Stop doing product demos

This week, I responded to an outbound sales email from a software company focusing on customer success. The last line of the rep’s email was:

I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with you for a few minutes. When would be a good time to call?

I replied:

let’s chat. I can do Wed 2:30-4pm or Thurs b/t 3-5pm Pacific

He then replied with a one-hour meeting invite, to which I replied that I could only do 30 minutes, and when we logged into the call, he was ready with his Account Executive to plow through a 60-minute product demo in 30 minutes – they even said as much – “Yeah… Usually we like to take an hour to demo our product but we’ll do our best in 30 minutes today.”

snoopy-is-joe-cool-peanuts-254005_1024_768Dude. Chill the f&ck out. You don’t even know me, my company, my problem, or why I’m interested in talking with you. And most of all, your email to me asked for a “few minutes,” and instead you’re expecting me to take an hour to watch you impress yourself with how great you demo your product?

Sheesh…. They’re lucky I did their job for them.

I took over the call – “Here’s why I’m interested in talking with you…” then I gave them the background of where we are as a company and why I replied. Even then, he kept trying to plow through the demo, like he had some kind of checklist he was required to complete in every call. I had to stop him several times just to ask questions. It’s a good thing the product looks interesting to me or he’d be dead and never know it.

So what should you do instead?

Be cool. See how long you can take a sales call without talking about your product. Even better, see how many conversations you can have with a prospective customer without showing your product.

Why do this?

As an entrepreneur, you product is your baby. You’ve identified a gap in the market, and you’ve put in the time, sweat, and toil to craft your solution.

But here’s the thing – No one cares about your product, they care only about their problem.

Until you’ve shown that you truly comprehend the prospect’s problem, you can’t earn the trust and attention of the customer to show your product. Show your product before you’ve earned that trust, and your customer will be polite, nod her head, and wonder when you will get to “the good stuff” or the part of you product that solves their specific problem.

Every customer and every situation is different. Even if on the surface the customer’s problem appears to be the one that your product solves, there is an entire base of information around that problem – how the problem developed, the people involved, past attempts to solve the problem, how decisions are made within the company, and how the problem affects this particular customer within the organization, just to name a few.

And until you have a clear view of the problem from n angles, you can’t position your product effectively or know which parts of your product are most useful for the customer.

Your solution probably has 10, 20, 50 features and functionalities, yet the customer probably only cares about 1-2 of them – the ones that most directly address their problem.

You need to qualify your prospective customer based on several criteria, because if the prospect isn’t qualified, then there’s no point in whipping out a 60 minute demo. It’s a waste of your time and theirs.

With my work at Blend, we usually require we have at least two meetings with prospective customers before we show even a short demo.

In the first meeting, our goal is to verify a critical aspects of the situation and meeting:

1. Are we talking to the right person/people? Is this person/people the one responsible for solving a particular problem we can support? Are they decision-makers, influencers, users, or simply observers to the problem? If they aren’t decision-makers or responsible for the problem, can they get us access to the right buyers at their company?

2. Validate, for both the prospect and for us, that the problem exists – that the customer knows that the problem exists and that the customer views the problem as an explicit need. The problem must be big enough to spend time and money resources to scope out solutions, and big enough to go through the changeover pain to solve the problem.

Status quo is frequently the biggest competitor, even in cases where the need is explicit. A customer has been “living with” a problem often for years (or decades!). Their patchwork solution using general technology tools like Excel or understand or other internally developed applications might be good enough for the next quarter or through the year until the next budget cycle.

3. Require that the customer to prove interest in our solution – getting them to ask questions about our solution and how it works. Asking questions about integration and implementation with current systems. Asking questions about people and resources that would be required on their end to implement our solution. Once we see that customer are thinking past just – “show me a demo so I can get out of this meeting” – then we know we have a genuine prospect sitting in front of us.

4. Learn about the history of the problem. Is this a new problem, or one that’s been around a while? What’s been tried in the past? Have past solutions include outside partners or were they home-grown solutions? Why has this problem become more urgent recently to the point that the company is ready to take action by way of people, time, and financial resources?

Summary: Figure out your qualifying criteria for your product – a good list to start with it:

  • Identify an explicit customer need, ideally enumerating it – “this is costing us $500k per month…” or “with the right technology, we think we can increase revenue by 25% per quarter…”
  • Identify the buyer type with whom you are talking
  • Articulate how this specific buyer would benefit from your solution
  • Learn the history of the problem

If you can answer these four questions, then you’ll know whether or not to bother with showing your product.

Startup Selling Lessons Learned: Confirm the “Why” of a sales presentation

The Situation:
Big meeting with a C-level executive at the top, top, top of the org chart. We’d been working with several operations managers to implement our software over the past nine months, and this meeting was set up to discuss how we might expand our work other business units.

preparationLesson Learned:
Confirm the meeting intentions and agenda. Always. No matter what the situation, no matter who the executive, no matter how much you think you know about the meeting from the most credible people around you.

We should have worked through the executive assistant ahead of the meeting – confirming the meeting and the agenda. I’m sure that the she would relayed a concise message and proposed agenda to the executive had we asked, and this could have saved us the awkward moments at the start of the meeting.

For the weeks leading up to the meeting, we relied on our own experience on how meetings like this should go and spent all of those hours interviewing operations executives. Yet we never took the time to simply connect with the executive or his assistant to confirm the meeting agenda and expected outcomes. Major fail…

What did we do right?

1. We spent several hours interviewing operations executives and managers throughout the company to learn and develop a clear value proposition at the meeting. We even spoke with an employee that recently left the company to learn what we could from an insider/outsiders perspective.

2. We were super prepared for the presentation, enabling us to quickly dive sideways in the presentation when the executive took us off of planned track. We had planned ahead to discuss all of software applications that were used by the company, not just the application that was the intended focus of the meeting. This proved to pay huge dividends for us.

Here’s how it went down…

When the executive we were meeting arrived to the conference room and sat down, and we began our introductions, he stopped us, looked around, looked at his phone and asked in the most honest way – “Who are you, and why are we here?” It wasn’t asked in a challenging way as happens with some executives that want you to get right to the point. He honestly did not know why he was in this meeting other than the fact that his assistant told him he was supposed to be here right now.

Even though, as we understood it, he was the person that had asked for the meeting several weeks ago. In fact, we were scheduled to meet the week prior and he pushed it back a week.

We had spent most of the past week developing our presentation – thinking through the economy of slides – what to show that matters most to him, interviewing professionals across the company about they thought he would want to see and what he cared most about. Our design teams worked extra hours to provide us with beautiful screen shot mock-ups to impress him. My colleague leading the project spent Super Bowl Sunday in the office by himself on final presentation preparations.

And now, all of that now completely obliterated.

Disaster-Recovery-PlanThe recovery,,,

First, I laughed a little (to myself).

Then I started over, as if he had been teleported to this room from another planet, and I had to explain my reason for existence – who our company was and why our our understanding for the purpose of the meeting. Together, we discussed our “Situation Slide” (which I highly recommend preparing – thank you to Peter Cohan at SecondDerivative for this powerful tip…)

When I did that, the executive seemed uncomfortable with what I was saying, so I asked – “Could I ask what’s frustrating you?”

He explained that he didn’t necessarily agree with a few of the assumptions I was making about the company’s intentions and objectives.

So I asked him to explain which parts exactly. Voila! Conversation started. Even though the conversation and presentation immediately drove off the rails from what we intended, the “Situation Slide” created the opportunity for conversation and discussion.

From there he shared his views about the particular situation we planned to address, and most importantly, he told us what he most cared about, and it turns out his major focus was not for the business area that we had prepared to discuss.

Eventually, we got into the presentation – skipping around from our plan, showing what was most relevant from his perspective, and even moving off-script to walk through a completely different software application than what we prepared to show. The meeting was scheduled to run an hour, and we went 20 minutes past that. We ended the conversation with the executive suggesting that we should be in consideration for a significant open RFP for one of the business divisions.

You might ask – “Hmmm…. Good save, but why didn’t you confirm the agenda and outcome with this executive ahead of the meeting? Why didn’t you do a pre-call?”

Valid questions. My reasons, though not good ones, and why this is a lesson…:

Firstly, the meeting was originally set up for us through another C-executive at the client, and we were told directly by the first executive how important this meeting was for this executive.

Secondly, this executive is at the top of the org chart – you literally can’t go any higher than this person. I allowed us to feel intimidated by this, and instead discussed the presentation all around the executive assuming this would prepare us accordingly.

Lesson learned…

Two examples of how meeting planning paid off

I’m traveling this week visiting a very major client and initiating the sales process with future clients (a.k.a. “prospects”). The act of simple meeting preparation helped me enormously. Twice.

Situation #1: Meeting on Wednesday with a potentially large client after several phone calls with an executive and his team.

What I did: In looking at the meeting invite and email correspondence, I noticed I didn’t have an address handy, so I went to the company website to map out their location. I noticed they happened to have three offices in the DC area, but I had been to their main office and was pretty sure that’s where we would be meeting. Then something in my head said – “You know what? You should confirm this anyway with Mr. Executive’s Assistant…”

So I shot her a quick email to confirm the meeting date and time, and pasted the address from the company website into the message:

Screenshot 2014-02-25 20.21.09

Her reply:

Screenshot 2014-02-25 20.21.26

Well… that would have sucked if I went to the wrong address with our company CEO…

Situation #2: A day and a half of meetings with a very big client.

What happened: The business manager we’re working with is super happy so far, and is helping with introductions to other executives across the company. He sent a list ahead of time of the four people we’d have meetings with during the visit. I took a few minutes to find their LinkedIn profiles and search them on their company website.

For one of the executives, I found a blog post he coauthored two years ago with another executive that was not on our meeting list. Once we got settled in a conference room, we reviewed the meetings and agenda for the next two days with our champion. I asked him about the person that I saw as a coauthor. “Hmmm…. you know, we should probably try to see her too.” Then three times during the day, our champion mentioned her name.

Coincidence? Maybe. Though probably not. A few minutes of research led to introduction to another executive in the company.