This may be the most shameless SEO-driven post we ever publish, but it turns out enough people Google “what is presales” to merit its own blog. As a presales scaling solution, we feel we’re in as good a position as anyone to answer it.
So there you go: if you want a definition, we’ll take the traffic, and it really does matter how we define roles anyways.
While covering definitions, it feels natural to weave in some of the challenges associated with these roles. Hopefully the additional context will help us understand how best to think about where Presales fits in the bigger picture of revenue generation, and what the opportunities are for exploiting it.
The Role of Presales
Presales teams—which often include such enigmatic titles as Sales Engineers (SEs) and Solution Consultants (SCs)—support Sales in qualifying and progressing both net-new and existing customers through a funnel to close.
What it really comes down to is Presales collaborates with Sales to qualify buyers, map solutions to key stakeholder values (and map stakeholders), prepare buyers for the buying journey, guide them through that journey so everyone is bought into the business case (which they’ll help buyers create), then finally close more deals more often while customers go live seamlessly with high confidence in the outcomes.
So, they have a pretty easy job with no pressure.
Unpacking Presales Responsibilities and a Major Misalignment
What “things'' do they actually do? In our annual 2021 SE Work and Comp Report, we asked over 1,000 Presales leaders and practitioners to break out their various responsibilities:
It’s a pretty good laundry list of things to do. What’s even more interesting, though, is how they answered the next question: Which key activities would have the greatest impact on your success if you could spend more time executing them?
Wild, no? The first chart is what they do, or what their bosses say they have to do. The second is what they’ve determined are the most impactful things to do. The highlights:
- Discovery is #1 on what would be most impactful, but #4 on the “actual” list.
- Technical demos stay pretty high in both which makes sense since people want to see the thing they’re buying.
- Intro demos and RFPs are both in the top 5 of “actuals” but near the bottom in “impactful”.
And there you find a major misalignment. Collectively, we need to make much better use of our SEs and SCs. When we don’t, we risk jeopardizing deal flow, buying cycles, close rates, and the overall buying experience itself becomes disjointed.
From our own research and lots of experience, we’ve found that most Presales teams who struggle with these problems can pinpoint the primary issue as one of scale.
The Business Case for Scaling Presales
If you work on the wrong things, you won’t see the best outcomes. That doesn’t mean you won’t see any good outcomes, but the outcomes you do see aren’t as good as they could be.
That’s a problem when your leaders narrowly focus on increasing productivity without improving effectiveness. That is not scaling. It’s just doing more of what you were already doing, which wasn’t ideal to begin with.
In Presales, most leaders narrowly focus on pushing their SEs and SCs to shoot the alligators closest to the canoe, not on dialing up the stuff that has the greatest impact on outcomes.
So you get bottlenecks, unqualified demos, demo lag time, slogging sales cycles and bad buying experiences. It’s easiest to see this in 3 scenarios:
- When your Sales team is growing, Presales can’t keep up through hiring. AEs ramp in 4 months on average, whereas SE’s take 1-2 years, sometimes more. And there are far fewer SE’s in the market with adequate experience (which is why new SE’s command higher starting salaries than SE’s with several years of experience).
- When unqualified demos increase, sales cycles stall because it means you’re wasting a lot of time that could be spent in discovery and consultative engagements with real buyers. At least 30% of demos delivered are unqualified. Many suggest it’s over 50%. Are we surprised, then, to see average lag times between demo request and demo delivery reach as high as 2 weeks? And that’s just with the first few stakeholders you find. Sometimes you have to repeat intro demos 2-3 times, meaning you don’t really START the buying process until 2 months in.
- When you move down market, and you try to apply the same high touch approach that’s worked up market, the whole thing breaks. Your margins get crushed. You fall into high demo lag time and unqualified demos. Deal sizes are smaller and you simply can’t maintain it.
This is why scaling presales ought to be a focus, and why Sales leaders need to pay more attention to their Presales partners. It’s low hanging fruit!
Doing it right is in part a function of how efficiently Presales and Sales roles are defined and deployed. It requires some flexibility. For example, in the 3rd use case above, a higher-spending, more complex, more demanding customer requires more dedicated Presales time and Sales coordination. Then you have larger customer clusters down market—meaning less complex, less demanding, more transactional (at times)—who you can accommodate with a heavier dose of on-demand, self-service experiences.
This is just one example of when role definition matters, and why it’s critical to align those definitions to customer needs based on how effectively you can move groups of buyers through their buying cycles.
The roles are constantly changing and overlapping
The lines get more blurred between Presales and Post Sales. Customer satisfaction begins to take shape on the first interaction, which means SEs carry a lot of responsibility to not only be experts in their field, but also expert communicators, ambassadors of your brand, and in selling the vision of the impact you can have on customers’ businesses.
The two roles are tightly linked, but it’s important to differentiate commercial responsibility from the Presales team’s solution responsibility. Customers looking for immediate value are drawn to the examples of real-world solutions and technical viewpoints, which Presales teams provide, moving past generic powerpoint slides and pulling back the curtain on what real value a partnership with your business can provide.
However, sales teams are still the owners of the relationship and determining the best financial solutions for both sides. These are different personalities, and there’s a ton of weight resting on an AEs shoulders because when deals DON’T close, the AE gets canned first, not Presales.
But in the context of Presales, expanding their roles can include managing technical aspects of a customer relationship post-sale. A lot of customers naturally feel most comfortable reaching out to their Presales rep when they need technical help, even after the initial deal closes.
A customer-centric approach places more responsibility on your Presales team, but brings a lot of benefit to the customer experience if you can get more aligned on how to define success with customers long-term.
A quick word on Buyer Enablement
Misallocating resources spreads teams thin and creates bottlenecks that will degrade the customer experience and disrupt all efforts to scale. Of any revenue team, Presales are perhaps in the best position to adopt a Buyer Enablement approach to solve this.
We’ve written a ton of literature about Buyer Enablement, none of which is better than Garin Hess’s book Selling is Hard. Buying is Harder.
The key point: there’s no such thing as a complex sale, only a complex purchase. Sellers do not close deals, only buyers can. So your job, whether you’re in marketing, presales, sales or customer success and are trying to close a deal, is to be a buyer coach guiding buyers through their process, not just a seller who forces your process onto buyers.
Buying is not linear. You can’t just expect 1 live meeting every two weeks with the primary champion and expect that means you're making progress, even if your point of contact obliges you. B2B buyers spend a paltry 17% of their entire buying journey in direct contact with vendors. That means, if you’re lucky, and assuming there’s a total of 3 vendors, you’ve got maybe 5% of their attention. The rest of their time is spent selling to internal stakeholders (many of whom you don’t know but who influence deals), building the business case, doing their own research, etc.
Experience matters. They’d love for things to fit into their world. They’d love to not have to do ALL the heavy lifting of building the case, of educating themselves and others on your solution and your proposed values. They’d love to have some confidence to move forward. And they’d love all of that in a digital, on-demand type experience.
Presales has been historically tapped to do a lot of this. In demos, in discovery, and in consultations you’re mapping out the team and what matters to them, you’re connecting the dots from the solution to their values, and you’re giving them confidence that what you say you can help them achieve you can actually achieve.
You’re making it easier and more pleasant for them to promote you and choose you. And there’s a HUGE opportunity to do a lot of that in digital channels, with automation, uncovering and guiding stakeholders without forcing a live meeting (hint hint, www.goConsensus.com).
A Call for ongoing Innovation
Changing definitions and functions requires innovation for most teams, not only in the tools you use but also in the mindset you adopt.
Resource management, winning new customers, redefining company milestones, and extending the customer lifecycle to include successful implementation of products—perhaps even adopting important customer milestones as your own—all can support the critical function of continual innovation, and hopefully move you closer to effective scale and Buyer Enablement.