Sales Engineering Courage and Leadership

It’s Your Job to Tell the Emperor that He’s Not Wearing Any Clothes


I’ve talked a lot about discovery because it’s so important. Now let’s examine what comes next.

After you’ve gathered a sufficient amount of information about an opportunity, you and your account executive decide whether or not this opportunity is a good fit for your company’s products and services.

Often this is much harder than it sounds. Here’s why…

Sales people are naturally optimistic. Their job that requires that they talk to strangers and constantly risk rejection. This filters out all but the most outgoing, optimistic people for the job. As a result of this natural selection process, some highly optimistic account executives believe that all deals are equally winnable. To make matters worse, most account executives wish they had more opportunities in their pipeline. Throwing out what appears (to an optimistic sales rep) to be a winnable opportunity seems counterproductive.

Sometime this means that the sales engineer must be the voice of reason. At times you may feel like the child in the fairy tale about the emperor who wore no clothes. Don’t be afraid to speak up and say something when an opportunity seems unwinnable. If you are diplomatic and frame your comments in terms of what’s best for the company at large you stand a good chance of being heard.

Of course, you will not win every deal you chase. But your sales team can greatly increase your chance of winning by qualifying out those opportunities that are not a good fit. This is where true sales engineering courage and leadership begins.

While the account executive should be conducting their own discovery (are there funds available? does our champion have the political clout needed to make this purchase?) much of the responsibility for conducting discovery falls on the sales engineer. At some point (hopefully fairly early in the sales cycle) you will gather enough information to determine if this deal is worth pursuing. Sometimes the answer will be “no”. When that happens, you must not be shy about telling your team that there’s a not a good enough fit to justify pursuing this lead.

Why not chase every opportunity regardless of fit?

I am adamant about not chasing opportunities that do not meet a certain threshold of “good fit.” Why? The answer is simple. As a salesperson, your most precious resource is time. It takes time to qualify opportunities. It takes time to prepare a compelling demo. It takes time to answer questions from customers and support them in their evaluation process. It takes time to support your existing customers, ensuring their future success. Time is the one resource that is always in short supply.

Chasing opportunities you know are not a good fit is equivalent to lighting money on fire. It doesn’t seem this bad on the surface; to the casual observer a team that’s chasing a bad opportunity looks a lot like a team chasing a good one. At the end of the (lengthy) sales cycle the difference shows itself; the team chasing the poorly qualified opportunity loses, yielding no return on the all the time they’ve invested. If this happens too frequently, this sales team themselves find that their jobs are in jeopardy.

Pursuing a lead that’s not a good fit is not only bad for you and your company; it’s also bad for the prospect because their time is equally as valuable as yours. If you view sales as I do –as an opportunity to help people– then you will recognize that taking a prospect through a sales cycle when there’s not a good fit is a deep disservice to that prospect. If you politely and respectfully tell someone “we are not a good fit for you” they will appreciate your candor and your respect for their time. And they will be more likely to seek you out when their requirements change. This is one way you can (over time) change your role from “vendor” to “trusted advisor.”

Just remember that it all starts with you having the courage to tell the emperor that he’s not wearing any clothes.

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