How to Demo Your SaaS Product

Nailed it.

I love giving demos. In any considered B2B SaaS purchase, the product demo is often a key part of the sales process. In the early days, before you have messaging or case studies, when founders are doing nearly 100% of the demos, it’s also one of the best ways to learn about your market. Nearly 100% of the insider vocab in my market was learned by asking questions during demos. They’re awesome.

As we grew out of founder demos at Salsify and both hired and promoted employees to full time closers doing many of their own demos, I realized that demo’ing software is an unnatural act. Most inclinations people have on how and why to present a demo are wrong and actively harmful to a sales cycle.

Talking to other friends that advise startups, it sounds like many founders — especially technical founders that haven’t previously done much if any selling — struggle to give a good demo as well.

I wrote a document explaining key points on how to give a strong product demo to help scale up our sales team, and I’m sharing a trimmed down version here to help the next batch of SaaS startups get up and running faster.

Feedback very welcome!

Goals of the Demo

First, let’s be clear about what the demo is not. Contrary to popular opinion, the primary goal of a demo is not to demo your product!

Let me say that again: the goal of the demo is not to demo your product.

Instead, the goals of the demo are:

  1. Identify the prospect’s pain that they’re hoping to solve (QUALIFY!)
  2. Identify if your product is a good fit to solve the pain (QUALIFY!)
  3. Leave the prospect believing that (1) your product is a great solution to the pain and (2) your employees really know their stuff

I will repeat this many times, but the demo is a tool. It is a means to an end, not the end itself. It is a prop. It is the backdrop behind which the main event takes place, where the main event is the conversation.

You are not looking to teach someone to use your product. This is not a tutorial. You are looking to show them just enough of your product to crush the above goals, and that very often requires very few clicks.

I personally have given “demos” where I bring up the main screen of Salsify and not clicked a single time in 30 minutes, and moved the sales cycle forward, eventually to close. It’s a backdrop.

The rest of this document will explain how to give an awesome demo.

Demo Building Blocks

Before talking about the demo itself, it’s important to know some key requirements and anti-requirements of a strong demo.

Requirements of an Awesome Demo

All great demos share a few key characteristics. Mess up any of these and your demo will stink.

  • Prospect Agrees on Pain. If you cannot get the prospect to describe the specific problem they’re hoping to solve (“Why did you even take this call? What are you hoping to see?”) your demo will almost always stink. Moreover, you have not meaningfully advanced the sales cycle and basically wasted all the energy you/your team put into scheduling the demo in the first place. FIGURE OUT WHY THEY’D WANT TO USE YOUR PRODUCT!
  • You Build Trust and are Seen as Credible. Especially in the early days, the prospect won’t have heard of you much before the demo. Fluency in industry vocabulary and trends, any existing case studies and value, titles and competitors, the functionality of the product, etc. is key to sounding credible.
  • You Have a Solid Next Step. Leaving them to “think about it and we’ll get back to you” is not a solid next step. Going into the demo you need to have a plan on where you expect to move the sales cycle.

NON-Requirements of an Awesome Demo

These are NOT required to make a demo awesome. That is, if you don’t do these things, it might not matter at all.

  • Finish the Entire Demo Path. Young reps giving their first bunch of demos fall into this trap all the time. The point of the demo is not to show the demo! If you ask a question about catalog usage (ie — “how do you get information to your long-tail distributors?”) that gets a lukewarm answer and then show them anyway, you’ve just wasted their time.
  • Follow the Demo Path At All. The demo is meant to be a backdrop, almost like the set in a play, and not the thing to focus on. A great demo makes sure to hit the parts of the product that really serve to solve the pain identified in the pre-Q&A (you did try to figure out what made them interested enough to get on the phone, right?), not show the whole kitchen sink. Leave it conversational.

No demo path survives contact with a prospect.

The reason I emphasize these things is that you might have thought through, written down, and rehearsed a killer demo path.

Other Key Demo Elements

These are absolutely key things to keep in mind when doing a demo. Each is critical to making the difference between a meh and awesome demo.

  • Say No. If you try to pretend that your product can do every last little thing the customer asks about, then they will be thinking, “What’s the catch?” If you promise everything you’re really promising nothing. By saying ‘no’ to at least one thing during the call, you make all your yeses more believable. There are many ways to say ‘no’ other than “we can’t do that”. You can say, “We hear that a lot from our current customers, but unfortunately that’s one area where we have some more work to do”. By leading with “We hear that from our customers” you are implicitly saying, “our customers see that but still find value in us”. You can also say, “I gotta be honest, we can solve that problem but it’s a little wonky and definitely an area where we can improve”.
  • It’s OK to Say “I Don’t Know”. Similar to above, don’t try to BS your way through a question you’re unsure about. If you get caught BSing you’re dead in the water because you lost their trust. Most people you’re talking to are going to know more about their business and industry than you will ever know. It’s much safer to say, “You know, I’m not sure; can you tell me more about that?” Worst case you write down the question and have a reason to get back the prospect soon after the demo with an answer.
  • Don’t Answer Based on What You Think You Heard; Clarify. Very often a prospect will ask you something that maybe doesn’t make sense at first blush. Don’t immediately try to answer it! It’s a very, very common tendency to answer a question directly based on what you think you heard. If you’re at all unsure, play the question back to the prospect to make sure you understood what they’re asking before attempting to ask it.
  • Do Not Presume. You do not know the prospect’s business and pain. It’s nearly always better to say, “most of our customers have this data in spreadsheets, not sure if you do or not” and get the prospect to agree rather than say, “you probably have all of this other data in spreadsheets” and be wrong. Saying “you have” or “you probably have” and being wrong absolutely kills your credibility and, frankly, makes you a little bit of a know-it-all jerk. Remember, “Customers like XYZ had this problem; that the same for you?” So much better.
  • A Demo is Not A Tutorial. A demo is not a “how-to”. You’re not teaching the prospect how to use your product. They aren’t going to learn how to use it on this call. Use the product as a backdrop, but answer the question vocally. If you try to show all the steps to do something in the product your chances of messing up are higher, and they’re going to be confused anyway. Sometimes it’s OK in the right situation, but usually not.
  • EQCRC. Encourage Question Confirm Respond Check. This is an awesome Q&A pattern to use to develop empathy with a prospect. Example:
    Prospect: “Getting started seems like a lot of work.”
    Me (Encourage & Question): “Yeah, I can totally understand that reaction. It does take some effort to get started depending on how many widgets you’ll be loading. About how many widgets do you think you’ll be maintaining?”
    Prospect: “Maybe about 40.”
    Me (Confirm & Respond & Check): “Yeah; 40 can definitely seem overwhelming. But the good news is that it’s a one-time effort that our Customer Success team really helps you out with at the beginning. We have customers with well over 100, and the started getting lots of value after the initial handful to their key retailers were set up. That make sense?”
  • Earn the Right to Ask Questions. When you show them something you can think of it as earning the right to ask a question about them. Tit for tat. “You can see here we have 3000-some widgets loaded into the system from some of our customers like XYZ. How many widgets do you have?” Use this technique to learn about them over the course of the demo. Likewise, if they ask a question of you, you can ask one of them after you respond. Key is to make it feel like a conversation not an interrogation.

Pre-Demo Conversation

This is the period of a demo call before you dive into the demo, and is, in fact, THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE CALL. Seriously. If you get nothing else right in a demo you absolutely must get this part right.

GOALS OF THE PRE-DEMO

  1. Identify the Pain. The absolute very most important thing is to get the prospect to describe the pain they’re hoping to solve with Salsify. If you cannot do this your chance of having an awesome demo and moving the sales cycle forward are not good. Line to use: “Just so I make sure I focus the demo on what’s most important for you, why did you take this call? What are you hoping to see?” A good followup (if they haven’t answered already) is to dig inwith one more question to find out a little more about how they’re solving it today.
  2. Tailor the Demo Path. Now that you know the pain, you know what part of the product they are most likely to be excited about. Also, you might learn whether they reasonably technical or not, and other factors that will change what you show and how you describe it.

Q: But what if you discover they’re not a good fit? This is a tough one, but it happens. Frankly you’re most often a lot better off giving an overview as to what key problem your product solves quickly (ie — verbally without a demo) and figuring out if there is either someone else in the organization that you should be talking to than wasting your and the non-prospect’s time.

WHAT TO AVOID IN THE PRE-DEMO

Once you know what their key pain is stop interrogating them. Almost any other question that you might want to ask during the call can be asked more conversationally in the course of the demo.

Remember the general piece of sales advice: you have to give to get. You earn the right to ask questions. By showing them something you earn the right to ask more about them (this is just an instinctive thing; if you ask 10 questions in a row most people will start feeling, “who is this person to interrogate me like this?”).

This all said, some prospects love to talk and are happy to go on and on. Also I’ve seen charming sales reps interrogate the bejesus out of a prospect without annoying them. I don’t have that power, so I quit when I’m ahead.

Do The Demo

Once you know the pain, give your product overview and whatever demo path you want, but for the love of Pete make it conversational. If you’re droning on showing your product for more than a minute or two at a time they’ll start to tune out (everyone has ADD) and, more importantly, you lose the ability to learn more about them! Also it’s way more fun.

Inexperienced reps and overly enthusiastic founders will plow through a demo, feature by feature, area of the product by area of the product, droning on for 10, 15, 20 minutes straight. Remember, you’re not trying to teach them about your product. Further, people don’t buy features, they buy solutions, trust, and relationships.

So stop and ask questions about them and their business as it relates to areas of the product. Learn what’s hard and not. Expand on the pain you already uncovered and quantify elements of it if you can.

Old sales adage: two ears, one mouth, use in proportion.

Personally, I like to keep my entire demo path under 5 minutes, and I expect it to be able to carry an entire 30 minute call.

Onward

I love giving demos, and it makes me sad that I don’t get to do them much anymore. Every so often my co-founders and I will sit on a call and pretend to be a pre-sales engineer, and it’s a blast.

I hope this guide is helpful, and that through it you learn more about your market, build trust, create relationships, and love demos yourself.