The pre-sales evaluation is the most critical component of the sales cycle for many companies. You cannot get the ‘deal win’ without first getting the ‘technical win’. Here are some of the most common types of pre-sales evaluations that sales leaders have been talking to us about over the last few months and the point of view of their prospects.
Types of Pre-Sales Evaluations
Software vs. Hardware
Software companies can run all five of these pre-sales evaluations more easily than hardware companies. It is simple these days to conduct remote software demonstrations and to set up trial software accounts; therefore these are basic options for software companies, especially for the commercial segment of B2B software companies. More complicated software solutions or more complicated segments (such as enterprise accounts) more often engage in POC or POV evaluations. POCs and POVs are much more involved than demos and trials and therefore require substantial involvement from sales engineering teams.
Hardware companies are usually limited to running managed trials, POCs and POVs because evaluating their products require hands-on involvement of sales engineering teams. In our discussions, we have only heard of hardware companies running POCs and POVs by name. Unlike software, hardware evaluations have an additional administrative complication over software evaluations: tracking physical inventory (i.e. who has what and where).
Best Practices – The Evaluation Plan
Regardless of the type of evaluation, it is critical to define an evaluation plan upfront. For companies seeking to reduce their evaluation durations, this is one of the best ‘best practices’ that we can recommend.
The evaluation plan is essentially your map to the ‘technical win’. Without a map, how do you get to your destination efficiently, and moreover how do you even know when you have arrived? A well-designed evaluation plan brings your evaluation to a logical conclusion as quickly as possible with demonstrated success.
The evaluation plan defines exactly what needs to be shown, tested, and/or proved in order for the evaluation to be a success. For example, evaluation plans for POCs include one or more evaluation scenarios that must be tested and achieve the results defined by their success criteria. For POVs, evaluations plans include one or more value metrics that must be measured and achieve results above (or below) their success thresholds.
Many companies struggle to create evaluation plans and define success criteria, and some fail to do this altogether. Others have them but fail to get their prospects’ buy-in upfront, making your evaluations one-sided: You think you are done, but your prospect disagrees. You are lengthening your evaluation cycle and increasing your deal risk in all of these situations.
As a best practice for successful pre-sales evaluations, we recommend that you:
By following this best practice you will:
For other best practices, check out our recent blog post here, or contact us to get a print-ready, PDF version.
Before you set up a pre-sales evaluation with new prospect, make certain that you know why they decided to search for a product in first place. It’s usually one of two reasons:
1. Solving an immediate pain point, or
2. Proactively evolving their business.
Solving an Immediate Pain Point
Companies looking to solve an immediate pain point are either dealing with:
Pain Point: Solving for a Deficiency
A prospect with a deficiency needs to fill a gap in their existing technologies, business processes, or regulatory compliance. In this case, it is not a matter of if they will buy a product; it is a matter of which product they will buy. It is also not a matter of when they will buy, because they must buy something at some point.
Impact on your evaluation:
Pain Point: Solving for an Inefficiency
Inefficiencies are a more difficult sale. Your prospect’s business can still operate without solving the inefficiency with your solution or anyone’s solution. That is a big risk to your sales cycle. It makes it easier for your prospect to reduce their level of participation in the evaluation process or stop their search altogether if they start to get busy, if executive support starts to refocus on other priorities, etc.
Impact on your evaluation:
Proactively Evolving Their Business
Prospects searching for a product because they want to evolve their business, not because of a deficiency or an inefficiency, are aspirational. They believe that a new technology is key to helping them advance their business in a new direction or according to a new strategy. This sales cycle is similar to solving for an inefficiency because evolving their business is not necessary. The tone of the sales two cycles is quote different however. Whereas solving an inefficiency has a negative tone to it, evolving a business has a very positive and excited tone.
Impact on your evaluation:
Super Bowl LIII just happened a few weeks ago so let’s use a sports analogy to talk about who’s in charge and how the Account Executive (AE) and Sales Engineer (SE) work together.
The Head Coach vs. the Quarterback
I’m going to argue that the AE is like the head coach of a football team and the lead SE is the quarterback. While they have their respective roles, the coach and quarterback win more when they work together than when they don’t. Whether you love or hate the New England Patriots, they just won Super Bowl LIII and are now tied for the most Super Bowl wins of all time. Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady (who now has the most Super Bowl wins of any player in NFL history following this latest win) are amazing partners and a legendary duo.
The AE as the Head Coach
Let’s think of the AE as the head coach of the football team and the sales deal as a particular football game. The coach manages the overall strategy for the game, continuously analyzes the current situation, and make appropriate calls on what they think is necessary to win the game. They also give specific direction to each of the subteams (i.e. the offense, defense, and special teams) to execute on the game strategy. In the end, the coach either walks off the field head hung low after losing the game or cheering wildly while getting doused with Gatorade. Such is the life of the AE: setting the strategy for the sales opportunity, directing resources such as sales engineering, IT, and legal in line with the strategy, and either frustratingly losing the deal to a competitor or triumphantly getting back signed contracts.
The SE as the Quarterback
Sticking with the football analogy, the offense is often considered the most valuable part of the team. Sales engineers are the team’s offense and the lead SE is the quarterback. Just as you cannot win the game without points on the scoreboard and just as your offense is designed to score those points, you cannot win the sales deal without the tech win and your SEs are designed to get you those technical wins. The quarterback takes direction from the coach in line with the coach’s overall strategy. However the quarterback has some degree of freedom to call audibles based on how they are reading the defense in the moment (in this case, the defense is your prospect). When the quarterback doesn’t have a good read on the defense or doesn’t like the current play nor audible options, the quarterback calls a time out and discusses how to proceed with the coach. Such is the life of the SE: listening to the AE’s overall direction, calling specific plays and audibles based on how the SE is reading the prospect, and calling time-outs as needed to regroup with the AE before proceeding.
The Evaluation Plan as the Playbook
The last part of my analogy is that the offense learns a ‘playbook’ while preparing for a game, which is a collection of plays that should work well against their opponent. The right playbook can make the win look easy. Think of this playbook as the ‘evaluation plan’ that SEs use with their prospects. If you are not using evaluation plans just yet, the evaluation plan is a collection of use cases/scenarios that prospects will test during the evaluation and that showcase your product in the right ways. Just like running the right plays should win the game, successfully testing the right use cases should earn you the technical win. One of our 7 Best Practices of Successful Pre-Sales Evaluations is about ‘Having a plan to get the win’ and focuses on the evaluation plan. The quarterback runs the plays, just as the SE manages the scenarios within the evaluation plan.
The AE+SE: Become A Legendary Duo
Like coach and quarterback, the account executive and the sales engineer must work closely together to earn the win. When they are in sync, each doing what they do best, they start winning far more than losing. Win enough times together and you become legendary as a duo, just like Belichick and Brady.
Your sales prospects primarily run pre-sales evaluations (e.g. POCs, managed trials, etc.) in order to test whether your product can support their use cases. However the pre-sales evaluation is so much more than a just test phase of your features. It is a complete end-to-end customer experience in miniature, from POC kick-off to POC implementation to post-go-live POC support. The pre-sales evaluation is the first time that your prospect interacts directly with your company’s technical resources, sees how your product gets set up based on their requirements, and experiences how you support them while they are using your product during the evaluation. Your prospects understand that their pre-sales experience is a predictor of their post-sales experience.
Impress your prospects with your pre-sales experience and you will increase your win rates dramatically.
Prospects evaluate vendors based on the goodness-of-fit of their feature sets along with a variety of other criteria, including the expected post-sales experience. The evaluation leads at your prospect are asking their executives for real money to fund the project and often their careers are impacted by good or bad vendor decisions. So after determining that your product is an acceptable candidate based on the features evaluation, prospects often request to speak to current customers in order to ask about the implementation experience and the ongoing support that you provide. They want to get a sense of what it will be like to work with your team during the implementation:
From a support perspective, prospects want to understand:
The goal of your pre-sales evaluation should be to remove a prospect’s desire to ask these questions of a customer reference altogether. Yes it’s true that even with an amazing pre-sales experience, a prospect most likely will still ask these questions as part of their final due diligence. However you want your prospect simply to be confirming that the amazing experience that they just had with you is the norm of working with your company, not a lucky exception.
To achieve this goal, treat your pre-sales evaluation process as the mini end-to-end customer experience that it is. Communicate this goal to your sales engineers and what it means in terms of their day-to-day activities during the evaluation. You should have them follow the same best practices that your post-sales teams follows in your real implementations and in your real post-go-live support processes. Think of all of the questions that your prospects ask your customer references about the your post-sales process (like the ones above) and design your pre-sales process to deliver a positive experience a priori of the prospect becoming a customer.
You know that you have been successful in this endeavor when your prospects-turned-customers tell your sales reps that one of the main reasons that they selected your company was because they loved working with your team during the evaluation cycle.
Now that you have aligned the pre-sales and post-sales experiences for the prospect, you must still develop a smart hand-off from pre-sales to post-sales. When this hand-off is not well designed, a common complaint is that customers feel like they had to start over from the scratch with your post-sales team and waste valuable time getting this new team up to speed. That is horrible a customer experience. Your pre-sales team needs to set up your post-sales team for success by providing them with the complete history of the prospect’s evaluation, including:
If done correctly, your new pre-sales experience will create happy prospects during the evaluation phase and in turn happy customers as they transition into post-sales. Happy customers are more loyal to your company, more likely to explore additional products and services that you offer, more likely to talk about your company and their positive experience to their peers at other companies, and more likely to answer those post-sales questions when they themselves are serving as one of your new customer references.
Technical pre-sales teams play a critical role in closing sales: You can’t get the sales win without the technical win. While there are many variations of pre-sales teams (titles include sales engineer (SE), solution architect (SA), solution consultant (SC), Application Engineer (AE)) and many types of evaluations (POC (proof of concept), POV (proof of value) managed trials, self-guided trials, demo systems/environments), follow these seven best practices for managing your pre-sales evaluations and you will boost your win rates and set up your post-sales teams for success.
1. Understand the reasons why, not just the feature list
Customers will often start off an evaluation by giving you a long list of features your product needs to have or requirements that your product needs to satisfy. While this information is important to know, start the evaluation process by making sure that you clearly understand your customer’s motivation for searching for a product. Ask about the business problems that your customer is trying to solve, the reasons why they have these problems, and the expected benefits if you can solve these problems.
Understand your customer’s real motivation so that you can design the best solution for them, which may be very different than the solution that they originally had in mind. Do not sell ‘features’. Offer solutions to their problems.
2. Have a plan to get the technical win
Now that you know you know the ‘reasons why’, create a formal evaluation plan that will showcase your proposed solution and get your customer’s buy-in to follow the plan to completion. The evaluation plan aligns you and your customer on the use cases that will be tested and the definitions of success.
Creating an evaluation plan can be challenging though:
Show your customer that you are experienced and value their time by recommending a list of use cases that will demonstrate how your product solves their business problems. Your evaluation plans should lead customers to test the most valuable features of your product.
If you find yourself following the same or similar evaluation plans over and over, create standardized templates that you re-use with new customers. Every customer is little different so modify the template as needed when using it with each customer.
A well-designed evaluation plan brings your evaluation to a logical conclusion as quickly as possible with demonstrated success. Congratulations! This is the very definition of the technical win.
3. Capture the details of the evaluation and track meetings and activities
Keeping track of all of the details of an evaluation is difficult, but important.
There are key details about a customer’s business processes, IT environment, etc. that are critical for you to know in order to support their evaluation. Capture these details up front as early as you can during the discovery process or early phases of the evaluation. Certain details should be tracked in a systematic way so that you quickly can identify trends across your evaluations, for example, the most common operating system across deals that you’ve won or the most common database in use across deals that you’ve lost.
Take notes in every meeting, whether internal with your team or external with your customer. Meeting notes are the ultimate refresher on where you are in the evaluation. Review your notes on the regular and show your customer that you remember everything about their evaluation. You will build confidence quickly when your customers see that you are engaged in their evaluation. Asking customers for the same details over and over kills your credibility and tells your customers that they are not important to you.
Customers know that their pre-sales experience is a predictor of their post-sales experience. Boost your chances of winning the deal by Impressing your customer with a high degree of engagement and demonstrated knowledge about their needs.
4. When you say you will do something, do it, and do it quickly
Track your action items so that you remember to do what you promised to do. It’s easy to be on a call and say “Oh, I’ll check with engineering…” and then quickly forget as soon as you hang up. This is true whether you are managing 20+ evaluations at the same time or just a few very complicated evaluations. Either way, remember that this evaluation is very important to your customer. They will remember what you tell them, but you might not. Quick responses and follow-through show that you are engaged in the evaluation. Do not make the customer have to follow up with you to get a response or see if you completed an activity. If they have to ask, you took too long.
5. Capture feature requests and quickly pass them to your product team
The one question that every pre-sales team knows a customer will ask multiple times throughout the evaluation is: “Can your product do XYZ?” Some of these features requests are ‘must haves’ or you lose the deal, while others are simply ‘nice to have’.
Capture these requests as you learn about them, and dig deeper to understand the rationale for the request, such as the underlying business problem that this feature would solve and the expected impact on your customer’s business. Pass this information to your product teams so that they can compare what customers are asking for with their current product roadmap. These comparisons are critical to ensuring product-market fit over time.
No company wants to lose deal after deal because of a missing feature that could easily be added. When your product teams are kept up to date on what prospects are actually asking for, they might be able to fast-track certain features into production before you lose the next one.
6. Check in at regular intervals and offer your assistance
Asking your customer if they need help is a great way to engage with them. They will feel more compelled to respond if you are offering genuine help rather than only trying to get the information that you need or trying to sell them on your product. Engaged customers are most likely to close.
For a variety of reasons, customers do not always let you know when there are problems with their evaluation. By checking in with them, you give your customer an easy opportunity to report any issues that they are having or feature requests that will roadblock the deal. Your evaluations can hang open if you don’t fix these issues or have a path for a feature. Resolve issues quickly to increase your chance of a successful evaluation.
7. Ensure a seamless transition to post-sales
Many companies struggle with the transition from pre-sales to post-sales. A common complaint is that customers feel that they are starting over from scratch with a new team and this degrades the overall customer experience. By following these best practices, you have everything that your post-sales team needs to avoid this complaint and improve the customer experience:
Bonus: Your marketing team will love you!
With these best practices, you directly increase the chance of winning deals and setting up your customer as well as your post-sales team for success. Following these best practices also will make your marketing team love you because: