Running effective customer pilots

One of the critical skills to have when executing a B2B SaaS go-to-market motion is the ability to run an effective pilot. This could be a free “trial” or a paid pilot, the same principles apply. The primary concept here is that enterprise buyers are very hesitate to make a large technology purchase without getting to test drive the product first and see how it fits within their organization. The goal as a SaaS business is to convert this small pilot opportunity into an opportunity that has a large TCV, one that is at least 5x the sales and marketing cost to close the deal.

Here are the main things to be cognizant of when putting together a pilot program for customers:

Opportunity qualification

One of the first things to do is determine if this is an existing project with dedicated budget or if it’s an opportunistic purchase. Opportunistic purchases are when the customer wasn’t actively looking for a solution, but are intrigued by what your product is and the value it can provide. Opportunistic buyers can often turn into “science projects” that don’t have meaningful budget behind them for a real purchase. Ideally we're looking for customers that have an active and budgeted project to find a solution to whatever problem they're facing, but opportunistic buyers can also lead to great deals. If the customer doesn't have a budgeted project to solve whatever problem your product solves then make sure they have budget to make the real purchase. Which leads to the next point...

Knowing the buying process

A well executed pilot means nothing if they can't actually pull the trigger on a full purchase. Some questions to consider: Do they require purchase orders? Is there a vendor onboarding process or pre-qual process for new technology vendors? How long does that vendor approval process typically take? What is your champion's purchase authority level? At what price point does the purchasing decision move up the foodchain to procurement or executive review? You need to know what your customer’s internal buying process looks like and what you’re signing up for so you can help do as much of the leg work up front as possible. The longer the buying process, the earlier in the pilot you need to start negotiations with the customer and doing pre-work.

Setting clear expectations

Pilots demand work from both sides and sometimes it feels uncomfortable to hold your customer's feet to the fire, but sometimes you just gotta do it. Something that I like to do up front is schedule a weekly feedback and discussion call for a set date and time and immediately send out the calendar invites for those sessions for the duration of the pilot. This makes sure the customer has time allocated to discuss how the pilot is going, convey feedback, complain, etc. It also give you a chance to make sure any action items that are on the customer's plate don't continue to slip. I also like to give the customer permission to pull the ripcord at any of these meetings. If we're 2-3 weeks in to a 6 week pilot and it becomes clear for some reason that our solution isn't a good fit then either side should feel comfortable cutting the pilot early and moving on. These moments suck, but it's a lot better than both sides spending another 3 weeks on a project that wasn't going to lead to a purchase and implementation anyway.

Defining success criteria

Hopefully during the intro call and a subsequent discussion and demo you’ve been able to pull at the thread of what the pain points your customer is feeling are. Solving these pain points in some form become the basis for your pilot success criteria. You’re not going to be able to solve the world for them, but you need to be able to demonstrate meaningful wins. Make sure that both you and the customer both agree upon this set of success criteria and lay things out in a very straightforward way. Don't be afraid to say "Ok, so based on what we've discussed if we can deliver on X, Y, and Z you agree to purchase for (larger scope)?". Do not move forward with the pilot until you've reached an agreement on what these success criteria are.

Establishing the timeline

The timeframe that you set for the pilot must be aggressive, but reasonable. One of the surest paths to failure is not strictly time-boxing your pilot. This leads to getting stuck in what I like to call “pilot hell” where the timeline keeps getting pushed out, the feature requests grow, and the scope spirals out of control. In order to establish the timeframe and timeline for the pilot just start from the decision to purchase and work backwards from there. Lay out what the customer would need to see to have enough confidence to make a purchase and then make sure each of those milestones has enough lead time to actually hit them. Hint: onboarding and training always takes longer than expected.

It seems like a lot of things to consider and take account for so early in the relationship with a customer, but trust me it's well worth it. Going into a pilot and trying to shoot from the hip is a surefire way to get stuck in never ending pilots that consume enormous amounts of resources that you don't have to spare.