How To Succeed In Presales?


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.

Someone doing a much better job than me

Someone doing a much better job than me

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.

And Yet…

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?

unpreparedThere 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.

beerIt’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…


A New Approach To My Blogroll

Like most people, I have a panel on the right hand side of my blog which contains my blogroll, i.e. a list of links to the blogs of other people I respect and admire. And like most people in the Oracle world, up until today it was full of the same names you always see. To pick three examples:

Tanel Poder – One of the most interesting and entertaining Oracle experts around, someone you should definitely see present (and drink beer with)

Jonathan Lewis – Another legendary Oracle guru who literally wrote the book on the subject. If you haven’t read this, you should.

Cary Millsap – One of my favourites, whose articles are always more than just interesting – they are thought-provoking.

So why are these names no longer on my list? It’s not due to a lack of respect on my part, since I admire these guys enormously. It’s just because, well… everyone knows them already. What’s the point of linking to people when everyone already knows them, follows them, reads their stuff and learns from them every day?

So from today, I’m going to adopt a new approach to my blogroll, which is to limit it to just three groups of links:

  • Violin Memory-related links, such as the corporate website and the blogs of my colleagues
  • Storage-industry-related blogs from competitors of Violin who I admire and respect
  • The blogs of less-well-known members of the Oracle community that I think are just as admirable and useful as the legends I mentioned above

If you are one of the names in the last list, please don’t take the phrase “less-well-known” as an insult! Everyone is less-well-known than Tanel, after all. And if you aren’t on the list, well – now you don’t need to feel aggrieved, because it obviously means you are just too popular to make the grade!


Postcards from Storageland: Competitive Blogging


A couple of years ago I left the warmth and comfort of the database world and joined the storage industry – a harsh unrelenting world full of cut-throat competition and vendor rivalries, where marketing is treated less as a way of communicating with customers and more as a form of mortal combat. Ok so I’m massively exaggerating (I used to work for Oracle after all) but it does surprise me just how much FUD is thrown in storageland.

I guess it should come as no surprise. For decades, storage has been about little more than disks and tapes, yet now we find ourselves in the brave new world of non-volatile memory, where silicon-based technologies such as NAND flash are changing not just the way we store data but the way we do business. Whereas previously the world of storage had been dominated by a few big players, the arrival of flash saw a host of smaller and more agile contenders enter the market until it was saturated with more products than could possibly survive. The result? A bloodbath, with companies being acquired, frantically playing catchup, floating, going out of business, suing each other, or sometimes just putting their heads in the sand. With so much at stake – not just money but reputations and egos – it was only ever going to descend into an all out war.

Top Trumps with Data Sheets

One thing that remains consistent across multiple industries is the old-school tactic of comparing yourself favourably to your competition. This is essentially a massive game of Top Trumps played with data sheets, whereby you pick some numbers that are better for your product than your competitor’s and then ignore the others, thus showing that your product is unquestionably superior. Of course, “facts” are famously tricky things in that they are based on truth and reality. But not to worry, there are workarounds you can use when your facts aren’t giving you the answer you want:

  • Selectively pick the facts that suit you, ignoring those that work against your argument (example)
  • Use old data from older products if it makes a better case, ensuring that you never update your comparisons unless they suit you (example – look for the “as of May 2013” smallprint)
  • If all else fails, interpret the “facts” as you see fit and then make some claims in the small print about how you had to make some assumptions based on a lack of data (example – look at the persistent misuse of the term “minimum latency”)

The latter option is particularly interesting, so let’s consider that further.

Blogging: The New Front Line

I’ve recently become aware of a new type of blog: the competitive blog. Who knows, maybe it was always like this but I’ve only noticed since I joined the industry and have been forced to look. We’ve always had personal blogs, written by company employees on their own time sharing their knowledge and experiences, with disclaimers that the opinions do not represent those of the employer. It’s also fairly commonplace to see corporate blogs, hosted on the company website, giving you more of a feel for the company’s views; after all, everyone expects the guy from Nimbus to write long articles attacking the opposition – it’s his company and nobody can stop him. But what about if you are using your “personal” blog to bash the opposition? I don’t mean criticise their behaviour, as I am doing now, I mean telling your readers that your product is better than “Brand Y” and backing it up with minimal facts and half-truths. As long as I put a disclaimer advising everyone that I’m not an expert on competitive products and I’m happy to update any information which is incorrect, is it acceptable to then make stuff up based on what I do not know but have merely guessed? Or what I want to believe because it suits my requirements? Can I do this, for example:

Disclaimer: I do not have any information on the available flavours, fragrances or textures of products from 1BM, ENC or Pure Floorage. Violin Memory products are not available with any of these options, although I've always found the 6264 to feel particularly smooth and creamy out of the box. All information presented here is factually incorrect and shown entirely for the purposes of satire. This article provides no warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including but not limited to the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. All persons or entities relying on the above information do so at their own risk, as it is quite obviously untrue.

Disclaimer: I do not have any information on the available flavours, fragrances or textures of products from 1BM, ENC or Pure Floorage. Violin Memory products are not available with any of these options, although I’ve always found the 6264 to feel particularly smooth and creamy out of the box. All information presented here is factually incorrect and shown entirely for the purposes of satire. This article provides no warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including but not limited to the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, and non-infringement. All persons or entities relying on the above information do so at their own risk, as it is quite obviously untrue.

Ok so it’s tongue in cheek, but I can’t really see why that’s any different to this article. After all, I’m just trying to have a substantive conversation about the flavours, fragrances and textures of flash.

Stop It

stopThe way I see it, customers interested in competitive products are going to research their benefits and drawbacks – and that means talking to all vendors. It’s obvious that each vendor will talk up their product’s strengths. It’s also inevitable that each vendor will say something along the lines of, “Ask the other guy if his system’s performance degrades when its capacity fills up”, or “Find out what happens to the data if the UPS fails”. I’m realistic enough to know this will never change. I’m also relatively ambivalent towards the practice of competitive kill sheets or battle cards: you need your sales force to be educated on what your rivals can and cannot do (although it’s embarrassing when they get leaked to the public).

What I’m really tired of is product comparisons, many of which are factually inaccurate, wildly claiming that one vendor can do ALMOST EVERYTHING while every other vendor cannot. If this were really true, surely there would only be one product left standing by now? Let’s just give it up, nobody believes it anyway.


Since writing this article my attention has been drawn to a new type of competitive blogging, as demonstrated by this article from an ex-colleague of mine. What I particularly admire about this example is that comments are not allowed on the post, so factual inaccuracies and poor research cannot be pointed out. Either the author is very (mistakenly) confident in his statements or he doesn’t want to hear and print the truth.

7 Steps to Guarantee People Will Read Your Posts

I see this type of article pop up all the time on places link LinkedIn and SlideShare. Here’s my response…

Chess is a suitably abstract subject and so can seem relevant to anything

Chess is a suitably abstract subject and so can seem relevant to anything

  1. Choose an arbitrary number of items, e.g. 7
  2. Combine this with a suitable noun that the number will describe, e.g. steps, tips, ways, methods etc
  3. Make sure you put this combination at the start of your article’s title to entice people to read your post. The number draws people in with the promise of a finite solution, neatly packaged and ready for consumption.
  4. Offering some kind of vague promise helps, e.g. the use of words like “guarantee” or “master”. Alternatively, imply that superior beings to your readers already know this information, e.g. “The 4 Things That Brilliant People During Breakfast”. In this way you imply that you are letting your readers in on a magical secret they can never otherwise know. To reach the ultimate low, suggest that someone no longer with us would have done this, e.g. Steve Jobs.
  5. Choose a random picture to head the article up. This doesn’t have to be relevant but it does have to be high quality. Be careful not to use something owned by someone else (I use public domain images from Pixabay). Abstract pictures like pieces on a chess board will have your readers wondering about the significance or trying to count the pieces to see if they correspond to the arbitrary number in the title.
  6. Don’t worry if you can’t actually hit the number of items you promised in the title, because by then people will already have clicked through to your site. And traffic is all that matters, right?

Come on people, can we get some decent content and stop all this nonsense?