What’s This Pre Sales Thing All About?

I must confess this blog post had a different title when I started writing it, however it soon morphed into something entirely different.  I entered the world of ‘Pre Sales’ a couple of years ago and it was somewhat eye opening.  What do I mean by this? Well you have to design solutions without knowing exactly what the client wants because more often than not they don’t know themselves.  You design solutions based on assumptions (educated guesses) and based on technology you have not used before, due to time or budgetary constraints.

This can be kind of tricky, but you can eliminate the risk, by asking the right questions, however the questions need to be delivered in a  format that the client understands, so being able to pitch to ‘C’ levels, IT Managers and IT support is paramount.  This for me is one of the biggest skills that set’s a ‘Pre Sales’ engineer apart from an implementation engineer, being able to jump from ‘geek’ into ‘business’ terms at a bat of an eyelid is hard work.  To make this point clearer, I have noted a couple of examples below.

C Level

What are the business goals/changes in terms of IT for the next three years?

Does the business have to comply with any legislation?

What is the cost to the business if users cannot access your ERP solution?

IT Support

What VLAN’s are you currently using?

What version of Exchange are you running?, are you using Load Balancers for Client Access? where is your Anti Spam located?

Over the past two years, I have trained a number of ‘Pre Sales’ engineers and I have noticed a distinct difference between them.  The ones who succeed understand how their design will impact all areas of infrastructure e.g. network, storage, application, license, cpu, ram, support and engage in these areas and the ones who get ‘pigeon holed’ quickly only concern themselves with the task they are carrying out and not giving thought to the potential impact in other areas (I like to think of it as Pre Sales sprawl).

The successful ‘Pre Sales’ has an uncanny ability to spot an opportunity, in the same way that a half decent sales person can and explore this with the client and get it tied down to being a requirement.  I was recently at a client engagement and they laid down their vision for ‘field operative’ which was to have all data dropped into Microsoft SharePoint Workspace so it would sync back to the main SharePoint site.  They had done quite a bit of research and decided this was the right way for them as they had already been using some of SharePoint’s functionality.

We spoke briefly about some of the limitations they should be aware of such as number of items, amount of data per workspace, but we then moved onto the risks involved.  They thought they had covered all the risks to the business such as being able to standardize laptop builds and pull down data from SharePoint Workspace and I agreed with that.  However, I explained they are putting way more emphasis on two areas, one the SharePoint Farm and two the SQL Database and we started to discuss the risks of loosing these.  It quickly came to light that they could not accept much downtime on the SQL Database, so they then mentioned they need a SQL Cluster, and a test environment as the business works 24/7 so getting downtime for mundane tasks such as patching was hard work.  We then moved onto data loss and restores (RPO and RTO) and they mentioned again they need to revisit the backup strategy.

So from this very quick conversation, the client had gone from needing some professional services on SharePoint to:

  • 2 x Virtual SharePoint Front End Servers
  • 2 x SQL Standard Servers
  • 1 x Storage Area Network for SQL Cluster
  • 1 x Test environment
  • 1 x Backup Review
  • ? x Professional Service days

You may think I have exploited the client, I would disagree with this statement, what I had done is helped them open their eyes to the risks and got them to put into words the impact to the business and tell me what they needed!

It’s situation like these that moves you from ‘Pre Sales’ into a trusted adviser role (cheesy I know).

What else do you need to be successful at Pre Sales? I really do believe you need to have a strong foundation in the following elements:

  • Networking
  • Storage
  • Virtualisation
  • Microsoft technologies (AD, Group Policy, Exchange, SQL)

You might say, rubbish, however when you are in a meeting with a customer/client being able to advise or understand a subject matter that has relevance to your design is paramount.

For example lets say you are talking about VMware’s Site Recovery Manager for DR, it isn’t enough knowing about SRM, you need to understand the networking, from terms of bandwidth for data change rates, latency to see if sync is possible.  What VLAN’s would be required to achieve the replication and if QoS needs to be implemented, is Layer 2 a requirement because application ‘x’ has a melt down if it’s subnet or IP changes.  If Layer 2 is a requirement, how are they going to be stretched across, what switches are needed?  What storage is required, is it going to be Active/Active or Active/Passive sites, can the storage support the replication requirements for sync, how will new VM’s be seeded? What about test failover? Do we need to consider DHCP, DNS, Domain Controllers in the DR site.  The list goes on and without knowing the answer to all of these questions your design/solution could be wrong potentially putting you and your employers business at risk.

Perhaps an area which nearly everyone I have spoken to falls down on is presenting, it is the elephant in the room.  If you want to get into Pre Sales, this is going to be a discipline you need to conquer.  How do I look at it? I think everyone in the room wants to listen to something I have to say, how awesome is that!  You need to stand up and be counted, I’m not going to bang on about presenting, but a great tip is to record your self presenting and listen back to it.  You need to be passionate about your subject matter, engaging, interactive and perhaps most important of all likable, people tend to believe in and buy stuff from people they like.

Details are they important? Hell yes!  In Pre Sales details can come from a conversation with a client over coffee, to extracting the details from five different ‘C’ levels to understanding who the decision maker is and keeping them happy.  Perhaps the most important detail is your design/solution to meet the business requirements, so make sure you always have an iPAD or pen & paper handy to make notes, if you are like me and forget things!

Hopefully, by now you can see that Pre Sales is completely different mind set to being an engineer, however I was discussing with a colleague about who was more technical and we entered into a world that he had never considered such as Front End IOPS, Back End IOPS, RAID Penalties, Latency, Bandwidth as they had always been their, the thing he didn’t grasp is they are their because Pre Sales had done there job and that’s why his application worked like a dream.

From my experience, Pre Sales is a more valuable skill than an engineer and often the packages for Pre Sales reflect this, I’m not saying this to get a rise from people, I think it’s fact.  Without Pre Sales you don’t need engineers as you will have nothing to implement.  Pre Sales are the convincers of the world, lets say a client is looking at three different SAN vendors, why do they choose X over Y? It’s a number of items, but ultimately the Pre Sales engineer will have a massive impact on the outcome with all things being equal.

One of the areas which I think is overlooked is you have to decide as the Pre Sales engineer what the right solution is for the client.  Taking the RFP (reason for purchase) and asking the right questions to remove as many assumptions as possible, to designing a solution, then presenting the solution to passing over to the implementation team (this may also be you in smaller environments).

A colleague of mine Rob Goddard (phenomenal Technical Sales person) has a philosophy that if Pre Sales have done the right job, their can only be one solution, the one that meets the clients requirements.  I have to agree with him, if you present a client with three different options, it’s human nature to go for the one in the middle.

Ultimately you sit on the fence in Pre Sales between Sales &  Technical, it’s your job to support Sales and help them hit targets and then to design the solution that meets the clients requirements both technically and financially.  Financially you need to think about the cost of sales, you as a Pre Sales person has a cost, all of those design meetings, conference calls come out of your employers back pocket.  Professional Services isn’t just about engineering time, consideration needs to be given to project management time, handover time, documentation time and training time.  Technically you need to be confident that your design will pass the scrutiny of competitors and actually work when it’s installed.

Would I recommend Pre Sales, absolutely, however you need to be a self starter, organised, approachable and the ability to make decisions from a design perspective.  Oh and did I mention you need to have a tough skin as you will get a kick from both sides if you get something wrong.  On the flip side the financial rewards are good and you get to play with some awesome technology.

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