05022 Fun Flashbacks: Old Demo War Stories

For the many Product Managers and others out there who have given software demos, you know just how badly things can go wrong. I have decided to write a lighthearted holiday issue reminiscing about some of my own and my colleagues’ most unusual demo experiences.

Read on to realize that you’re not the only one for whom demos have gone very, very wrong.


The Argumentative Know-It-All From Oregon

I still remember a demo I gave some years ago. It was for a channel partner, who had a long time contact who made a good prospect for our software. The channel partner was the sweetest, most soft-spoken guy in the world, not like us hard-nosed guys out East. He was knowledgeable about the business and solidly enthusiastic about our product.

After a brief intro, and some discussion to learn more about what the prospect was looking for, I started the demo. From everything she said, our product fit the bill. But I had no sooner begun discussing the first benefit, and the first example of that, than the prospect began arguing. “How can it possibly work to define profitability that way? You have to allocate actual costs to each customer, not just average cost.” A great point except that the suggestion represented a monumental task that wasn’t worth the return, and what most people were doing at the time (including this prospect) was not assigning costs at all.

The demo went on from there. One by one, the prospect contested each feature that was the product of careful thinking and many years of experience in the industry. Each piece was challenged and shot down as not good enough. “Surely you can’t do it that way. How could you do that without doing x?” And so the comments went. It was definitely not as good as the way she wanted to do it.

And when I say “the way she wanted to do it” that’s precisely what I mean. Because she wasn’t actually doing anything half as good as that at the time. But if it wasn’t a perfect match to her way of viewing things, it just wasn’t good.

Not that the demo was cut short or called off. My channel partner gamely tried to make some points, only to give up about an hour into the call. Did the call stop then? Oh, no, we were not so lucky, it went on for another hour and a half. The demo lasted for over two and a half hours.

After the first hour, a little voice in my head told me: “Abandon all hope, all ye who have entered here into this demo.” I gave up any idea of prevailing, or being heard, though I dutifully trudged on and, while telling myself “Take a deep breath! Bite your tongue! Be patient!” I patiently went through the material she was expressing interest in. I told myself this was simply the prospect’s way of understanding new information, by challenging and debating it. I let her drive in terms of what benefits and capabilities we covered. And drive she did.

At the end of the demo, the prospect thanked me warmly for letting her pick up the information in the way she needed.

After the demo, as I sat is dazed silence in my office, well after office hours on the East Coast, our channel partner called to tell me that he was ready to strangle the prospect. He had stopped talking because he was afraid he was going to lose his temper. This coming from an extraordinarily gentle man and a gentleman. I received an email from him with “Kudos” in the subject line thanking me for my patience and perseverance.

The prospect did not end up purchasing the software. But I have been through similar demos (though never that bad) that ended up with a purchase. I guess the moral of the story is: “Win some, lose some.”

Demo From a Bar Stool

We were at a trade show, and the good news was that people were clamoring for demos of our product. Even though we had a separate room for demos, there still wasn’t enough room. Our product runs over the web, so all you need is an Internet connection to show it.

When we ran out of room in the breakout room, the sales support rep had to find some place to do the demo. The conference area was full. But the lobby area of the hotel had wireless Internet. So he wound up in the hotel lounge, sitting at the bar, where the wireless connection was nice and strong, showing the software over drinks.

That was the same show where someone sketched out their requirements for me on a napkin during a reception. I have kept the napkin just because of the whole myth about Internet startups and business plans on napkins. One year and four months after that napkin was drawn, I hear the account is close to signing.

Christmas Shopping Can Bring You Down

Another colleague was recently doing a demo of our software to a big name company. As I said, our software runs over the Internet. All you need is a web browser. It is housed in a resilient, high performance, high availability environment.

Throughout the morning, the speed of the system during the demo had the prospect impressed. They took a break for lunch and started up again 20 minutes later. This time, response time was glacial. It was 12:45 PM. My colleague figured it out. “Well, you have a great product running on a power system hosted in our facilities. You also have every employee in your company (some several thousand) who has decided to start their holiday shopping on the Web over your network during their lunch break.”

The people in the room just laughed, and weren’t phased by the explanation, since they knew all too well that my colleague had correctly identified the problem.

I’d say if there’s a moral here it’s that “If anything can go wrong, it will, so don’t let yourself get flustered when it does.”

Tight Network Security Meant No Webcast

We had a webcast that was being presented by our head of Development. This was a rare occurrence, and only happening because we had a very high profile prospect with an expert user who had all sorts of detailed and in-depth technical questions he wanted resolved before he was willing to move forward. It was hard to schedule the Development manager, and we were taking time away from important development activities. The sales rep had flown out to be with the prospect in person. So there was plenty of time and money invested in this call.

As we sat down to begin the call, the prospect discovered that his company’s network security would not allow him to accept ActiveX controls, which meant he couldn’t use the webcast software so that we could show the software on his computer. Plan B was to try to download a Java plugin version, but that didn’t pass the security controls either.

We are a company that sells services (and software) to other companies to help provide for contingencies in the case of business interruptions. These are services like backup sites where your employees can work when your facility is unavailable due to fire or other problems. So fortunately we had the mindset to have a backup plan.

While we engaged the prospect in conversation about what he wanted to see, and answered appropriate questions without demonstrating them through the software, the sales support rep went onto the web and signed us up for a trial copy of a similar webcasting product. This product did not have the security issues that the other one did. The sales rep had tried it out before in similar situations. So it was our instant failover plan.

I had never thought about having a backup plan to that extent, but it’s something to have in your hip pocket for the right occasions. And I can tell you that it impressed the prospect!

Last Demonstrator Standing

I was once asked to schedule a demo for a very inconvenient time. I was working for a company that was planning to move to a new office. We were due to pack up at noon one Friday. Everything would be moved for us, and we would come in the next Monday to the new location. The prospect was only available at 11:30 that Friday, and was eager to see the product. Plus this would correspond with a date when our sales rep was going to be at the prospect’s office.

So I agreed to do the demo, but explained that I had no more than about an hour, because we were going to move out of our offices.

The demo began, right on time, and I walked the prospect through a webcast. They were very interested, and there were lots of questions that generated much discussion. After about half an hour, the movers came in to take all the files in my office. As they moved out the boxes, they accidentally unplugged my network connection, and the webcast froze. Not to worry, I plugged back in, closed the webcast down, and restarted it.

Then the movers came in and took the furniture. They took the desk, and the chair. I wound up sitting on a radiator and running the webcast from there. Finally the system admin came in to say that they were cutting the network connection. We wrapped up the webcast, but the conference call continued. Then they cut the lights, and I was left to continue the sales call sitting on a radiator in a darkened office building.

Finally, almost two hours into the demo, the admin came in to say they were unplugging the phone system. This time I really had to stop the call. I signed off, though the onsite discussion with the sales rep continued. I’m told the discussion went well.

As I left the unlit building, they were loading the servers and phone equipment into a truck to haul it away. I was the last employee out the door.

That was one memorable demo!

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges



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