By now, if you’ve read any of my posts in the past few years, it should be obvious I’m a geek, nerd, and techie by heart. I love building and learning new stuff – be it a custom connector to my smart ring, figuring out containers for my specific use-cases or configuring backups to the cloud.
I’m also a bit extroverted. Not too outspoken though, at least not in a Dutch directness kind of way (for now, at least), but more in the way that I enjoy interacting with people. It has helped me immensely when I deliver training and talks, and also when meeting with companies and running workshops. Early in my career, I often joined salespeople in meetings with customers. It was often pre-sales oriented, “to close the deal,” and sometimes a meet-and-greet with a customer.
During these early years, I started injecting myself more and more into sales meetings and negotiations. I realized I often had useful insights through my understanding of technology that helped me much to craft and close a deal. By no means do I imply I was a great salesperson – merely that I often had – and still have – success in understanding customer needs and translating that to a raw technology offering internally. And then matching that with a reasonable quote and hopefully closing the deal.
Empathy and a little bit of emotional intelligence are key here.
I wanted to highlight a few of the key aspects I have internalized when I do or help sales. Or perhaps the correct phrase is when I meet with people to help them with a problem.
Empathize, when possible
Empathy is a scarce resource, for some reason. I’ve found that in order to become better at what you do, you need empathy. You need to understand what challenges and problems the customer is facing and how best can you assist in order to them resolved. It’s not about maximizing your employer’s profit margins or milking the last bit of euro for something that is relatively easy to fix or build in a couple of hours.
I associate empathy strongly with being a trusted advisor.
You cannot be trusted unless you’re on the same team. And the way to get on the same side is to share the problems and work together in finding solutions. This sometimes means you are not selling your answer, but someone else’s and that’s part of the deal.
Close your laptop
My perennial favorite. A few years ago I realized that in most meetings – sales or otherwise – I would whip out my fancy laptop before I had barely sat down or poured myself and others a cup of coffee or tea. It felt so important to open my notes, a few tools, and get connected – just in case I need to do or know something during the meeting.
I don’t do this anymore. I keep my laptop and other devices in my bag — most meetings I don’t reach for them. On occasion, I might have a black notebook and a Muji gel ink pen for mandatory note-taking. Even then, these notes are merely a quick list of action points I need to track.
Why not use a laptop to do note-taking? Two reasons, really — first, I (and others I have witnessed) tend to write speech-to-text. At the end of a three-hour workshop, I have four pages of, well, text. I thought there is intrinsic value with these notes but it turns out, after about 20 years of doing these, there isn’t.
Second, when you type and hack away with your laptop, your focus is elsewhere. Sure, you can listen, but you are not paying attention or present.
It’s been liberating not to use a laptop during meetings.
This tends to shorten the meetings, which is generally a great thing. It also tends to make meetings more intense and focused, which is even better.
Relate to your audience
This took years of practice for me, but I dare to say I’ve mastered this. I always try to read my audience – regardless if I’m doing a presentation at a large, international conference or if I’m meeting with the C-suite of a customer in a windowless meeting room.
By reading the audience what I mean is that I try to get a sense of how I need to relay my message, and how best to adapt to the audience. Note, that I’m referring to an audience even if I’m meeting with just one person for a formal sales meeting.
When I have a sense – and this might be a mistaken assessment at first – of the audience, I know how to best deliver my thoughts, decisions and promises best. This is something that goes well together with empathy.
For me, it helps to silently recite in my head that I don’t need to know everything, and I don’t need to convert anyone to my way of thinking. I’m just there to provide help the best I can, and that’s pretty much my value proposition.
Take the lead, when it makes sense
I also meet often with tech teams of companies. Teams in charge of developing a new solution in Azure and teams struggling to figure out the best approach for a given problem.
I’m always up for taking the lead. But I don’t try to control the airspace when doing this. Something that works remarkably well is to politely inject something like “OK, I think I understand the issue. If it’s okay with everyone, I could perhaps steal 2 minutes of our time and draft out the possible solution and outline the core technologies.” And then I spend precisely 1 minute and 50 seconds to map out architecture, a topology, or a flowchart on the best possible approach along with a few alternate routes.
I don’t do this because I’m the best artist in the room.
I do this for two reasons (there are always two reasons, isn’t there?) – first, it gives me time to reflect on my thinking when I map out the big picture. Second, it allows anyone in the audience to ask questions and follow along with my thinking. It also works as a sort of blueprint – that we can scrap, modify, tear down to pieces, and learn from.
At times these drawings become the plan. People take pictures of the flipcharts, and action points can be captured. A huge additional benefit from these drawings is that anyone not deeply invested in said technology can understand the boundaries and the big picture more easily.
Taking the lead simply means that you keep in mind why you are exactly sitting in a meeting and what sort of outcome is desired — and working diligently towards that goal. It should not be rushed, but it also should not be spitballing for hours on end.
Don’t show off because you think you know something
When I was younger, I would sometimes end up in a meeting with much, much more experienced architects and developers in the room. This happens even today, of course, but when you know you do not know enough, it is intimidating. Moreover, that is fine. However, when some of the seniors in the room start boasting and vaunting about something they know, it isn’t productive or professional.
You can almost imagine the situation:
- Me: “So, we could perhaps consider checking the firewall rules first”
- Senior architect: “It is an L7 firewall on Netfilter using a custom kernel in a hub-and-spoke architecture that I have designed. Certainly, that is not the problem here.”
- Me: “Okay.. uhh, could we still, perhaps, have a look at it to get a better understanding of the architecture?
- Senior architect: “I have IPv6 and QoS in place, so it’s all good”
While it might not be a complex topic, it tends to become complex when you do not know the big picture or the thinking behind a technical decision.
Even if you know an awful lot about something – and admittedly should be proud of it – it’s not productive to boast about it. Be humble, as everyone is constantly learning or struggling to keep up with the pace of technology.
Translate complex topics to simple explanations
I love Reddit’s Explain Like I am Five (ELI5). I wish more people would state they have no idea what we are talking about, and could someone explain this like they are five.
Stupid questions are there for a reason, and everyone should be entitled to ask them.
As a techie in a sales meeting, it is often your sacred responsibility to translate complex and abstract topics to simpler explanations. Instead of rambling on about the coolest new repository you’ve found on Github that makes everything great again, it’s often better to state that there is probably a tool that could be leveraged with additional effort.
The better you can translate a complex topic to a simpler explanation, the better you understand it yourself. I think Albert Einstein said something along these lines also.
I’m actively self-assessing myself during meetings and in my work, with hopes to become better. Through this, I hope and trust I can translate my experience and skills to tools that will help my customers with their problems. By acting as a trusted advisor, with enough empathy and humbleness it generally makes projects and sales perform better. And you have fewer notes to read through, too!
I work with Azure and frequently write about my experiences. I’m a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, ex-MSFT. Based in Helsinki, Finland.