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Making the Jump from Customer to Vendor

Once upon a time there was an virtualization lady in waiting who became the virtualization queen of a new kingdom. Soon after, the castle was under attack and the new queen knew the castle was beyond saving. It sounds like a fairy tail but it really is a true story. I worked as a virtualization architect and administrator for one company, and we were acquired by another. The company offered a severance package, which I took, and resulted in me making the jump from customer to vendor in a vacuum.

This was before I had a twitter, or a blog, or knew anything about this whole “community” thing. I was pretty much in a bubble on my own trying to figure out what came next. My bright eyed bushy tailed self had always dreamed of working for a technology company, and when a sales rep for a technology company asked if I ever had considered becoming a Systems Engineer the wheels started spinning. I’ve been asked many times by people wanting to make the move what it is like, and any tips for doing it. Here is my personal experience on making the move from customer to Systems Engineer, these experiences are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the view of anyone else or my employer.

The Territory
As the ninja to a sales rep, or multiple sales reps, you’re going to have a territory. Make sure you understand what this is going in, and how it will impact you. My position was located in my home state, so I was mostly just driving from place to place. Would I have taken if it required me to get on a plane all of the time? Honestly, probably not. I got on a plane very few times to go visit a customer’s other location, which I was totally okay with but I did not do an extraordinary amount of travel. This in itself is very different from going to sit in a cube from 9-5 every day, especially if you are getting on a plane all of the time.

Lean On Your Peers
Chances are, many of your new team mates have also made the move at some point or another. Don’t be shy about asking to shadow them, or asking their opinions and experiences. My favorite thing when I started was to ask multiple people the same question about something to see how their answers differed due to their unique experiences bringing them to this team.

The Golden Rule: Do Unto Others
The easiest way I can describe interaction with your customers, is treat them how you would want to be treated when you were on the other side of the table. As you get to know them, you’ll get to know their likes and dislikes. Some people love PowerPoint, while others would you rather just use the white board or do a demo. Once you get to know your customers, you’ll get to know how to serve them best. In a similar vein, you may be having a horrible day, but still have meetings to attend. Your problems aren’t theirs, so make sure to leave them in the parking lot. This is probably the best piece of advice I have to give, and really is just common sense.

Mythbusters: I’ll Never Be On Call Again!
Technically speaking, you won’t. There’s no pager, per se, but there will be times where you may be with a customer after hours, for whatever reason. I think everyone uses their own judgement on this, but my general rule was if I would have wanted someone there as a customer, I would want to be there as a vendor.

It Isn’t About You
You’re the Systems Engineer and the technical face of the company you represent. Don’t take everything personally. Chances are people are going to want to vent if something isn’t going right in some aspect. Your job is to be there, take it, and see if there is anything you can do to help. You aren’t that piece of equipment in the data center, although it sometimes may feel like you are.

Don’t Trash Your Competition
People may or may not agree with this one. As a customer, I usually just shut down when a vendor got up and said why someone else sucked. I don’t care why they suck, I care why you don’t suck! There are ways to talk about competitive technologies without sounding like a spoiled child. It may take you a while to figure out exactly how you do it, but it will be time well spent for you and your customers.

Usually my presentations were more of an interactive discussion than me droning on and on about a slide deck. Listen when your customers talk to you, chances are they are still trying to work out their requirements and what they really need. It is your job to help them with this. Ask them questions, and listen to their answers closely. If you’re one of those people with the “smartest person in the room” complex stop reading here. This job is not for you. Likewise, you will encounter people who have to be the smartest person in the room, let them do that if that is their thing.

Trust and Respect is Earned
The most precious thing you will ever get from a customer is not a Purchase Order, it is their trust and respect. This will take time to build, but will be extremely rewarding. Once you have it, do not ever do anything to jeopardize it. In the event something goes wrong, honesty is always the best policy.

I can’t speak about transitioning from the customer side to the vendor side in a different role, but I think many of the principles may apply if you are customer facing. Even if you aren’t work with customers on a daily basis, you indirectly are, because at the end of the day customers are why we do everything we do.