Sales Engineering Mistakes

A colleague turned me on to an article here that talks about 5 stunningly awful mistakes for demos. I don’t think these are all that bad, and certainly not stunning, but I’ll include the 5 here, as we have a few more practical ones to add after:


  1. Misunderstand the customer’s needs: Harbor Cruise Don’t make a demo in the hope that your customer will eventually see something of interest. Inexperienced salespeople often inflict these demos on their customers as a replacement for doing their homework. Jaded sales engineers offer these demos when they receive little or no pre-demo information from their sales colleagues. Do the research to figure out what your customers need in advance.
  2. Start with a corporate overview: Death by Corporate Overview You should see a pattern developing here: Get right to it. Don’t start the meeting with twenty minutes of corporate overview and by regaling your audience with your mission statement (yawn), company history (yawn), revenues, office locations, markets, products, and that smorgasbord of customer logos (yawn, yawn, yawn, snooze). This strategy ensures that the most important people leave before you can start the demo itself and everyone is bored when you do. Your corporate overview won’t matter unless you suck the audience in with your demo.
  3. Present a linear demo from beginning to end: In the Beginning  Have you ever watched a demo and ten minutes into the process you find yourself wondering, “Where is this going? What is he making? How does this apply to us?” You can ensure the same awful fate for your customers by delivering long, linear demos that take forty or sixty minutes to reach the pay-off. The order of the day is to show a great result and then briefly show how easy it is to produce it.
  4. Do a feature dump: Here’s Another Thing You Can Do  Want to make your software appear as confusing and complex as possible? Want to find more ways to bore and torture your audience? Want to reduce the price they pay for your software? It’s easy: show as many features as you can! You shouldn’t present your demo as if it’s product training: “Let me show you how to do this, that, and this other thing!” Explaining all of the menus, tabs, navigation and customization capabilities is a sure way to inflict pain.
  5. Show the same demo: Everyone Loves This Feature Don’t ignore that the VPs who are potential customers only want a top-level overview and that the customer managers are interested only in their portion of the process. If you use the same demo no matter who’s in the room, you will bore the senior customer participants, and they will leave early. You’ll have done training for the end-users, but the training won’t be necessary since you won’t get the deal!

Blog 8 Jul 09 PowerPointThere are of course many more. The root of all them is unsurprisingly communication. Or should I say, the lack of communication. Every problem in a Sales Engineer’s world can be broken down to this source.

Last year I stayed up all night in a hotel in Kentucky trying to get my company’s software to work. I had a demo that next morning, and it HAD to work, as the CEO had decided to micro-manage the meeting and was there in person for the demo. All night, what should have worked didn’t, and I had nobody to call. Finally at 7:30am, sweating bullets, I called one of the DBAs on her cell.

She knew immediately what it was: The new version I had installed had a new feature added that allowed users to select time periods where the software would not accept input. By default it was set to block from 9pm to 8am.

The CEO complained that I looked tired, and I told him I was up all night. He yelled at me and I calmly stood there and took it. Underneath I was smiling, as I knew eventually he’d know why I had stayed up all night, and realize it was his developers’ fault and not mine.

So what would I add to the top 5?

  1. Failure to prepare. You only get one chance to make a first impression. No amount of explaining can make up for a failed/non-functioning demo.
  2. Blame Management. A term I coined back in 1992 while working in the casino industry. Make up your own definition, and you’ll be very close.
  3. Qualification. Don’t rely on your account rep to ensure that you are being pushed in front of a qualified lead/opportunity. I’ve discussed qualification here, here and here, among other articles on this blog.
  4. Is it helping the deal close? Along with qualification, this has to do with whether you are being asked to do a demo for the sake of a demo, or if it is a crucial/critical path component of closing the deal. “If the demo illustrates the claims you’ve made, then we’ll buy it” should be the kind of phrases/commitments you should see.
  5. Never give a “Generic Demo”. You are more likely to miss the mark when you guess. If you are talking to an insurance company, then talk about the insurance business and how the software assists folks in it. If the opportunity is large enough, throw together a mock PoC with their name and icons. Prospects love to see their own name/logo.
  6. Use the right presentation medium. If animations (flash) makes more sense for all/part of your pitch, then make it so. If handouts would help out, then add them-but for God’s sake don’t have one demo that you are comfortable with fit all occasions.
  7. Don’t be a weather-man/weather-woman(?). Don’t sit in front of an audience reading them what is written on the screen. Have you ever noticed that your local weatherperson(?) on TV points to a number, then tells you what it is? It is so degrading that I feel like I’m a kindergartner. Instead,
  8. Engage the Audience. This is the sign of a pro. You need to be able to work an audience by asking them what they do, tell them something about what they do, then apply their function into the presentation. Engage as many people as possible and you’ll have a light, fun meeting that will virtually force the prospect to open up and tell you what you need to know.

I don’t want to go on forever here. I just wanted to point out that there are far worse mistakes than the ones above in the cited article.


One thought on “Sales Engineering Mistakes”

  1. I had a sales call, or rather meeting, with/for a reseller we deal with a few days ago. I begged for days for any info on the situation, what features I’d demo, the whole solution landscape, everything-and got nothing.

    As a result, I did as generic a demo as can be done. At the end of the meeting, the prospect handed the rep a stack of sample data for us to “prove” our claims. All fair.

    I’m not even back in the office, and I’m told the call bombed and we’re out of the running. WTF? The rep wouldn’t cite details (of course), but I’ve got a suspicion it was the gum chewing and (mild) talking down to the prospect. I call it talking to your prospects like they were your plants/pets. Nice. So now the VP of Sales (my boss) thinks I blew the call.

    So if this were really true, then why at the end of the meting did the prospect give up materials for us to return with, in a more customized demo (“show me my data in your software”)?

    One of my sayings is: If a demo was able to kill a deal, then the deal was not qualified (properly).

    This is one of those times (and I’ve got a whole chapter devoted to this phenomenon) where a Sales Engineer is vulnerable. We usually have no signing authority or staff, and as such can be the scapegoat for the failure of others.

    Interesting circumstances, though, no?


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