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Viewpoints on Pre Sales, Sales support at Software Service Firms

Type "Pre Sales in Google and my writeup on Pre Sales [Pre-sales support is a necessary evil] appears on top. Although it has been a few years since I wrote the article, folks who read it, continue to write to me either asking to expand on the topic or to clarify a query. All their queries on the Pre-Sales, sales support, life cycle and careers motivated me to reflect on the topic further. In my article, I addressed aspects of how techies in software service firms are increasingly being asked to get involved in Pre-Sales activities, be it responding to client requests RFPs, calls with clients, hosting client visits or visits to client teams.

In this writeup I will expand on the following topics including aspects specific to Pre Sales support at Software Services Firms (Why, What, and How) and Career in Pre Sales.

Why Pre Sales?

Information Technology (IT) is a backbone for successful functioning of most modern enterprise. Add to this the fact that most western enterprise and businesses continually have more IT projects and initiatives than their firms' employees can take on. They either hire contractors or source such projects to vendors. The process of sourcing work to vendors (or even hiring contractors from contracting firms) involves a complex set of activities and negotiations on several fronts including pricing, definition of scope of work and drawing formal contracts. For service firms, responding to such requests from clients and formulating responses also involves complex activities, for which they dedicate teams of specialists.

Most technologists, programmers, analysts and engineers who work for consulting or software services companies end up working for clients. Consulting firms utilize people on bench (between client engagements) and also dedicate some employees to work on pre-sales support activities. Many technocrats, however, dislike performing such pre-sales activities for a few reasons:

  • Perception of repetitive/mundane work: Some techies think sales support or pre-sales activities are repetitive work and feel that responses to RFPs involve "cut and paste" from seed documents and various sources. Obviously, this is not true since responses to clients are meant to be specific to their problem/needs. Of course, to avoid reinventing the wheel, pre-sales teams may resort to utilizing templates and pre-existing material.
  • Lack of instant gratification: Pre-sales cycles are generally long, and it takes weeks (or months) before the results of a proposal can be known. This is the reason pre-sales people work on multiple proposals at any given time. Techies, on the other hand, come from a background where they can "see" the results of their code or work almost instantly. For instance, writing a Java program, compiling it and running it may give an instant gratification to some.
  • Fear of getting into a 'management' career track: Some technocrats like to remain technically focused and fear that by being involved in pre-sales, they might be expected to move towards the management track.

Obviously, the basis of such fear is unfounded. Fact of the matter is that pre-sales support is necessary for service firms to survive and thrive, and they will rope in talented individuals in the organizations to participate. Larger companies, especially the 'big five,' and large offshoring software service companies -- including Infosys, TCS, Wipro, Satyam -- weave incentive plans, bonuses and career growth around such "corporate activities," typically expecting consultants to log 15 to 20 percent extra time on such initiatives. Using intranets, VPNs, remote logins, and sophisticated workflow tools, companies are able to track the activities of consultants to reward and motivate them. Many organizations have built large knowledge management systems and repository of frequently asked questions, how-to's, past projects, case studies, standardized response templates, etc that enable their pre-sales staff. Such systems also thwart an element of repetitiveness from creeping into pre-sales activities. The 'fear' of getting into a 'management' career track may just be unfounded. Seasoned technologists recognize the insights and understanding of the business and processes that a stint in pre-sales support can bring to their work.

What is Pre Sales?

Pre Sales includes the entire gamut of activities involved in preparing to engage with prospects, clients and others and includes specific responses to client requests. Clients or companies that need software services and project implementations generally call for proposals or expect responses from their vendors and service providers. Although it is hard to generalize on the nature of or the contents of such proposals, most documents follow a structured framework: detailing the project, asking vendors for suggestions or solutions or proposals along with cost estimates regarding the work to be done. Typical Pre-sales support activities include:

  • Responding to client requests: Responses to clients could include informal responses, pointers to publications, colleterals or other references or take more specific forms like responses to proposals including: Request for Proposal (RFPs), Request for Information (RFI) and specific Statement of Work (SoW) or Work Orders
  • Supporting client visits: In some cases, clients or prospective clients may make a trip to offshore vendor's offices for a personal visit prior to engaging with them. This could include offshore client visits targeted at offshoring
  • Visiting clients and/or making presentations: Engaging clients for larger, complex deals involves a number of activities, including making presentations, meeting with clients to discuss specific aspects of their (client's) initiatives, to get a better understanding of the context in order to make specific recommendations in proposals. This may also include preparing proof-of-concept demonstrations and solution mockups.
  • Competitor Analysis and market scanning: This is a crucial aspect of pre-sales since many clients evaluate responses from multiple vendors, and responses should address such competitive scan. The analysis could include using online tools, subscribing and analyzing research reports, analyst studies, market research data etc.
  • Sales Support: Such activities may include supporting sales and account teams in responding to general client queries about solutions and capabilities. This could include partnering with onsite/client facing Sales or Business Development Managers to identify and convert prospects into customers.
  • Interfacing with other internal groups (within the organization) while responding to client requests. This is especially true of larger software service firms where Pre-sales people from one group/division may have to rope in Subject Matter Experts from other groups while responding to a client request or proposal
  • Marketing support: Large service firms work hard at differentiating themselves from others by formulating marketing messages and evolving Go-to-market solutions or customized offerings. This may also take a form of alliances with other software product development firms or niche vendors. Pre-sales activities may include leveraging such alliances to showcase extended capabilities to clients.

How does Pre-sales work?
Clients or companies that need software services and project implementations generally call for proposals from a pool of preferred vendors. Although it is hard to generalize on the nature of or the contents of such proposals, most documents follow a structured framework: detailing the project, asking vendors for suggestions or solutions or proposals along with cost estimates regarding the work to be done. RFP responses would generally involve two components:

  • The technical solution: A typical response to an RFP or proposal will include a substantial technical component. People responding to RFPs at service firms generally follow a well-defined operating process involving plugging the response documents with common templates about the company and its capabilities. The customization process kicks in when it comes to project and client specific responses; and here is where someone with a technical background is really valuable. Technical subject matter experts are needed to analyze the client's problem, think through a framework to create a solution based upon their knowledge and experience. Such skills can be especially useful while preparing a proof of concept or technical demo. The focus areas include:
    • Demonstrate to the client that you Get their problem and showcase how you will approach the solution. During Pre-sales phase, technical solutions could include a mockup of the end-state technical view, reference architecture (a.ka. Marchitecture), approach or framework to solve the client's specific problem.
    • Demonstrating organizational capabilities. Organizations typically demonstrate their capabilities by referencing past successes (Case studies, whitepapers etc), and may also develop proof-of-concept (POC), demonstrations or mockups.
  • Commercials and administrative aspects: Commercial and administrative aspects include a whole gamut of activities involved in responding to clients with specific reference to the processes involved in executing the engagement / project. Cost is definitely a key criteria organizations use while evaluating a proposal though depending on the nature of problem being sourced, the credentials of the vendor and the solution may take a higher priority. The administrative aspects include a high-level estimate of the effort involved in terms of duration (time), effort (people/resources) and additional resources including infrastructure etc required to successfully provide the required solution. Estimating the level-of-work involved may include formal estimation techniques based on expertise from past projects or could be a very heuristic process, especially for newer technologies without adequate benchmarks. The focus areas may include:
    • Cost, budget and financials: What is the total cost to the client, how often will they be invoiced and the mode of payment etc? This may include defining the billing model: Time and Material (T&M), Fixed Price (FP) or other blended models.
    • Staffing plan, resource management: Responses to proposals typically include staffing plans (how many people, skills they bring to the table, roles etc) and may also include other resources needed including specific systems, hardware, software etc.
    • Credentials, testimonials and references from past clients. There are instances where clients may ask for specific testimonials from existing/past clients of service firms. Staff engaged in pre-sales activities should be able to arrange for such references.

Frequently Asked Questions on Pre Sales, Careers

Question: I have been asked to support pre-sales activities in my firm. Is this a good move for me?

Answer:
The answer would be highly subjective and depend on various factors. Among the key factors to be reflecting include:

  • Your career aspirations: Do you wish to learn more about the business of software services? Do you see yourself managing your business? If the answer is Yes, a stint in pre-sales support, supporting sales activities and getting an understanding of how/what 'sells' in the marketplace will be an invaluable learning experience
  • The Phase/Stage of your career: A stint in Pre-sales roles may be especially valuable for those who have spent at least a few years doing hands-on work Let's assume you wish to remain a Techie, say wish to move towards being an Architect or Consultant. Even in such a case, exposure to your business (the business of software services) is a skill that is certainly going to help.

Bottomline: Plan and reflect on your specific takeaway from a stint in Pre Sales. You should essentially be asking: what is my takeaway from my stint Pre Sales activities

Question: I am a new management graduate and don't have any background in software development. Can I try my hand at Pre-Sales jobs?

Answer: This is a question I get asked very often. Fact is that organizations don't always advertise presales jobs directly since 'pre sales support' may be associated with other job functions too (however, some do advertise, as the example here shows). As this advertisement illustrates, the firm is looking for those with an engineering degree to support pre sales.

In other instances, those from a management background, say with an MBA or even Tech-Writers may be able to find a niche in pre-sales role in software service firms without being expected to get too technical.

Bottomline: You should keep in mind that organizations may or may not always advertise 'pre sales' as a job title, but while reading job adverts you may get a feel for the fact that the role predominantly involves pre-sales activities. Position yourself accordingly.

Example of a Pre-Sales Job posted in an Advertisement online

Job Requirement

  • Performing all pre-sales activities, building complete responses to customer RFIs and RFPs with full ownership
  • Preparing proof-of-concept demonstrations
  • Presentation of solutions to customers
  • Managing prospect customer visits
  • Partnering with onsite Business Development Managers to identify and convert prospects into customers
  • Participating in workshops/seminars/ sales and marketing events for all pre-sales efforts onsite as and when required
  • Experience of 5+ years in IT including Project Management/ delivery. Previous experience in pre-sales will be big plus
  • Proven strength in one or two technology areas
  • Ability to comprehend customer requirements highlighting a genuine value proposition
  • Understanding of effort estimation and project costing
  • Passion to create and sell the best solution
  • Excellent customer handling skills preferably in delivery roles
  • Ability to motivate multiple teams towards creating a unique solution
  • Some exposure to Banking, Finance and Insurance preferred
  • Excellent presentation and interpersonal skills. Excellent knowledge on tools like MS Office and MS Project
Key Skills : BANKING & FINANCE
Work Experience: 6-10 Yrs
Qualification: Any Engineer

Career Progression question: What does a pre-sales job lead to?

Answer:

The answer is obvious: you are not really limited by opportunities where you wish to take a stint in pre-sales to. Some of the typical opportunities include:

  • Honing consulting skills: For hands-on techies, a stint in supporting pre-sales may be a good way to enhance one's consulting skills. Architects, especially those at the more senior levels are generally expected to bring in focus that blends technical capabilities with business goals. These skills can be acquired by making client presentations, observing varied client requirements etc, skills that can be acquired empirically while participating in pre-sales activities
  • Networking in your organization: pre-sales roles typically cut across organizational silos, especially while responding to client requests for larger proposals.
  • Move up sales hierarchy: By taking on further sales responsibilities in account management, many people in pre-sales support roles move on to Account/Engagement management, and other business development roles after gaining insight into the sales cycle and other aspects of the clients
  • Move up the management ladder: For those already in sales roles or managing accounts and client engagements, focused pre-sales activities are essential for business growth, which may be a stepping stone towards more management responsibility
  • Pre Sales as a Job in itself: Pre-sales roles may also provide sufficient job satisfaction to some. Sometimes, professionals involved in pre-sales activities ask themselves: Why cannot presales and post sales activities be a profession in itself since it would provide a very good platform to know an entire business itself?

My company does not have a lot of processes around pre-sales. What are the tools available to me?

Most large software service firms invest in proprietary tools, toolkits, frameworks and also develop templates for documentation, presentation etc along with other marketing collaterals.

This is where smaller firms may lack the edge. Developing strong processes, frameworks, tools and templates to support pre-sales requires dedicated effort and investment which smaller firms may be either unable to afford or may short-circuit.

Unfortunately, there is no cookie cutter approach to using frameworks or templates. While one can find canned templates and collaterals on the internet by googling, customizing them requires dedicated effort

My answer to the question from employees from smaller service firms is simple: if you are involved in pre sales activities, you will have to get your management to buy into the idea of investing in pre-sales. Sometimes, you may be able to demonstrate reuse by taking small steps like dedicating some of your downtime to developing templates that you continually need. Demonstrating the use of these to management may be a good first step to get a buy-in.

Other articles of interest:

Mohan Babu K: All Rights Reserved 2008

Mohan is a technology executive with extensive experience in offshoring. Mohan is the author of a book on globalization titled "Offshoring IT Services: A Framework for Managing Outsourced Projects" (McGrawHill, India, 2006).  He regularly blogs his views on offshoring.

Disclaimer: The opinions mentioned in this article are that of the author and do not reflect the policies or thoughts of Infosys (his employer), or any other organization. 
*This is a working draft of research on the topic Mohan is undertaking.[March 2008] He would be pleased to receive E-mail correspondence regarding this paper or related topics. Please forward your feedback to Mohan by email

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