Behind the Scenes in Presales Engineering

Every fan of sports knows the stories of their favorite sport’s heroes. The people that became legendary in their times. Usually the legend comes with inhuman commitment to practice. Repeating core moves until executed by rote, flawlessly, and with amazing effectiveness.

In American football Peyton Manning and Marvin Harris became such legends. They were known to spend 45 extra minutes before every practice rehearsing their run routes. The quarterback, Manning, threw the ball. Harrison, the receiver, would run a route through defense to catch it. With the thousands of repetitions these guys added on top of regular practice they could execute a snap, move, throw and catch with their eyes closed. And they became one of the greatest American football pairs in its history.

What is less obvious is what it is that the best SEs in the world do. Like professional athletes, the great business professionals are also constantly practicing and learning. Their drills are done in their homes on quiet nights. As they read and research and experiment and practice. Just because we don’t see their drills doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

I want to share with you the behind-the-scenes presales “drills”. This is the work great SEs are doing before they set foot in their customer’s office. Basically those activities are network, practice, and research.

Meeting tech partners.

In my last article I buried a line about solutioneering, a key activity for presales engineers. I define solutioneering as designing your employer’s products to work in your customer’s environment with ecosystem tools. This cannot be done without understanding those tools.

Great SEs should know those ecosystem tools to design a product. But failing that, they must know someone who knows those tools otherwise they will fail at designing a solution for their customer. It’s usually not possible to be an expert at every product in your ecosystem so spend time connecting with your peers working for technology partners.


Five years ago or so EMC’s presales team was going through a re-org. We had a new boss, a clear mission, and some new energy around a familiar idea: always be demoing.

I think I had recently rewatched Glengarry Glen Ross and Alec Baldwin’s iconic scene was fresh in my mind. Some combination of our new demo culture, Glengarry Glen Ross, and a presentation I gave to a large number of SCs resulted in our own version of Alec Baldwin’s message: ABD (always be demoing.)

Demos were essential at EMC. Even more so at Nutanix where we felt a demo is what really won a customer over. When I joined ServiceNow, I learned that we had historically been so “demo happy” that we missed opportunities to fully pursue a discovery conversation before whipping out our laptops. So, although ServiceNow’s demos are the most compelling I’ve seen of all my employers, we restrain ourselves in the early moments of a sales cycle.

That being said, demo repetition is one of the surest paths to SE excellence. Building demos requires hands-on knowledge. Delivering demos in front of an interactive audience requires broad product knowledge.

Demo delivery is the great stage for master SEs. They know their content. They’ve organized it for dramatic effect. They are capable of changing gears, handling objections, and even cleverly downplaying the effects of angry demo gods. They never fail to provide a meaningful and important description. And they know when to shut up and let the customer gape at their awesome product.

How did they get there? I can promise you if you’re seeing this beautiful show that the presenter is not doing it for the first time. I don’t just mean that he’s demoed before. I mean that he’s demoed the exact same content before. He practiced. He put in his reps.

Google search. Google alerts. Google news.

A great sales guy once told me how invaluable Google was for his sales calls. He had setup Google alerts for news against any of his customers. And 10 minutes before he’d meet a customer he’d whip out his smart phone and do a news search against his customer.

You can imagine what you can learn about your customer with even 30 seconds of scanning headlines, nevertheless longer research. But what my friend told me years ago has since been confirmed by experience. Obviously it can inform sales strategy. But less obvious is the value of topical customer news to the smalltalk that precedes most sales calls. Almost certainly your contacts will have an opinion about news in their company. And customers want to know that their vendor’s account team know and care about what is important to them.

Read, read, read.

As an avid book reader, I wish I had a solid library of books applicable to our trade. I’ve bought some I’ve not liked. Scanned some that were mediocre. Read some great books that are not focused on presales. And received enthusiastic recommendations on books I’ve not yet gotten to. I’m posting some of these recommendations here and inviting you to share your own in the comments.

Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal by Oren Klaff.

Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty by Patrick M. Lencioni.

Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson.

The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation by Matthew Dixon.

Mastering Technical Sales: The Sales Engineer’s Handbook by John Care.

The Trusted Advisor by David H. Maister.

Books are great sources of provocative, “a-ha!” moments of learning. But practical product knowledge is more often than not on blogs. But what amazes me more than anything is how powerful LinkedIn has become as a platform for sharing industry information. If you’re like me, you’re connected to many of your colleagues, partners, customers, and event competitors on LinkedIn. Each of them is proud of their employer and likely to share vendor releases and blog articles useful to them and their network. That’s a rich source for you in your job.

If you’re not doing it already, I highly recommend you check LinkedIn once a day. It has come a long way in the last decade as a source of industry news.

In summary

Be competent; git gud. You know what your job requires. Unquestioned proficiency in your product. Deep understanding of adjacent products or a rolodex of experts to call upon when needed. A solid, rational, engineer’s mind. But like an athlete, true proficiency comes with preparation before the game.



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