Group Demos: Confessions From Both Sides of The Table
“Let’s just give everyone a few more minutes.” It’s 9:02 am, and the words hang in the air as both sides of the group demo finish getting into character.
On one side of the video call, the sales rep takes a deep breath and waits, wondering why he opted for that fourth cup of coffee on the train ride in.
On the other, the rep’s champion smiles nervously, believing that she’s vetted a fantastic solution that will not only help the organization overcome its current challenges, but also make her look great in the process.
In the back of the room, the executive sponsor taps out one last early morning email on her phone, her mind in a million places at once.
Finally, the hater shuffles into the room with a scowl, shuts the door, unconvincingly muttering _“_Sorry I’m late.”
If this scene makes you shudder, you’ve likely been a player in this familiar scene: a sales rep presenting a product or service to a cross-functional group of stakeholders at once, also known as the dreaded “group demo.” Sellers generally hate them. Buyers generally hate them. So… why do we do them?
Group demos sound like a time saver in theory (Let’s get everyone in a room so we can align on what we need and determine if this product is a fit); in practice, however, the time savings almost always come at the expense of effectiveness. Audiences rarely leave a group demo feeling aligned on their strategic, organizational, and personal opportunities, or with a better understanding of potential solutions. Meanwhile, sales reps often walk away from group demos feeling like they’ve failed to effectively convey how their solution can help the audience overcome their challenges in a new and differentiated way.
To better understand this strange but necessary environment, I decided to solicit feedback from multiple people within each of a group demo’s four key personas (sales rep, executive sponsor, champion, hater), supplying the cover of anonymity in exchange for their candor. Though these people spanned different companies of different sizes and industries, a few common themes emerged.
Sellers, what follows is a behind-the-scenes peek at your next group demo. Despite what they’re saying (or not saying), this is what your audience is thinking. Discover how to improve the experience on both sides with three actionable takeaways for each persona.
If it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense (aka offer a clear path to strategic impact)
“I’m always looking to see if there’s an easier or cheaper way to do whatever we’re doing at all times. I’m trying to determine if this is a must-have or a nice to have.” —Executive Sponsor
“I’m turning to my team and asking how do we do this today? Why is this better? How much time will this save you? How much money?” —Executive Sponsor
“I’m trying to figure out if my team is just bitching and trying to find a shortcut for their own day-to-day, or if this will make a meaningful impact on the business.” —Executive Sponsor
Unsurprisingly, the executive sponsors I spoke with hammered home the idea that in a group demo setting, their primary objective is to connect the solution to macro impact. The sellers that win are those that make the mental gymnastics to do so as simple as possible for these folks, who are typically busy focusing on higher-level initiatives.
Come with a point of view. Rather than asking executives generic questions that they hate, first, lean on your champion to get some insight into the organizational objectives. Then, combine this insight with relevant customer stories. For example, “I heard from Chris that a big initiative of yours is X, which reminded me of our client at Acme Inc. They had a similar challenge, and they solved it by doing Y. Can you tell me some of the ways you’re thinking about X?”
Elevate the demo. As I mentioned in a previous post, each key feature you demonstrate should tie back to the strategic outcomes. In the button-pushing component of the group demo, you can layer in additional discovery questions (to avoid an upfront interrogation) as well as customer stories (to avoid the generic logo slide).
Don’t neglect the business case. “Whether you build the business case for me, or my team builds the business case, a business case needs to be built for me to present to our CFO to sign off on the funds,” explained one sponsor. “If we do it ourselves, it’s not going to be as accurate as if we do it collaboratively with the sales rep who’s seen this done by others like us, and can help us prove it.” This is especially important following a group demo that “goes well”; don’t fall for the trap of a champion telling you that a business case is unnecessary. It doesn’t always have to be super complex, but you must find a way to help your prospect quantify the strategic outcomes and link them to required capabilities.
The champ is here (aka fine-tuning the champion/seller relationship)
“The sales rep is a bit of a reflection on me to my colleagues.” —Champion
“One of my mantras is ‘I buy solutions from companies I believe in from people who are nice.’ It takes a LOT for me to bend one of those rules. I’m definitely more inclined to help an AE if they are nice. If they are not nice, I’m less inclined to go to bat for the solution, even if it seems like it’ll solve a challenge we’re experiencing.” —Champion
“There are tons of tools out there and many have feature parity, so sometimes it does come down to whether I’m feeling like an AE has really listened and respected me—giving me space, not going above my head, or by demonstrating (forwarding me emails or screenshots between them and their leadership) that they’ve really gone to bat for us.” —Champion
A main point of contact is not a champion. An influencer is not a champion. A “friend” is not necessarily a champion. A person who cares deeply about solving a problem to positively impact their organization, who is highly regarded by their colleagues, and who has the authority to sign—or to get a budget owner to sign—is a champion.
The seller-champion relationship is critical, but it can also be tricky. At times, sellers will need to press, in order to ensure the champion’s organization can achieve its desired outcomes. At other times, sellers will need to give space, trusting the champion to advocate internally.
Test your champion. In the interactions leading up to a group demo, ask your main point of contact key questions to test whether or not they’re actually a champion. How knowledgeable and transparent are they in response to questions like Who else is involved in the decision? Who owns the budget? What competitors are involved? If they open up, then test them with micro-commitments. Will they loop in the other stakeholders? Will they commit to a timeline? Will they do some work in a trial? If you’ve determined your champion is honest and influential, you can do exactly what the champion noted above: give them space where needed and trust them to execute rather than attempt to go around them.
Partner with your champion for credibility. “As a champion,” noted one of my interviewees, “I’m only going to stick my neck out there for something I believe is going to deliver results.” Use this fact to your (and your champion’s) advantage. Knowing this, determine if there are ways you can put your champion to work in the group demo. Could they be the one to set the agenda? Could they introduce their colleagues? Could they jump in after you show a feature to highlight why it’ll impact the executive sponsor’s strategic vision? Seeing a colleague sticking her neck out for you will implicitly solidify in everyone else’s mind that your solution can deliver.
Partner with your champion for customization.
One executive sponsor made a clear point about leveraging champions to present believable business cases: “Business impact has to relate to my metrics; not industry benchmarks. The sellers that do this the best do the work with the champion to understand our goals and KPIs, then push to get me to confirm whether or not I believe the numbers. The sh*tty ones present general numbers, I don’t believe them, and they let me get off the phone.” As noted in the first example, the same principle applies to customizing the group demo itself; ask your champion for help, so you can make them look good.,[object Object],
Imagine all the people (aka accounting for the differentiated audience)
“If I’m not going to be the end-user, I don’t care about end-user workflows, which is hard for the sales rep because there are people in the room who care about that.” —Executive Sponsor
“I’m OK with you asking tough questions about ROI in a group setting because ultimately I want my team thinking like that. However, you might have end-users in the room right out of college who don’t think that way, so they may tune out for that part of the discussion, just like I’ll tune out of the button-pushing and workflows piece.” —Executive Sponsor
“If you’re demo-ing me, but I’m not the DM or end-user, I’m going to call into question how well you know my role/function. If that happens, I’m immediately questioning the business impact of your product, because I’m not so sure you have your product-market fit for me personally dialed in.” —Hater
By nature, the most difficult aspect for both sellers and buyers in a group demo environment is the differentiated audience: multiple people with varying needs, levels of experience, and, frankly, importance to the outcome of the demo.
So here’s the common conundrum: do I speak directly to the executive sponsor, ignoring the other influencers? Do I speak directly to the haters to help placate them, but risk that they drive the meeting down a rabbit hole?
Personal discovery. The common belief is that today’s technology buyers have “discovery fatigue.” However, in my experience, most folks are willing to spend 15 minutes chatting with you in advance of a group demo if it’ll allow you to tailor it to them. This was confirmed by one of the anonymous haters, who noted “If the solution truly requires cross-functional alignment—and your ACV can make up for the sales cycle complexity—I think you need a short discovery/needs analysis for each functional head that has team members with logins. You'll want your champion to own the internal sales process.”
Call on people by name. Knowing that executives will probably mentally check out during tactical components of the meeting, and end-users might not be able to carry the weight of a strategic discussion, allows you to do the work for them by explicitly calling them out by name. “Chandler, let’s spend a few minutes talking about what’s most important to the organization’s executive team…” and later “Steve, now I’m going to go into a demo of how your team could execute A, B, and C in the product.”
Agenda and sequence. In a group demo, I’ll typically front-load conversation with the executive sponsor for a few reasons. First, these folks are the most likely to leave the meeting early, so capture their time while you have it. Second, they’ll typically set the tone for the influencers, and you’ll be able to demo the features that end-users care about while highlighting how each rolls up to the executive’s strategic demands.
Is the juice worth the squeeze? (aka change management)
“First, I ask Will people use this? How does this change their daily routines? Can we easily manage the change? Does this need to become cultural or does it change our current culture at all? If so, how do we manage that? “Next is the level of effort in deployment: How does this impact other systems and processes in our business? Does this affect another person or department?
“Then I look at value related to our overall spend; spend is not just how much I need to pay for this new product, but also around change. That ‘spend’ is mental, emotional, and cultural. Essentially is the juice worth the collective squeeze? And, when all said and done, will the company, department, or individuals involved be in a better place to succeed toward their goals?” —Executive Sponsor
“In my opinion, every login you give your team adds a minimum of 15% more complexity to training/enablement/onboarding.” —Hater
Let’s be honest: in most organizations, in most sales cycles, with most buying committees… the problem your technology solves isn’t life or death. No one is going to get fired tomorrow if they don’t buy your thing. The business is not going to close at the end of the week. Payroll will still run and everyone will go home to their kids and dogs.
The flip side of that is that changing the way something has been done at a big, slow company for months or years can often come with a distinct feeling of yikes. “Sticking your neck out,” as our champion put it, to spend precious budget for a technology that doesn’t work or that people hate? Yikes.
Change management is a major hurdle in mid-market and enterprise buying processes; the group demo can be a make or break there.
Beware the platform pitch. Because it’s so easy for vendors to say they “can” do it all, buyers are becoming increasingly skeptical—and overwhelmed—by this pitch tactic. “When reps sell the ‘platform’ too hard when the product is really a point solution, I get annoyed. When I hear that a $50/user/month chatbot can replace our CRM, marketing automation and email, I'm already checked out,” one of the haters explained. Even if your technology does solve for a variety of use cases incredibly well, keep the group demo laser-focused on the few that this audience cares about. It’s much easier to expand and dive into the additional features in subsequent breakout demos than it is to unwrap the initial feeling that your solution is overwhelming.
Present a roadmap. If your product allows it, present the group with a crawl-walk-run roadmap. Can your prospect start with just a few users or features, and then step into the solution incrementally? When done well, this tactic can be mutually beneficial. Buyers can de-risk adoption concerns and be strategic with budgeting; sellers can overcome change management concerns and trim sales cycles. While upfront ACV might take a hit, companies like InVision and Asana have proven that this product-led approach growth can scale sustainably.
Identify a compelling event. Cleaning your entire house sounds like a daunting and undesirable chore on a random Saturday in the summer. Cleaning your entire house probably seems far more urgent if you know you have guests coming over the next day. This is why it helps to see if you can pull from the group a compelling event in the future by which they need to make a change. For example, if I was presenting in a group demo to an eCommerce company, I’d be trying to see if they feel getting a solution in place before the holiday shopping season is critical and what the negative effects would be if they choose not to. In that context, the struggle to change might seem less scary.
An ice cold glass of Haterade (aka handling haters)
“Group demos are tough. If I'm not championing software, I'm pretty adverse to peers bringing in cross-functional software, to be honest.” —Hater
Anyone who has presented in a group demo setting knows the hater.
The person in the back of the room with their arms folded and the scowl on their face. The one who, despite being incredibly intelligent, consistently seems “confused” (how convenient) by your solution. The one who interjects with “this won’t work for us because the blue button at the bottom of the third screen would need to be red.”
I’ve tried a number of different tactics to prevent haters from ruining group demos—by which I mean ruining them for both me and the haters’ colleagues. Some say “Ignore them!” Some say “Spend extra time demo-ing to them!” Some say “Challenge them to an arm-wrestling match in the hallway!” (I made that up).
But… perhaps all haters are not created equal? Maybe there’s a subsegment of hater that, with care, could be an asset?
Check out the common theme in the quotes we’ve seen from haters: “If I'm not championing software…”, “If you’re demo-ing me, but I’m not the DM…”, “You'll want your champion to own the internal sales process.”
It seems that some haters could possibly be looked at as “former champions.” Perhaps they’ve run prior evaluations and sponsored other solutions, just not this one. They aren’t simply there to rain on your parade.
Assess if this is a former champion. There are two important questions to ask your champion: 1) Who’s likely to be skeptical in this group demo? 2) Who’s run a technology evaluation in the past? This might allow you to get out in front of the hater. Perhaps you can connect with them prior to the demo in order to understand what they look for when they champion a new technology or run an evaluation process. Can you turn them into a champion, or at the very least, keep them from being a hater?
Offer breakout demos. The worst thing that can happen is that a hater poisons the well of the group demo. At the same time, ignoring them is not a viable solution; they’ll simply tank the deal behind closed doors. As soon as you think someone might be a hater, my recommendation is to offer to set up a breakout demo. While this may add additional work to your sales cycle, it’ll be worth it if you can prevent the hater from ruining the group demo.
Be nice. This might be the simplest thing to say, but the hardest thing to do. When the hater is firing away, resist the temptation to get frustrated and act in kind. Instead, be as nice as possible (without being disingenuous, of course). Even if your kindness fails to win over the hater, it will likely be noticed by champions like our interviewee who noted, “I buy solutions from companies I believe in from people who are nice. It takes a LOT for me to bend one of those rules. I’m definitely more inclined to help an AE if they are nice.”