Making Software Demos Productive

It can be a huge time-waster to sit through software demonstrations. But there are ways to take control and make these sessions matter

Here are a few things, in no particular order, that this small business owner (and die-hard Phillies fan) would rather do than sit through a software demo: Shave my tongue. Travel to North Korea. Watch a cricket match. Root for the Mets.

Unfortunately, I'm forced to sit through more software demonstrations than the average guy. That's because I'm in the tech business. I sell business software to small companies. See, if our technology isn't a good fit, clients often hire us to help them find something else. Here's what I think about most of the demos I've seen from software vendors: They suck. They're often a big waste of time.

Don't these guys get it? Enough with the Microsoft (MSFT) PowerPoint presentations, the technospeak, the pointing and clicking and shuffling. Enough with the chitchat, the bad jokes, laptops that freeze up, and blurry projectors. I realize that some of this stuff is unavoidable. But please—let's keep it to a minimum. Just give me the bottom line. Show me how your software will solve my problem. MY problem. Not some fake company called "Adventure Land Industries" that sells playground equipment and fertilizer.

But you don't have to simply endure software demos. You can take control. You can even make them productive. Here are a few ways how:

Make the vendor do two demos. The first is a "tell me" demo. That's their chance to sing, dance, spit fire, and regale you with stories of just how superwonderful their product is. When that propaganda is done, you schedule a second session. This is called the "show me" demo. It's the real demo. Supply the vendor with your data. Give the vendor a few of your scenarios (such as placing an order, recording a sale, etc.) and then say, "Show me." Don't believe it until you see it.

Have an agenda. Agree on what you're going to discuss in advance. I don't like being in a car when someone else is driving. I need possession of the remote control at all times. And I don't like being in meetings where people I hardly know—especially software vendors—tell me when I can get up and go. Make sure the vendor focuses on the 20% to 30% of the app that you'll actually need, and not the fluff (like "advanced order processing" and "digital dashboard alerting processes").

Agree on a stop time. The vendor should be able to show you what you need in 90 minutes. And have your office manager call your cell phone when the agreed time approaches so you can make a graceful exit if the vendor is still rattling on.

Minimize on-site demos with their time-consuming hellos, goodbyes, and drivel about soccer games and vacations (do we have to learn all about the salesperson's life details, too)? It's 2008, and there's something called the Internet. Most of this stuff can be done online, without having to host some software vendor and his suitcase full of matrimonial complaints. Bring the guy on-site when you're much further along in the process.

Ask about pricing up front. A common trait among vendors is that they try to leave the pricing of their products to the very last minute. It's like some closing trick they picked up at a cheesy sales seminar. Don't fall for it. Start the demo by asking how much. You'll know the salesman is lying if he says, "Oh, I need to check on that." Trust me. He knows what it all costs. And we know it's overpriced, too. So let's just save everyone some time here and determine right off the bat whether this software is even in the ballpark. Leave the negotiations to later. But make sure to act shocked ("Excuse me, sir?") when you hear the initial price so the vendor knows that a discount request is surely in the cards.

Focus on the output. No matter what the software vendors tell you, no matter what features, colors, language, pop-ups, pinups, or push-ups they demonstrate, never forget that what you're getting is just a big old database. In the end, you're going to need data from that database—be it in a report, an invoice, a packing slip, a layoff notice. So zero in on the output. When you have the "show me" demo, make sure you're shown how all of this will look. And find out what's involved if the output isn't to your liking. It's easy to customize? Really? Well, here's my invoice. Go ahead and customize it. Now. While I watch.

Ask the vendor about the competition. This is not forbidden. The competition is out there, and if the vendor knows what he's doing then he better well know what his competition is doing. What makes his product better than theirs? Ask him to rattle off five benefits of choosing his application over someone else's. Ask him to compare pricing and talk about features. And if your vendor starts bashing another vendor, guess what? Maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe your vendor loves his product so much that he's offended that you would even be considering an alternative. I like that kind of passion!

Don't be nice. Crashes should be unacceptable. Lack of demo data is embarrassing. Blaming the computer when things go wrong is a no-no. Your gut may be right—if the software doesn't work well in a demo environment, exactly how is it going to work in real life? There may be good reasons when something goes wrong during a demo. Ask. You'll have plenty of time to get answers during that awkward pause while the vendor's computer is rebooting.

Maybe I'm being just a little too harsh on the software vendors. But these are ways to minimize the pain and make the sessions more productive. And maybe sitting through a demo really isn't that bad—hey, it couldn't be worse than watching the Mets play.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.