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Linux Consulting: Using a Pursuit Team to Win

Jul 11, 1999, 17:35 (2 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tom Adelstein)

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By Tom Adelstein

Monday morning, a young consultant walks into your office to discuss a meeting she had with a potential client on the preceding Friday. Nancy tells you how she met with the controller of Simpson-Albright. He heard from a mutual friend that she worked with Linux and asked her to send him some information on what Linux could do. Instead, Nancy made an appointment and met with Jonathan Albright, CPA to initiate a consultative selling process.

She found out that Simpson-Albright wanted to enable its web site to perform Ecommerce. The company hosted the site on their premises using a T-1 on a well known operating system using the manufacturer's bundled web server. The server occasionally failed.

All the users of personal computers in the office surfed the Internet obtaining access by using a Cisco 2501 as their default gateway. Earlier in the month, Mr. Simpson downloaded a file with a macro virus which shut down his and his secretary's computers. "When everyone had their own modem, no one had ever made contact with a virus," Mr. Simpson told Nancy.

Nancy discovered that Jonathan Albright didn't have budgetary authority for I.T. purchases since he ran the accounting department. The owners also decided to withhold his right to buy directly because of some concern about employee perception. After all, he was the grandson of one of the founders and a recent business school graduate.

Nancy discovered that management liked Jonathan and respected his opinions. After he joined the firm, his initiatives reduced the average turnaround in accounts receivable by 21 days. Nancy felt that even though Jonathan couldn't write her a purchase order that he had considerable influence on how the company spent its I.T. dollars.

Nancy didn't know exactly how to make recommendations for Simpson-Albright and felt she needed help. She had gathered enough specific information to help craft a plan. She also discovered that the system administrator, Eric Jones, had put together his own solution for taking orders over the Internet. Jones invited the current operating system's vendor to demo their Commerce Server solution a week from the coming Friday.

In the sales funnel, now what?

In the consultative sales cycle, Nancy had done an excellent job of completing the first three steps. She gained rapport with the client, she found out the company's desired outcomes and its initiative. She also did a conditional close by having Jonathan agree to let her demonstrate a Linux solution in front of him and other people involved in the Company's web solutions. Now, you must put together a presentation to capture the job.

Although based on true events, the writer of this article fabricated the names of everyone in the above scenario. Rarely, a consulting engagement will be identical to another. Still, many engagements follow the pattern as the so called " Simpson-Albright" case above. Let's use it to illustrate how to effectively close the engagements.

Analyze the situation
Using SWOT ("Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats"), we can make a preliminary and useful analysis of the situation. Your consulting firm's strengths revolve around a low-cost, best of class solution to problems Simpson-Albright must overcome to deploy Ecommerce. You have additional consultants who have installed Ecommerce on Linux. You also have insight into the existence of security issues the potential client doesn't even realize.

You feel your weakness revolves around having the time to demonstrate an Ecommerce solution and disclose security issues. You don't have a million dollar marketing budget, so you won't have slick brochures and slide demonstrations. Also, you believe your firm will be viewed as a thin alternative to the $50 billion company already inside Simpson-Albright. You lack case studies to back your proposal.

You see significant opportunities in helping the client. Simpson-Albright's star has risen in the retail hardware industry. They have a history of throwing money at problems until they get fixed. For your firm, landing a client like this lends a prestigious name to the portfolio. Additional work exists once you complete the initial project.

You see several threats in pursuing this business. Your first reaction tells you the system administrator is a klutz. He hasn't deployed a firewall, he appears tied to the current vendor and according to Jonathan, he uses his power to smother other managers' efforts. Jonathan, though influential, doesn't sign procurement orders. You don't know who does.

Cover the bases
From your SWOT analysis, you determine that the potential opportunities outweigh the risks associated with the engagement. The initial engagement appears profitable, down line business exists and you can strengthen your portfolio. You can also help the company realize the weaknesses in its internal I.T. structure. The timeline appears short. You must learn more about the company and build rapport quickly.

A team approach to selling
First, call together your subject matter experts and the sales contact. You need a security specialist, an Ecommerce architect, a business analyst, a project manager and a pursuit lead. Set aside two or more hours to review the business case. Use your pursuit lead, usually a sales engineer, to facilitate the meeting. At the end of the meeting, you should have a project plan to complete a demonstration which will allow you meet with the client and capture the business.

How to determine the team and their respective roles
The pursuit lead has the ability to recognize the factors needing attention in the case. He or she first identifies the person driving the initiative on the client's side. In this case, Jonathan might not fill that role. Usually, another executive owns the initiative. The pursuit lead knows that and finds out who will make the decision.

The pursuit lead also has technical duties. He or she will prepare a requirements document stating exactly what must occur to have a satisfactory outcome. The pursuit lead should have strong communication and facilitation skills. This person will probably be a sales engineer. An good " SE" has the rare curse of having technical ability and a type "A" personality.

You can see the glaring omission in the network design at Simpson-Albright. The company needs a security policy and procedures to carry it out. Also, Ecommerce inherently has security issues to address which include creating a secure transaction environment and protection of sensitive customer information. Often, an Ecommerce architect can function as a network security specialist. If you have such a person, use him or her to provide a proposal on what the potential client needs.

The business analyst gathers information from the requirements document and the security/Ecommerce architect. He or she creates specifications for the demonstration. The analyst should meet with the client early in the pursuit to clarify and verify the issues.

Nancy can set up an appointment with Jonathan. At that meeting, the business analyst must carefully determine who reports to who until he or she finds out the name of the person with the budget. The budget owner might also drive the initiative. Sometimes, the financial stake holder doesn't own the project. The analyst must lower the sales risk and find out who does own the project and if he or she also drives it. If not, the analyst will probe until he or she finds out who drives the initiative. Once these people become known to the analyst, the pursuit lead will know who Jonathan should invite to the demonstration.

The analyst also determines the specifications for the demonstration. Specifications tell the team how to prepare the presentation. Specifications include the client's preferences for doing business, their industry's unique means of production and distribution and the general look and feel of the presentation (something with which the client identifies).

Now, the team will meet again and discuss the information they gathered. The project manager will take notes and prepare a scope document for the demonstration. This document should allow the people preparing the presentation to know what to do to get it ready. He or she should prepare that document so it can be used once the project begins. (Note: pursuit teams have a rule which says, "failure is not an option".)

Doing double duty
Pursuit teams generally become the presentation delivery team. The same people create slides, plan the sequence of the presentation, practice together and do the critiques. Who better to stay up late and show up at the client's offices with circles under their eyes?

Practice for the big day
Unless the pursuit team has worked together often, considerable practice must occur. The team members should role play their parts and the parts of the client. Practice sessions flush out issues which someone may have missed. It also allows the team to temporarily assume the personality of the client and gain an empathy for them.

A good pursuit team will practice several times. Each member will switch roles until everyone feels as if they know the other people intimately. Done correctly, the practice sessions will create cohesiveness at presentation time.

How many people go to the presentation?
The rule of thumb on attendees says if the client has more than three at the meeting you can have more than three but always one less than the client . So, you should have, at a minimum, a technical expert, a sales person and someone who can make decisions for the consulting group . If they have six people, have five or less. Invite enough of the client's team so that your initial contact person can attend. You want Nancy at the presentation since she is the genesis of the opportunity.

I went through a similar process as discussed above with DSC prior to Alcatel's acquisition. I showed up with three people and they had twenty. Our team could not control the space, the agenda, the flow of the presentation or get the attention of the project's stake holder. We wound up defaulting to a slide presentation and then quickly to a prototype demonstration of the application.

We found out later that their "so-called" security guru invited all the additional attendees none of whom had any interest in the project. His agenda? He had friends at his former firm he wanted to have bid on the project.

After the presentation, we called an ad hoc meeting with the department director, our advocate and the person who provided us information through the preparation period. We made a brief presentation with a white board and a black marker and wound up winning the project.

Tips and techniques
At the beginning of the presentation, the pursuit leader should address three issues:

1. What are the client's expectations for "this" meeting.

2. State the expectations the pursuit team has for "this" meeting.

3. How much time everyone has.

This will allow the pursuit leader to manage the presentation and the side bars. If someone gets off the track of the presentation, the pursuit leader should say, "let's address this at the end of the presentation -Joe Bob only has a half hour. Okay, where were we?"

This point must be taken seriously. Presentations fail because the decision makers run out of time to hear the important points.

Things to watch
Look out for the "Eric-the-Klutz's" of the world. At a recent Open Source Expo in Austin, I watched a confrontation between a panel member and a participant. The event triggered criticism of the participant who said the panelist was dominating the panel presentation and then called him a "bubba". The participant articulated the feeling in the room, but his insult of the panelist gave audience sympathy to the rogue. When I read the panelist's biography, his turned out to be an advocate of Microsoft and NT in particular. His whole natter was about the superiority of NT. He had no studies to quote and yet the other panelists came prepared with benchmarks and surveys. But the rogue panelist wouldn't yield the microphone.

You will have your share of "Eric-the Klutz's". Manage them, don't let them manage you. Treat them with kid gloves. You can differ with their opinions, suggest that they might have taken the discussion off track, ask them not to dominate the presentation, but don't insult their person. You'll lose your audience's attention and you might as well pack up and leave.

The corporate business environment can exude treachery. Preparation and strong product knowledge can help you recover if you get blind sided. Be patient and let emotions settle down. Suggest that everyone take a five minute break.

If you don't like the odds at a presentation, start it off by having each person introduce themselves and explain their interest in the project. If you run into a situation where you're out numbered, break up the presentation by suggesting a longer break and then start over after fifteen minutes. The disinterested parties usually won't return. They'll get on telephone calls and wind up out of the way.

Conclusion and parting notes
This article is the third in a series on Consultative Sales and Marketing. The first article, How to Successfully Sell Linux, introduced the idea of starting a consulting practice. The second article, Consultative Selling, explained the seven phases of a consultative selling effort. This article on pursuit teams describes how to begin implementing consultative selling.

In describing the pursuit team approach, we stressed the importance of having correct information about the client. We also discussed how to create a presentation or "demo" by taking a project approach. In the next article, we'll discuss how to prospect for Linux consulting opportunities.

The first example of prospecting can be taken from this article. Our client contact, Nancy, did all the right things to set the proposal stage in motion. We'll cover additional examples in the next article.

Tom Adelstein, CPA, is the CIO/CFO of Bynari, Inc. He's the author of several books and articles on business and technology and has management, consulting and hands-on experience in the Information Technology field.