Should You Demo on the First Customer Meeting?

cdc0514a3a3cd5fe11a267cc816935a1I recently got into a discussion with a colleague about whether it’s appropriate to do a demo on the first call with a new prospect. This SE was frustrated because there is no qualification work being done prior to jumping on the call with a customer. This is resulting in qualification and demo-customization on the fly.

My position is that it can be perfectly acceptable to do a demo on the first call–assuming a couple caveats. Without going through the full dialog, we arrived at some common ground:

  • The first call the SE does with the prospect is almost never the first touch point with the customer
  • Reps should minimally be attempting to gather 3-5 technical datapoints that will assist your demo prior to the call, ideally a few days ahead of time
  • The SE should write down and prioritize the top ten technical qualification questions so the rep doesn’t have to guess
  • The SE should put the time in to develop a scripted demo for each major use case of the product. This allows for a lot of perceived customization of the demo on the fly, even if it is fairly rehersed. I’ve sold some very complicated and open-ended solutions before and even then most use cases could be covered by 10 major variations of a demo–something easily learned by a seasoned SE
  • Requiring a separate, dedicated qualification meeting prior to the demo can get your company perceived as “hard to do business with” or “overly complicated” especially if your competitor says “sure we can show you a demo, how about tomorrow”

You can argue that if a propsect won’t agree to a demo, that prospect must be a tire kicker. That’s a good rule to live by. Time permitting, I have no problem demoing to tire kickers. Worst case you’ve better educated a potential future client, best case they see something so compelling that it converts into a real initiative.

The higher the ratio of reps to SEs means that more qualification is needed to prevent demo fatigue of your SE team. More than 4 demos a day can be very mentally draining given the concentration and precision demanded of the SE.

If you are in a situation where you find yourself (or team) doing a high volume of “harbor tour”-type demos, your company should host an open weekly demo you can offer to poorer qualified prospects to ease the burden on field staff.

I’m curious if any of you have implemented other guidelines to help streamline this process?

Comments here.

Storytelling Mastery

story-telling-quotes-1Presentation, if done well, is essentially applied storytelling. And the practice and art of storytelling is one of the defining characteristics of a great SE. As I reflect on both the areas where I have excelled and the areas I would like to improve–interestingly–they wind up being the same thing. And that thing is the ability to convey a message in an understandable and memorable way. Everything else we use (e.g. slides, whiteboards, demos) are simply tools that helps facilitate that message.

I captured my basic thoughts on presenting in this article written (gulp) almost 7 years ago. Thankfully in rereading it I still agree with just about all of it, especially my number 1 tactical recommendation: Present stories, not data.

And that is where we pick up and continue the story.

The Holy Triad of Storytelling

There are three critical elements to consider when constructing your story: You, your audience, and your message. All of them are intertwined. Below are some of the more nuanced or complicated aspects of good storytelling that I will be focusing on incorporating moving forward. Many of these tactics I have covered in specific posts over the years since my original article. I pull them into a framework below for reference.


Before an audience will truly listen to you it must first trust you. These aspects below are all important factors in making that happen.

  • Proper introduction – I wrote about the power and structure of a proper introduction here.
  • Display of confidence – At the outset of your presentation, your audience needs to see that you feel at ease enough with your material that you warrant their undivided attention. This means that your attire is appropriate, you have an open and relaxed posture, and that you:
  • Script your intro – Your opening needs to be tight, well rehearsed, and impactful. More on this in a minute
  • Practice – When you are starting out or playing with new content, you should be delivering presentations to smaller or less strategic opportunities. Be prepared that your first several times through will be raw. Take every meeting you can to practice. There are very few things you can do to improve as fast as actually telling the story to a live audience.

Your Audience

This is perhaps the single most underutilized aspect of good storytelling. True, while the best stories have universal appeal, having finely tuned variability in your presentation based on audience is essential for attaining the most impact.

  • Understand motivations – An IT Admin will have different motivations than an executive. Utilize specific techniques when choosing how to deliver your message
  • Structure – Your structure needs to be tailored to your desired audience
  • The story – The techniques you employ as you construct your story need to align to the industry, product, and situation you find yourself in. More on this below

The Story

The “message” as it relates to being an SE is simply whatever it is that you’re selling. The message is your product or service and the story is the vehicle in which you convey that message.

  • Finding the story – The essence of the story you create should center around how someone that the prospect can relate to was able to solve a specific problem using your solution. Work with marketing if needed to get access to your reference case studies
  • Alter the protagonist – If you have many reference-able customers than you have a great situation where you can choose the most relateable story based on vertical and persona. Taking the time when you speak to a company to tailor the actors in the story to better align to their vertical will pay immense dividends
  • Experience the story – Take the time to visualize the backdrop to the story. From reading a case study you will only have a very basic set of details about the circumstance. You, on the other hand, have the task of making the story come to life with a bit of character detail, situational nuance, and results achieved. Have your rep ask you questions about the story that aren’t in your case study to uncover blind spots
  • Research the case – Using directed practice with your rep, research the finer points of the story with your reference (via your internal Sales team if needed). Where detail is scarce, use professional judgment to fill in the details on your own as long as you can point to similar examples supported by other accounts
  • Memory aides – Find a phrase or verbal device that you can work into your story and repeat a few times for emphasis. This should support your primary message, but it should relate to the story being told as well.
  • Cull and refine – When you’re telling the story, it should be full of the rich detail that will make it memorable and relateable. When you do that, you sacrifice the level of depth you can achieve. Your rep should generally be painting an overview before you begin, however, which affords you the ability to drill deeper. That said, remove aspects of the story that are non-essential for conveying your core message
  • Experiment with order – Taking a queue from Hollywood, some of the better movies are not told in linear progression. They will begin with a flash at the ending and then step back in time to show how they got there. In keeping with good demo principles, look for the opportunity to show some meat at the outset in order to draw your audience in for the details
  • Experiment with timing – You know you should pause occasionally for memory retention, but the timing and delivery of certain aspects of the story go along way. Some of the best cadence of storytelling uses pauses mid-sentence right before a main point. I have found it helpful to also introduce an upcoming pause so that I can address questions. For example, instead of just ending a sentence and asking for questions, say something like: “Now that you’ve seen how Customer ABC used this feature, I’ll ask for your feedback in a second. Before I do just consider how they were able to accomplish this in such a short time…” Whatever you say after “I’ll ask for feedback in a second” should be a review of the story since you are intentionally asking the audience subconsciously to stop listening to you and start formulating a response
  • Script the beginning and end – The middle portion of the story can go any number of ways based on audience and questions. But the beginning needs to have a captivating hook that should be performed flawlessly. And the ending is where you tie up or reveal the “message” of the story, and hence is the most important portion to get correct.

The eventual story that you arrive at can be leveraged in many different ways. It should ideally form the structure of your presentation, demonstration, and evaluation. You may opt for a less structured whiteboard session to convey the message or it may be used while delivering a product demo. Tying together the audience, their motivations, a relevant customer story, with the right message is difficult work. Marketing can only provide you the raw tools. It is up to you as the SE to tailor these tools for your prospect. I for one plan on doing a lot of work on this in the coming year. There is a reason why martial arts, meditations, and storytelling are referred to as a “practice”–you’re never done getting better at them.

Good selling in 2015!

Comments here


When it all goes wrong…and it will

Today’s featured article is a guest post by SE Director and recent author of The 7 Rules of Sales Engineering–Jay Kiros.

downloadPerhaps it’s the pessimist in me, or maybe the fact I have been burned one too many times – We need to face a reality. When it comes to software demonstrations things will eventually go wrong.

Take a deep breath; hold, now let it all out. It’s going to be okay

There are three types of failure you may encounter in software sales. Here are my strategies for dealing with each.

Dead in the water

Beginning with the worse error you can have, a dead in the water scenario generally means your laptop or demonstration server is out of action. In your planning phase you need to have a what-if for this very scenario. Fact is, as I write this there are two laptops in my case (Three if you count the laptop I am writing on). Sure that is a lot of gear to cart around, but when facing the chance of a computer failure I’d rather the exercise in lugging an extra 20 pounds than the ridicule of my demonstration not working.

My personal risk mitigation strategy for this scenario is to pack an extra laptop, a router, 4G hotspot, backup hard-drives, backup Virtual Machine, lots of cables and a backup copy of whatever software I need. In my dead in the water scenario I can recreate most of my demonstrations on a new laptop in less than an hour.

Sprung a leak

The next scenario is not quite so dire but still bothersome. Part of your demonstration is acting up and you know it. My advice for you here is to minimize how much of that tool/feature you show and quickly move on from it. Try showing it first, or pushing it to the end so that you can time-box the time spent on it. My sales team and I have a code system that allows me to tell them there is an issue and to be prepared to cover for me. Generally speaking, if the sales person can see I am avoiding something, its most likely because I am avoiding it.


Oopsies are non-critical errors and the most common. Sadly I have seen too many demonstrations nosedive because a small error stopped the SE in their tracks. You opened the wrong window, pressed the wrong button, get a warning or skipped a step. No matter what happens in my demonstrations, whether something works wonderfully or throws an error – My reaction is the same, I expected it to happen.

Begin first with the realization that the customer does not know how your application works, so when a feature misbehaves or throws a fit the audience (mostly) does not have any idea something went wrong.

Don’t apologize for an error; you’ll just bring attention to it. Remain confident and move on. If the error becomes bothersome or you cannot avoid it, blame the Internet or web conference tool before you draw attention to a defect in your product. Most of all don’t panic.

Avoid the use of words like Bug, Problem, Issue, Defect and confidence-lowering statements like, I’m not sure why that’s happening and ugh that’s not supposed to happen.

So how do you talk about an error without saying you have an error? Be creative. In a number of my demonstrations, I’ve used ‘permissions’ as a way of explaining away some errors — “You know what, the user I am logged in as does not have the permissions to do this, we’ll come back to this later when I log in as an administrator.” That’s it.

Whatever the case, errors are going to happen. Practicing effective error management is as important as mitigating the risks of them occurring in the first place.

Want to learn more? Read my latest book, The 7 Rules of Sales Engineering now available on the Amazon Kindle . Years of my experience for less than the cost of a good latte.

The 7 Rules of Sales Engineering – The Review

coverSE Director, and now author, Jay Kiros set out to write a book that could convey his essential lessons learned about being an SE. Targeted at the busy Sales Engineer, these lessons are packaged in a simple to digest set of 7 rules.

Jay was nice enough to send me a copy. Being that I only review SE-centric content, it’s been a while since I had to chance to dive into a new book. At about 40 pages (in long form PDF), it was a quick and straightforward read. For the average senior SE out there with more than a few years’ experience, you can digest these concepts on a single plane ride. Newer SEs should be pausing for contemplation more often.

What I loved the most about the book is that I’m hoping it heralds the next form of maturing the practice of Sales Engineering. Jay had a problem of how to artfully convey a lot of very time/industry specific process and best practice for his own engineers. His solution was to codify something that could be given to someone coming on board to make training them easier, but then also making that artifact available for the rest of us to consume on our own.

While the other three main books on the subject of Sales Engineering attempt to run the whole gamut of the role and are (by nature) generic on many aspects of implementation, this book is largely geared at the SE who has to sell a fairly complicated product on which the product demo plays the determining role in the sales cycles.

If your product demo was the key in winning a deal, how should you approach that demo?

Jay’s answer is the 7 rules: Understanding the features of your product, knowing how your competitors relate to those features, gaining insight into what features your clients actually need, scripting it out like a pro, knowing the proper way to convey your features, nailing the narrative of the demo, and finally how to be memorable in your delivery.

Three good things – The Feature Map
In any treatise such as this, what you get out of it depends on what you bring with you. I like frameworks and procedures that help me organize information I need to remember. Jay makes the case that in order to script the most effective demo, you have to know 3 points on a chart: your features, how your competition compares, and which ones your client cares about. Laid out like he recommends below, it becomes a trivial connect-the-dot exercise as to what to show.


Being that most of us have evaluation guides, comparison matrices, and battlecards already, most of the work may already be laid out for you; you just need to capture the clients wishes.

The Tradeshow Demo
I guess both of us really dislike these rapid fire indiscriminate demos. For me, they wear me out, and they rarely end up going anywhere. Jay has a great idea: Just schedule them every so often. So instead of doing 12 ho-hum demos, schedule 7, one every hour. Spend the rest of the time qualifying and focusing on the real opportunities that present themselves. This prevents you from doing demos to people just so they feel ok asking for a t-shirt, and if the prospect comes back later, you have two touch points and you know they’re really interested.

Be Prepared
Jay goes off on a completely needed detour to discuss tactics to ensure you can recover from disaster when it strikes. I’ve always been leery of demos that relied on too many moving parts, unnecessary add ons, or had a heavy reliance on timing to work. Jay goes even further and suggests how to be recoverable from laptop/drive failures, corrupted VMs, and the like. He’s got me thinking how I could use a checkup here myself. I’ve got my own trick I’ll write about in the near future.

Three Things to be Aware Of
First, this is not a treatise on the SE role as whole. It is very focused on getting you prepped for, and delivering a differentiated demo. Even senior SEs will find something new here for them.

Second, don’t fall into the trap that because the layout is very plain and practical that you are in fact already doing it. Even as a refresher to SEs who have been demoing the same product for a while: Give the matrix tool/process a shot. I caught myself the other day in a bake off demo, and there was 2 differentiated features I wanted to cover in depth, but I let my audience get too much control over the direction and didn’t really get to cover it. Better planning up front would have helped me here.

Third, go easy on the “magic” section. A little goes a very long way. I’ll put it this way, I’ve seen way more SEs that caused me to think “I wouldn’t buy anything from that guy, ever” by trying to use these sales tactics, than SEs who would have talked me into a deeper look because of their use of them. My advice: Add one small thing, then get feedback. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

My Conclusion
If you’re in your first few years of an SE role, there’s a lot of value here, especially if your product line is complicated and demos reign supreme. For the industry vets out there, I spent a couple hours on it and was very glad I did so. I think you would too.

My hats off to Jay for putting this together. I hope he becomes a trendsetter with a lot of other managers (or SEs!) out there publishing some of their best practices. You can pick up a copy from Amazon here:

Why a Standard Demo…Isn’t

If you’re at a sales meeting and you start hearing about problems generating pipeline, one thing likely to be called into question in the product demo. You’ll hear comments like “Our demos aren’t sexy” or “The demos aren’t creating a sense of urgency” or “The standard demo is too technical”. It’s an easy scapegoat because it can’t defend itself–because the Standard Demo DOESN’T EXIST.

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How 8 Determines Your Fate

downloadThere is now research to prove that humans, on average, have shorter attention spans than goldfish. Really. It is now just 8 seconds. That is a 33% drop since 2000. And for the folks we are all trying to reach (the “decision maker”) that span is probably shorter. Knowing this, what can we do increase attention on our offering, and most importantly have that knowledge retained?
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Does Anyone Have Any Questions?!?

Does this sound familiar: You’re going through your presentation or demo, you get to a transition point, you pause, and… crickets. So you ask “does anyone have any questions?”. Nothing, or maybe an uncomfortable “not right now”, comes back. So you try that again, this time maybe you don’t wait so long until asking again. Same response. Rinse and repeat this cycle 5 to 7 times and you have a very common affliction that affects many of us.

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