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12 steps to pre-sales nirvana

One of the most rewarding experiences of my career was managing the pre-sales consulting team at Google. My team specialized in the "advertiser platform" products, which included DoubleClick Campaign Manager, Invite Media / DoubleClick Bid Manager, and complementary tools like Google Tag Manager. By the time I departed in early 2013, the team ran like a well-oiled machine: lean (usually around six employees across New York and San Francisco), yet successful in winning the majority of deals and contributing to eight figures of high-margin ad tech new business every year.

Here are 12 steps I would recommend for any organization to co-opt into their pre-sales engagement philosophy.

The basics: dress for success, don't be late, feed the people

In my current role, I see a lot of vendor presentations and am amazed by how many companies fail at these three basics. Don't let the client out-dress you. Showing up in a t-shirt to a meeting is only endearing if you are Sergey Brin or Zuckerberg -- and let's face it, few of us are. The dress code is simple: you must always wear a button-down shirt; you can wear nice jeans if visiting an ad agency. You should wear slacks and a sports jacket when visiting an advertiser, and wear a tie when meeting with a bank. Being timely is also important -- if you are delayed, you will want to send your contact a note in advance. Lastly, if your meeting is scheduled over the noon timeslot, you will want to have lunch delivered. Mastering these three basics will already get you in the second quartile of pre-sales engagements!

Bring your (computer) dongle and thumb (drive)

Basic equipment is another area that should be a quick win. My office uses PCs, and we have only a few dongles for visitors. If I am hunting down a cable for you, we've already gotten off on the wrong foot. If your presentation is on a Mac, make sure to bring a dongle for the projector's VGA cable. More specifically, you need to have one of these. You should also save your presentation on a thumb drive and bring it with you.

Learn their business

As a sales team member, you are extremely busy juggling multiple engagements, but having the background on your client or prospect is critical. It's pretty common that I see ad tech providers come in without knowledge of my agency's history, current business, or ad spend. A half hour invested into researching the client and their business goes a long way. The basics should include a quick company timeline, media mix and volume, and current client and marketing program roster.

Roles and responsibilities

At Google, we usually did meetings in twos: an account executive responsible for new business, and a pre-sales consultant or sales engineer. Sometimes we brought along a product manager, or a business unit head for the highest profile engagements. Regardless of your team's makeup, it is essential to connect on roles and responsibilities beforehand. More specifically, you will want to assign owners to every slide in the presentation and get clarity on who is responsible for the product demo and follow-up.

Unified front, always

Inline with roles and responsibilities, it's important to be united as a team on the presentation. Don't contradict or correct each other, lest you risk eroding the prospect's confidence in your team and company. Obviously if one of you is blatantly wrong (for example, confusing third-party and first-party cookies), the correction must be made.

Read the room

Your audience holds the keys to your meeting's success or failure. Is the room full of end users, decision makers, or both? What are key business challenges of each stakeholder? How can you help them succeed in their jobs and look good to their boss? The opinion of each participant is important -- your presentation and material should cater to the entire audience. Usually a blend of value proposition and product deep dive material fulfills all requirements.

The science of pre-sales

An entire book can be written on this topic, which provides structure to a pre-sales presentation. In brief, when describing a product feature you want to answer the what, how, and why questions -- and be able to illustrate each feature with use cases relevant to your audience. Every slide consists of three elements: a one-sentence intro, slide content, and a transition to the next slide or section. Always remember that you are mapping solutions to the client's set of unique business problems. You will need to break from script and focus on what's important to the client.

Steve Jobs, too, did demos

Product demos can be perceived as a mundane aspect of a pre-sales role, but they are extremely important. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and any other luminary and inventor did demos of their product. Demos don't have to be repetitive or mundane. They are the proof of concept behind your value proposition, and essential to winning business. Demo your product proudly.

The art of storytelling

My favorite aspect of meeting clients and prospects is "the zone" -- that moment when you can feel the audience engaged in both your content and you as the presenter. It is quiet, only nodding heads or smiles, a glimmer in the audience's eyes -- and the stress is washed away and replaced with adrenaline. This moment, key to a successful engagement, most commonly arrives when you break from presentation mode and go into story mode. Industry anecdotes, previous work experiences, or descriptions of other clients using the product, are all good ways to engage the audience. In order to excel in pre-sales, you must become a good storyteller.

Never compromise your integrity

You must never lie about what your product does today; feel empowered to say "no." It is important to win business today, but it is more important to build business for the long haul. The worst scenario is signing on a client who is not a good fit for your product. As soon as the client's contract is up, they may walk away -- and not return for several years. Gauge what's important to the client, and have confidence to say no if your product cannot solve the client's problems today.

The most important words you'll tell them

The most important words you'll ever say in pre-sales are "I'll get back to you." Don't guess what your product does, and don't feel that your credibility is eroded if you don't know every minute detail. Pre-sales consultants excel in both depth and breadth of expertise, but it is impossible not to be stumped in the field. Take note of the question, tell the prospect that you will get back to them, and make sure to follow-up after the meeting.

Keep your competition out of it

At Google, we always respected the competition and gave them their due by not slamming them in pitches. You must win or lose on the strength of your value proposition, product, and team. In fact, speaking poorly of the competitors will only diminish your story. Play it clean, play fair, and maintain a healthy competitive marketplace for all.

Pre-sales is an extremely complex yet rewarding field. In many cases, a pre-sales presentation is the first time a client meets a vendor. The two-hour meeting is often perceived by the client as a proxy for the entire long term engagement. As a pre-sales consultant or sales engineer, you are the face of the company. Learn the above 12 steps, and your engagements will go from good to great.

George Tarnopolsky is the senior director of media platforms at Merkle.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

George is the Director of Account Management at Adelphic, where he leads a team of Mobile and Cross-Channel experts responsible for customer education, services, retention, and growth.    Prior to Adelphic, George led Platform Solutions at...

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