The pre sales consultant: turning from a ‘teacher’ who would point out the functionalities of a software package to a potential client during a demo, into a visionary who is a market leader in the area of IT as well as Business. The new pre sales specialist is a Thought Leader and Trusted Advisor. The pre sales profession has been developing since the nineties. I believe it is now safe to say that this area of work has matured. It is for this reason that I am pleased to have the opportunity to tell you about the evolution of the sales engineers.
By: Natasja Bax
Pre sales 1.0: the rise of a new area of work
If your company needed a new software package in the nineties, then you would have been faced with a considerable challenge. In the field of IT, knowledge of organisations often fell short. There were few software applications and the level of functionality available among the packages varied enormously. The choice of software was based on reports that companies drew up themselves in order to compare different packages. However, increasing demand for software packages and the increasing number of selection procedures companies had to go through led to the development of pre sales consultancy as a profession in its own right. Where once sales professionals would oversee the entire software purchasing process, we were now seeing the emergence of teams in which a clear role for a sales engineer had become apparent.
The pre sales consultant as a teacher
As a pre sales specialist in the nineties, you would mainly show what your software had to offer. Prior to a demo, a number of talks would be held with the prospect, and the company logo would be stuck to the overhead projector presentation of software functionalities. The pre sales consultant would assume the role of teacher during the presentation, completely backs the product and speak through it, as it were, to the potential client. The client would learn which functionalities the software had to offer, then they would be led through all the business processes and find out about the power of working in an integrated way if this was what your solution could offer. If your software package happened to offer the most suitable functionalities, then the sales team would win the contract for the company.
Times of growth for software as well as IT expertise
As the years went by, more and more functionalities were added to software packages. We also saw the emergence of formal selection procedures which meant companies no longer drew up their own reports for the purpose of comparing software. People moved on from making a wish list in Word or Excel to applying a professional process. Whereas in the nineties the pre sales consultant would often sit down with a company, software selection specialists now made sure that the contact between the potential client and the supplier was kept to a minimum.
Another development that influenced the pre sales job was that clients and prospects would increasingly have their own IT team, furnished with all the necessary expertise. Furthermore, more and more software providers were entering the market. All the packages started to look increasingly like one another, making the choice even more difficult for companies. This led to potential clients asking the pre sales consultant more and more technically detailed questions. They would go more deeply into what a system could and couldn’t do.
Pre sales 2.0: a ribbon around the software
Gradually, it became increasingly difficult for prospects and clients to spot the differences between software packages. The applications mainly supported all processes and usually included more functionalities than had been requested. Searching for a way to stand out, the sales engineer turned to a different approach in order to show software in a good light. The previously mentioned role of teacher, where the consultant would mainly introduce a company to the functionalities, was no longer enough.
Pre sales consultants learned how to wrap the product up nicely. Although the main task still involved giving demos and answering questions, thanks to the skills training programmes that consultants were taking en masse, the client or prospect became the central focus. Impressive PowerPoint presentations, which in terms of content were in line with an organisation’s own circumstances, would dominate. Pre sales specialists would explain which valuable benefits the software could offer. If you were the consultant who knew how to tie the most beautiful ribbon around your product, then your company would win the contract.
2019: back to the table at the Business
What is the current state of play in the field of pre sales? Software packages have now reached maturity and offer all the functionalities that a prospect or client could wish for. The technological possibilities ensure that there is no need for companies to commit to a single software supplier. They simply bring in the best player from each area. Nowadays, companies also have extensive experience in software selection. They know what they need to look out for, they want to contribute their own input and they are very exacting.
Technological developments such as Cloud Software impact the organisational structure of a company and consequently the pre sales job too. With the arrival of the Cloud, IT departments have shrunk. They often work more strategically than operationally. Where previously the Business would often withdraw from the software selection process and leave the choice to IT, they now once more join IT at the table with the pre sales consultant. Although IT would initially drive this process, the Business has now taken back that task.
The time of ‘teaching’ is over
Once again, although the area of work has in fact changed, pre sales consultants are in direct contact with the Business. Whereas you used to communicate through your product (in what to the Business was often incomprehensible software jargon), the client’s process and requirements are now the centre of focus. You enter into a dialogue with the Business. The time of ‘teaching’ is therefore truly over.
The job of the pre sales consultant has already undergone considerable changes, and this professional field is still in full swing. As software develops at lightning speed, it is hard for the pre sales consultant to keep up with all the functionalities. Preparing a demo costs considerably more time: there are more possibilities available, more products have to be shown and the demo systems themselves have also become more complex. It is becoming more and more difficult for pre sales specialists to design the system to be wholly client-specific and provide appropriate advice.
What’s more, additional factors such as cloud solutions, knowledge of automation within the client’s organisation and the large number of service providers out there are now giving rise to price discussions as well. All in all, these developments greatly affect the job satisfaction of pre sales specialists. Prospects and clients find such purchasing processes unsatisfactory because they want to engage in dialogue and use their own knowledge to help find the right solution for their company. What about the pre sales consultant who communicates through the product as a ‘teacher’ or wraps software up using slick stories and skills? Well, that approach no longer works.
Pre sales 3.0: the time is ripe!
So what does work? Thought Leadership: pre sales consultants with a clear vision of their professional field. They are advisors who can empathise with their clients and prospects and develop a long-term vision with them. Together, conscious of the latest technological developments, they examine how the software is able to support the organisation’s objectives. I have coined the term: the pre sales consultant 3.0.
Demos are of course still being given, but the new pre sales specialists no longer stand opposite the client or prospect with the product in front of them; instead they sit next to their clients and engage in a dialogue with them. The product is no longer the key issue. Partnership and marking out a route towards that coveted dot on the horizon are of much greater importance. The consultant is actually transforming into a Trusted Advisor who jointly formulates a future-proof software strategy with a company.
A profile of the new pre sales consultant
Is it still a question of pushing software products like we would do in the nineties? That is clearly no longer the case. The sales consultant 3.0 carries software expertise in a metaphorical backpack and focuses on what the prospect or client needs. Not only do they have an understanding and knowledge of the organisation, they also focus on the individual wishes of the employees at a company. They see how they can grow the organisation and the individuals working there.
This metaphorical backpack also holds much more than the right software solution. Moreover, the pre sales consultant 3.0 carries around with them knowledge of their industry and the current trends in their professional field. The pre sales consultant 3.0 knows the challenges organisations face, the wishes they have and what they need for the future.
The ideal sparring partner
An ability to empathise with the client or prospect in conjunction with a clear vision of the present and the future of his professional field and software make the pre sales consultant 3.0 the ideal sparring partner, not only for the IT manager, but also for the business unit manager.
As you have read, the changing playing field of the software industry puts huge demands on the pre sales consultant’s adaptability. Meanwhile, the unstoppable train of evolution thunders on. I would therefore like to impress upon you the need to consider carefully the future of your chosen profession.
Are you ready to become a Thought Leader and Trusted Advisor? As a pre sales consultant, would you like to focus your vision on your professional field? Would you like to discover how you can then use that clear vision to engage in dialogue with your clients? I would be happy to spar with you about that dot on the horizon!