A young man demonstrates technology to a group of other young men.
There are many questions -- and many preparation steps -- to ensuring a successful technology vendor demonstration. PHOTO: COD Newsroom

Any strong enterprise technology selection will have a vendor demonstration somewhere in the process. Technology selection experts told CMSWire your technology selection team needs to be in control of the process, ensuring the vendor demonstrates the value of the tool for your specific business use case. And you must always be on alert, as Tony Byrne of Real Story Group suggests, “Avoid vendor sleight of hand where they show you something off-script to distract your attention from a shortcoming,” he wrote in a blog about vendor demonstrations

We caught up with some practitioners who have been on selection teams and have helped others with their technology selections. They offer tips on making the most of your vendor demonstrations.

Grill Them on Integrations

Nick Switzer, development director at Denver-based Elevated Third, says technology selection teams must ask vendors how they'd recommend integrating the demo product with their own platforms. This will help your teams with implementation specifics that allows you to understand your potential vendor's expertise in your area of concern. “This may not be important if you have in-house experts, but, even if you do, this can help determine the level of effort required from your team to integrate a new product into your company's existing ecosystem,” says Switzer

Switzer offers this Drupal-based example. If that open source web content management system is your organization's marketing hub and your team wants to select a new marketing automation platform, you should be able to see a contributed Drupal module maintained by the company that is conducting the demo. 

"This can help cut through the ‘canned demo’ approach you see often in these situations by forcing the rep giving the demo to talk through specifics of integrating with a platform that is important to your company.”

Set the Stage

Be sure to give the vendor a comprehensive overview of the company and its goals as they relate to the technology being considered, as well as the drivers for looking at new technology, said Cathy McKnight, vice president of consulting for Digital Clarity Group. “Providing an overview of the affected technical landscape — systems in play, what is being added/taken away, important integrations — will enable the vendor to ensure they are demonstrating and talking to what is important to you, as well as set them up to be able to ask the right questions,” McKnight says.

Don’t Focus Features, Capabilities

Carl Agers, senior vice president of marketing services at Hero Digital, called getting vendor demos right “a critical topic.” "Far too often, the focus is on reviewing vendors’ features and capabilities and then receiving a demo that does not reflect each brands’ reality. I recommend spending time internally determining the most critical day-to-day needs that are unique to a brand and industry, especially if regulated or complex," says Agers.

Alert the Vendor of Your Needs and Create an Agenda

Don’t let the vendor decide what they will or won’t show during a demonstration. Before the demo, provide a written, even if in email, brief on the prioritized features or needs. “If prioritized well, there should be time to demonstrate the features in a single meeting. Vendors should then be asked to ensure they address the needs from the brief. On demo day, start with an agenda for the meeting that lists the features requested in the brief,” says Agers.

“Be sure to have scenes for the vendor to play out that show how their technology will address and correct current issues/challenges — the reasons why you are considering new technology — as well as some of the new features and functions you are looking to add to your capabilities,” says McKnight. 

Using this approach, if the vendor uses a canned demo of the product, the audience can ask specific questions that relate to the needs the vendor received in advance. “If they are reluctant or avoid addressing the requests, it’s a good indication that the solution will be harder to meet your needs and likely either can’t do it or will require significant customizations,” Agers states.

McKnight suggests that you “be practical” for 90 percent of the demonstration, focusing on what you need and can feasibly see implementing. The other 10 percent? Let the vendor show off the "bells and whistles." This will allow you to understand what the technology can do for you now, and in the near future, as well as give ideas of what you can look forward to.

Get to Know Your Vendor

Switzer suggested taking time to do some research and getting to know your potential vendor before the demo. This is most common in the B2B Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) space, but vendors make a ton of information available to you, the consumer, on their websites. “Typically, this takes the form of blog posts, whitepapers or case studies. Spend a little time, just 30 minutes can do the trick, to get familiar with what the company you're talking to views as their key features and customer success stories,” says Switzer.

Put together some pointed questions about these resources that will pull your contact off-script and get them talking about actual customers' real experiences with their product. 

“Additionally, spend some time with any third party review sites that can help give you an idea of experiences customers are having with this company that are not being curated by the company itself, keeping in mind that often times these sites can attract reviews at both extreme ends of the spectrum,” he says.

Set the Cast List

Be prescriptive in who participates in the demo on both sides of the table. Give your vendor the roster from your side, and tell the vendor whom you’d like to see participate and lead the demonstration from their side (i.e: the product team, not the sales team). “Having a blend of sales, project leaders and product/technical management in the room will help ensure you have the vendor representatives with the knowledge to answer your questions there and then,” says McKnight. She also advises inviting any implementation partners who may be involved.

Don't Be Afraid to Ask for a Trial Period

No demo will ever be as effective an evaluation as the opportunity to get your hands dirty and actually use the product you are considering, according to Switzer. “This will be a more significant time investment, so I wouldn't recommend moving forward with this unless you feel satisfied with what you know about the product up to this point," he says.