For the last 7 years or so I’ve been working for a number of different vendors in the IT industry as a systems engineer. If you’re working for a vendor, systems engineer usually translates to pre-sales (not always obvious to customers in Europe, but that’s another story, for another time) which means, as the second part of the title indicates, you have a sales quota, and succes is partly measured by how much you are able to sell.
Obviously there are different types of people in every profession, including sales/pre-sales, some will act like stereotypical sales guys/gals (think Glengarry Glen Ross) others will be more balanced.
Assuming if you are in pre-sales and you’d want to act as a trusted advisor (it’s in most job descriptions for pre-sales engineers right?) towards your customers, what does that look like?
When you are working for a vendor you have specific technology, products, or solutions, to sell. You might get indoctrinated with a specific world view, if you are not careful you start to drown out other valid opinions and critical thinking and might get hooked on your organizations’ dogma, or at least your view might start to narrow. A bit like only watching FOX News if you live in the United States.
On the other hand there is a more noble goal (and the only way I, and lot’s of my colleagues, would be able to look ourselves in the mirror in the morning) of trying to do what is in the best interest of the customer, working towards being a trusted advisor. In my view this means defending your organisation/product with vigour, but also knowing intimately what your solutions can and cannot do. If you don’t have a valid offering you might want to work with the customer to find the best alternative solution going forward, building the relationship, not necessarily building your next commission cheque. Your honest opinion, if you are seen as a trusted advisor, ofter carriers great weight.
“Every man is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts!”
I’ll give just one example from when I was at my previous employer Riverbed Technology, I was called out of the blue by a former customer (not a Riverbed customer yet), he had done some research online and was convinced our products would be the perfect fit for his needs. I could see my sales guys face light up when he witnessed the call, and then turn into contempt when I advised that maybe Talari Networks*, not Riverbed, would be the way to go. I knew the customer, I knew the environment, I understood the problem he was trying to fix and I knew we couldn’t do it at the time (the required features have since been integrated into Riverbed’s products). I can still walk in the door at this customer today and have a chat about his projects, he knows I won’t twist the facts to turn things into a fit for my company, and he calls me when he thinks there is even the slightest chance I do have something for him.
So like the excellent TV series “The Newsroom” (it should come as no surprise that if I dislike Fox I like something Aaron Sorkin has written :rolleyes) asks itself when trying to shed the yoke of biased newscasts before it:
1) Is this information we need in the voting booth?
2) Is this the best possible form of the argument?
3) Is the story in historical context?
I think we can do a better job by holding ourselves to higher ideals and dispense more facts and less fiction. The customer is smart, the road from products to sale is long and fraught with dangers (a quote I hear more and more is that 50 to 75% of the sales process takes place before the vendor is even involved by going online to find information, talking to peers, and talking to partners whom are more traditionally seen in the trusted advisor role) so we should, and can do better.
* In all honesty my mind quickly went to Talari Networks, and not for instance to Ipanema Technologies, also because of competitive threats of one versus the other, if we would have the features on the roadmap I would have worked towards that, etc. It is never just black or white.