Proof of Concepts (POCs) or “Pilots” are an excellent way to break into new accounts or companies. They are also a great way to flank a competitor where you are behind or regain momentum in a stalled deal.
A POC is typically a demonstration project used to “prove” that a new technology, service, solution, or idea is viable and can help achieve the desired outcomes. “Digital Transformations” often start with a POC, given the risk of disruption to the business and the high failure rate in achieving the desired goals.
Many POCs, however, need more structure and organization, causing them to be a costly and time-consuming distraction. They often need to deliver real value to you or your client. In some cases, they can actually do more harm than good.
As a sales manager, you should encourage your team where it makes sense to leverage POC opportunities. However, there are some specific parameters to help ensure the POC is successful.
1. Get the Client to Put “Skin in the Game”
Too often, I see sales organizations committing resources and funding to POCs, sometimes at considerable expense, without any commitment on the client’s part. Salespeople will even give away POCs, hoping that they lead to more business. Except they don’t have a real plan to get that business, and of course, how can a client say no to a “free” POC with absolutely no commitment on their part? When you give it away, you diminish its value.
There are three levels of commitment a client can make toward a POC. The first and easiest is to agree on a collaborative approach, based on the rules below, towards ensuring the POC is a success. The second level is to get the client to fund some or all of the POC, which helps elevate its importance and the client’s commitment to its success. The Holy Grail, though, is to get a Conditional Purchase Order, where the client agrees to start buying the next, more significant piece of business upon completing a successful POC. Getting the agreements around the client commitment and the rules below in writing is essential.
2. Establish Success Metrics Upfront
The biggest mistake in a POC is not defining and agreeing on the success metrics upfront. This requires that your team is focused on positioning and selling what comes next after the POC, not just the POC itself. By its very definition, a POC is designed to prove that something at scale will be successful based on a small pilot.
What is the POC designed to prove? What specific outcomes will prove that the POC was successful from the client’s perspective? What are the specific metrics that will be measured? How will they be measured, and how often? These must be well-defined and documented before the POC is agreed upon. There should be no uncertainty about the purpose of the POC and whether it was successful.
3. Enlist the Right Executive Support and Sponsorship
I spent several years selling technology to Electric Utilities, famous for testing everything under the sun. Especially if it’s “free!” Unfortunately, many POCs are nothing more than “science projects” for the R&D Team to dabble in and justify their existence. In the IT world, they call it a “sandbox” for a reason. This can hurt your reputation in an account if your team is seen wasting time with people without power or authority.
It is critical that the senior leaders who can make or influence the decision on the success metrics, what they are willing to commit, and what comes next after the POC is successful are all aware and engaged from the start and are regularly kept abreast of the progress and results.
4. Agree On the Timeframe Required to Prove Success
Once your Team has the right sponsorship and support, and the success metrics have been defined and documented, they must agree with the timeframe required to satisfy the client that the POC was successful. You want to ensure that there is enough time to get the outcomes that have been agreed, as well as time to make adjustments if there are any issues along the way. Be careful not to make it too long, though, so you don’t lose momentum toward the next steps after the POC – Time kills all deals!
5. Create a Collaborative Governance Approach
Besides the success metrics, a key part of a successful POC is your team’s ability to win the client’s trust. When the POC is successful, the client has to trust that your team can provide similar results at scale.
A regular cadence of face-to-face or virtual meetings (NOT email!) should be established with the people actually managing the POC and the Executive Sponsors. These meetings are opportunities to deliver updates on progress, deliver thought leadership on insights, discuss adjustments on any issues that might arise, and, most importantly, build relationships and trust. It’s also an opportunity to plan for the steps after the successful POC.
POCs can provide your team with another important selling strategy that they can use to grow revenue and defeat the competition. More importantly, leveraging POCs using these parameters will help strengthen your team’s relationships with their clients as they collaborate to help ensure the POC’s success.
Identify a deal or an account where leveraging a POC makes sense to create or regain momentum. Consider the success metrics, timeframes, and the options for getting the client’s “skin in the game” to help support the POC’s success. What would your team’s governance approach look like? What actions could your Team take to position the next steps during the POC?