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Towards a Better Solution Presentation and Demo

I’ve talked, written, and tweeted my ideas on presenting technical solutions before. This post is along those same lines with new thoughts based on recent trends and experiences.

I sit through 70 full-blown vendor presentations per year. And that’s being VERY conservative. When I say “full-blown” I don’t mean the elevator pitch. I mean, “the pitch” as seen by clients, prospects, partners, and analysts. What I see time and again is manufacturers leaving their prospects wanting more. I have a few thoughts and suggestions for presenters based on what I’ve seen over the years.

In this post, I’m proposing presenters prepare by listening to their audience for use cases to build the demo or pitch, know the audience, sell the problem your solution addresses, demonstrate how the solution makes for a better tomorrow, make it come alive with stories, work toward advances using SPIN, and play to the Sales & Sales Engineer dynamic. Additionally, in this post, I’ll note that presenters should minimize distractions from their notifications and alerts.

Before we dig in, I want to establish my moderate credibility here as someone who has not only sat in countless demos but also executed a number of them as well. Primarily, I ran demos for ArcSight (a SIEM) and enVision (also, a SIEM). There have been a smattering of others. Suffice it to say, I’ve done a demo before. Additionally - and potentially more importantly - in my various roles over the years, I've been a part of probably 100+ vendor/solution demos per year for the last 4 years. Before that, it was a few per month. But that's still a fair amount of time over the years. The point here is this: I've executed product demos and I've sat through a lot of them!

“Whatcho talkin’ ‘bout, Zimmer?”

First, I’ll describe what it is that I’m talking about as I know not everyone has the experience(s) that I do.

Let’s say you’re interested in a solution. You could be interested because you’re an engineer looking for a better one compared to what you have now. Perhaps you’re a CISO returning from a conference, ready to dig deeper into what you heard or saw there. Maybe you’re an analyst doing a comparison between solutions. The point is, you want to hear and see what a vendor has to offer.

So what do you do? You schedule time with that vendor and they come in, tell you why their solution is better, why you absolutely need it (because without it, you’re in great peril!), tell you how you’ve been missing out, and then demonstrate how their solution is far, far superior to their competitors. This is usually done with PowerPoint and then by showing the product in a demo environment.

Now that we know what it is, let’s cover the “who.”

If you’ve been in these sessions, you know the model is generally for a technical presenter preceded by a sales and/or business presenter. We know this as the Sales + Sales Engineer model. Literally, EVERY vendor - with the exception of one that I know of - uses this model.

The recipients of this presentation vary from a CIO, CISO, Director of whatever, engineering manager, engineer, analyst or architect. Sometimes all of the above!

Assuming you’ve never sat through these - or maybe you’ve only been in a few - here’s how it goes almost EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. WITHOUT. FAIL.

First, the salesperson kicks it off, apologizes for being late, has to reboot a few times to figure out the A/V system, then presents a standard, boiler-plate PowerPoint presentation, usually with the wrong year in the footer. Nine times out of ten, the footer also says, “Confidential” or “Do Not Share.”

The presentation includes how big the company is, how fast they’re growing, bonus points for Magic Quadrant placement, how much they’re loved, and how many big-name clients they have. (Fun exercise: call the references on these slides and prepare to be infinitely entertained). Then, the sales person will say something to the fact that it’s time to get the “smart people” talking and then they’ll “turn it over to their SE.” The SE, having executed this presentation and demo for the last 5 years, will then proceed to go into autopilot that making an Airbus A350 avionics system say, “Merde” with envy. I’d estimate about 65% to 75% of participants in this session go into autopilot mode themselves by checking email, Slack, and their phone.

The session ends with some basic questions of pricing, consumption, maybe a question about a feature or two and then the salesperson says, “Wellp, we’re about at the top of the hour…. I guess I’ll follow up with <insert name>.”

We call this “the ol’ showup and throw up.” It’s not meant as a compliment just in case that isn’t clear.

What’s missing? How Can We Improve?

On it’s face, the above scenario isn’t necessarily bad. It isn’t a disaster. And, many times, people do actually learn something, an initial demo moves into a proof-of-concept phase, and sometimes a prospect is so impressed they make a purchase and deploy the tech into a production environment. What I’m saying is we can do better. Here are my thoughts on how.

The Basics

Let’s start with some basic housekeeping items. This stuff shouldn’t need to be written or said…and yet… here we are.

Mute your phone. I don’t know what sort of nut has audible tones set for texts, calls, and notifications but I know they’re out there. If you’re one of these people, mute your device(s)! For the love of all things holy!! You may even consider setting “do not disturb” as your vibrating phone can sometimes be heard during a call. Turn off your email and IM pop-ups. When you’re giving your presentation, having your client/prospect see the pop-up that “the BoM for <client x> is due this Tuesday. Please advise!1!1!!” is less than ideal. Having them see your 46 IMs from your internal Slack is also slightly no bueno.

Try to be in a quiet place where you can concentrate, be present, and minimize distractions (for you and your audience). We all get it: it’s the COVID era and business ain’t what it used to be. Most of us are on Zoom or Webex and we’re connecting from the home office. But even before COVID, presenters would present from the cab on their way to the airport, would present from a crowded and loud coffee shop, or would struggle to control their dogs. We all understand that life happens but these scenarios where background noise and the surrounding environment distract the presenter are suboptimal.

Now, let’s dig in to some others that go a bit further from the obvious commentary above.

Ask about and listen for use cases before the demo. Prepare.

This one seems painfully obvious but I can’t tell you how many vendors would pitch to a very prominent NGO on the need to be “PCI compliant” or their need to “manage to banking compliance.” This NGO is part of the UN. The vendors hadn’t done 3 minutes of research to figure it out. Additionally, I currently get pitched a lot of solutions that assume I’m the buyer. I’m not. In my current role, I’m with an integrator. I’m not buying your call center solution because…. I don’t manage a call center (but my clients do). So, figure it out. Do your research.

In doing this prep and asking ahead of time what the prospect is experiencing or concerned about, you’ll be able to better position your solution. Now, you’re reading and saying, “Uh, well, duh!” This is not worth my time to read this obvious nonsense. Perhaps. But you’d be unpleasantly surprised how many vendors do 0 research and prep. It’s pure showup and throw up. I would say it is EASILY beyond 70%.

I typically challenge OEMs / Vendors to pick three use cases to focus on. For example, let's say the OEM is an endpoint manufacturer. I'd ask them to show how they empower threat hunters, how they integrate with a SOAR solution, and how they tackle (or prevent) a ransomware attack.

Sell the problem

I continue to see OEMs showing up with the “speeds and feeds” pitches and supporting slides. These are the “we’ve built a better mouse trap and wow, you’re just gonna love it” pitches. Great. You can pass 456 EbPS (note: not a real thing) with full App ID and malware analysis enabled. Super. You have no false positives. Wonderful. You can deploy in 5 seconds with only a pigeon and baling wire. So what? What I’ve seen in all of these pitches is a client that still doesn’t know the problem. Not really.

The best vendor presentations I’ve seen effectively sell the problem. They build the case that yes, this thing that you may not have thought about 20 minutes ago, is actually a big deal. This is done by more than statistics (of which 72% are made up on the spot!) and figures. It’s done by establishing credibility, discussing the issue and its impact, and demonstrating your solution’s applicability to the audience.

The first time I really executed this well was with a larger hospital. I was able to highlight their flat network, their myriad devices, and their non-existent access controls to both wired and wireless networks. At one point, the CISO turned to one of his people and said, “You mean that anybody can just walk up, plug in, get a production IP address, and get access to our entire network?” The answer was, “yes.” I had sold the problem. Gold star for me!

Paint a Picture of a Better Tomorrow.

Once you’ve sold the problem and the client or prospect has bought into the premise, it’s time to paint the picture and show them how your widget is going to help. Again, you’d be shocked to see how many times the vendor rolls out their portfolio slide like a menu at a Chinese restaurant and says, “Pick which one you want! The more you buy, the more secure you'll be!”

Take the example from earlier; the one with the concerned CISO. The answer to his question was “Yes.” Anybody could walk into his hospital system buildings, get an IP address, and access literally ANY system in his organization. But after I sold the problem, I proceeded to sell the solution by painting a picture of a better tomorrow: A reasonably segmented network, user and device authentication to the network, user and device posture assessments, and other useful features. All with minimal admin and user friction.

Tell a story

“Remember when I was telling you about my other client that had a similar situation to yours? Right. They implemented this solution and within 6 months, had achieved their desired outcomes - which were identical to yours - and have moved on to other projects.”

Humans enjoy stories. We find them entertaining and informative. Stories have been integral to the human experience for more than a few summers. Yet, in my experience, so many demos and pitches lack stories. Sales and technical salespeople don’t even tell a story about the most impactful scenarios where their solution actually fixed a problem and delighted a customer. Normally, the vendors show, what we call “The NASCAR slide,” which is a slide with their clients who we can assume are plentiful and happy but who can tell?

This also applies to vendors pitching to resellers/partners and analysts. How could one apply this to them? How about: “You can see how your clients could benefit from this right? (Pause for them to answer). I’m thinking of scenarios where <insert situation>. Our solution would help both of us there. Don’t you agree? We’ve already seen this a few times with organizations like yours.” You’re both telling a story here and you’re checking in with your audience to hopefully engage in productive dialogue.

Check-in with your Audience

In my experience, asking “any questions?” is only going to get you so far. By asking you’re indicating to your audience that you’re pausing for them to come off mute or look up from the computer and ask a question they feel comfortable asking (that’s an important qualifier!). Let me go a step further.

I believe a presenter should periodically check in with their audience to first, make sure the demo/presentation is covering what they wanted to see. Next, I believe the presenter should check in and paint the picture of how their solution addresses the client's needs or pain points. Finally, the presenter should check in to ultimately drive the conversation to a sale or at least an advance.

Use SPIN & Track To Advances

I was introduced to SPIN about ten years ago. Admittedly, it was forced on me by my employer at the time. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. It just means I wasn’t aware of it at the time. In between then and now, I’ve read some books about SPIN and written & spoken about SPIN, and more importantly, have practiced my SPIN methodology.

The thing I’ve always loved about SPIN is its honesty and its ability to guide both parties through a sales cycles. This is especially useful for people - like me - who aren’t horribly inclined to sales. I included SPIN in this post because I believe it can guide a product demo; it can be used to tell a story and convince a prospect that your widget is “dope af” (as the kids say).

When you master SPIN, you can use it as a guide to engage in productive dialogue that gets you to an advance (more on that below). SPIN helps the salesperson and technical lead ask about the Situation, the Problem, the Implications, and then respond with a Needs Payoff.

Here’s an example of a SPIN-driven conversation from a service provider offering Managed Security Service Provider services. Note there is no true dialogue here for brevities sake but I’m hoping one can see the applicability and how you could use this technique to drive a productive conversation:

“So, you’re a small but growing prescription fulfillment service provider located in a smaller Mid-Western city. Ok. …and you’re telling me you have a problem with managing and maintaining Security Operations including building and maintaining it; including people (staff), process, and technology. The implications of this are many. You’re constantly hiring and backfilling staff, training them only to have them leave, you’re not able to utilize the best tooling available, and you have NO ability to do any kind of threat hunting (I could go on; you get the point). So, what if I could offer you a service that provides you with all of the outcomes you require, at about the same price you’re spending each year for all of these activities, and, in fact, advance your technical capabilities? I’d love to get you scheduled for a more detailed scoping exercise so we can dig deeper. Can I schedule that for later this week, perhaps?"

The Advance

Let’s start out with what we DON’T want. We never want a demo to end with, “OK. I guess that’s it. Any questions? No? K. Thanks. Call me when you want to talk more. Bye!” Many more end like this than perhaps one would care to think. Rather, we want an advance. Reference our SPIN methodology along with Sales 101 and get the prospect to indicate an interest and the agreement to meet again to discuss more. Perhaps this is a more detailed scoping conversation. Perhaps it’s a deeper dive into licensing and support. Maybe it’s a lunch or dinner. The point is this: you shouldn’t leave your prospect with a nebulous, open-ended conclusion to the demo or presentation.

Let me offer a very simple suggestion for the timid. At the end of the demo, the salesperson or person in charge of the pursuit says, in a very non-aggressive way, “Thank you so much for the time. <Sponsor’s name>, would it be ok to catch up later this week or next for perhaps 10 to 15 minutes to follow up? I’d like to know if we hit the mark and if there are any unanswered questions.”

The Sales - SE separation of duties

Let’s conclude with some X’s and O’s. This topic is probably a post in and of itself but suffice to say, there is a strong belief in the industry that when you start getting into higher-dollar projects, the sales team has to be present with established, separate, sales and pre-sales engineering personnel.

This is in part because the clients themselves are divided into different roles and responsibilities. There are the influencers, the program owners, those with the budget, procurement, legal, etc. The client needs to understand with whom they’re speaking during various stages of the transaction (including the demo and presentation). If we’re talking about pricing, the client is talking to the salesperson. Discounts? The salesperson. Speeds and feeds? The engineer. Terms and Conditions? The salesperson. 3rd party integrations via API? The engineer.

There are all sorts of elements to consider here. Career path. Education. Skillset. Motivation. Presenting to a client with clear-cut roles and responsibilities around who can answer what question and drive what follow-up activity is essential and often overlooked.

It's important for the sales / product team to understand who is playing what role and who can drive what activity with what person in the sales pursuit.


You made it! Give yourself a pat on the back.

A product or solution demonstration is your opportunity to get your client or prospect to invest in your vision and more importantly, the thing you are trying to sell. Don’t blow it. Show up with your best foot forward.

Minimize distractions, prepare to sell the existence of the problem you’re trying to solve, and show how your solution can address the problem and how it can make your prospect’s future better. Intersperse your pitch with lots of stories! Frequently check in with your audience for questions or course corrections. Use SPIN to your advantage especially with managing sales advances. And be mindful of who, within the pitch is the salesperson and who is the SE.


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