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…


The Standard Tech Industry Sales Pitch

The tech industry is full of people, companies and organisations that want your attention, your custom and your money. There are so many of them out there it’s mind-boggling – so how does one go about standing out from the crowd? The winners are the ones that can differentiate themselves from the rest – the ones that grab your attention and keep hold of it from first contact through sales pitch and on to sale. But the funny thing is that the more people (and companies) try to stand out, the more they often sound the same. I guess we’re not all that different after all…


I work in a sales organisation in the tech industry, so I not only get to see a lot of marketing material and sales pitches but I also have to write and deliver them. I am in no way claiming to be better than the rest here, but since it’s the start of a new year and everyone is gearing up to win new business, let’s have a look at the standard tech industry pitch and see just how similar everyone’s messages are. I thought it would be more interesting than just adding my voice to the chorus of 2013 predictions…

Let’s say you are a company which makes some sort of data-related product: software to access, analyse or consume data; hardware to store, accelerate or process it. Maybe you make cloud-enabled big data in-memory analytical engines for social-networking in the mobile era. It doesn’t matter – the rules are always the same. Here’s the template to which you must conform, with all the necessary stock phrases and bullet points:

1/ Paint a picture of a new era in which existing tech cannot deliver.

ApplicationsKey phrase: “We live in a world where…

Bullet points:

..unprecedented volumes of data, exponential growth, Moores Law, social, Nexus of Forces, the Internet of Things
..big data, business intelligence, analytics
..heightened customer expectations, real-time data
..performance, accelerationinnovation

It always helps in this section if you can reference some sort of independent research to backup your theory, preferably from the likes of Gartner or IDC. For example, Gartner says Big Data will drive $34 billion of IT spending in 2013.

2/ Describe the purgatory in which customers are currently trapped.

frustratedKey phrase: “CIOs are being asked to do more with less

Bullet points:

..economic pressures
..tightened budgets
..restricted operational expenditure investment but increasing demands
..aging and complex infrastructure
..legacy, legacy, legacy
..silos, sprawl, management overhead

3/ (Optional) Why other vendors and methods cannot deliver.

failKey phrase: “Legacy approaches are not working”

Bullet points:

..lacking innovation
..unable to cope with modern demands
..wrong direction

You might even want to run some adverts criticising the opposition and showing off how much better you are… although to be fair that’s not standard practice unless you are a certain database company.

4/ Tada! We have the solution and we can now solve all of your problems.

puzzleKey phrase: “An innovative new way of thinking”

Bullet points:

..performance, increased agility, lower costs
..better return on investment, lower total cost of ownership
..leverage existing investments, increase utilisation
..reduce overheads, management costs, deployment times, mobile, social, big data, real-time, in-memory

5/ Nobody else can do this, so don’t even waste time looking.

puzzle-keyKey phrase: “Our unique product / service / solution”

Bullet points:

..broad portfolio for your unique requirements of breed, turnkey, converged infrastructure/systems
..unified management
..pre-configured, pre-integrated, workload-optimized throat to choke

That’s it. Stick to this recipe and you should be able to merge in nicely with everyone else who is trying to give the same message. And just for fun, here’s a perfect example of someone following the above script…

A happy and prosperous 2013 to you all.