Managing Vendor Demonstrations

You don't have to leave yourself at the mercy of an unproductive vendor presentation, says our Smart IT columnist.
Should I have a steak or chicken burrito? Or maybe an enchilada. These were the thoughts going through my head as I sat in an overheated conference room watching an aimless software product demonstration.

Perhaps you also have found your mind wandering during a vendor presentation. We humans have naturally short attention spans (especially near lunchtime), but the real culprit is probably the result of a demonstration that is not meeting your needs.

When you agree to a demonstration delivered by a selected vendor, there must be a challenge the company is trying to overcome. You either are trying to solve a business problem or an IT problem. Either way, you cannot blame a misguided or just plain lame presentation on the vendor. You must have seen some value in their product, so it is your responsibility to make sure the demo is not a waste of time

According to Peter Cohan, founder and principal of The Second Derivative, a consulting firm that helps improve the success rates of software demos, it is common to find yourself wondering where a demo is going within the first few minutes.

“You are there to solve a problem and, if you are about to be led down the wrong path, it is up to you to raise your hand,” says Cohan. “The vendor might look at you like 'How dare you stop my demo before I get to the good stuff,’ but how can the vendor know what the good stuff is if he didn’t start by asking about your particular situation?”

The true key to not letting a wayward demo happen in the first place is to be better prepared. “There are many actions you can take to get the most out of a vendor presentation,” says Cohen. “If you want to have a crisp, successful meeting, outline in advance the answers to three important questions and then a fourth action to seal the deal.

What are the objectives of meeting? What are the needs you are seeking to address? Are there any specific capabilities that you know you must have? Plan to manage meeting to achieve your objectives.

“To be most effective, type up the answers to questions 1-3 and email them to the vendor. Then review them before the start of the presentation,” says Cohen. “The last item is critical because without managing the meeting, the rest of the planning will be wasted.”

Know Your Objectives -- And Theirs

Cohan has coached both vendors and customers and has found that they aren’t always in alignment. “The customer likes to sit back and let the vendor show what they have and then tell you whether or not they are interested. Whereas the vendor lives in the land of hope and believes if they show a lot of cool stuff, something will click and a purchase order will be forthcoming. If you let these attitudes prevail, it is totally unproductive,” he says.

According to Cohan, the vendor usually has one of three objectives. The first might be to qualify the customer, which might seem like common sense to do before the demo, but it happens. It’s best to do your research beforehand and make sure you are qualified.

A second vendor objective is to generate a vision for using a product that will address a customer’s needs. Don’t hesitate to ask pointed questions to poke holes in this vision and make sure it is your reality.

A third is to technically prove a specific capability, to show it really does work. Although it is great that a process runs 100 times faster with the vendor's product, does that address your fundamental need or is it a “nice to have”?

On the flip side, Cohan says, the customer also has one of three objectives. First, they are just exploring possible solutions, looking for advantages and disadvantages. Second, they know exactly what is required and are reviewing multiple products to find the best fit. Or third, the customer is just window shopping to stay informed on product space.

“All of these are perfectly valid objectives, but it would help create a more productive demonstration if all cards were on the table,” he says.

Cohan insists the worst-case scenario is withholding information. “Customers love to play poker because holding back critical information might play into their favor in negotiations,” he says. For example, you might be considering switching database platforms. In this case it might be useful to have a theoretical discussion to understand the vendor's product roadmap in relation to your future needs.

Make sure the right people attend the demo, preferably both evaluators and decision-makers. However, if you are doing two rounds, it’s OK to have the evaluators in the first round and the decision-makers in second. Just make sure the vendor understands your selection process. Cohan points out that if decision makers aren’t in attendance, make sure the vendor provides the compelling material to help evaluators sell the product internally.

Make Them Cut to the Chase

Once the demo begins, even after all your preparation, if you don’t see your problem being addressed in the first few slides, Cohan suggests halting the meeting and forcing the issue to the forefront. You might also find that during the product demonstration, you are being shown lots of bells and whistles, but nothing core to solving your problem. As stated earlier, you need to take control. If the vendor can’t demonstrate the features that address your needs, it is in everyone’s best interest to end the meeting and move on.

When evaluating an enterprise software product, Cohan suggests keeping your expectations rooted in the real world.

“Why do people buy CRM?” asks Cohan. “Because management buys into the promise of knowing everything about their customers. The failure is that sales people don’t like to type – they like to talk.”

Cohan reminds evaluators to keep an open mind because you don’t want all this planning to stifle innovation. “The vendor might actually spark an idea that enables you to accomplish something you originally thought not possible,” he says.

Finally, one point that Cohan and I both wholeheartedly agree on – don’t be a jerk. You can get what you need without torturing the vendor. “Don’t perpetuate myth that IT people are evil!” Cohan implores.

If you follow these suggestions, you can start daydreaming about lunch after the demo. And if it doesn’t break any rules, be sure to let the vendor treat you.






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