Review – Great Demo!

In a departure from the pure SE-specific book reviews I decided to tackle a book I came across a while ago and wanted to get around to reading. Great Demo! is a book that provides a process for delivering highly targeted demos to your customers.

As part of the review I also had the opportunity to speak to the author—Peter Cohan—about the book. Most of that conversation has been summarized in the Q&A section.

Note: There are chapters on presentation and evaluations but I left them off the review as I feel these sections are better covered in other, more specific texts.

Great Demo!
Paperback: 308 pages
Publisher: iUniverse, Inc. (April 5, 2005)
ISBN-10: 059534559X

Content Review

What is Great Demo?

In a very congruent fashion Cohan begins the book with the premise that a great demo begins with the last thing first. That is to say you should begin your demo with the most compelling screen, report, data point, etc. right up front and then build out your story from there.

Once you’ve shown the best screen, circle back around and briefly show the audience how you were able to arrive at that screen

Then, end by circling back around one more time in greater detail with the entire demo not lasting more than 30 minutes. In our conversation he noted we are victims of momentum which cause demos to always grow longer. Resist this temptation.

In my experience the related concepts of getting to the point and performing brief demos are of extreme value but are unfortunately rarely practiced in software sales.

In speaking with Cohan there were two things that brought him to this idea. Because he got his start as a chemist he spent a lot of time reading research papers—many with no “executive summary”—having to skip to the end was frustrating. The other “ah ha” moment came (like me) as a customer buying software. Both of us having wasted so much time in demos both realized a highly targeted message is best.

Why Do Demos Fail?

Here is a very long list of reasons why demos fail. It includes the themes of lack of qualification, technical preparation, or “story.”

I have to apologize to my former reps because I’m pretty sure I did every single one of them over my career.

What Happens if the Demo Fails?

The key take away is that the cost of an ineffective demo costs far more than at first glance. There is the obvious set back in the current opportunity, but there are also opportunity costs, travel and other expenses, your time, your customers time and other future prospects from that company.

If you are selling anything more involved than simple utilities, it just doesn’t take much to break the 7 figure mark.

Your Customer

If beginning with the end is the first tenet of the book, I would classify this as the second. Cohan spends a great deal of time on the topic of identifying critical business issues (CBIs) and specific capabilities (your ability to solve the CBI). The real insight here is that you should be looking at specific CBIs and mapping them all the way up to the CEO (The Chain of Pain).

Example: If a sales rep isn’t making his number, it impacts the district number, region, and overall revenue. Spend time quantifying and qualifying that with others in your prospect so that the value all the way up the food chain is known. If it isn’t, you’ve got an early warning you may not have a qualified opportunity.

These relationships and prework are the foundation for what you focus on for your demo.

The Great Demo

The layout of the demo should be:

  1. Present the illustration
  2. Do it
  3. Do it again
  4. Q&A
  5. Summarize

The illustration(s) are determined by the CBI and your specific capability. Stick to the most important, qualified, business issue and do not stray.

I very much like this layout and the precision of the message. The demo is definitely the worst opportunity to conduct product training!

Sales Preparation

There is a series of 7 things a rep should be doing to adequately prepare for a successful demo. These include identifying the CBIs, creating the Chain of Pain, and determining the objective and key points to be shown during the demo.

I really like how each of these are shown with examples that you can communicate to your rep. All too often we’re expected to show up and demo on the fly which leads to far less impactful demos and results in showing the canned walkthrough.

I agree that it’s hugely important to keep your rep involved in all phases of the sale, including meetings where you are driving. Having clearly defined roles up front can provide excellent continuity.

Technical Preparation

Rather than go through each of the objectives and CBIs one by one, the SE needs to weave and tell a relevant story to the customer. There are 11 steps broken down in the chapter I would summarize as:

  1. Research – Make your demo points relevant specifically to your customer
  2. Arrange logistics – There’s a nice checklist for pre-meeting logistics
  3. Prepare your demo script – Much more detail regarding the layout
  4. Practice and refine – Practice to yourself and in front of sales team to get feedback
  5. Confirm logistics – Don’t waste your effort because you forgot to confirm a projector would be available!

Managing Time and Questions

Cohan addresses answering 3 types of questions/objections.

Great Questions
These are questions that should be answered right away. They are defined as questions that lead you naturally along your demo.

Good Questions
These questions may be insightful but are not relevant to the flow of your demo. Park them for later, time permitting. It gives you a great way to conclude your original meeting slot and continue on if specific parties need a question addressed.

Stupid Questions
For our purposes, there are no stupid questions from customers. Treat them in the same manner as good questions.

I’ve always had trouble with good questions. I have a tendency to want to answer it on the spot and move on. Through many derailed meetings I have come to the same conclusion. It takes a lot of practice to catch yourself doing it and I always recommend you have your rep help catch you in the act and note it down for your post-op.

Remote Demonstrations

The best take away from this chapter is to find a way to keep your remote demo interactive. There are many good tips including:

  • Switching between slide view and product
  • Use virtual pens or other highlighting devices
  • Ask questions (probably more than you normally would)
  • Use polling and other webinar features to collect group feedback
  • Have a audience member drive

I would caution you (as does Cohan) about having others drive. I might actually just skip that altogether. I see the benefit but I see the risk outweighing it 99% of the time.

Becoming a Demo Master

This chapter builds on the others and provides some guidance for those wishing to refine their message. There’s a lot here so I summarized some of the salient points I found valuable.

  • Know thy product – Explore every single option in the product and know what they do. This involves a lot of time with the product and manuals, but it gives you the greatest flexibility when navigating your product.
  • Complementary products – Many times complementary products are necessary to produce final deliverable the customer is after. Incorporating this into your demo provides the customer an end-to-end view of the product.
  • Competition – Know enough about your competitors to steer your demo in a way that simply highlights your competitive differences. We both agree you should not tackle them head on in most cases.
  • Know your customers – This is all about researching more about your customers’ needs than the next guy. The more preparation here the more relevant and impactful your demo will be.
  • Know your peers – Find the best and brightest SEs at your company and get together for Demo Days where you can share tactics. I highly recommend this practice.

Q&A with Peter

What was your experience like in putting together the book?

I worked hard to model the book’s structure along the lines of a Great Demo! – I was trying consciously to practice what I’m preaching.  The book is designed to introduce the most important concept right up front, and then enable the reader to “peel back the layers” in accord with his/her depth of interest. 

Have you seen any significant changes in the SE’s role of performing demos in the last 4 years?

Perhaps the greatest change I’ve seen recently is the growing use of the web to deliver demos (WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc.) – an area where many SE’s could be more effective (even if they are very strong in face-to-face situations).  I’ve focused a great deal of attention to this in my workshops.

A second change is the growing “toughness” of customers.  Customers are savvier, less forgiving, and are more careful in making decisions than before.  This has been exacerbated with the recent recession, as well.  Demos need to be more aligned and targeted than ever!

With the current recession, what are the techniques that are especially needed today?

You need to nail the process of communicating value to your customer in tangible metrics in terms of the delta. You must create a value calculator in conjunction with your customer to ensure you are using their numbers.

Although this seems unintuitive, I have seen much better results going for more targeted deals (i.e. less suites). Right now it is simply too likely that someone in your account will put a stop to the deal because of economic uncertainly and fear. The more targeted your deal, the fewer number of people need to be involved and the better chance you have of making it through the sales process. Start small, prove your value, and scale up the opportunity from there.


A sign of a good professional book to me is when you find yourself nodding in agreement because the recommendations are laid out in a way that simply makes it seem like common sense. I also recognized many of the follies I, myself have experienced over the years which will make it feel very relevant to any SE reading it.

I talked at length on this site about targeting your messaging—demo and otherwise. What this book gives you is a very clear, proven, step-by-step approach for accomplishing this task with your demos.

If you haven’t been practicing these techniques I can vouch that incorporating this advice will bring rapid and substantial changes in your success rates. For those already acclimated to these principles but lack (or are not aware of) a specific approach, this process can easily still bring you a 10% edge.

I also advocate SEs to study communicating, presenting, and demoing as specific domains of expertise because they are so critical to success. When you are ready to become an expert of the art of demonstrating products, this would be an excellent place to start. In short, make sure you add this to your library. I also recommend you review his website and blog for more information on the subject.

My thanks to Peter Cohan for taking the time to address our readership here at TSE.