Often when I attend a presentation I have ideas about constructive feedback to give to the presenter. While I used to deliver my feedback and criticisms in a very direct and honest way, hoping that they would be taken at face value, I often found that presenters with disheartened with my feedback. Over time I learned a method to deliver feedback in a way that it would help the presenter in the future and learned how to take feedback better myself.
In their excellent book “Switch“, Chip and Dan Heath point out a studies that have shown that our perception and memories of “bad” events are much stronger (and longer-lasting) than “good” events (see the end of Chapter 2 in the book). People have a very strong tendency to focus on the negative, and this is very much true for feedback and criticisms they receive.
My current approach to giving feedback takes this phenomenon into account. When I give feedback on presentations I recognize that even experienced presenters are really exposing themselves when they stand up and talk in front of a group. I have been presenting professionally for many years now and I still get just a little nervous before a presentation and find myself hungry to know whether the audience approved afterwards. Feedback on presentations hits people where they are very vulnerable regardless of how confident they may be during a presentation.
Keeping that in mind I give feedback that is very specific and I balance every criticism with at least 3 positive observations. The specificity is important because it signals to the receiver that you were really paying attention. The 3:1 ratio helps balance the scales of our tendency to focus on the negative. The place where it is easy to make is mistake is being too general in your positive feedback. Imagine I came up to you after a presentation and said:
Wow, that was really a great presentation! I really like your style and you seemed very comfortable in front of the audience. I did notice that you made a mistake on our current number of customers: it should be 195 not 155. I did really like the flow of your demonstration overall!
That has three positives with one negative mixed in. But notice how general the positive comments are when compared with the negative? That signals that the one piece of feedback you want the receiver to focus on is the negative and the rest are just pats on the back to cheer them up. What if you heard this feedback instead:
Great presentation! The way you opened up with a story really grabbed their attention and I really liked how it related to what they read in this morning’s paper. The flow of the demo was really nice, particularly around how you compared it with their current experience and showed just how much better their life would be in the future. I noticed that you had 155 customers listed on that one slide, I think the number is closer to 195. I think that your style of being both confident and humble really made a connection, particularly with the IT manager who I saw you talking with at the break.
By softening the one criticism and being very specific in the positives you can take the edge off quite a bit. The reality is that all but the most clueless presenters are going to still focus on the negative, so there is no need to emphasize it. The reason why this approach is so important is that confidence in front of an audience is one of the key factors to success in a presentation, so you don’t want to undermine that for the presenter in their next presentation. You also want to be sure that they keep doing the things that are working (the positives) rather than just focusing on fixing the things that are not.
When it comes to receiving information I have also changed my approach over time. One of the challenges if you are a successful Sales Engineer is that sales reps may end up seeing you as a valuable resource that they need to compete with other reps for. This may not be true in your company, but I have certainly experienced it in the past. Because of this they may not be willing to give you honest, direct feedback on your presentations because they are concerned about whether you will want to work with them on more deals. Over time you may just get congratulations and kudos for every presentation, whether you felt you did a good job or not. We all need feedback to improve and that goes for even the most experienced and capable presenters.
To make sure that I get the real story from people in the audience I just ask them “Is there anything I should do differently the next time?” or “Is there anything that you think I could have changed in the presentation?”. Then, when they answer I make sure NOT to try to justify why I did it the way did, I just listen to the feedback and make sure I clarify what they are saying. So if I heard this feedback:
“Well, I am not sure if I really liked the analogy you used at the beginning of the presentation”
I would resist launching into my justification or explanation of why the analogy really should have made sense and instead ask what about it did not line up. So instead of responding with:
“Yeah, but I think the point I was trying to make really did fit with that analogy for this prospect…”
I would instead try to clarify exactly what they meant:
“What about the analogy broke down? Would the analogy work in other situations or does it just not make sense at all? Are there any other ways I could explain that topic?”
If you actively seek out feedback, you need to make sure to really take it rather than becoming defensive if you don’t agree.
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Sales management often talks about selling “business value”. There’s a good reason for this: in most cases it is not IT making the decision to buy software, but rather the business users (although IT may have veto power). For many Sales Engineers (especially technical ones) that means that if you are talking about technology, you may not be helping to win the deal because your message may go right past the business audience.
So how do you effectively sell technology to a business audience? First off you should strive to have a combination of both business and technical people from the prospect attending your presentations. This mix can help you to really sell the business value of technology, although many SE’s dread presenting to “mixed groups”. To make presentations to mixed business/technical audiences work well, you should follow these guidelines:
- Move back and forth between “day in the life” examples and down in the weeds technical explanations. It’s important not to water down your presentation for either part of the audience. Don’t be afraid to talk tech when challenged, but always make sure your examples are relevant to the business users so that they stay engaged.
- Go for the “head nods” from the geeks. This should remain your goal throughout the presentation: to get the technical people to nod their heads when a business user says “can your system do X?”. Even though there may be animosity between the IT and business groups in a company, it’s likely they trust their fellow employees more than they trust your sales team. So getting them to see that your solution passes muster with IT during the demo is critical.
- Control the conversation – don’t go down a “rabbit hole” with the technical people. It’s likely that technical people will ask detailed questions (often with little regard for the other audience members). If you can answer quickly, do it, otherwise you should defer the question for follow-up. If you feel you will lose credibility by deferring, you can offer to answer the question during a break. But if you do, make sure to point out your discussion (and get a head nod) once you start again.
- Use examples relevant to the business users. This may seem obvious, but I know many SE’s who do demonstrations that have a very technical focus. Showing the XML generated from a web service or the SQL output from a process may fly with IT, but you will lose the business users quickly with this approach. It’s not that you can’t show technical results, but you need to bring it back around to the business users in a way they can appreciate (which is usually something visual). A great way to do this the classic “cooking demo” where, ala Julia Child, you show the process (including some tech details) and bring out the beautifully baked pie at the end. Taking this approach means that both the techies and the business users will be satisfied that they saw something of value. Of course it also means that SE’s really need to understand the business processes, not just the technology.
- Make the business users feel they can understand the complexity. Many business users feel that the technical folks are speaking another language, and they are often right. But if you can explain a complex technology in terms that make sense to a business user you can really win them over. Using analogies is one great way to accomplish this. Because many business users have given up on being able to communicate with IT, by providing a bridge you will show how your technology will benefit them directly.
Like many people with a technical background, I have lots of links in my resume to companies I have worked for and projects I have completed. When I send out a resume I would like to know whether people click on the links in the resume, but normally I can only get stats for sites I control (using Google Analytics Campaign Tracking). By using a URL shortening service I can embed links that are specific to the resume that I sent, and I can track every click on that link from that specific resume. The only problem here is that creating those links is time consuming, especially if you send out lots of resumes and/or have lots of links in your resume.
I created a macro that can automatically generate trackable links with one click. You need to be somewhat technical to use this macro, and I have only tested it in Word 2007 (please leave comments on whether it works for you in other versions). The macro is simple: it contacts a URL shortening service (either Cligs or Bitly at your option) and looks through all the links in your resume and shortens them using your account (so that you can track them).
You will need three things before you can use this VBA code:
- A copy of your resume with standard hyperlinks in Microsoft Word
- An account at either Cligs or Bitly
- An API Key for Cligs or Bitly
The macro also includes a place for you to enter Google Analytics campaign tracking which will help keep stats for sites you control (if you use Google Analytics).
The parameters at the top of the macro are things you need to set up before running the macro on a document. If you are using Bitly, then enter your Login and APIKey in the variables at the top. If you are using Cligs, enter your APIKey in that variable (leave the other API blank). If you are going to use Google Campaign tracking, then enter in those variables (leave them all blank otherwise).
If you are comfortable in VBA programming you can just create a new macro attached to your resume and paste the code below. You can also download a sample Word 2007 document with the macro already built in. Either way you will need to run the macro from your Word document once you have the variables set up. Note: It’s a good idea to delete the macro from the document once you have run it. Otherwise people opening the document will get a macro security warning when they open the document.
One other note: using a URL shortening service for your links could result in non-operative links if the URL shortening service shuts down (which happened to cligs before they were acquired). So use at your own risk. I also might be willing to add other URL shortening services that might be more reliable (and have an API).
Here is a short (4 min) screencast of how to use the macro. In the example I use Cligs, but the same process applies for using Bitly. Please comment with any questions.
Sub URLShortener() ' ' URL shortener/tracker ' Created by Dave Sohigian http://dave.sohigian.com 1/5/2010 ' For more information go to http://www.techdemoguy.com/?p=192 ' License: Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike - http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ ' 'Variables you should enter. Enter either BitlyLogin AND BitlyAPIKey 'OR CligsApiKey, depending on which service you will use. 'If you want to track the Google Campaign, then enter those three 'variables. Otherwise leave the Google variables blank BitlyLogin = "" BitlyApiKey = "" CligsApiKey = "" GoogleCampaign = "" GoogleMedium = "" GoogleSource = "" If (GoogleCampaign <> "") Then GoogleQueryString = "?utm_source=" & GoogleSource & "%26utm_medium=" _ & GoogleMedium & "%26utm_content=1%26utm_campaign=" & GoogleCampaign Else GoogleQueryString = "" End If 'Loop through all of the hyperlinks and shorten the URLs For i = 1 To ActiveDocument.Hyperlinks.Count ApiUrl = "" LinkText = "" ' select the next hyperlink ActiveDocument.Hyperlinks(i).Range.Select ' store the name of the hyperlink LinkText = Selection.Range.Text ' store the url of the hyperlink LinkUrl = ActiveDocument.Hyperlinks(i).Address ' Make sure it is not a bit.ly or cligs url (would error out) If (Left(LinkUrl, 13) <> "http://bit.ly") And (Left(LinkUrl, 13) <> "http://cli.gs") Then ' Set up the API object Set ObjHttp = CreateObject("MSXML2.XMLHTTP") If (BitlyApiKey <> "") Then ' Create the API URL for Bitly ApiUrl = "http://api.bit.ly/shorten?version=2.0.1&login=" _ & BitlyLogin & "&apiKey=" & BitlyApiKey & "&history=1&format=text&longUrl=" _ & LinkUrl & GoogleQueryString ElseIf (CligsApiKey <> "") Then ' Create the API URL for Cligs ApiUrl = "http://cli.gs/api/v1/cligs/create?key=" & CligsApiKey _ & "&appid=ResumeStats" & "&url=" & LinkUrl & GoogleQueryString End If If (ApiUrl <> "") Then ' Setup the call to the REST API ObjHttp.Open "GET", ApiUrl, False ' False indicates the call is synchronous - wait for URL Result ' Send the request ObjHttp.send ' Get our results (the shortened URL) if the response was okay If (ObjHttp.StatusText = "OK") Then StrResult = ObjHttp.responseText Else 'Otherwise just keep the original URL StrResult = LinkUrl End If Else StrResult = LinkUrl End If ' Update the Hyperlink in the document with the shortened URL If (LinkText <> "") Then 'If it is a text link, then keep the Link Text ActiveDocument.Hyperlinks.Add Anchor:=Selection.Range, Address:= _ StrResult, SubAddress:="", ScreenTip:=LinkUrl, TextToDisplay:=LinkText Else 'Otherwise don't change the Link Text (if it is a linked image it will have " " as the selection text) ActiveDocument.Hyperlinks.Add Anchor:=Selection.Range, Address:= _ StrResult, ScreenTip:=LinkUrl End If End If Next i End Sub
In one of my earlier posts I talked about one reason why you should consider presenting first in a sales cycle: so that the audience will pay attention to you during a long day of demonstrations. This is just one of the strategies that you can apply in a “Demo Marathon”.
If you have never been on the buying side of a corporate purchase, you probably don’t have a sense of just how tiring an evaluation can be. It takes you away from your normal activities, and that may be exciting for a bit, but writing RFP questions, grading the responses, talking to vendors and attending endless meetings can quickly become a drag. It’s no wonder that many prospects choose to cram all the vendor presentations into one day: it allows for easier scheduling and gets everything over at once. But demo marathons can be a disaster for vendors because the audience is often burned out after the first or second demonstration.
That is the argument for going first: you want to avoid presenting when your audience is getting tired. But if you can’t present first (often you are not in control of the order) there are a few other things you can do to be successful during a demo marathon
- Wow them in the first 2 minutes.
- Make coffee or caffeine containing soft drinks available
- Nail your follow-ups
- Change presenters several times
- Give them a rating sheet
This is a good rule for any presentation, but it applies particularly well when you are trying to deal with an overloaded audience. Studies have shown that people pay the most attention at the start and end of a presentation, so you want to make a powerful first impression. The critical factor here is to deliver your most important message first thing and make it memorable. Don’t waste time introducing your company, your team, etc… Instead, just tell them the one (or two, or three, if you can make it short) things that will matter most about your product. You can even say “If you forget everything else you see today, I want to be sure you remember these three things about our product…”
I have mentioned this before, but if you want your audience to be more receptive, you should make it available before your demo. Studies have shown that caffeine puts people in a more receptive mood. It has been suggested that this factor is more important than any other in a presentation. So bring that Starbucks coffee-in-a-box with you!
Almost every presentation I have given ends up with follow-up questions that could not be answered on the day of the presentation. Often these can drag on for a while and prospects or vendors will forget about them. If a prospect has just been through a demo marathon they will probably be getting the vendors mixed up in their heads after the demo. If you can follow up on any questions quickly, you will have an opportunity to stay top of mind. Instead of researching the answers to every question, get as many answers together as you can in 24 hours or less and send them to the prospect. Make sure to include the reasons why they should purchase your product along with your follow-up answers.
The rule about the start and end of the presentations commanding the most attention applies for each presenter. So that means if you change presenters often you have additional chances to deliver your message. Even if it is just the Salesperson standing up for 5 minutes to discuss company financials, breaking up the presenters can have a positive effect. Of course this needs to be choreographed well to avoid confusion, but it can increase the impact when you have an important message to deliver.
Although prospects often have some sort of rating sheets (I will have a post about that soon), you might consider giving them one for your product if they don’t. This is particularly effective if there is a large scripted demonstration. If you give them a grading sheet that follows their script and has a check box or rating box after each item you will encourage them to follow along with your demonstration. And if you are the only vendor that gave them a rating sheet it will make a very personal leave-behind that will be brought up in further discussions. Either way it will help keep their attention during a long demo day.
Those are just a few examples of ways to keep attention focused on your products during a demo marathon. I welcome other suggestions for readers in the comments.
In one of my earlier posts I talked about one reason why you should consider presenting last in a sales cycle: so that you can stand out in a crowded field. This is just one of the strategies that you can apply when you have lots of competition.
The biggest problem with having lots of competitors is not the competitors’ products, it’s the attention of the prospect. Most sales teams have never had the experience of sitting through multiple demonstrations, sifting through piles of RFP responses and having to put your familiar work environment aside for an extended period. But that is exactly what an evaluation team at a prospect goes through in a sales cycle, particularly one where there are lots of vendors on their preferred list.
What do I mean by a crowded field? If you have more than 3-4 competitors on a deal, the field is crowded. When I have been in deals with crowded fields, I have been amazed at just how confused prospects can get about the vendors. I remember one deal where a prospect regularly emailed me questions that were clearly intended for another vendor.
There are several strategies that can help you stand out in a crowded field:
- Have a personality
- Build trust with specific individuals at the prospect
- Focus on your product, not the competition
- Stick with the main message
- Stand out early
- Put yourself in the prospect’s shoes
Often prospects can’t keep all the salespeople from the various vendors straight. Showing a genuine personality during the sales cycle can help the prospect remember you and your product. This is especially true for Sales Engineers who are often expected to give “just the facts”.
It is inevitable that the prospect will get vendors confused in a crowded field, but if you have gone out of your way to build a relationship with a few individuals at the prospect, they can help you stand out in the evalutation. It does not matter whether the individuals are decision-makers or not, but it is helpful if they seem to be vocal. Your goal is to build an advocate or two that will speak up for your viewpoint in discussions.
In some deals it makes sense to set traps and focus on the competition, but this is not the case in a crowded field. The propsect is already confused enough about which vendor said what; you shouldn’t add to that confusion by talking about the competition even in a theoretical way. Focus on your product and how it will directly benefit the prospect.
Sales is all about flexibility and most successful sales cycles will diverge from the standard marketing message (or “brand”) of the product to win the deal. But if there are lots of competitors you should consider staying with your standard corporate message so that all your marketing materials and sales presentations are consistent. Keeping your message clear in the prospect’s mind is more important than tailoring it for that specific prospect when there are lots of competitors. You should absolutely focus on solving the prospect’s problems, but try to do so without moving too far away from your standard marketing message.
If there are many vendors early in a deal, it is tempting to just wait things out and see if you make the short list before investing in a deal. If you really believe you are column fodder then this strategy makes sense, but if you are confident you have a good shot you should come on strong and early. As a Sales Engineer you can do this by having a personality (see #1) and being willing to take risks early in the deal.
More than anything else you should think about what it is like to be the prospect when there are lots of vendors. Often individuals don’t have much choice about how many vendors they evaluate: the number might be set by upper management, company guidelines or one member of the evaluation team. Having empathy for the challenge being faced by the prospect can go a long way toward building a relationship that will help you as the field narrows.
In one of my earlier posts I talked about one reason why you should consider presenting first in a sales cycle: so that you can set traps for your competition. Setting traps is a delicate topic for most Sales Engineers: you can lose credibility quickly by slinging mud at the competition. But setting traps well can make all the difference in a competitive sales cycle.
The key to effectively setting traps is truly understanding the needs of your prospect combined with knowing the weaknesses of your competition. While it may be true that your competition has difficult to configure software your prospect may not care about this characteristic and setting a trap won’t be worth the effort.
The steps to setting an effective trap in a presentation are:
- Understand the specific needs of your prospect and areas where your product can clearly meet those needs
- Compare these strengths with the known weaknesses of your competition (using whatever competitive intelligence you might have)
- Bring these differences to light in a presentation (or demo) AFTER you have firmly established credibility
- Make a clear statement of comparison to your competition, such as, “Ask the other vendors whether they have this capability”
- Discuss the traps “during the break” with the prospect to ensure you hit the mark
Establishing credibility first is critical to success in setting traps. For a trap to be effective the prospect must challenge your competition directly in their presentation. If you don’t have credibility, and the trust that goes with it, the prospect won’t take action on your suggestions. It is because of this credibility that Sales Engineers are in a unique position to set traps during a presentation or demonstration.
Traps don’t have to be about product features or functions: they can be about anything you feel is weak in your competition AND matters to your prospect. You can set traps about company stability, overall product quality, ability to deliver or even demonstration style. When I was working at PeopleSoft one of our competitors, Lawson Software, set an extremely effective trap against us multiple times. They set the perception in the prospect’s mind that PeopleSoft was just a “tool” for creating applications and that Lawson, by comparison, was a fully-bake solution. Specifically they suggested that audience members should write down how many times the word “toolset” or “tool” was used during a PeopleSoft demonstration as a measure of the truth of that statement. Unfortunately we used those terms all the time to describe the flexibility of our product. It was only when we saw an audience member putting tic marks on their notes (and asked what they were doing) that we discovered the trap that had been set.
In one of my earlier posts I talked about one reason why you should consider presenting last in a sales cycle: because your prospect does not understand the value of your product. This brings up the question of how to balance educating a prospect and selling to them. Good Sales Engineers are masters at walking this fine line and know that to build credibility you need to do some education, but you can easily take that too far.
If you are presenting a product that is “disruptive” (to use a Bullspeak term common in Silicon Valley) then it will, by definition, be a challenge for a prospect to appreciate it’s value. Twitter is a great example. Almost every person I have ever spoken with about Twitter thought it was idiotic when they first heard the idea. Why would you want to hear peoples minute-by-minute ramblings? A friend of mine still calls it “Twittereah ” and many others question whether there is any value in Twitter at all. But with 30 Million users and growing it certainly has an audience. But understanding it’s value is going to take time and it is still a tough sell. Many other disruptive products are the same way: if they fundamentally change the game then selling them is an uphill battle.
So education must play a role in any sale of a disruptive product. One way to bridge the gap between education and selling is by making your presentations as personal as possible. If you are selling productivity software, then show the individuals involved real-world examples of how their quality of life will be improved. This will engage them and give them a desire to fully understand your product. The first reaction that most people have to something new is “I don’t see how that will work”. It’s easy to forget this reality, especially if you work with high technology. Most people in high tech see something new and say “Wow! Cool. Let me see what I can do with that”. These folks are the early-adopters and you are not going to find many of them to sell to in any market. See “Crossing the Chasm” for more on the characteristics of different buyers in a technology market.
The problem is if you spend your entire sales cycle educating the prospect on the value of the product. Although you may build a relationship during this period, it is also possible that your competition (that may not have even been engaged in the early part of the cycle) may swoop in later and present a much simpler view of the product. The end result could be that you are percieved as complex, while the competition looks like the elegant solution. You do the heavy lifting of educating the prospect and they come in and SELL.
That is why I gave the advice of going last in a sales cycle where you need to educate the prospect about your product. But if you have to educate a customer, don’t forget to continue selling during that process. The main difference is that selling means showing the relevance and value of your product to the product. Education is about understanding, selling is about creating desire. Both in equal measures will win the deal.
I have been asked by the folks at SoftwareCEO to put together a seminar to help smaller software companies with their demonstrations. I thought it might be good to start by outlining what I believe are seven important tips for having a killer demo. Follow these suggestions and you well on your way.
- Start your presentation with a demo
- Get enough sleep
- Make sure you have a few things nailed and show them first
- Use a day-in-the-life approach rather than feature dumps
- Make coffee or caffeine containing soft drinks available
- Do a dry run
- Bring a backup computer
This ties in with my post on the 30 second demo. People who come do a demo want to see product and you should do everything possible to show them what you can do as quickly as you can. It does not need to be long or involved, but it will calm down those “show me” types at the start.
It may seem strange to put this in as #2, but it really is important to be well rested before any sort of presentation. Demonstrations can be particularly taxing, both mentally and physically, so being well rested is critical. If you have to choose between doing final preparations and getting enough sleep, choose getting enough sleep.
First impressions go a long way in a demo. If you show a few relevant and powerful things in your demo right up front, you will have the audience on your side. If, instead, you do a “B-minus” job on a bunch of things, you will lose credibility fast. So prioritize the items you know you can knock out of the park and put them up front. Even if they have a script for the entire demo, suggest that you want to show a couple things up front to orient the group to your applications.
Whenever you can show a prospect/customer how they will use the application rather than the features you provide you will be at an advantage. “A Day in the Life” scenarios are good for this approach as you can guide them through what how the application will apply to the work they do. This works best if you have the chance to do some discovery with the prospect beforehand, but it is still effective if you are going in blind. I will probably do a longer post on this topic in the future.
I don’t drink coffee or anything else containing caffeine, but if you want your audience to be more receptive, you should make it available before your demo. Studies have shown that caffeine puts people in a more receptive mood. It has been suggested that this factor is more important than any other in a presentation. So bring that Starbucks coffee-in-a-box with you!
I already have a post on the importance of dry runs and you should absolutely do at least one dry run with the entire team at least 2 days before your demonstration. It is worth the time and effort.
Murphy’s Law definitely applies in demonstrations. Bring a backup computer (or at least a backup hard drive) and be ready to switch over quickly if needed. You can blame your problems on Microsoft Windows all you like, but the customer is still going to judge any problems you have in your demo on your software.
There are lots of other ways to give a killer demo. What are your suggestions?