One of the biggest challenges confronting many software managers is the dreaded request to participate in a sales meeting. If you’ve never been involved with the sales department, it is probably only a matter of time before you will be called on. Working with and communicating with the sales department is a skill that you will need to learn to advance your technical management career. Software managers are needed during the sales process to scope out the size of a project and to give the customer confidence that your company can do the job. But you need to know the rules of engagement.

Software managers with experience in a consulting environment, where client contact is common, may have an easier time developing this skill than managers with only product development experience. However, many software managers responsible for product development are being asked to participate in early product sales meetings. During some sales calls, clients may try to assess a software development manager’s technical expertise and knowledge of the product as a way to gauge the quality of the product being sold. This technique can feel like a personal challenge to an individual’s skills.

While many of you are uncomfortable in these situations, the following tips and techniques will help you along the way:

What does sales expect?
Find out what the sales person expects to get out of the meeting. This strategy may seem obvious but it is a frequently misunderstood element of a sales call. When calling on a prospect, the sales person expects a particular outcome of the meeting; this is how a sales call’s success is measured. In the early stages of selling, the sales person’s intent might be to set up a second meeting with a different individual. In the later stages, the sales person might want a decision to purchase. Each of these situations requires a different data set, which the sales department will expect you to provide.

For example, on an early call, the sales person may tell you that the meeting is with a CFO who has a problem that your product will solve. The CFO might be the ultimate decision maker, but the CIO will need to study your technical architecture. The sales person may define success by getting permission to meet with the CIO. In this case, your role may simply be to assure the CFO, without providing any technical details, that you will take the time to understand his company’s IT setup by meeting with the CIO. The meeting becomes successful when the CFO picks up the phone and instructs the CIO to meet with you.

The sales process has many stages. Middle stage meetings may require a different level of technical information, perhaps more details, aimed at gaining approval from the client. Later stage meetings may only serve to ensure that your team can do the job. The result should be a closed deal.

Understand the role you are expected to play
In addition to understanding what the sales person expects out of the meeting, it’s important to understand the state of mind of the prospect. If you are going into a potentially hostile situation, you will need to adjust your demeanor and content to bring calm. The technologist is often expected to play a “good guy” role, by becoming the prospect’s friend, offering complete understanding, and creating a sense that your company will take care of the client’s needs. Sometimes this role is simply one of education. You may be expected to play the role of an industry expert by explaining why one technology or solution is better than another, in general terms, without appearing to show any bias toward your solution or product.

Know the prospect
Find out everything you can about the prospect. I have been in too many sales meetings where the sales people were trying to sell me something without knowing a thing about my company. Don’t let that happen to you. This is a tough hurdle to get over for many technologists. It requires doing a little homework on the company in advance of the meeting, something that many of us are not used to doing. Treat this in the same way you would treat a job interview—every job interview book tells you to learn about the company you are visiting. The same applies to a sales call. The sales person will be well versed and you should be too.

Be careful not to divulge too much
Don’t volunteer anything. This is a tricky bit of advice that takes practice. To better understand this, you first need to realize that the sales process is not a single negotiation to arrive at a deal. Rather, it’s a series of smaller deals that ultimately lead to an end result. Sales people use every bit of leverage they can to achieve an objective. Oftentimes, they even exchange information and answers to questions for follow-up meetings. 

A great example of this happened at a meeting I recently attended. During this meeting, it turned out that we had the contact information for an industry expert that the prospect wanted. Instead of just volunteering the information, the sales person exchanged this information for an introduction to another person at the prospect’s company. If the information had just been handed over, the sale person would never have had the leverage to get the next meeting.

Admittedly, scenarios like this may seem awkward, but negotiation and give and take is part of the natural process of doing sales. When you participate in sales calls, you need to be aware of this and look for signals about what information to supply and what information to hold back.

When to answer “yes” when you are thinking “no”
Understand the difference between what you intend to build and what you have built. One of the key mistakes that software technologists make in sales situations is answering questions about features based on the amount of code that’s currently written. The selling process, on the other hand, is almost always about “futures”. Sales people offer functionality based on what you can build, not what is already built. That means that the answer to a question about whether a product has a feature is “yes” if you expect that the feature will be built by the time the product is delivered.

Call for help
Know when to call in the reinforcements. No one expects that software development managers should know everything. If you are put in a situation where you are asked to provide a level of detail beyond your knowledge, call in the individuals who do know. A good manager knows how to get the best out of people and this situation is no exception. Be sure you know who on your team can speak intelligently on the various subjects you may face. If you can answer the questions, then do so. If not, bring in one of your team members to answer the question. 

This brings us to another important, related point. You must know who on your team is comfortable with being put in front of a customer. Many software developers aren’t, and will not be helpful. Those developers you call on must be taught these rules of engagement.

Listen carefully. One of the best bits of advice I heard about selling was from Zig Ziglar, a top sales trainer. His advice is that we have two ears and one mouth—we should use them proportionally. Too many technologists feel the need to talk extensively about their product or its capabilities when they should be listening carefully to the prospect. What you learn will help you adjust the information you are expected to present.

Measure your involvement
All of the advice above culminates in this one idea: Know when not to talk. When you go to a sales call, understand your role and what the sales person expects from you and the meeting. Participate only to that level and not one bit more unless you are specifically asked to do so during the meeting. Some deals crash and burn because too much is said during sales calls.

A related selling axiom is that “the first person who talks loses.” This relates to the occasional dead silences that may occur during one of these meetings, often when the sales person asks the prospect for something. You should avoid the urge to fill that silence.

Similarly, a sales person may make some statements about your product or service that you may want to embellish. Again, don’t jump in unless you are asked to or you know in advance that you are supposed to. 

What probably seems like a few simple concepts are more difficult to put into practice than you might expect. The people who most need to know these rules often don’t. In such cases, sales calls can fail and deals can fall through. If you follow this guidance, however, you’ll have an opportunity to get comfortable with the sales people in your organization and you’ll be helpful in the process of landing business for your company.

What’s your experience?

Have you been involved in supporting sales efforts at your company? Do you agree with Jeffrey’s suggestions? Join the discussion.


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