Presales Managers – The 2nd Most Important Thing You Do

A quick story….

Mark could still feel his elevated pulse rate as he walked out of the customer presentation. His adrenaline was finally under control and he felt good about his decision to invite his new manager, Steve, to the customer meeting.

coaching

Image Thanks To: Alpha Stock Images – http://alphastockimages.com/

Steve turned to Mark “you look like you could use a coffee. How about we debrief.”

As they sipped on their cappuccino’s, Steve reflected on the meeting “you know Mark, you are an amazing presenter. The CIO threw some tough questions at you, but the way you connected with her and handled her concerns was outstanding. How do you feel you went”?

Mark was chuffed. He had only been working with Steve a short while and was still working to build trust and credibility with his new manager. He replied “I am glad you liked the presentation. I had a lot of fun doing it, but I want to figure out how to take it to the next level”.

Steve nodded and signalled back to Mark “interesting, tell me more”.

Mark continued “Well, I thought that while the CIO was interested in what I had to say, I saw a few of her team members minds’ wander off. I don’t think I managed to connect with them fully”.

Steve let Mark continue, probing into his presentations in the past and the areas he has worked to develop. They uncovered the long journey that Mark has had in developing his skills and his passion for mastering the art of customer presentations.

Eventually, Steve reflected “You know I have helped develop a lot of great presenters, and I can see massive potential in you. You are already one of our best, but I think you have some areas that you can hone further. Would you like some coaching on how to do that?”

The 2nd most important thing you do

Every Presales manager will have different views on what their priorities are and where their focus should be. I would argue that there are two fundamental things that every Presales manager must do well.  First and most importantly, they must hire the right people (I will focus on this in another blog post). Getting this right is the essential starting point to set your team up for success. The right strategy with the wrong team will lead to failure.

Second, you must retain, develop and engage the people you hire and shape their skills and capabilities.

Here’s the news flash. There is no training program or course that your team can do that will develop their Presales soft skills to their full potential. Sure they can attend training and some soft skills courses, and that will give them a foundation to develop on, but that is only 10% of the journey. The other 90% comes from practice, refining skills and gaining feedback. This is where you come in.

What Steve has done in the story above is to create a coaching moment. He has opened the discussion with his team member in a way that shows he will help them develop to their full potential. As a Presales manager, coaching team members is the second most important function that you do, behind hiring the right team members. In my opinion, coaching is an area you should invest a large part of your time. Doing it right means you will not only develop your team, but you will engage them further and build a stronger relationship.

Here are four great practices that will you in your approach to coaching Presales team members.

  1. Show that you are invested in them

For new managers, this is one of the toughest things to implement. You have just gone from being a peer of someone, to now their manager. And now it is time to ask them if you can be their guide and help develop them. It’s a tough job for anyone. I have seen some of the most experienced leaders struggle with coaching Presales people. So accept it is not easy.

The first step is to make sure the employee knows you support them, that you have their back and you see potential in them. In the example above, Steve has openly shown the respect he has for Mark and demonstrated that he sees value in his capabilities. As a leader, you can do this by finding the exceptional skills your team members possess and praising them.

It is unlikely that someone will want to receive coaching if they are in a defensive state. Something I learned from a mentor years ago (thanks Adrian!) is that before you can lead someone, you have to first “win them over”. Show respect by getting to know them and discovering what makes them unique or exceptional. Spend time listening to them and getting to know them.

  1. Create the Coaching Interaction

The next step in coaching is figuring out where to focus. In the above example, Steve and Mark were able to identify presentation skills and audience connection because they had experienced the challenge in the room. The single best advice I have for Presales managers is if you want to coach, spend time with your team at customers. Customer time will enable you to see how they perform in front of customers, identify their strengths and understand their development areas.

If you are struggling to create this coaching interaction, a great approach I learned is to challenge your team member during a one on one. You might ask “What’s a challenging goal you would like to achieve this year”. And once they highlight, go into brainstorming and coaching mode of how you could work together to achieve it.

When you get to a customer meeting with your team member, let them lead. The more you can let them steer the conversation, drive the agenda and ask intelligent questions to the customer, the more you will learn about them. It is tempting as a leader to jump in, and you may need to from time to time, but the more you can give your team member space to operate the better you will be able to coach them in the long run.

A great approach to coaching which I learned from my wife is to “ask for permission”. Ask the question “would you mind if I give you some coaching”. This step makes it clear to the team what you are doing (i.e. don’t coach by stealth) and ensures you get permission first. Even after leaving her previous role, my wife still has former team members reaching out to her to ask for coaching.

  1. Ask the Right Questions

I recall setting up a new mentor relationship when I first became a manager. I was struggling with how to design my team. I had spent late nights designing org charts and rethinking my strategy. Then I met with my mentor for coffee. I explained what I was trying to do. He asked questions. I went into further detail and he asked more. He asked me for the pros and cons of each of my decisions, why I was tackling the problem this way, and what was best for my customer. I found him playing back some of the things I had said. He asked question after question. And at the end of our conversation, he said: “I think you have your answer and you know what you need to do”.

He had not given me one piece of advice nor told me what I should do. And yet what I realised was through his excellent set of insightful questions and his reflection on what I had shared with him, I had solved the problem myself. I had just needed someone to talk through the model with and reflect on the decisions I was making.

That doesn’t mean as a coach all you need to do is ask questions. If you look at situational leadership models, questioning skills should be more readily with those that are experienced and highly skilled Presales professionals. For these people, less advice, more questions.

For more junior people, particularly new grads and associates, questions are good but those people will also need a good balance of guidance and demonstration. When I started in Presales, a sales rep that I had did an amazing job whiteboarding an architectural strategy with a customer. When we walked out of the meeting he said to me “now that you have seen the whiteboard, next time it will be your turn to do it”. As you might guess, because of that one comment I practised that whiteboard dozens of times before the next customer meeting.

Regardless of the job level and experience, a good set of questions will go a long way to getting your team member thinking and developing.

One of the best examples I have seen of coaching was when a manager was helping a team member build a network with more senior executives withing their customer. The manager spent time with the team member on the planning and execution of their relationship building. They did this by asking questions like

“How would you approach contacting this manager?”

“Do you know anyone who knows them?”

“What do you think they will want to talk about when we meet with them?”

“How are we going to demonstrate value during the meeting?”

These series of questions lead to the Presales team member getting to the manager and establishing a new relationship. But more importantly, the team member had learnt a new skill, enabled by their manager’s questions.

  1. See Their Potential

As a leader, the most inspiring thing you can do is to see the potential in someone and harness that potential for growth and development. There is untapped potential in all of your team. Showing confidence in a team member and highlighting this potential by observing them in action and drawing out those areas is the best way to kick-start their development. Look out for that fundamental skill that they could be great at. Then give them the confidence that they can get there. It is amazing how much a little confidence can help to develop strengths in someone.

To make the coaching process successful, you have to make your team member feel valued. Be authentic in your approach, and when it is time to coach, focus on them. Eliminate distractions, take notes, playback what you hear and show a genuine interest in them.

Coaching is about putting your team members best interest at heart. Your goal is to develop them. However, done incorrectly, it can come across as a harsh performance exercise or a process of disciplining them. Show your team that this is not your intent by sharing the potential you see in them.