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How To Give A Successful Sales Demo - Interview With Rob Holcomb

I wanted to document some best practices on giving successful sales demos, and I could

think of no one better than Rob Holcomb. Rob and I worked together at Akamai Technologies where he led a team of Sales Engineers (SE) specializing in a web performance analytics tool. Being a visual data-oriented product, it lent itself to a compelling demo. Rob trained (or rather, ruthlessly grilled) pretty much every SE at Akamai until they were able to spin a powerful story using the tool. As I interviewed him, I learned a few nifty tricks myself.


(Rakesh) Let's warm up. When do you recall giving your first ever "demo"? how did it go?

(Rob) My first demo was back at Sagent. I joined Sagent out of college in a professional services role but moved into pre-sales after a couple years. I don't remember the first time exactly - it was probably 20 years ago! - but I probably gave a very feature-focused demo. Coming from the Professional Services (PS) side, I wanted to show all the great things the product could do. I'm sure the customer understood how the product worked, but it wasn't a great "sales" demo.

What then makes for a great "sales" demo?

There are a few things that come to mind. Ultimately, an effective sales demo is one that establishes the value of the product in the eyes of the customer. The customer likely understands how the product works at a generic level from the website. The demo is an opportunity to understand how it would work in their environment. So, customization is key. Ask questions of the customer. Weave the answers to those questions into the story you're telling. If they can't visualize how they'd use the product, the demo's a failure.

How do you go about customizing a demo?

I think preparation is key. Work with the broader sales team to make sure the opportunity is qualified and ask some pre-demo questions. That will help reveal what the customer will care about in the demo. If you don't get this information before you get onto the demo call with the customer, start the demo by asking questions - you should be doing that anyway! Know the customer's business and tailor your demo toward their business. It's critical that your demo flow be designed around your product's core value proposition. You want to make sure the customer clearly understands where your product differentiates itself. If you've done that and tied it to the customer's needs, it's an effective demo.

Could you elaborate on making sure the opportunity is qualified? There is always a race between sales velocity and wanting to follow the right process. What is the bare minimum qualification you look for?

Ah, yes. The age old dilemma: speed versus perfection. We love to have perfectly complete information about the customer's needs and issues. However, the reality is quite different. In many cases, the demo meeting is the qualification meeting as well. It's critical that the sales team be flexible and communicate between themselves. If the demo is a demo plus qualification meeting, start with qualification to give guidance about how the demo should play out. Don't rush that discussion.

At the base level, you want to understand if the customer is truly interested in the product you're selling. I've been on calls when something was lost in translation and the customer was looking for something completely different. If that's the case, though, you need to make sure you use every opportunity during the demo to ask additional questions about the customer's needs. Don't just focus on your demo script...be flexible and ask the most important qualifying questions as you go through the demo.

Regardless, you need to understand the customer's pain. It's probably one of the most important qualifying questions.

That's probably another hallmark of a good demo, being flexible to new information on the call - like when the customer was interested in a different product. Right?

Absolutely. You shouldn't think about a demo as a pre-ordained path. You might have a path in mind, but the customer's feedback will tell you if you need to build a new path on the fly.

What are your favorite 2-3 questions to ask at the start of your demo?

Good question.

My questions tend to be more technical in nature: pertaining to the product we're selling. More often than not, I'll ask about other tools - in the same space - that they are using or have used in the past. That helps me understand their expectations. If they list open source tools versus enterprise tools, that helps me understand more about their previous experiences.

Beyond that, it's always helpful to understand more about the technical environment that the product will fit into. So, general infrastructure items like databases, app servers, load balancers, etc. are important to understand and I'll ask about them. Perhaps even get the customer to share an architectural diagram, if it makes sense.

Lastly, it's important to know who will use the tool so the demo can be demonstrated the right way. If it's a super-technical audience, it might be demonstrated differently than a business-focused audience.

Have you seen an otherwise solid Sales Engineer (SE) give a crap demo? what happened?

I've seen a few, unfortunately. The unfortunate part is that the crap demo could've been avoided.

The example that comes to mind is something I see on a semi-regular basis. We had a good conversation going with the customer, whom we had a warm referral to. That took up about forty minutes of the meeting time and we hadn't gotten to the demo yet. So, the stud SE knows he has to get through the length demo in even less time than usual. Rather than focusing on the 3-4 most important points of the product, he tried to cram a 25-minute demo into 10 minutes. As you can imagine, it was just a torrent of words flowing at the customer. Ultimately, I think it left the room all confused and not clear on our core value proposition.

That happens far too frequently. The lesson is: don't follow the pre-ordained path. No need to give the full demo script if you are time-limited. Focus on the most important points and sell the value.

Yes, and put yourself in the customer's shoes!

Most certainly! That's actually some of the best preparation advice.

What are some other common mistakes you have seen SEs commit?

That's a bit of a long list! But there are a few that stand out.

Firstly, giving generic demos. Going by a script. That's not providing value for customers. They've likely already done research on your product. Make the demo an engaging experience where they understand how your product would work in their environment.

Secondly, lack of energy. Some of the worst demos are those where the SE doesn't have energy. You should be excited about selling your product and the value it brings to customers. Let it show!

Thirdly, your product is likely not the center of their IT universe. Think about how most tech companies show an architectural diagram of their solution: their product is always in the middle of the diagram. Now, if you were to ask the customer, your product might be over in the corner somewhere. It's important to keep that in mind. Your product is going to fit into a set of other IT products--your job is to explain how that works.

That's a solid list!

Actually, I have another one to add, now that i'm thinking about it. And frankly, it should've made the top 3!

Losing credibility. You are the expert at your product, or should be. Don't forget that you're likely speaking with experts on the customer side. So, don't say things that will cause you to lose your credibility. If you stretch the truth and/or lie about features - of your product or the competitor's - you can easily be called out and lose all credibility instantly. And with that, you likely will lose the deal.

Regarding 'lack of energy' - some people are generally low-key - how do you coach them to become "energetic"?

I think it's a matter of differentiating between "energy" and "confidence". One can speak with confidence, which brings energy in its own way. Ultimately, you have to fit that energy and confidence into your own personality. Not everyone is going to be bouncing off the walls like they had 5 espressos - nor should they! Ultimately it comes down to confidence in yourself, confidence in the product, and your credibility. That brings energy to the presentation. I always advocate telling stories about other customers and how they've found value in what you are selling. That brings energy to a conversation. Of course, don't speak in a monotone which kills energy!

I'm sure you have given demos when the tech failed you, like internet going down. Do you remember once such incidence? How did you recover from it?

Yeah, tech failure is a fact of life. It happens. Usually customers are pretty understanding, but it's ultimately about how you handle the situation. I remember a demo I was giving in New York at a major financial company. We walked in assuming we have wifi connectivity - nope. We assumed we'd be able to use cell phone tethering - nope. No cell coverage. The customer wouldn't let us use their machines to demo the product for security reasons. We were pretty stumped.

Thankfully, I had some pre-recorded demo videos and screenshots available. It wasn't ideal, but we were able to get through the conversation and provide value. The most important lesson is to be prepared for failures. They happen. Always have backups. And that includes backup product!

When demoing new product, you never quite know what might happen with the product or its environment. I've had many cases where the alpha or beta product just didn't work when you got in front of the customer. It's all about how you message the failure. Don't freak out. Be confident. Shift to a different backup environment. Bottom line: anticipate failure and prepare for it.

What's the most successful demo that you have experienced - either you or someone else giving? have you closed an enterprise deal just based on a demo?

I think the most successful demos I've given have been during due diligence to eventual acquirers of companies I was working at. But I don't think that's what you're asking about. :)

Haha! That's one type of sale.

Ha! My experience with enterprise software sales, however, is that one rarely goes straight from a demo to a closed deal. It might happen, but usually ends up in a contract with an out clause. Ultimately you have to go through a selling process at some point.

Last question. I read somewhere that to perfect your sales pitch, you should deliver it to a child. It helps clarify and simplify the message. Have you ever tried that with a demo?

I have, actually. My wife is not in the technology space and from time-to-time I've walked her through demos and presentations to make sure the messaging is appropriate for the audience. That being said, since an enterprise software presentation requires a lot of context and understanding of other tools, it's a bit harder to use this approach. Make sure you've given your non-techie viewer enough context to make it a useful exercise.

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