Securing Your First Pilot: Where The Rubber Meets The Road

You have arrived at that fateful moment when you need customers (prospects actually) to try your product. You have been developing, started marketing and selling, and now you need to get someone to commit to putting your product into active use in a real-world setting. The question is: How do you get someone to do that? Securing a pilot means you have an agreement to perform one and someone has agreed to participate, use it, and provide the feedback needed to make it worthwhile.

Let’s begin at the start of your sales process. Yes, sales is a process. If you do not have a process, you need one. The more expensive or enterprise your solution (enterprise means it touches a critical part of the business) the more elaborate and managed your sales process needs to be. If you have not delivered on a seven-figure quota, odds are you do not have all the necessary background to develop a comprehensive sales process. (That is a subject for another blog post.) A part of your process should be an establishment of the steps that you will be pursuing in your dealings with the prospect. That set of steps or sales project needs to be shared with your prospect decision-maker right after your first meeting. In that set of steps will be one that is called “Pilot”. Do not offer one if it is not necessary to sell your product. Odds are, if you are a startup, there will be a pilot. People are not going to trust your honest-looking face with the future of their job. That one simple word “Pilot” in the sales project will be the signal that when you successfully clear the prior milestones and decision-points in the sales project with the agreement of your prospect you will arrive at a critical stage where the customer has opted-in to trial usage of your product.

There are two types of “piloters” that I recommend finding. The star and the goat. Two polar opposites when it comes to their status in the company, but both provide the opportunity for a great proof statement supporting the purchase of your product. The star is the person at the company that people look to as a role model or someone that has been a success. The goat is someone that needs saving. Either way, you get a great story to tell if the pilot is a success and the right type of champion to carry the flag.

Here is the key—you do not offer a pilot until you have established the need, benefits, budget, decision criteria, people involved in the decision, timeframe, competition, pilot success criteria and finally what happens when you are successful with the pilot.

If you demo, then allow your prospect to “play with” your product, you will not end up with a sale. There is another thing—you do not give a demo until you have conducted all of the prior steps in the process and truly understand the benefits your prospect would realize through the use of your product. Otherwise, you are throwing “stuff” at the wall and hoping it will stick. They are not trying to determine if the product fits their business needs and solves issues that they face, they are simply kicking the tires. Only once you have done a thorough sales job can you create the elements necessary to secure a pilot that will have the potential to end in a sale.

So, let us assume that you have performed all of the steps and gathered all of the information to qualify as a complete sales process up to this point. The next step is obvious but many times not executed properly. You must ask the prospect to pilot your product. If you can somehow get someone to beg to pilot your product, congratulations Steve Jobs/Elon Musk/Kylie Jenner—you are a wizard.

Your prospect has said “YES?” Congratulations! That is the invitation to secure a meaningful pilot. Now it is your responsibility to deliver a pilot plan that will be managed as a project. Yes, managed as a project. There is no, “here try this out.” That leads to failure. You need a detailed pilot management plan that will allow you to control the who, what, when and why of the effort. Miss one of those and your chance of a sale drops significantly.

So to finish securing the pilot before it starts, you need to be able to check the following boxes:

  • All of the key players are involved. The decision-maker, payer and other executives may not be an active part of the pilot but still need to be on the status reports
  • You have a defined list of what will be tested and functionality explored
  • You have established success criteria
  • You know whether or not this is an incremental pilot (Incremental pilots are your friend—you do not need to pilot a complete product—it can be a component that delivers value. You are also limiting your risk, involving them in the creative process and building a sense of accomplishment on their side)
  • You have a pilot agreement
  • Milestones/decision points have been established
  • You have an agreement to observe people using your product (this is key if you are early in the product lifecycle)—remember you are a cultural anthropologist and need to experience how people really use what you have in a real-life setting
  • Your pilot is going to be mutually beneficial (At least, you get detailed feedback. At most, a signed purchase contract.)
  • You have a time limit on the pilot
  • All contact info is in your hands for all participants—you will need to interact with them
  • You have someone responsible for managing the pilot
  • Each person with a role has deliverables with dates
  • Finally, you have a signature line that you and your prospect will sign (You have an agreement for a pilot. That is when it is secured.)

Now that everything is locked in and ready to roll—go execute your pilot.