A proof of concept (POC) is often the final step in the sales process, so assembling all the needed factors for success is critical. Without careful planning and best practices, all your hard work and investment in the POC could be squandered. Worse, the deal you had on the line may be doomed to fail.
Here are a few best practices taken from our team that can help you prepare for your POC and maximize your chances of success. They can help you approach the process strategically, and perhaps grease the cogs on the client side a bit, so as to make it more likely to be a worthwhile endeavor.
1. Understand Client Stakeholders, and Find Allies
Many vendors make the mistake of treating a prospect organization as a monolithic creature. Most likely, it’s not. Instead, like any organization, it has many heads with many different priorities and therefore many different opinions on which vendor should win their contract.
Sales teams and POC project heads must account for all these diverse positions. If they can, they’ll avoid getting blindsided should an internal party on the client side attempt to sabotage their good efforts. Consider everyone who may be involved in the decision and where their different priorities lie.
Once you identify all (or most) of the key stakeholders involved, try to track down at least two allies — one on the business decision-making side and one with a lot at stake related to the technical side. These individuals can keep you informed and help you win hearts and minds internally.
Unfortunately, you’ll also need to identify naysayers. Our team estimates that we encounter naysayers in roughly one out of 10 POCs. That’s actually not too bad – given that developers tend to be opinionated – and it’s not particularly frustrating to work to address the issues they bring up.
A bigger problem occurs when someone higher up in the organization is against the POC. They could have good reasons for that, or they could be too invested in their current product to be able to move ahead. If you encounter this situation, unfortunately, there’s not much you can do but keep going, in the unlikely event that you can sway them.
2. Concretely Define the Scope and Parameters for Success
A POC should always have a defined set of goals. These should include the deliverables themselves, how they are presented, and the intended process for getting from the POC request to the final presentation. Try to establish quantifiable, minimum-level functionality for the product as well, like the ability to handle a certain data volumes or level of usability.
Include a schedule in this document, with milestones dictating the in-between steps for the project and agreements for how each party will stay in touch during the process.
Finally, lay out some next steps for your relationship with the client after the POC is delivered. Ideally, this will be a sales agreement, but if the next step is “wait and see how your competitors’ POCs turn out,” then you at least want to know in advance.
3. Get Internal Support and Alignment on Your Side
Most POCs are labor intensive, which means that everyone has to do their part to make them happen. All too often, though, one person or team ends up pulling the weight. This can jeopardize the process. Instead, define roles early on in the project and get everyone to agree on the scope. That way, everyone has an end product in mind and agrees on what they will contribute to it.
4. Be Wary of Prospects Not Actually Interested in a Sale
This last best practice is hard to define — but you’ll know it when you see it. The scenario goes like this: You think you have a great rapport with the lead and just need to clinch the deal. You commit hundreds of hours to a custom POC. Then… nothing. You never get a follow-up, let alone a sale.
Luckily, this confounding position can often be avoided by doing your homework. “Look for an RFP or other documentation that describes a well-planned purchasing process,” suggests Silicon Valley veteran R.D. Schneider. “If the prospect starts getting cagey, changing the subject, or otherwise trying to avoid the question, there’s no deal there.” A client without an RFP may be much farther from a final decision than you imagine, and you could be getting taken for the proverbial ride. “Prospects are notorious for trying to squeeze free research out of vendors, particularly hungry startups that are desperately trying to win a deal at a large customer.”
To recap, planning is an important part of preparing a POC, and that includes knowing what you’re up against. If you can gain insight into the client’s actual buying intent (and the internal politics that can stand in your way) then a solid plan and all-around team buy-in on your side can help ensure your POC’s success.