Sales Engineering basics with Larry Anderson

Published on: April 5th, 2021

Guest Speaker


Larry Anderson

Senior Technical Account Manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS)

About the Podcast

Larry and Vik discuss best practices on product demo, the importance of doing discovery early in the sales cycle, how to handle glitches in live demos, tools and technologies, buyers’ perspective into POCs and many other interesting topics.


[00:00:00] Welcome to the podcast, Proof is in the Pudding. This is the podcast by the sales engineers, for the sales engineers. In our first season, we bring you the leaders in sales and sales engineering space to talk about interesting topics relevant to the sales engineers.

[00:00:26] Vik: For our first podcast of the season, we bring you a leader from cybersecurity and sales engineering space, Larry Anderson. He has worked in cybersecurity and enterprise IT architecture infrastructure for a long time and manages a team of sales engineers. I’ll let him introduce in his own word.

[00:00:43] Hi, Larry. How are you?

[00:00:44] Larry Anderson: Good, Vik. How are you?

[00:00:47] Vik: Very good. Thank you. Uh, Larry, can you give us a quick introduction about yourself?

[00:00:50] Larry Anderson: Um, so I, I started my career, uh, in Systems Administration and, uh, Infrastructure, um, and, and over the course of the past, uh, 20, 20, so years, uh, done, done a bunch of different roles, uh, consulting, management, um, But, but like a lot of other, uh, technical folks, you, you hit a crossroad in your career in some point and you have to make some decisions about, you know, what do I want to be when I grow up?

[00:01:14] Um, and, uh, the path I ultimately chose to go down was, uh, was SE leadership. Um, so I spent, uh, spent the last seven years. Um, managing uh, sales engineering teams, um, both with, uh, a local channel partner in the San Francisco Bay area, uh, as well as a cybersecurity company uh, ExtraHop based up in Seattle.

[00:01:32] Vik: Great.

[00:01:33] So, uh, you know, uh, being in sales engineering space, uh, we, as a sales engineers, we do tons of demos and demos are like an entry point, whenever we go into the deal, that is like a first criteria. First time customer looks at the product and say, whether I want this or not. So, it is like that small window where customer decides whether they want to take a next steps or not.

[00:01:53] So, do you have some tips or tricks that you can share with us, uh, to do good demos, which are, have more, uh, conversion rates?

[00:02:01] Larry Anderson: Yeah, I think even before you get to the demo with your, with your prospect, you know, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you and your sales partner have.

[00:02:12] You know, done some discovery work ahead of time. Um, I’ve found there’s always a temptation to try to jam both the corporate overview and an initial demo together in the same call, the rationale being well, you know, I I’ve got the customer’s attention, I want to take advantage of it and I don’t want to burden them with two meetings.

[00:02:30] Um, but what you end up missing out on is an opportunity to tailor your demo. Um, and I’ve always been a big fan of, you know, tailoring the conversation to the customer’s specific vertical, uh, and challenges that they, um, they are going to be subject to as opposed to. Uh, the generic, you know, here are the challenges large or small organizations face.

[00:02:52] So, that’s probably the first thing is just, you know, making sure that you’ve got enough intel on your customer, that you can give them a, you know, a demo that’s really tailored to their business. Um, the second component of it is really around storytelling. They think as an engineers, we get very fascinated with the buttons and knobs and blinking lights.

[00:03:13] And, you know, we get really excited.

[00:03:15] Vik: That is correct.

[00:03:16] Larry Anderson: We get really excited about the tech, but, but that’s not always going to be the same lens of the people that we’re talking to or looking at it through. So, it’s really important that we’ve got a good storyline, uh, to talk customers through. Um, and that can be very simply, you know, uh, here’s our observations on the, you know, the industry as a whole, here’s some, you know, observations or some facts about your specific business.

[00:03:44] And, here are some components of our solution or offering that are going to address those problems. Um, and always tying it back to, you know, this is why you should care. Um, I’ve always found that, uh, clearly keeping, uh, so what, uh, in the back of your head, as you’re talking to somebody helps you focus the conversation.

[00:04:03] Well, so what, why, why would I care about what, what I’m, you know, being told? Um, those, those are the things that, uh, that help, uh, your message resonate with, uh, with customers and probably the most important thing, rehearse your click path, um, if your demonstrating a product, you know, that, that has a lot of moving parts, you know, might have a gooey that has a few pieces to it.

[00:04:27] It’s very important that you make the product and the navigation and the use of it appear as easy as possible. Um, and one of, one of the ways that I typically do that, like if you’ve got a multi-screen platform is, uh, ahead of the demo, I’ll actually have tabs loaded, uh, with each of those parts so that they don’t necessarily have to.

[00:04:50] Click from point to point to points. I have abs you know, the kind of DMARC, different components of my storyline. And then as I, you know, wrap up one section, you know, that was a good break for asking questions. And then, um, you know, then, then moving onto the next section. Um, and that brings me to my final point, which is, um, make sure you engage the prospect and ask questions.

[00:05:13] Um, you know, the, the notion of show up and throw up, you know, we want to like get all this technical information on the prospect’s throat. Um, but you know, that doesn’t give us the opportunity, particularly if you’re doing a remote demo to see how they’re reacting to the message. Uh, or, you know, give them an opportunity to ask, you know, some questions that may help things along.

[00:05:36] So, you know, making sure that you’re, you’re building in some breaks to, you know, make sure the customer, you know, is, is getting what you’re showing them. Uh, and has an opportunity to ask you a little more about it.

[00:05:47] Vik: You, you mentioned some very interesting points here. So, show up and throw up is a very common problem.

[00:05:53] Uh, we sometimes feel too much pressure in front of the customer and we just want to get everything out there without worrying, without thinking what customer wants. So, you put a very interesting point of doing the discovery. So, rather than going all in one, go. Uh, rather than doing, uh, doing the discovery first.

[00:06:09] And I think that’s where the role of an account executive also comes into the play, where they can prepare the customer, or they can do most of the discovery, which, which is very repetitive in most of the accounts with similar categories and prepare the ground for the sales engineers to even build on that discovery in a much more technical level.

[00:06:28] And then the, the tip you gave, uh, to demo and, you know, keeping the tabs over. I think that’s, that’s great actually, uh, you know, sometime you are in the customer side where the internet connectivity is not so good and you are waiting to load the page, these are small, small things, but they sometime don’t give a very pleasant experience.

[00:06:43] So, I think that’s a great input.

[00:06:45] Larry Anderson: You know, and that actually brings to point one other thing, which is, no demos survives an encounter with the customer. You’re gonna have glitches, you know, and whether a glitch completely derails you or not is entirely dependent on how you play it off. And, uh, the trick that I often use.

[00:07:05] If, if I accidentally clicked somewhere, I’m not supposed to, uh, I’ll normally say very, very casually. Now, if I had actually clicked on the appropriate part of the interface, what you would be seeing right now is dot, dot, dot and describe what they should be looking at. Um, And then at that point, the cust, the customer, the customer doesn’t know what you’re gonna show them.

[00:07:27] So, you’re gonna out yourself. If you, if you have a moment and freak out, if you accidentally click on the wrong thing. So, you know, just know your storyline ahead of time and be able to describe it in words, if you can’t describe it in pictures.

[00:07:41] Vik: That is another point I would like to re-emphasize that you said here.

[00:07:44] So, uh, typically, uh, I mean, first of all, as they say, no good demos without glitches, so glitches, glitches, are part of, uh, the demos. But, uh, you know, I think what you mentioned that really important is that if you’re telling a story, then it doesn’t really matter if you have, there is a glitch, uh, if customer got the story and the new is what you’re trying to do, I think that is more important than if there is a glitch happened and then you can always recover from it and move from there.

[00:08:07] So, I think that’s a great point. So, my next question now goes, uh, to your experience, um, as a sales engineering leader, what are some of the challenges that you see in a sales engineering or technical pre-sales today in your experience?

[00:08:21] Larry Anderson: You know, there there’s two sides to it. Um, there there’s the customer side and then there’s, there’s the, uh, the sales engineering side, the customer side.

[00:08:29] You know, what you’re seeing across the industry is, you know, there there’s a dampening of skillsets. And what I mean by that is that customers are getting bombarded with so many different things. You know, they end up with this veneer of knowledge, you know, being, you know, able, you know, uh, aware of a lot of things, but only having depth in one or two areas.

[00:08:53] And so, depending on where your solution aligns. You’re often going to be talking to people, you know, that they may have no clue about, uh, your industry or solution. And, and as a result, there’s a lot more educating and evangelizing that you have to do versus just relaying the information that, uh, you know, as part of your presentation.

[00:09:14] So, so that can be a big hurdle for people to get over. Um, consequently on the sales engineering side, Um, it’s not enough to just understand the solution you’re selling. You have to be able to talk to the ecosystem. So that fits into whether it’s an on-prem solution, whether it’s a cloud-based solution.

[00:09:32] Um, you know, the joke that we used to, you know, that we still talk about in the monitoring space is. You’re an, you have to be an expert in all the things you monitor, whether that’s fair or not, because if that’s what your solution does and that’s what customers are expecting. Um, and so having the broad base of knowledge.

[00:09:53] Uh, on the SE side can be a big challenge depending on, um, you know, the individual engineer’s appetite for learning new stuff. So then, you know, as a leader, the challenge becomes what areas outside of the core competencies that my SEs need to sell the platform or the product that I’m offering. Uh, do I work with them on developing and that’s an ongoing conversation because the industry is cycling so rapidly.

[00:10:20] Um, you figure that for most SEs, if they’re not in a state of constant learning and re-education, uh, their skill sets and knowledge probably has a two to three-year lifespan at most. And so, with that in mind, how do you keep them current and engaged and interested, uh, while still being effective at selling your solution?

[00:10:41] Vik: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, uh, now that, uh, you mentioned about SEs skillset, uh, so one of the skillset they need, especially is to sell the solution is to, you know, do the proof of concepts and making sure to show the customer what they’re looking for in a more, a smaller environment where the customer can see the value, the power of the product.

[00:11:02] So usually what are the best practices you follow while running proof of concepts?

[00:11:07] Larry Anderson: I think I’ll break that down into three areas. Um, first one is planning. Um, you know, if you’re in the construction business, um, you know, people, uh, who do, uh, do painting often talk about, uh, painting a house is 80% preparation and 20% execution.

[00:11:24] And they think a POC is very much the same. The more planning you do and the more, um. The better scoped you have your efforts and the better you can get ahead of questions that might come up during a deployment. Uh, the better your POC is going to execute because people sometimes forget that the setup and, you know, initial configuration of a POC.

[00:11:52] Is a huge part of the selling process. Uh, people talk a lot about out of box experience for setting things up. Um, setting up a POC is, is our opportunity to, um, you know, showcase that out of box experience to our prospects. So, having that all prepped and plan and anticipating all the hundred ways that something could go wrong and having contingency plans for those is, is key.

[00:12:19] Um, second piece is around scoping and there there’s a couple schools of thought on, on scoping out. Um, success criteria. One is, well, I’m just going to keep it kind of loose and just see which way the costumer goes. Um, and I’m not really going to define anything upfront. And then the other school of thought being well, I’m going to have pretty tight, you know, well-defined criteria that, that map back to, if I do these three to five things you will purchase, I think the right answer is somewhere in the middle.

[00:12:51] You do need to have things fairly well, scoped and defined. You want to have some, some amount of concrete, not subjective a success criteria defined, but you also don’t want a straitjacket yourself so much that you’re just blindly executing against those. And you’re not open to other opportunities to maybe showcase some additional value.

[00:13:15] Um, the trick there is, if you’re in a situation where, a customer wants to do something else. You have to apply a bit of the give to get principle. And this is where, uh, your sales counterpart can be a big help. It’s fine, if the customer wants to test other stuff. But make sure you’re getting something out of it, like a agreement to do a reference call with a another prospect or a customer, or getting an introduction to a key executive in the organization that, uh, that’s going to be involved in the buying process.

[00:13:46] Uh, make sure that you’re not, not just doing things to do things, but that, that we’re getting something in return. And then I think the most important piece in this really this falls squarely on the sales engineers, uh, um, shoulders is make sure the customer is engaged throughout the process. Uh, at my current company, um, our product has an audit log and as part of our POC setup, we’ll give each of the customer’s individual accounts.

[00:14:13] And then that way over the course of the POC, we can periodically review the audit log and make sure that the customer is actually logging into the platform and see exactly what they’re doing. Uh, and then that gives us the ability to ask some very pointing questions about, you know, what they like, don’t like where they’re getting stuck, et cetera.

[00:14:31] But just keeping that engagement, uh, the worst thing that you can do is set something up. Give the customer access to it and then disappear until the POC is over. Cause at that point you have no control over where they may be getting stuck and no opportunity to either address challenges or more importantly reinforce successes when they happen.

[00:14:56] Vik: Right. Right. You know, I, I really liked the example you gave, um, planning, uh, that is required in the POC is like painting a house. You know, the more, I think, I think it makes so much sense because if the planning is not properly done properly, then, you know, as, as a sales engineers, we are very quick, just like the day in the demo, you said we are a very quick and getting into technical nitty gritties.

[00:15:19] In the POC is also sometime where we are very quick to show the features and functionalities, and we forget the storytelling part of it. Even during the POC, we forget the planning part of it. And that kind of causes a lot of confusion. Just like you said, if you don’t plan the painting job, how the paint will happen, how there probably will spend more time in cleaning up and patching and the results will still not be so good.

[00:15:42] So it, it makes lots and lots of sense. And totally understand, even though I think the scoping part that you said it, it is very accurate what you said. And even that is also part of the planning. When you are talking to the customer, you haven’t started your testing yet, or your implementation yet you are still talking about what exactly is the objective of the POC.

[00:15:59] What exactly do you want to see? How do I get you from the point of, uh, this product looks good, uh, to the point that I’m confident that this will solve my problem and, uh, make a purchasing decision. So that’s a great, uh, great point. So now, uh, based on this POCs demos and other activities of sales engineering.

[00:16:16] Do you have any, any tips and tricks or any hacks that you would recommend to the sales engineers to do these things even better, even though we’ve talked about. Uh, but if you have any, you know, hacks that you think can help um, do these things better.

[00:16:28] Larry Anderson: I, I think the biggest hack is, understanding the customer’s business problems.

[00:16:34] And that doesn’t always sound like much of a hack, but, um, what, what we’re, what we’re seeing in the market these days is that before customers are engaging a vendor to look at a solution, they’ve already done most of their homework. So, they’ve already, I think the statistic is the customers about 59%, uh, down the buying journey.

[00:16:55] By the time they reach out and first engage you’ll one or more prospects with solutions to their particular business problem. And, and so for the SEs, the hack, you know, is we understand the technical components and the technical value that our solution delivers. But we don’t often figure out how to connect the dots and deliver.

[00:17:16] This is why it matters to your business, or this is why you should care. So, so having, having those kind of sound bites and bits available. Um, if, if you’re a sales engineer that comes from a practitioner’s background, um, being able to relate those war stories of, Oh, I, I did what you did and here were some of the problems and challenges that I faced, and this is how a solution like ours would have addressed those.

[00:17:44] Uh, those are super powerful statements and help build a lot of credibility. And, and so it puts you in a position to get the customer’s attention because they feel like, yeah, these guys understand what I’m dealing with and they’re bringing me a solution to a problem as opposed to a product to buy.

[00:18:02] Vik: Right, right. It makes sense. So now we talk, talked quite a bit about, uh, from the sales engineering side, from the vendor side, you know, what is important for scoping the demos, but let’s now switch gear and go from the buyer side, their mindset. So, they are equally, you know, participating in the proof of concepts.

[00:18:21] They are putting their resources to, in the proof of concept they’re spending time, they may buy or they buy or they do not buy, they will definitely end up spending resources. And, in terms of dollars, in terms of resources, that whole participating in the POC. So, it’s a it’s expensive process for both, both sides, both buyer side and the seller side.

[00:18:40] What would you tell, uh, let’s say, uh, the head of the organization, like CSOs or CIOs who typically buy these products and they, their teams typically do these, uh, POCs. What would you recommend them to, uh, while writing the POC to get the best out of it, that helps them in making the decision?

[00:18:58] Larry Anderson: I think that communicating the business problems that they’re dealing with, um, is key because otherwise what ends up happening is the engineers get together. They start talking engineering things. And they have their nerd knob conversation. And then the output of the POC, uh, may not result in anything that that’s actionable from a business point of view.

[00:19:25] So, making sure that they’re supporting cast clearly understands the business problem and can then articulate that to, um, you know, to the vendor, uh, is key. And then the second piece of it is making sure that they’ve appropriately allocated their resources time, um, to support the POC, uh, it’s not uncommon for somebody to get excited about jumping into a POC.

[00:19:51] They’ve got seven other projects going on. And then when it gets down to brass tacks of, we got to get this thing deployed and we want to have review meetings and working sessions with you that they end up not having the cycles. And so, you go through the POC. And you end up not being as effective with it as you could.

[00:20:10] So, it’s incumbent on the, on the vendors or the solution providers to be clear about your here’s, how much of your team’s time and which resources I’m gonna need to execute this successfully. And then for the customer, you know, to, to demonstrate, you know, skin in the game, as well as making sure that the POC is a useful.

[00:20:33] Um, exercise for everybody, uh, is making sure that those resources are allocated and available to support it.

[00:20:39] Vik: Yep. It makes a lot of sense. So, now let’s talk a little bit about more from the managerial perspective of it. Typically, uh, the sales team and the sales engineers, uh, account executives, we all are driven by our quotas, by the deals we are closing, and, uh, that, you know, also drives our commissions and accelerators and so on.

[00:21:00] But that is not the only criteria typically for running sales engineering organizations. So, when you, for your team, how do you define the objectives? How do you define, what are the other things apart from, uh, fulfilling the quota? That can be the objective for the sales engineers.

[00:21:17] Larry Anderson: So, um, my, my own philosophy is if in doubt, be out.

[00:21:21] And, and so a lot of the things that I’m, I’m asking my, my team about, uh, whether they’re doing or not, is, are they spending time with their key accounts? Um, not just picking up the phone and calling and saying, Hey, you know, how’s it going? Um, but, but actually, uh, for larger enterprise accounts, particularly, uh, getting office hours established and, and having regularly scheduled touch points, uh, with their technical counterparts in the customer, um, same goes with partners.

[00:21:50] Um, you know, Most, uh, most organizations are doing, you know, some chunk of their business or all of their business through the channel. Um, and the organizations that get the most mind, mind share from those partners are the ones where, both the sales teams and the, uh, technical teams, uh, invest time in getting, getting those partners educated and up to speed on the solution and, and the value proposition, um, and, you know, building those relationships, which requires facetime.

[00:22:20] So you’re making sure that, uh, they’re out with those channel partners as much as possible. And then, you know, there’s the social activity aspect of things. Um, occasionally taking, taking your customers out for lunch, beer, you know, dinner or whatever. Um, that’s not just a sales job. Um, it can be equally powerful.

[00:22:40] Um, if done appropriately, uh, on the engineering side as well to build those relationships. So, those are the three, you know, kind of the three key areas that I tend to push on, uh, outside of the core, you know, do, do what you’re doing stuff.

[00:22:56] Vik: Right. Right. So, when you, uh, look for the hire, uh, what typically you see, uh, in recruiting the sales engineers, what are the traits?

[00:23:03] What are the criteria’s typically you look for?

[00:23:05] Larry Anderson: There’s a couple of main areas and one of them is, I think a lot of organizations talk, talk about culture fit. Um, but in a sales engineering role, um, one of the other pieces that’s super important is, uh, fit with their sales partner. Um, it’s super important that, uh, early in the interview process, uh, the sales engineer and the prospective account manager have an opportunity to sit down in person and talk to each other and feel each other out because.

[00:23:36] That relationship is key to both of their future success. And if either person is having, uh, any second thoughts about how that relationship might work, um, then, then they shouldn’t move forward. Um, like many other leaders I’ve, I’ve made some bad hires and had some bad. Um, you know, bad matches as far as SEs and account managers are concerned.

[00:23:59] And, and as a result of that, I really started focusing a lot of attention on how’s the personality fit between those two. Um, and then the second piece that I, I tend to emphasize is around the soft skills areas. And that goes back to some of the things that I think are important for sales engineers to be doing.

[00:24:17] You know, there’s the, um, you know, all the social activities, you know, kind of all the soft skills kinds of things. Um, the sales engineers to do. Um, I tend to really dig in on those things and have other sales engineers on my team. Um, you know, dig into, uh, technical fit and technical capabilities, because I think for the most part, most smart technologists can be taught.

[00:24:39] A technology or platform, but some of those other skills are a little more difficult, uh, to teach and to learn. Um, and so I’m always on the lookout for, um, how successful are they going to be at the sales part of the sales engineering job.

[00:24:54] Vik: Right. You know, I was actually going to ask you, but you already answered that, which was skill is easier to teach a technical or soft, but you already answered the question.

[00:25:04] So, great. And, I think that makes a lot of sense to me changing the behavior, changing the soft skill. It takes a longer time than, uh, teaching any, uh, technical skills. So, I, I totally understand, um, Now, I think we are getting towards the end of the discussion.

[00:25:20] I have few more questions. I quickly want to ask you, um, any technology or non-technology, any book that you read recently that you liked and you can share with us.

[00:25:29] Larry Anderson: So, um, a book that I refer back to a lot is by, John Care and it’s titled, Mastering Technical Sales. It’s the best manual for how a sales engineer performs their craft that I’ve seen and really breaks things down from, uh, you know, to kind of looking at both sales cycle and the customer relationship as a whole and breaking each of the pieces down and having tips and tricks.

[00:25:58] For each of those, I highly encourage anybody that’s in the sales engineering field to read through that because, uh, there are a lot of good concepts in there and a lot of affirmation, of things that you’re, you know, already doing that may be correct.

[00:26:13] Vik: Oh, great. So, um, now do you have any favorite, uh, tools or applications that you find very convenient or very efficient in terms of managing the sales engineering activities or proof of concepts or in general, let’s say, uh, from, you know, even for, let’s say if you’re traveling to a customer site, so what are the, some of the popular, or let’s say the most used apps or tools that you have?

[00:26:38] Larry Anderson: Well, so I, I do a fair number of demos myself and a couple of things that I have installed on my computer, and this is going to be, um, Mac centric. But, um, there’s a program called ‎Deskscribble, which I use for white boarding. Um, so I also have, uh, you know, I bought a cheap, Wacom tablet. So, with those two, uh, I can, I can pull up a blank screen and do a, do a quick whiteboard if one isn’t available.

[00:27:05] The other one is a program called Amphetamine which, does a couple of things, uh, it prevents your screensaver from kicking in and it silences all notifications. Uh, I, I don’t know how many demos I’ve seen where, you know, somebody forgot to turn there IM off or, you know, whatever. And then there’s some pop-up, that things happen.

[00:27:28] Vik: Right. Yeah, we have seen that. All those kinds of things. Yeah, absolutely.

[00:27:33] I guess what the last question I have is, uh, so if somebody is aspiring to a sales engineer or let’s say moving from different skills to, uh, being, you know, let’s say I have friends who are working in as an engineer and they find sales engineering very fascinating, and they want to move.

[00:27:50] What would you say to them? Is it worth it? What you like about it? What you don’t like about it?

[00:27:54] Larry Anderson: So, if people are contemplating sales engineering, as a, as a career path, I’d say there’s probably two big areas to focus on. Um, one being get good at speaking to small groups. Um, you’re not going to be, uh, delivering messaging to 50 – 7,500 people.

[00:28:14] Most of the time you’re going to be talking to four to 10 people, so get comfortable. Uh, talking in small groups, you know, and if, if you’re a public speaking nerd, you’ve probably already heard of Toastmasters, but those can be good places to have discussions with small groups of people in a non-threatening environment.

[00:28:31] And you know, enlist the help of friends and family there as well, but, but get comfortable with that because you’re going to be doing it a lot. Um, And, then probably the second and the most important piece is, the best sales engineers are the best geek to English translators. So, being able to take complex technical topics and break them down into easy-to-understand language so that you can clearly articulate to somebody who’s not a practitioner on your platform or product, what it’s about.

[00:29:04] Why they care about it and how easy it is to use. So, so focusing a lot of attention on, you know, how do you talk about a technical solution that isn’t just a reading of the product manual? Um, those are probably two big areas that I would focus on.

[00:29:22] Vik: Right. That makes lot of sense. Well, uh, that is, uh, the end of our questions. So, thank you so much, Larry, for joining us today. And, it was great talking to you.

[00:29:30] Larry Anderson: Thanks, Vik. I appreciate it.

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