samedi 4 février 2017

SSE or Super Sales Engineer!

This post will be the last one in an article series where I share my thoughts on Sales Engineering. I've given my understanding of SE role, some tips for sales to better work with SEs, and now I'd like to share some SE best practices accumulated throughout my experience: Learning from my mistakes, trainings, getting inspired by others... Ideas and tips are compiled in three categories: Sales approach, developing skills and work organization. 

I - Sales approach

Fundamentally, a company needs SEs in sales team in order to defend the value of its products, grow revenues and make sure that proposed solutions fit customer needs as well as the organization's ability to deliver. 

The first question is how do you defend the value of your product? do you list its features and options? compare it to competition? or present some marketing figures on a slide deck? I've noticed that customers rarely grasp your offering's value this way. This is why I rapidly switched to story telling, where I use less slides and give more meaning. In a narrative style, I explain why my company has built this product, what is its unique positioning, what it does or doesn't do, how it makes sense for the customer, and always handle technical objections by using the story baseline. It's very important to bring life to your story through concrete examples like other customer cases. Let me be less abstract by telling the story of my company Level 3 projected onto 3 different products:

Broader story
Level 3 is a telco operating the most connected IP backbone on a very large owned fibre network, and who’s carrying more than half of world’s internet traffic.  Historically, Level 3 provided IP infrastructure to wholesale customers (eyeballs-ISPs) and big internet consumers like Google, Amazon, Netflix... Since 5 years, Level 3 is leveraging its scale and connectivity to address the Enterprise market in a propitious context where companies are increasingly using services over the internet.

IP story
Customers benefit from tiers 1 connectivity, 1 hop away from major public clouds without intermediaries, scalable bandwidth over fiber up to 100G with flexible billing models based on usage and commitment.

DDoS story
Level 3 has a long track of protecting it's own network from DDoS attacks, and now is putting this know-how in the service of Entreprise customers. Using globally distributed scrubbing centers on its owned network, Level 3 unequally mitigate large DDoS attacks (4,5Tbps and much more with its unique BGP flowspec implementation) without limitations. Moreover, big data generated from traffic carried on its network, gives Level 3 SoC an important real time visibility and intelligence to better mitigate attacks.

CDN story
Level 3 has built a large CDN on its own tiers 1 network  to provide an end to end performing and scalable caching service with competitive pricing. More infrastructure than feature oriented, Level 3 CDN is very well suited for video delivery. Level 3 is helping broadcasters to stream quality video, and consistently cope with their 10x spikes during special events such s sports games, political events, holiday periods.

The second question is how do SEs increase customer value thus develop revenues? I'll expose two ideas:

  • By building relations with its peers within the customer organization, SE contributes to better account understanding and opportunity identification. There are accessible ways for relation building: spend time with customer to understand his technical environnement, create customer architecture document resuming his services, share industry interesting information, hold recurrent workshops...
    Moreover, we should not forget that the foundation of solid relations is trust. Simple things help SE gain customer trust: honesty, professionalism, communication.. For exemple, on the communication topic, it's important to quickly and systematically respond to the customer and give him visibility, even if sometimes the updates are not pleasant, or there is no real news. You trust someone when he is always there for you right?
  • SE is a valuable asset for developing revenues through cross selling. Indeed, sales tend to cross sell by leveraging financial discounts, where SEs assist by leveraging technical synergies. In a more concrete way, let's take the previous example of Level 3 products and emerge some great technical synergies:

    Using Level 3 DDoS protection over its IP internet connectivity improves time to mitigate as BGP convergence is faster on iBGP than eBGP, and gives the possibility to mitigate single IPs instead of /24 subnet minimum, thus optimizing solution sizing and pricing.

    Using Level 3 IP in conjunction with its CDN, improves video delivery by reducing the latency/ hop counts.

The last question is how can SEs contribute in ensuring that what is sold meets customer needs and can be delivered? Well by challenging sales, but in a positive mind set. Suppose that SE is involved in a project and is invited for a customer meeting. I believe that our job is to prepare well for the meeting by asking all the necessary questions to be aligned with sales and understand well the customer context: project motivation, contraints, actors, budgets, delicate points, timing, responsibilities, risks... Whenever challenges appear, it's important not to block but rather explain the risk and display the right costs. For exemple, customer is asking for a delivery in 2 months in his RFP, but the realistic lead time to deliver is 3 month. It's healthier for the SE to highlight this challenge, calculate the financial risk due to delay penalties, and estimate together with sales the impact on customer satisfaction, rather than just saying NO we can't do it.

II - Developing skills

There is no doubt about the importance of SEs technical skills in their daily job of understanding customers needs, resolving problems, understanding products and their underlying technologies. SEs should permanently develop their technical skills and knowledge in order to cope with business requirements.

Knowledge sources are numerous: internal technical documents, trainings, internet, forums, technical blogs... I'd like to highlight here on Linkedin as a wonderful tool for acquiring knowledge. Indeed, I recommend following or adding people that are active in your industry such as key gurus, specialized head hunters, colleagues from competition... It's important to keep your Linkedin feed focused, otherwise valuable knowledge will be drowned in the news flood, and becomes very difficult to stumble upon.

Once you are exposed to new knowledge, how do you assimilate it permanently? For me it's a challenging exercise. I suggest three tools that helped me in this exercice:
  • The first tool is to try to explain what you've just learned to someone else, even if virtually. Typically when you learn about a new product, repeat it in your head (jut like school!) until the ideas are clear, and you can reproduce it in very simple words.
  • The second tool is debating with your peers. For example, when you read an article about a new technology/feature in the market, confront your understanding with others in order to better shape yours and make sure you stick the new information in your head.
  • Finally, keep short notes about newly acquired knowledge to refresh what you have learned. It can be in any form that suits you, such as mind maps, Evernote... I personally use Microsoft OneNote that is simple and easily accessible from anywhere:

Now that you have acquired new knowledge, do you keep it for yourself? Well that would be a shame... Some have a strategy of differentiation by retaining information, but I believe that it is a very short vision strategy. Share knowledge, best practices with your team, your peers, your community... It's the best approach for the long term.

III - Work organization

Recruiters always mention multitasking skill in open SE positions. Indeed, SEs are working in parallel on several projects, solicited permanently in a random way by sales, customers, and internal teams. It's one of the most challenging aspect of being an SE, because in the same time he needs to be focused on solving problems and building skills. How can SEs balance between contradictory needs without exhausting energy? Well by a better work organization :)

I propose a couple of tools that helped me a lot as an SE on the "multitasking" challenge:
  • The first tool helps me identifying what tasks I am working on and prioritizing them. Indeed, I use Google Sheets in order to list tasks with relevant information such as customer name, account director, product line, urgency, topic, and actions/comments. This tool is useless without the discipline of updating it frequently. Typically when I start my workday, I give the sheet a look, and filter high priority tasks first to make up my plan for the day. With Google Explore, I enjoy some insights on my activity, such as how much I work with every account director.
  • The second tool is agenda on Outlook! well simply I reserve during the week some me-time slots where I am not available, not possibly interrupted, and where I can focus on tasks requiring so, such as an online training. Otherwise, my agenda is open, and anyone can reserve a slot for a call or a meeting.
  • Finally, always using Outlook, I deactivate mail notifications to avoid distractions. In fact, distractions are very costly in terms of context changing. In a more general way, we need to have an efficient communication strategy, where we use the right channel for the right information. For example, coach your contacts to reach you by phone for urgent matters rather sending email, thus you do not need to check your emails frequently. Having calls on a regular basis with sales, is more efficient than long email chains, where things can rapidly go wrong.

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