Sr. Account Manager & Sales Engineer at Mako Networks
Ronak Patel, Director of Sales Engineering at Mako Network, joins this episode. Vik and Ronak discuss on various core topics of sales engineering in great detail.
[00:00:00] Intro: Welcome to podcast for sales engineers, Proof is in the Pudding. This podcast is brought to you by smart POC platform, Pudding.app and I’m your host Vik Arya.
[00:00:12] Vik: We have a very experienced and seasoned sales engineering leader. He is currently a Director of Sales Engineering at Mako Networks. We have Ronak Patel in our show today.
[00:00:24] Ronak, can you give us some background and introduction about you, about Mako Networks? What you do?
[00:00:30] Ronak Patel: Yeah, sure. Thanks, Vik. I appreciate this. Um, this is my first podcast recording, so I am very excited. And, um, sincerely, thank you for this opportunity here. Yeah, like you said, uh, I head up the sales engineering team at Mako Networks.
[00:00:46] Uh, been with them for seven years, been in the space, um, sales engineer for 13 years or so roughly. In various capacities from the point-of-sale industry loss prevention, and now cyber security with, um, specialty on PCI compliance and SD LAN. I guess fun fact, I’ve been working from home for the last 10 years and like many of us in the industry been in and out of airplanes and hotel rooms all over the last decade or so.
[00:01:16] Vik: I guess for sales engineers.
[00:01:17] I think that the flight is probably their office. That’s where they live. Now, I want to move to talk more about sales engineering itself. And I know you have been running sales engineering for a long time. How early do you like sales engineering teams to get engaged in the, in any customer deals or any opportunity that’s going on?
[00:01:40] Ronak Patel: Preferably I would say as early as possible when possible, obviously it’s not always possible. Prospecting and qualification is typically a function of a pure sales rep or an account executive, whose sole task is to, um, go whale hunting or basically bring in new opportunities. But the, the ability of a sales engineer to insert themselves as early as possible, uh, will help new sales rep.
[00:02:13] Better qualified deals, bring in quality deals and, um, you know, help with that discovery process and getting engaged as early as possible. What that helps is it fast tracks, a lot of the engagement, it establishes the credibility of your product, you as an organization and as professional early in and.
[00:02:33] Just builds that foundation of trust as early as possible. So, I know it’s not always possible, but I would say as early as possible, the sales engineer, you can get in there and help, um, get in front of any objections or concerns and basically help qualify a prospect as soon as possible.
[00:02:51] Vik: Right. And it makes sense.
[00:02:52] So, with that, do you see any challenges with the technical presales? And getting involved early and, uh, running through the sales engineering process. What are some of the challenges that you face during the sales cycle?
[00:03:08] Ronak Patel: One thing that, you know, especially now more so than ever, that there’s, if you’re, if you’re a customer, you have, you’re bombarded with options and overstimulation, and everyone’s trying to sell you something.
[00:03:25] Every piece of technology is affordable now in a monthly subscription model, um, and. The barrier of entry for a vendor is as low as it’s ever been in the playing field. And the competition’s as stiff as it’s ever been. So that’s one challenge I see. Um, another challenge you run into, especially, you know, if you’re a vendor and the terms of your agreement or on a three-year terms and.
[00:03:51] The customer’s purchasing on a three-year cycle. Lot of times, um, the timing is a very key challenge, something to be very keenly aware of. Um, many times customers for years at a time, they’re not in the shop for a solution, but when they are in the shop for a solution, you’re off your window of opportunity.
[00:04:14] As a, as a vendor is very slim to get in there. So, if you miss that window of opportunity with the customer that you been keeping an eye on, and you miss that window of opportunity, that may not open up for a few years. So, I’d say that’s a, that’s another challenge. Um, in terms of other challenges, I would say during, you know, we’ll, we’ll discuss the pro, the proof-of-concept phase specifically, but lately, the proof of concepts can be a challenge.
[00:04:41] And the longer, the proof-of-concept phase extends, the more risks that come along with it. So, you had been then testing other vendors, you have risks. Something happened, happening with the champion within that company, you know, if they move on to another company or something like that, or if they get fired.
[00:05:01] So, the longer proof of concept goes that poses a risk and I guess the last challenge that you have in technical pre-sales, I would say is competing influence within a customer’s organizations. So, you know, you may have one person in that organization, like your solution. But maybe you have another associate within that organization.
[00:05:23] That’s a loyal fan of your competitor. So, you have completely influence within your customer, which is, can be a challenge sometimes.
[00:05:31] Vik: I do agree a and I’ve seen it many times, especially you know, the point you’ve made about running long POCs. So, that brings me to my next question to you, how does a successful proof of concept or POC looks like to you?
[00:05:45] I mean, what are some of the components in a POC, if you can talk about some of the best practices that you follow or you’ve seen working in the field?
[00:05:56] Ronak Patel: Well, I’d say this is a, successful POC or proof of concept is it’s an art as much as it is a science. There’s a couple of different things you want to consider.
[00:06:05] You want to follow as you’re going through this phase. One, I would say you want to understand your customer’s business problem. You want to understand, uh, what they’re looking to achieve, not only through proof of concept, but also through your solution and what value your solution adds. For the proof of concept specifically, you want to understand what their success criteria is and what their timeline is.
[00:06:29] Now, success criteria and timeline, you could set that you can make it concrete, but those two things are still subject to change and deviation. So, there has to be a little bit of flexibility there, but as much as you can understand that, that helps you set a solid foundation for a successful proof of concept.
[00:06:47] From there, you move into actually designing the solution and what it’s going to look like in their environment, understanding the nuances, their environment, and planning an actual implementation. Deciding, whether you’re going to implement that in a lab environment first or you going to go straight to a location, there’s pros and cons to both of them to implement it in a, in a, in a lab environment first it’s a little more low risk.
[00:07:11] You can work out the kinks in that environment to implement it directly into a live site. It’s a little more high risk because you’re, you haven’t really accounted for, all potential obstacles, you know, there times there’s a lot of surprises when you, when you try to implement in a direct site. But, uh,
[00:07:30] Vik: And, and there are a lot of, uh, controls or approvals that you have to also go through, uh, when especially when you’re going on a customer site or deploying the live site.
[00:07:39] Ronak Patel: Exactly. Uh, but also, you know, you have timelines, so, sometimes customers would procrastinate and then at the, you know, at the 11th hour saying, we need to get the solution in.
[00:07:48] So, you may not actually have the luxury of time, for testing and a full, thorough evaluation. So, uh, you know, on the plus side, if you go directly to live site and you’re able to prove, prove it out, then it could mean, you know, faster time to deployment and, and customer engagement. So, I would say from there, you have the testing evaluation, understanding what their, again, you know, understand what their success criteria is while they’re doing the testing.
[00:08:13] And I think, um, one of the most important parts of a successful proof of concept is the level of which you can get the customer engaged in using the solution, make sure they’re actively using it, looking at their user logs, making sure they’re logging into the platform, whatever it is that you’re presenting to them.
[00:08:32] So, if you could get that customer adoption and customer engagement, you can get faster feedback. You could work through any issues that they may have with the, with the solution. And get them using the solution as soon as possible is, I think the most important phase of the proof of concept is actually getting the customer engaged and bought in and actually using the solution.
[00:08:55] Vik: Right. And, I think that goes back to defining the success criteria. If you’re defining the success criteria that is relevant to the customer, that is something customer is willing to solve and spend time on. That automatically makes a bit more interesting for the customer rather than doing something, which is not really a pain point for the customer and that they don’t see that as a value during the POC.
[00:09:17] And, you also brought up a really good point about, doing the POC in the lab versus in the live environment, there are both pros and cons of that. The cons are, you don’t have enough control. You probably will have to go through a lot of hoops to get things installed. POC will probably stretch a bit more because you will probably have IT or someone telling what to do what not to do.
[00:09:37] But at the same time, the pros are most of the time, the POC probably will convert automatically into a live deployment, depends on what the product is, but customer can see more how the product will fit into the live environment. So, I think there are both pros and cons and it depends on how you plan the whole POC.
[00:09:54] What exactly are you trying to show? Is it, uh, is, can you show everything in the lab or is, does, do you need to actually go in the production environment?
[00:10:02] Ronak Patel: Exactly. And, you know, I think, you know, any discussions that leads to put in, in a production environment or talking about deployments or rollouts. That’s the most successful POC, right?
[00:10:13] Once the customer has actually had the chance to test it in a live site or in an environment, and they start discussing what a successful rollout would look like. That’s when you, okay, you know, you’ve, you’ve done your job in a POC, and now you’re actually talking about deployment. That’s the ideal scenario that you that’s the goal for everybody.
[00:10:30] And then, as a sales engineer, you want to make sure. That you actually have a successful transition from a successful POC to the deployment. So that’s, you know, you run a little risk there because now this is, this is a part where a sales engineer, depending on your organization may take a step back from the project, move it to a deployment team, but still kind of keep it on their radar and just make sure everything goes smooth, that the customer has the full adoption.
[00:10:59] As they scale with your platform.
[00:11:01] Vik: Right. So, now I want to move to on the topic of sales engineering teams, themselves, typically as a sales engineers, we have our own territory. We have our own quota and we are chasing our own customers most of the time, and that is even more true for the teams who have dedicated sales engineers for a specific region.
[00:11:22] How do you manage, especially with the teams spread across different geographical regions. Can you, how to, what are some of the best practices or what are some of the effective strategies for managing teams across multiple geographical regions?
[00:11:38] Ronak Patel: This is an important line, especially if you’re a global vendor and you have resources and, and time zone, you know, us personally, we have resources in the United Kingdom.
[00:11:48] We have resources in Australia, New Zealand. So, we have, you know, we have engineers around the clock, right? So, I think communication’s very important here. Uh, tools like instant messaging and channels, you know, a lot of companies use Slack and Microsoft Teams and having instant messaging and the channels where you could post important messages about key accounts or key product development things or items.
[00:12:12] So, everyone’s just kind of on the same page, they have the central repository of files and updates where they could look in and get up to speed. I think understanding and respecting people’s schedules and time zones is also important. You know, no one it’s important, no one it’s appropriate to send an email versus.
[00:12:32] Call or text or an IM. I think, you know, when you have resources around the world, I think respecting people’s schedule as much as possible is the right thing to do. Also, I’d say also overlapping resources on the project is, is important. I think the bigger the project the more of a team sport. You want to make it, so you may have a resource that is a lead for a particular project, but you also want to make sure you haven’t siloed all your resources into one individual.
[00:13:05] So, I think making sure that you have some overlapping resources is, um, is a good practice again. So, it’s a team sport and if one person has to be pulled into a different project or is on the plane. You have other resources that could jump in on the whim and not have to take too much time to get up to speed.
[00:13:24] I would say another, another thing that, um, would also help is having general configuration standards and best practices. Almost as a cultural norm, and what I would say, I guess an example is, if you’re an organization delivering a product as a culture, you know, for us personally, we’re in the PCI DSS space, a lot of our retailers have to adhere to the stringent requirements of PCI DSS.
[00:13:51] And one of the things that we like to do is make sure our customer’s card data environment is segmented and secure. So, if you have general configuration templates that you generally deployed, every customer specific, they have the unique nuances to their environment. But generally speaking, if you have a cultural standard or security practice that you use deploy to your customers, I think that helps infuse your team with the spirit that you want them to engage the customers with.
[00:14:21] So, I think that also helps a lot balancing the, just balancing autonomy and support, um, giving, giving the engineers the spirit and the way of thinking to engage with the customers, but being available to support them at all times makes it easier for, you know, for everyone to achieve their objectives.
[00:14:42] Vik: You mentioned actually a very interesting point there about standardizing, and I think that can also fit well. In, in terms of standardizing POC processes so everybody across multiple geographies, where it is not always possible to sync how people are doing what they’re doing. Standardizing, some of the POC processes itself can actually help teams execute at the same level of efficiency.
[00:15:09] Ronak Patel: Absolutely. And it also delivers consistency in your product, right?
[00:15:13] When you’re, uh, when it comes to service delivery, you’re delivering a consistent. Um, a consistent product, no matter who you’re, uh, who you’re deploying it to and who’s actually from your organizations point at too.
[00:15:25] Vik: As a sales engineers, we, the, like you said, we want to get involved as early as possible.
[00:15:31] So, we understand what customer wants, but I think one aspect of the engagement is doing the demos. And like you said, now, POC is more of a art than a science, I guess that holds true for the demos also. And they are also a, you know, kind of art of delivering a demo that makes customer see the real value of the product.
[00:15:53] What are some of your insights or, um, suggestions for SEs to do the best demo? What have you seen working in the field that gets customer attention or converts an opportunity quickly to the next level?
[00:16:08] Ronak Patel: I think one of the new things is, especially if you’re new to doing, uh, presentations or a demonstration, um, I would, I would recommend for someone, if they want to take their presentation game to the next level, to record themselves doing a demo. It’s very awkward and it’s very uncomfortable and borderline cringe-worthy to hear yourself do a demo and presentation, but it’s a, it’s, it’s such a valuable exercise.
[00:16:34] You build a lot of self-awareness. You learn your voice tone. Um, basically as you know, when you’re doing a demo, whether it’s in-person or even virtual, your, your role is to have a little bit of command, um, of that room, whether you’re physically there or not, then you have to have a really strong voice.
[00:16:52] You have to have, you have to be confident in your voice and your tone and presenting who you are as an organization and a solution. So, I’d say my first tip would be, especially if you’re new to this is to actually record yourself doing a demo. So that, that definitely helps. The second part of it, I would say is, it seems obvious, but you want to research your customer or your partner, wherever, whoever solution is selling to, and those much going in as possible.
[00:17:20] Obviously, you know, there’s tons of resources right there. You can look at their website, look at their LinkedIn profile. So, understand who you’re actually talking to know the audience, whether it’s a, primarily, if it’s a business audience, if it’s a technical audience. We want to know who you’re going to be speaking to.
[00:17:37] And I like to begin the demos with a broad range of questions. Just so I know, you know who we are, you know, what kind of, you know, what they’re, what, they’re, what the environment that, that we’re going to be going into. Ask them, you know, a little bit of probing questions, understanding their business problems. What they’re looking for in a solution, understanding those things.
[00:18:00] And I think asking questions at the beginning of the demo, um, establishes a little bit of engagement and it helps you personalize the session. So, I think one of the, some of the best demos I would say is more of a personalized demo. So, uh, to a degree you’re able to personalize your presentation and your demo would definitely help.
[00:18:21] It gives the customer that personalized feel for sure. And, um, having a general narrative and script, you know, helps, you know, the story of your company, the story of your product, you know, the industries you serve. So, having that general narrative helps. But also, just allow room for deviation, you know, demos and presentations can go off on a tangent.
[00:18:42] Sometimes you just need to let that happen. Uh, but having a general, uh, narrative helps and obviously, you know, just be, you know, just listen and just be attentive and, you know, be, you know, keep the, I like to keep the formats loose and open, you know, those are, you know, getting the customer to think and ask questions and to be engaged. Um, helps to have a really productive, uh, demonstration.
[00:19:06] Vik: Do you have any, any sales engineering hacks that you found useful for the sales engineers?
[00:19:13] Ronak Patel: Um, I’m not sure if there’s any hacks per se. I would just say there’s some, there’s some ways of thinking that you should consider. Right. So as a sales engineer, I would like to say be the SME, uh, and the SME is a Subject Matter Expert.
[00:19:25] So, whether that’s your product and your industry, um, you want to stay educated. Uh, you want to stay in front of the products that you’re developing internally and also what’s going on not only in your industry, but in the macro world itself, what’s happening in the economy, what’s happening in the geopolitical scene?
[00:19:47] Um, how does the corona virus affect your supply chain? Um, how does the tariffs affect your supply chain? How does, um, a cold war with Iran, uh, present a cybersecurity threat to you or your customers? Um, so I would say, you know, just the way of thinking, just be knowledgeable in your little world, uh, but also, uh, the greater world around you.
[00:20:14] I think it helps you become a well-rounded sales engineer and helps to have meaningful conversations with your customers. So, I say that that’d be one hack, if you will. Uh, I would say also, you know, uh, master the soft skills and emotional intelligence, you know, you deal with a lot of volatile emotions, especially when you’re dealing with.
[00:20:33] A high ticket technology and sales and budgets and, um, decisions where customers need to be, you know, internally they’re responsible for the decision of choosing you as the vendor. So, you have to master those soft skills, emotional intelligence, be responsive to your customer’s needs. And also, I’d say, you know, the one, you know, one thing I would leave in for a sales engineer consider is.
[00:20:59] You know, as, as a technology vendor, what you’re looking to do is, you’re not only looking to solve business problems, but you’re looking to improve customer’s lives. So, if your product is able to keep that customer prevent their phone from ringing while they’re trying to have dinner with their family, or whether, while they’re at their kid’s baseball game, if you’re able to keep their phone from ringing during those times, you’ve not only solve the business problem, but you, you have improved their quality of life.
[00:21:26] And that could be the difference between having a customer that’s there on a three-year term or a six- or nine-year term. And really just built that trust.
[00:21:34] Vik: Have you seen, uh, the sales engineering process working differently for small versus large customers. Is it, is the process pretty much the same, or have you seen, let’s say a sales engineers need to handle the smaller customers versus bigger customers in a different way?
[00:21:51] Not what I mean is that we spend less time or less, uh, you know, attention to smaller customers, more about the business, the way they run the business in terms of their own internal processes. So, how do you see, uh, is it different for you? Is it all, or is it pretty much, same for you?
[00:22:09] Ronak Patel: There are some key differences in some really key considerations.
[00:22:12] You need to take an account here. So generally speaking, the larger the customer, but the higher cost of customer acquisition there is. And, uh, the lengthier the time, not only in the sales process, sometimes the lengthier proof of concept. So, you generally having to shell out more resources. Over a lengthy period of time larger that customer is you may have to go through a formal RFI RFP before you even get invited to do a demo or a presentation before you get invited to a proof of concept.
[00:22:44] Whereas if you’re dealing with a smaller customer, you may not even have to go through a formal POC. Now, you know, this, the smaller customers, sometimes they present their own set of challenges, right? So, they may have budget constraints. Then they have a knowledge gap. They may have resource constraints, but the, the, the one thing to also consider is you may actually have to deal with a blend of large and small customers at the same time.
[00:23:12] And I’ll give you an example. So, if you’re selling to a major brand and they’re in a corporate franchisee model, you may actually have to deal with the corporate entity. They may have, she have 1000 or 2000 locations themselves. But they may have reproved you as a vendor for their smaller franchisees, which may be maybe comprised of onesie twosies or 30 to 50 to a hundred units as well.
[00:23:39] So, both are very important. You may actually have to deal with both at the same time and both present their own set of challenges. So, you do have the account for being able to support, uh, both successfully.
[00:23:55] Vik: That’s a very good input. Any, any technology or non-technology or any book that you’ve read recently and you can share with us.
[00:24:04] Ronak Patel: Yes, so there’s, um, there’s been a few, of course in my career that’s upheld me. There’s a book called SPIN selling, I think the author is, Neil Rackham. It was written in the eighties, but it’s still very relevant today. It’s about the solution sale and the complex purchasing decisions that are made during the solution sale.
[00:24:21] Miller Heiman Strategic Selling, is a very, very good book as well. These days I’ve been reading a lot of Robert Greene. He’s a historian and an observer of human nature. I think if you’re a sales engineer trying to improve your soft skills, the author Robert Greene is a phenomenal author. He delves into the psychology around it, and he’s a big, he has a book called, The 33 Strategies of War and definitely, you know, sales engineering is similar to warfare.
[00:24:50] Um, so, you know, Robert Greene right now is my favorite author.
[00:24:54] Vik: All right. So, I guess my last question is as a sales engineers, we love using tools and applications. What are some of your favorite tools and applications that you find very useful and productive?
[00:25:08] Ronak Patel: Right now, I’m a big fan of Microsoft Teams.
[00:25:11] It’s a pretty, it’s very sticky platform. So, we have all the chat channels. Uh, it’s an IM tool and, um, it’s easy to set up webinars and meetings through that. And, um, I guess the one thing that’s really convenient is a lot of our own customers are starting to use Microsoft Teams. So, you have that cross compatibility with your customers.
[00:25:32] So, you don’t have to wait for them to download, uh, an executable or program in order to launch a meeting. So, right now I would say today, my favorite tool is Microsoft Teams.
[00:25:44] Vik: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Ronak. I think that concludes our podcast today. And, uh, thank you so much for being our guest. Uh, you gave us a great insight and, uh, we look forward to talking to you again in future episodes.
[00:25:57] Ronak Patel: All right. Thanks, Vik. I really appreciate it, have a great day.
[00:26:00] Outro: Pudding is a smart POC platform that elevates the POC experience for sales teams and their customers. Sales engineering teams use Pudding for tracking, managing, and automating POC activities. Find out more at pudding.app.
James Kaikis is the Solutions Engineering Leader and Co-Founder of "The PreSales Collective", the most popular platform Solutions Engineers.