The five things buyers don’t tell you

This blog was co-written with Jane James a management consultant and experienced software buyer who works with companies to help them evaluate software. Jane has sat through hundreds of demos. Some done well and others done badly, she has seen more sales lost by a poor demonstration than won by a good one.


According to Jane there are a few things buyers expect sellers to work out for themselves



1 - It’s not about the software.  It’s about you.

Yes, you’re coming along to demonstrate your software and how it can make our business operate better/faster/smarter.  And there are things we will need to see, to reassure ourselves that it does the job.


But we also know that the most feature-rich software in the world is no use to us if you don’t understand our business and our needs.  Anyone can make a simple piece of software work.  We’re going to need your help to get the benefits we expect from a sophisticated system like yours.


Does this mean we need you to show us all the parameters and how clever you are because you understand them?  That’s the quickest way to lose the sale.  We know that you understand the software – your company wouldn’t have used you for this really important demonstration if you didn’t.


The way to impress us is to ask us questions about our problems, demonstrate your understanding of them and reassure us that your system can solve them.   You need to make us feel we can trust you to do the best for us and our business


Maybe you’ll briefly show us a screen to convince us.  But please, please, don’t go through a lengthy set-up process to show us the detail.  Because even if you do, the chances are we won’t understand it.  


I’ve seen it so many times.  There’s a healthy buzz in the room, we think we understand the product, someone asks a question and – bang!  Set-up screen after set-up screen and we realise we don’t get this product at all. 


 Which leads us to -



2 - Your system’s new to us

Cast your mind back to the first time you saw your system.  Did you think, “Wow!  This is simple!  Give me an hour or two and I’ll be an expert!”


Or did you, even if only for a moment, think,  “It’s brilliant, but I’ll never ever learn it.”?


We’re at the stage you were at back then.  We don’t know your software and many of us may be seeing it for the first time.   You need to think very carefully about what you are going to show us and resist the temptation to show us the complicated stuff. 


You need to exercise some discipline and self-control.  After all, you work with the system because it has all these clever, sexy parameters and settings that make it fly, and they’re the parts of the system you’re proudest of and enjoy the most.  Unfortunately, they’re precisely the things that are going to frighten us off.    


We need to know that your system is sophisticated enough to meet the needs of our business (which as far as we’re concerned are much more complicated than anyone else’s) but simple enough for us to use without months of training. 


And no, you can’t get away with poor explanation by periodically checking whether we understand what you’ve shown us.  This is what happened on a recent demonstration.  The pre-sales person told us about the internal checks his finance system makes before closing a period.  Every few sentences he asked if we understood.  No-one had a clue.  But they weren’t going to say so – the boss was in the room and they didn’t want to look stupid.  But after the demonstration, the soundings were that the system was too complicated and it got marked down as a result.  All because the pre-sales person showed us something we never needed to see in the first place.


Think about the safety briefing in an aircraft.  The cabin crew tell you what you need to know in case of emergency.  The information is manageable, memorable and brief.  Now imagine if they told everything that the pilot and crew would be doing behind the scenes as they attempted to land the aircraft.  Doesn’t make you feel so relaxed, does it?  All those knobs and buttons, all those procedures, so many things that could go wrong…..


That’s why they only tell you what you need to know.  And it’s why you choose to fly with a reputable airline rather than Tinpot Airways.  You trust them to look after you.  You trust they’ll have people and systems in place to make sure that you get to where you want to be safely.  You don’t need to see behind the curtain.


So, make sure we understand how to navigate the user interface, how to get context-sensitive help and how the validation in the system stops us from making dangerous mistakes.   But when you’re thinking about what to show us, less is more. 


3 - What we say we want might not be the truth

Of course we don’t lie to you deliberately.  But we make assumptions.  We’ll be completely convinced that we need a pen that writes upside down, and we’ll insist you demonstrate you can provide one. 


What we actually need might be a pencil.


Here’s a software example: a financial controller who was adamant that he needed his new system to export data in a particular format to a strict set of parameters, with user-specified date ranges, departments – you name it, he wanted it.  Two of the short-listed suppliers proposed adding a bespoke module to their offering – at a healthy additional cost.  The third supplier took the trouble to ask why the financial controller wanted it.  Turned out that was the only way of getting a particular report in the old system.  But all three of the short-listed systems could have produced the reporting he wanted as a standard feature.


It’s our job to tell you what we need to achieve.  It’s your job to tell us how we do that using your system and your expertise.  You need to make sure that we’re telling you our problem, not our presumed solution.   You’ll need to ask us intelligent and insightful questions to tease out our assumptions.  One of the best questions we were ever asked in a demonstration: “We can give you x, but can you first tell me about the problem you are wanting to solve with it?”


4 – Silence is golden



You’ve planned your demonstration brilliantly, you’ve asked incisive questions, you’ve engaged with us and shown that you understand our business needs.  It’s all going better than you dared hope: you’re excited, the sales person is drooling…..  What could go wrong?


Stop talking.  You need to give us time to think.


A great deal of what we’ve heard and seen is new – not just the information about your company and the product, but also the fresh insights you’ve given us into our own business. If you want us to remember all this good stuff, you’ll have to be methodical about how you deliver it.  Give us an hour of non-stop interaction and we’re going to forget some of it. Deliver it in bite-sized chunks, and then stop.  Then we have time to think about what you’ve just told us.


We were in a demonstration last year of a product that was a pretty good fit.  We’d submitted some quite technical questions about how it would resolve some knotty business problems and they were all answered in the demonstration.  But it was relentless.  The demonstrator talked fast and talked non-stop and after she’d gone, we were all wiped out - punch-drunk.  They got the sale in the end, but it was a lengthier process than it should have been and they won despite the demonstration, not thanks to it.


Many of us feel uncomfortable in social situations when there’s silence, particularly with people we’ve only just met.  If you’re one of them, be aware of it, and work on overcoming your instinct to cover silence with noise.  You can tell us you’re giving us a few minutes to mull things over, if that helps.  When sales people give us time to assimilate information, important questions and discussion points often arise.


Similarly, if we ask you a question and you need time to think about it, don’t be afraid to say so.  If there isn’t time on the day, you can get back to us after the meeting.  But if you promise us an answer, make sure you follow up.  We’ll have made a note of it, and if you don’t deliver, you’ll lose credibility.  


As a marketing director once said to us, “If they can’t get back to you with what they’ve promised when they’re trying to woo you into a sale, what hope have you got once you’ve signed the contract?”



5 - We want you to do well

Do you have any idea how long it took us to get all those people to agree on a date?  And then to find an available room that’s big enough to hold the meeting?  How many moans and complaints we’ve had about why they have to see all the demonstrations, and can’t we just make a decision about a new finance system without the Finance Director being there.  Or arrange separate face-to-face demonstrations with everyone individually? 


Of course we want you to do well: we look like idiots if you don’t.  So if you need information in advance of the demonstration (and if you think you don’t, re-read everything above!) just ask us.


At the very least, we expect you to ask for a list of the attendees, their job titles and what each wants to get out of the demonstration – framed in terms of the problems they need solved, not the solutions they expect to implement.  An organisation chart helps you to put the people into context.  Use social media to find out more about their backgrounds: sometimes it helps to know that the CEO is an accountant or that the COO has always worked in the public sector. 


And at least you won’t make the mistake one pre-sales person did of greeting the only man in the room with, “You must be Chris.”   Not a good way to impress our CEO, Christina.


Our Winning Demos programme will help you turn software demos into sales.  To find out how we can help you contact us at or call 00 44 (0)20 7148 4766


Image by Maria Thompson