This article is aimed at anyone considering making the move into technical presales who currently works in a professional services, consultancy or support role, or as customers and end-users. You will notice that the title of the article has a question mark at the end – that’s because I don’t have the answer – and I have neither the confidence nor the evidence to claim that I have been a success. But I have made lots of mistakes… and apparently you can learn from those, so here I will share some of my experiences of making the leap. I’d also like to point out that after two years working in presales for Violin Memory I haven’t – yet – been fired, which I believe is a good sign.
My first day at Violin Memory was a disaster. In fact, let me be more specific, it was my first hour. Having spent my career working variously as in development, as a consultant for an Oracle partner, an Oracle customer and then in professional services for Oracle itself, I’d finally taken the leap into technical presales and this was to be my first day. Sure I’d done bits and pieces of presales work before, but this was a proper out-and-out presales role – and I knew that I was either going to sink or swim. Within the first hour I was deep underwater.
By a quirk of timing, it turned out that my first day at Violin was actually the first day of the annual sales conference held in silicon valley. So the day before I’d boarded a plane with a number of other fresh recruits (all veterans of sales organisations) and flown to San Francisco where, in the true spirit of any Englishman abroad, I’d set about using alcohol as a tool to combat jet lag. Smart move.
It’s not as if I didn’t know what a mistake this was. I’d learnt the same lesson on countless other occasions in my career – that having a hangover is painful, unprofessional and deeply unimpressive to those unfortunate enough to meet you the following morning – but maybe my attempts to integrate with my new team were a little bit over-enthusiastic. Meanwhile, my new boss (the one who had taken the gamble of employing me) had asked me to prepare a presentation which would be delivered to the team at some point on day 1.
Day 1 arrived – and at 8.00am we gathered in a conference room to see the agenda. Guess who was up first? At 8.05am I stood up, hungover, unprepared, very nervous and (give me a break, I’m looking for excuses) jet-lagged to deliver… well if it wasn’t the worst presentation of my life, it was in the top two (I have previously mentioned the other one here). I mumbled, I didn’t look for feedback from the audience, I talked too fast for the non-native English speakers in the room and my content was too technical. I’m surprised they didn’t pack me off to the airport right then. It was not a success.
The thing is, the subject of my talk was databases. As anyone who knows me can attest (to their misfortune), I love talking about databases. It’s a subject I am passionate about and, if you get me started, you may have trouble stopping me. This is because to me, talking about database is just as much fun as actually using them, but much easier and with less need to remember the exact syntax. So why did I choke that day – the worst possible day to make a bad impression?
There is an obvious moral to my tale, which is not to be so stupid. Don’t turn up unprepared, do make sure your content is at the right level and don’t drink too much the night before. Follow those rules and you’ll be confident and enthusiastic instead of nervous and monotonous. But you know this and I didn’t tell this sorry tale just to deliver such a lame piece of advice.
One of the enduring myths about working in sales is that it’s all about delivering presentations – and this sometimes puts people off, since many have little presentation experience nor an easy way of gaining it. While it’s true that being able to present and articulate ideas or solutions is an essential part of any sales role (I wouldn’t recommend presales if you actively dislike presenting), in the last two years I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more important qualities required. In my opinion the single most important skill needed to work in presales is the ability to become a trusted advisor to your (potential) customers. People buy from people they trust. If you want to help sell, you don’t need to impress people with your flair, style or smart suit (not that those things won’t help)… you need to earn their trust. And if you deliver on that trust, not only will they buy from you, they will come back again for more.
If you work (successfully) in professional services or consultancy right now, the chances are you already do this. Your customers won’t value your contribution unless they trust you. Likewise if you work for a customer or end-user, it’s quite likely that you have internal customers (e.g. the “business” that your team supports) and if you’ve gained their trust, you’re already selling something: yourself, your skills and the service you provide.
It’s not for everybody, but I find working in technical presales hugely fulfilling. I get to meet lots of interesting customers, see how they run their I.T. organisations and services, talk to them about existing and future technologies and I get to experience the highs (and lows) of winning (or not winning) deals.
If you’re thinking of making the move, don’t be put off by concerns over a lack of sales experience. You may not be aware, but the chances are, you already have it. Just don’t drink too much the night before your first day…