior management in marketing, sales, business development, and as a member of the C-suite. He has also been, and continues to be, a customer.
Don Carmichael has been in Technology PreSales over 30 years starting out delivering complex, enterprise demos at small resellers and partners to 8 years running EMEA PreSales enablement at SAP and Oracle to now running a company completely focused on training and coaching PreSales skills, best practices and techniques and advising PreSales leaders on organisation, operations and tools.
John Care is the author of the the highly successful book, “Mastering Technical Sales: The Sales Engineers Handbook”. The book has been described as “the ultimate how-to manual for presales engineers and their leaders”, and is now an integral part of new hire development at many technology companies. To date, over 35,000 students have been trained in his Professional Skills Curriculum.