Saturday 19 October 2019

Startup Diary: The demo is in the details - but let client do the talking

Product demos are a critical part of winning over a potential tech customer. Here's my checklist of what to do - and what not to do

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Richard Rodger, Voxgig founder

I recently wrote about the importance of selling and about using your network to branch out and meet new prospects. Let's talk about what you do with those prospects when you find them.

This is a particularly pertinent issue for voxgig at the moment. We are building a small group of early customers, and running a series of product trials with them. Getting somebody to agree to use your product, even on a trial basis, can be just as much effort as getting a sale, especially in the early days. They have to develop enough trust in you to commit their time.

At the moment, I'm meeting and demoing our system to prospects on an ongoing basis. This means running video conference meetings where I walk the people on the other side through our system, and hopefully get them to agree to a trial. There is an art to giving a successful software demo and I'd like to talk about that this week.

As my last company was a consultancy (nearForm), rather than a product company like the one before that (FeedHenry), I found myself a little out of practice when it comes to demos. I've exercised those muscles a little since, so let me give you my five-step plan for demos.

Before we get into the details, let's step back for a moment. Why do you give demos of your software? Yes, the easy answer, and the ultimate reason, is to sell, but as with so much in business, you need to be a little more subtle in your strategic approach. For a startup in the early states, understanding your customers is far more valuable than making any one sale. You can count any demo meeting as a success that brings you deeper insight into your market, even if the prospect says "no" at the end.

And here's a tip for sales. "No" now is not "no" forever. Keep in touch, send updates, grab a coffee in six months. Sometimes, just by demonstrating longevity and continuing progress, and showing that you have listened to concerns, it is enough to bring someone over the line down the road. One important qualification: do not chase deals - a 'no' is a 'no' and you're wasting everybody's time if you keep pestering. What I'm suggesting here is a much gentler process of softly staying in touch over longer periods of time. When the music changes, you'll be ready.

If information is what you need, then you must set yourself up mentally to obtain it. A product demo is about pain, not features. Your primary objective is to discover the real pain that your prospective customer is experiencing. Your secondary objective is to understand how they have tried to solve that pain. Are they just putting up with it? Are they using a competitor but are unhappy? Do they have half a solution that "kinda sorta" works? Is there a political context - does someone in the organisation gain from the problem, even though the organisation as a whole suffers? If you're trying to sell without understanding these factors, then you would do well to remember the words of the poet Thomas Gray: "… Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

"And waste its sweetness on the desert air."

I spent many early years doing exactly that with my demos. Great products can easily die in demos if you are tone deaf.

Here's the big thing: shut up. Really. Just stop talking, as much as possible. When the prospect complains about some pain point that you know you can solve, and you can show them right now, right here, with the very feature … just don't. Even when your product can solve the problem, resist the urge to demonstrate how. This might seem like really strange advice. Surely if you have show you can solve the problem, you're onto a winner? No. All you've shown is that you can't listen.

If you jump in to eagerly propose solutions, you quickly lose any empathy you've built. You're showing very clearly that this demo is just about your sales targets. You've brought the conversation back to yourself. If you stay quiet, and ask questions to dig deeper, you'll discover far more. Perhaps that pain point is more complex that you thought?

Perhaps it has a different cause, or a different solution? Perhaps the ensuing discussion will generate some really great product ideas for you? All that will be lost if you choose instead to yabber on about your wonderful features. The feature will reveal itself in due course anyway as the discussion moves along.

There's a deeper context here that can guide you in these types of interactions. Instead of looking for the sale, or the win, try to find the fair exchange of value. When you buy an apple for a dollar, you get fed and the farmer can feed her children. It's win-win if it's a fair price. And you'll buy more apples tomorrow. If your software helps to create value for your customers, then, in a way, it sells itself and you just need to get out of the way. The most golden moment in a sales call happens when the prospect starts selling to themselves, explaining the benefits of your own product to you! When that happens, stay very still and very quiet and don't break the spell.

OK. Back to practicalities. Here is the five-step process I use for software demonstrations:

Step 1: Understand. Don't just launch straight into the demo. Do not have the software open in front of you, because then it will be too distracting. For the first few minutes, have a conversation about the pain points and current solutions. Get into your prospect's head. Let them talk.

Step 2: Orient. Now you do the formal demo. Make this short and sweet. Go over the main features, but not in detail. Don't go too fast, but definitely do not go deep. You simply want to help the prospect reference the application user interface in the rest of the meeting. You want to give them the ability to orient themselves within your system. Use lots of pauses - that generates opportunities for them to interrupt and then you can move to step 3.

Step 3: Explore. As soon as you can, stop demoing and starting listening. As soon as the prospect raises an issue, good or bad, or has a question, use that as an opportunity to go deep on that subject. Do not be afraid to go as deep as possible. I've had calls where the very first question led to a discussion that completely dominated the rest of the meeting, and I never completed the demo. But I did make the sale.

This step is the very purpose of the meeting - to really gain insight into your customers needs. It is here that they will discover things that they did not themselves realise - it's incredibly high value.

Step 4: Confirm: It is OK at this point to quickly go back to the software and show the prospect that you can solve a problem. Just do it fast and clean, and get back to the discussion as soon as you can. Be led by their feedback into different parts of the software. You are not training them, so don't get bogged down in explanations.

(Repeat Step 3 and 4 as much as you can sustain. Don't rush to the end. There's always more to discover.)

Step 5: Close. Not the sale, but the next step. You need to give the prospect time to assimilate what you've shown, "socialise" the potential of your product in their organisation, and develop a plan for defending their recommendation. Even if the prospect is really keen to do things right away, slow it down. It's much better to set yourself up for success on the next step than have a deal fall apart from a roadblock that could have been easily discovered. All that time could have been spent on a prospect that could have closed.

And that's it. Rinse and repeat every week for two years and you might just have a business. Two more things: remember to have fun and let your natural enthusiasm and pride in your product show - that is no sin.

And finally, if the demo gods strike you down, and your product breaks, that does not mean it is the end of the road. Keep going, maybe cut the meeting a little shorter, but don't assume a product crash will kill the deal. If people need what you got, they will have patience (survival tip: build a deck of screenshots as a backup plan).

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Richard Rodger is the founder of voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.

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