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Excerpt from "Nail the Pilot"

Nowadays, everybody wants to try your products out before they make an investment. By choosing the right prospects, creating structure, agreeing to clear goals and managing each step of the process, you’ll win the deal every time.

Pilots. Evaluations. Proofs-of-concept. Whatever the term, if you are hearing these words more often from your prospects, you’re not alone. For most companies selling in today’s B2B marketplace, prospective customers are requesting hands-on evaluations of your product before they commit to buy.

In the past, pilots were required only for new vendors selling technically complex or very expensive products and solutions. Today, pilots have become standard procedure for almost every corporate purchase, and the burden is on you to prove your value before you are rewarded with a contract.

There are powerful forces converging to perpetuate this growing trend: a sluggish global economy that compels companies to minimize risk and carefully consider every purchase; more informed buyers with greater access to data; and a shift in power as buyers seek to assert themselves in the sales process. For salespeople, the prevalence of pilots means more work and longer sales cycles, and while we would just like to wish them away, pilots are here to stay. Your best course of action, therefore, is to master the pilot process and ensure that this investment produces the expected return.

My CRO called me into his office one day to discuss a big problem. The salesforce was running more pilots than ever, but less than half were being converted into revenue. When we considered the time, effort and resources necessary to run the pilot combined with lost revenue for those that failed to become deals, our inability to run successful pilots and convert these into revenue was costing us more than $1M a year.

The bottom line was this: we just couldn’t nail the pilot.

The CRO asked me to make this a priority, and I assembled a team and got to work. One year later, we were converting more than 90% of our pilots into deals. What I discovered was that there was a much better way to run pilots, and by following this process we vastly increased our odds of success. Like many other companies, our pilots lacked structure; engagement was haphazard; we had no clear goals; and there was little agreement on planned outcomes and next steps. By addressing each of these key elements, our win rates soared, and the benefits of this approach quickly became apparent:

  • Better win rates: In this case, our wins rates doubled from 45% to 90%, and I have seen similar results in other organizations.

  • More revenue: We won bigger deals, and we won more often. In one year, we closed twice as many deals and grew deal size by 30%.

  • More control: We seized control of the sales process and were able to dictate the terms of the sale.

  • Greater credibility: Buyers were impressed with our organization and ability to run a disciplined process that delivered results.

  • Competitive differentiator: We shone while our competitors stumbled; many prospects chose to run a pilot with only us.

  • Efficiency improvements that included reduced pilot cycle times, better resource utilization and more accurate revenue forecasting.


What is your company’s attitude and current approach with regard to pilots? Some companies view pilots as a necessary step in the sales cycle, while others will press you to avoid them at all costs. In my experience, pilots are usually initiated by the prospect. Salespeople would rather just sign the deal, and it’s hard to conceive that a salesperson would volunteer this additional step that extends their sales cycle and adds work and complexity to their deal.

Just because a prospect raises the possibility of a pilot doesn’t mean that you have to agree. Your first step to running a winning pilot process is to answer a number of key questions before you make any kind of commitment:

  • Are the right conditions in place to run a successful pilot?

  • Will you have access to the right personnel, business units and key decision makers?

  • Are there clear and achievable business goals?

  • Is there a plan to purchase upon a successful conclusion?

To answer these questions and decide where to commit your time and resources, you need to complete the Evaluation Questionnaire.

Evaluation Questionnaire (“EQ”)

The EQ is to be completed and reviewed internally before any commitment is made to initiate a pilot for a prospect. The salesperson should take the lead on collaborating with the prospect to complete the EQ, and this document is reviewed by a pilot approval committee that must give its blessing to every proposed pilot. As you develop your own EQ, make sure it captures the following information:

  • Stakeholders/Decision Makers: Who are the important stakeholders; what role will they play in the evaluation; who makes the final decision; who owns the budget.

  • Schedule/Timeline: The expected timeline for the pilot, including end date, checkpoints, close meetings and other important events.

  • Use cases: Any use cases that the prospect needs to prove during the evaluation.

  • Business Problems & Success Criteria: What are the business problems the prospect is trying to solve? How will the success of the pilot be measured and decided?

  • Action Items & Responsibilities: A list of specific actionable items required to complete the evaluation, and the people/teams responsible for accomplishing these.

  • Risks/Unknowns: From your perspective, the risks that may jeopardize a successful outcome.

  • Financial: Will the buyer have “skin in the game”, or is it easy for them to walk? What are your internal costs to pursue and win this business?

  • Next Steps: How you and the prospect will move forward together once the business goals and success criteria have been proven.

A completed EQ becomes a rapid assessment tool for you and your management to determine if the pilot has a good shot at success and can be counted on to produce future revenue. If there are risks and red flags that jeopardize your ability to deliver a successful pilot, decline it immediately. Although it’s hard to tell a prospect No, this momentary sting is less painful than losing a deal you’ve sunk considerable time and energy into. In some cases, the prospect may be able to take steps to assuage your concerns, but your ability to nail the pilot starts with your initial decision to only run the pilots you believe you can win. The EQ will help you immensely with this decision process.

Once you’ve made the decision to run the pilot, the hard work begins, and the EQ becomes the template for the governing document for your entire pilot process: the Evaluation Charter.

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