IT Solutions Salespeople: Wearing Two Hats

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An effective IT solutions salesperson is a valuable piece of manpower. Such an individual necessarily combines the qualities of a good salesperson — listening skills, the ability to sell yourself, persuasiveness, etc. — with the technical knowledge needed to explain complicated yet potentially advantageous applications in a way a customer can understand.

IT solutions salespeople dispel the myth that IT professionals are so tech-oriented that they lack people skills. Some of the most talented IT pros move into sales positions and prove themselves adept at jobs that largely depend on human interaction.

An IT solutions salesperson’s path to sales is not always predictable. In many cases, it involves technical education and then exposure to a variety of IT job roles before realizing an aptitude for sales.

“If you’re able to articulate a technology’s story and understand a business case or situation that a customer is facing, then maybe you don’t need to be in the server room or on the help desk anymore,” said Steven Ostrowski, Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) director of corporate communications. “There’s still going to be a role for the technology-only person, but more and more in the small- and medium-sized companies, and even the big companies that go out on calls — they need somebody who can design the network and also explain how it’s done and why it’s done this way versus that way.”

Ostrowski said it’s become a common career path for an IT professional to start out as a technician and then add business aptitude to his or her skill set to become a customer-facing salesperson.

Dave Pilipauskas, technical project systems engineer for Cisco Systems Customer Briefing Center in Chicago, experienced such a transition himself.

After getting his undergraduate degree in telecommunications at Roosevelt University, he received a master’s degree in computer science from DePaul University. He also took two years of electrical engineering at DeVry University and describes his overall educational experience “a hodgepodge.”

Meanwhile, Pilipauskas has been in telecommunications professionally since the late 1970s. He was in systems engineering and technical pre-sales support for 16 years, then he moved into a couple different management positions, one as a regional director.

“Then, we can all remember the technology downturn in 2001, 2002,” Pilipauskas said. “I was one of the fatalities of that.”

As a result, he entered into contract project management, which turned out to be one of his favorite jobs.

“It had a lot of relevance to being a manager and getting stuff done and how to manage not only people but processes,” Pilipauskas said. “It’s kind of like a scientific equation — if you have the right input, you’ll get the right output.
Project management is the same thing. You make sure everybody is doing what they need to do, and then you’ll get the right outcome.”

Four years ago, Pilipauskas came onboard with Cisco.

“As the job market for contract laborers began to dry up, I had a desire to continue to feed my family,” he said. “At the time, Cisco was ramping up its advanced technologies — security, contact and data center and wireless.”

The company was stocking up on industry specialists, and Pilipauskas came in under its contact center specialist program. There, he came to specialize in product demonstrations at the Customer Briefing Center.

Pilipauskas is philosophical about transitioning into sales somewhat randomly.

“Some people’s career approaches are like an arrow shot,” he said. “They line things up, and then they make a massive run for it and become CIO or CEO. Mine’s more like a walk through the woods — you go for a walk and get to a point where you’re like, ‘Well, this is a really nice place, but it looks nicer over there,’ and you head off in another direction.”

The Customer Comes to You
Within the Customer Briefing Center, Pilipauskas is known as “the demo Dalai.” His main habitat is a room-sized rotunda, which is stocked with computers and just about every piece of voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) or audio-visual (AV) technology you can name.

Adjacent to this is a room filled with dozens of dedicated routers and servers. The room is enclosed in glass and carefully cooled — a thermostat shows the temperature firmly set at 72 degrees.

Customers visit the center continuously.

“After they sit in posh meeting rooms, getting flat spots on their butts from watching PowerPoint presentations, they’re let out to that rotunda area, where they actually get to see and experience applications,” Pilipauskas said.
He estimated the facility sees 10 to 15 customer briefings a week. He handles two or three demonstrations a day.

A typical day for Pilipauskas begins by coming into the demonstration center and making sure everything is running correctly. From there, he runs through all the demonstrations that are going to be active for the day.

“Even though you’ve done the demo 500 times, it takes 15 or 20 minutes to get your head wrapped around it again on a daily basis and make sure everything’s functional — not only that the technology is functional, but also the gray matter between your ears is functional,” he said.

To Pilipauskas, the demo is a daily tactical chore. A more strategic one is making sure that what he had planned is going to line up both with what the customer expects and what the account manager thinks he or she needs. Some of that occurs beforehand. Sometimes, it occurs the day of.

Supporting and developing the technologies behind the demonstrations is central to Pilipauskas’ job role. He describes this as wearing a traditional technician hat.

“When I’m in front of customers, the hat changes — it’s almost anti-technology,” Pilipauskas said. “That’s controversial at some companies because technology companies tend to be boastful of the technologies that they have. But in a customer’s eyes, technology is incomprehensible or meaningless. You have to translate it into an application that has true business impact. Now, all of the sudden, it’s something they want.”

The “So What?”
A large part of selling advancements in technology is anticipating the most jaded, skeptical customer possible. Not every innovation is reinventing the wheel, and it can be easy to come along and imply a new application is of dubious necessity. For example, do you really need your voicemail to be able to read you your e-mail?

Pilipauskas’ job is to answer such questions with a resounding, “Yes, and here’s why…”

This comes down to anticipating what he calls “the ‘So what?’”

“I always have to ask the question, ‘So what?’ before I present something to the customers because any customer could come and point his finger at me and say, ‘So what?’” Pilipaukas said. “So, I try to anticipate the answer to the ‘So what?’ and tell the customer the ‘So what?’before he or she gets a chance to ask me.”

Beyond that, selling IT solutions largely depends on reading what customers want and turning the meeting into a conversation instead of a sales pitch.

“The true value comes in when that presenter stays locked and loaded, cued in to the signs that the customers are emitting,” Pilipauskas said. “If you engage the customer correctly, it goes from a monologue to a dialogue, and if you’ve got 10 or 15 customers observing a product demonstration, you get what you’re attempting to stir up, which is a large amount of customer interaction. You can go into different businesses and applications of product and competitors. Within a 10-minute period, you can have 10 different discussions. I mean, I forget what the heck I’m talking about.”

To compensate for this, Pilipauskas relies on a bit of a cheat sheet.

“Knowing the demos is one thing — out of 50 demos, I know what user names and passwords to use and how to do them and all that — but I do blank out from time to time,” Pilipauskas said. “So, 90 percent of the time, I walk into the presentation with one of my business cards, and on the back I have a small, annotated outline.”

The Man in Chicago

Cisco has 13 Customer Briefing Centers around the world — nine in North America, the rest in Asia. Pilipauskas said Cisco employs five or six other “demo Dalais” to serve these centers.

“So, I’m not unique at Cisco, but I am unique in Chicago,” he said, joking, “In Chicago, I’m the man.”

Nevertheless, Pilipauskas does travel to other briefing centers as needed. This might be required for big demonstration rollouts, meeting with a new development team or working on specific business projects.

“Although my life literally exists at this building near O’Hare Airport, I do travel, but I’m not a road warrior,” Pilipauskas said. “It comes in fits and starts, and a lot of that tends to be dealing with activities within the briefing center.”

He might be traveling more in the future, as Cisco has seen a dramatic increase in demand for the services of its briefing centers over the last 18 months. And demand for product demonstrations is coming from the full range of industries.

“I see both commercial channel, as well as global enterprise accounts — a cross-section of the entire sales opportunity at Cisco,” Pilipauskas said. “So, I’m not impressed that one industry is responding better than another industry.”

Instead, he sees trends in technology rather than trends in customers’ lines of business.

“I keep marveling at how the sales activity gravitates to specific technologies,” Pilipauskas said. “To me, that’s always amazing.”

Based on these observations, Pilipauskas said the hottest trends in IT solutions right now are security, VoIP and video applications.

The Certified Salesperson
Industry has articulated a need for IT professionals who can communicate complex technological ideas and advancements to customers in a way that clarifies the business applications present. The certification community is well aware of this need and has begun designing its exams accordingly.

“What CompTIA hears over and over again when it comes to solution selling is that companies need people who have not only technical skills but also business skills and can talk to businesspoeple about their technology needs, so it’s not just geeks speaking to geeks,” Ostrowski said.

He said CompTIA has been placing more emphasis on business and communication skills in its certifications, citing last year’s update of its A+ certification.

“It’s not just fixing your PC or your printer or your network but telling you why it broke and being able to communicate, whether it’s written or verbally, to explain what you’re doing and why,” Ostrowski said.

CompTIA’s Project+ project management certification has proven popular with individuals in sales-intensive job roles, as well.

“Understanding how all the elements of a project fit together makes them able to better articulate and come up with a solution for a customer,” Ostrowski said. “It’s not just grabbing something off the shelf and saying, ‘This size will fit you’ but, rather, getting immersed in what the customer is trying to accomplish by making a new technology purchase and then crafting a solution that fits those needs.”

–    Daniel Margolis, dmargolis@certmag.com

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