Stunningly Awful Demos: Insufficient Customization


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Many vendors say that their demos are “customized” – but are they sufficiently customized?

I recently saw demos from a vendor that all followed exactly the same script – the “customization” consisted of questions from the presenter about the degree of relevance of various features – such as, “Is this something you do?”

The prospect’s responses were largely negative and showed increasing irritation as the demo proceeded, and prospect ended up purchasing a competitor’s product.When I queried the vendor about their approach, they said, “We do discovery and customization on the fly…”

In a second example, an ERP vendor showed a demo with manufacturing data to a pharma house – and was shown the door.

Another vendor had demo data that aligned well with the prospect’s industry but went through detailed step-by-step workflows in their demo to the prospect’s senior managers.This vendor also didn’t get the business.

In a fourth instance, a prospect requested “a brief overview”.The vendor responded with a 90-minute “introductory” agenda and demo – which the prospect terminated after 30 minutes.(And the vendor never got to “the best stuff” in the demo…!)

Another vendor reported a demo disaster when the prospect brought 25 people with a wide variety of job titles to the demo.The prospect said the vendor’s software looked “way too confusing and complicated”.Interestingly, the prospect chose a more expensive vendor’s solution – but one that “appeared tailor-made for our situation”.

All five of these vendors claimed they had “customized the demo”, but it is clear that the level of customization was inadequate in the cases above.In each case, these prospects purchased from other vendors whose demos were perceived as “focused”, “targeted”, “tightly tailored” and “custom”.

Sufficient customization is defined by the prospect, not the vendor…!

Suspend Disbelief

One of our objectives in a demo is to “suspend disbelief”.Anything perceived by the prospect as fake or not real hurts our cause – the closer the offering appears to prospects’ real-life situations, the better. 

In the cases above, disbelief was generated each time the prospect observed a mismatch with their situation:

In the first example, the mismatch occurred when the prospect felt that the vendor was just guessing about their needs (insufficient discovery).

In the second case, the demo data was too far from the prospect’s world to be believable.

In the third, a more subtle situation, the prospect’s executives were shown staff member workflows that the execs would never run themselves and were never shown the dashboards and reports that they desired.This is a case of being out of alignment with the job title. 

In number four, the prospect wanted a brief sample, just a taste of the product to get an idea of what was possible.This is where a Vision Generation Demo should have replaced a Harbor Tour…

In the final example, the vendor tried to embrace the interests of a (very) broad range of job titles and ended up satisfying none, while generating a negative impression of an overly complex and confusing offering.

How can we avoid these SAD (Stunningly Awful Demo) outcomes?Let’s reexamine demo customization!

Customization Dimensions

There are (at least) five major dimensions to demo customization that need to be considered:

  • Buying Cycle Stage
  • Industry/Geography/Demographics
  • Job Title
  • Workflows vs. Reports and Dashboards
  • Discovery

Alignment with each of these contributes to successful demos.

Buying Cycle Stage

In the fourth example, the prospect that requested a brief overview was inflicted with (what would have been) a 90 minute “intro” demo.When I asked the vendor, “What happened?” they responded, “The 90-minute demo is our overview – it’s the shortest demo we deliver…!”

Clearly, the vendor and prospect were out of alignment.The prospect was very early in their buying process and only wanted to get an idea of what is possible, while the vendor assumed that the prospect wanted to see a live catalog of capabilities.

While the 90-minute demo might have been useful for prospects who were much further down their purchasing pathway, the prospect in this example needed a demo customized in terms of length for their situation.A Vision Generation Demo would have been the solution…!

Here are five Buying Cycle Stages to consider:

  1. I’m just browsing and simply want to get an idea of what is possible for the future…
  2. I’m early in an active buying process and need to understand which vendors to explore…
  3. I need to get a deeper understanding of each vendors’ offerings…
  4. I’ve seen a number of demos and now have questions about some specific capabilities…
  5. I need something to help me communicate and sell internally.

Each of these requires demos with different lengths and content – each require customization, accordingly.Also, note that each may also require different amounts of pre-demo discovery. 

A simple approach would be to ask your prospect, “What is your objective for the demo – and how deep into our offering would you like us to go?”Their response may provide you with critical guidance for the demo meeting…!


This dimension is the most obvious, perhaps.Demo data and terminology need to align to prospects’ perceptions.In the ERP example, the demo data for a manufacturing scenario was considered way out of alignment by the pharma prospect – they actually said, “You don’t understand our business…”

Many industries consider their situations to be unique and specific – pharma is a good example (and even within pharma there are multiple subsets of perceived uniqueness – chemistry vs. biology, discovery vs. development, clinical trials vs. approved entity…).

Note that it is not only the demo data that matters here, but also terminology

Use of industry-specific vocabulary is also a form of customization, particularly for vendors whose offerings span a range of industries.Compliance and regulatory software products are often subject to these constraints – U.S. vs. EU vs. Asia Pacific regulations are examples, and within a region there may be a range of differing requirements based on the industry (e.g., HIPAA, PCI-DSS, GLBA, FISMA, HACCP – a regular alphabet soup of acronyms…!).

In this case, both the demo data as well as the presenter’s verbal delivery need to be in alignment.

Other demographics can also impact the ability to suspend disbelief.When I worked in Switzerland (tough duty), I learned how a U.S.-headquartered company can often miss the mark.In our demo databases we had U.S. names, job titles, addresses, phone numbers, and other demographic data – none of which aligned with our European prospects’ usage.This created an instant credibility gap, with our prospects commenting, “Your system only appears to work for U.S. scenarios…”

The article, A Perfect Demo Environment, explores these ideas further.

Job Title

One key Great Demo! concept is to align demo components with the Specific Capabilities needed by each relevant Job Title.A complete Great Demo! Situation Slide for each Job Title is a simple way to know that you are prepared for a demo and is a huge step in pragmatic customization.

As an example, contemplate possible prospect Job Titles for a CRM system and desired capabilities.They might include:

  • Chief Revenue Officer:Needs accurate forecast and pipeline reporting for new-name customers and renewals/expansions from existing customers.
  • Front-line Sales Manager:Needs an accurate forecast for the local team, plus insight into reps’ strengths and weaknesses to enable coaching.
  • Sales Rep:Wants the minimum effort required to enter and update opportunity info.
  • Presales Leadership:Wants to see status and timing of opportunity progression from discovery to demo to POC along with opportunity size.
  • Presales Practitioner:Needs discovery info to propose a precise solution, prepare demos, POC success criteria, etc.
  • Head of Marketing:Needs to track lead generation, lead progression, conversion, renewals, expansion, and churn.
  • Marketing Manager:Needs to build, execute and track marketing campaigns.
  • Sales Operations:Understand and manage territory loading, compensation and quota attainment; also concerned about CRM system “hygiene”.
  • Sales/Presales Enablement:Needs to track onboarding, time-to-effectiveness, implementation and adoption of sales and presales methodology and plays.
  • Customer Success:Needs to know the use cases and Value Realization Events for newly closed customers, renewal dates, and churn information.
  • CRM System Admin:Wants to understand system setup, ongoing administration, permissions, custom report building, etc.

That’s eleven job titles…!Now imagine a single demo script that seeks to address all of these needs and interests – you just embarked on an extensive Harbor Tour, but one that constantly crisscrosses the harbor, touching briefly at one attraction before being whisked to another.Confusing, complicated, ineffective, and at risk of severe seasickness!

Instead, customize your demo by addressing each Job Title individually, in order of rank or importance.Break your overall demo into chunks – consumable components – first by Job Title and then by Specific Capability.(Great Demo! Workshops teach exactly how to do this).

Workflows vs. Reports and Dashboards

Consider what you do each Monday morning – the start of your work week.The portions of the software you use are highly dependent on your specific Job Title and level in your organization.

If you are an executive, you likely will browse dashboards and examine reports to track progress, study trends, identify problem areas, explore opportunities, and surface exceptions.Your findings manifest as tasks for your team and often flow to the middle managers who report to you.(“Why are we seeing an uptick in abandoned carts on our website?”)

As a middle manager, you may start by accessing these same or similar reports and dashboards but will likely drill down a level or two deeper to characterize the task before assigning it to a staff member.You may also trigger or progress relevant workflows for your team.(“Bob, I need you to find out what is happening with the increase in cart abandonment over the last month…”)

Staff members execute the workflows, processing the details of the tasks.High-level dashboards and reports are meaningless; their “dashboards” are more often task lists.(“Hey boss, I found out that the cart abandonment is tied to slow page loading – we need to adjust those parameters…”)

Demos need to be customized based on both Job Title and usage level.Presenting detailed workflows to executives is correspondingly out of alignment; presenting high-level dashboards and reports to staffers is similarly so.

Careful definition of the Specific Capabilities desired on a Job-Title-by-Job-Title basis drives task-based customization.(Warning – Self-Promotion Alert:Again, we teach this in Great Demo! Workshops.)


In the first example the vendor noted that they “do discovery and customization on the fly…”This is a very common strategy – and often yields poor results.It is, frankly, a very lazy approach…!

While it makes demo prep “easy” (since little prep is actually done), it relies on constant probing and “pivoting” to give the appearance of relevance.Sadly, most presenters who apply this strategy are light on probing and heavy on showing – and often tend to show first, probe second…!

These Harbor Tour demos present capabilities that are not needed or desired, making the offering appear complicated and confusing – an “overkill” solution that is often perceived as too expensive in the mind of the prospect.These demos also often completely miss key prospect needs or situational information, since the conversation follows what is being demonstrated – the discussion is bound and largely limited to what you are showing.

The moral here is simple:do discovery first, then demonstrate based on what you learn!Customization takes place almost automatically, reflecting the capabilities that align to the prospect’s pains, needs, and situational information uncovered in discovery.

Note that Vision Generation Demos offer a delightful approach to satisfying a prospect’s desire to “see what’s possible” while moving (gently, but firmly) into a discovery conversation.

Another Discovery Dimension

Imagine a situation where a vendor has an extensive discovery conversation with the prospect, but then ignores the discovery information when delivering the demo…!

This happened to me – and it was, frankly, insulting.As the prospect, my team and I invested several hours in discovery conversations with a vendor, only to have them present what was clearly their “standard” demo to us, ignoring all that we had previously shared.

Their demo covered capabilities that we didn’t need; it included meaningless excursions to irrelevant parts of their software, and the vendor failed to present many of the key capabilities we had identified as most important.That SAD vendor was removed from the running…

The moral here is simple:when you do discovery, make sure you incorporate your findings in the resulting demo customization!

Some Small Things

Small levels of customization can be surprisingly effective – here are a few examples:

  • Logo:Adding your prospect’s logo (used with permission) or other prospect branding can be an easy way to increase perceived customization.We also recommend using the prospect’s logo (again, used only with permission) on Great Demo! Situation Slides.
  • Time of Day:A simple check, “What time would be best for you and your team?” can gain positive comments from your prospect.A colleague just reported that she (as a prospect) was offered a 6:00 AM slot for a demo – she’s on the U.S. West Coast and the vendor was in New York.The vendor thought, “9:00 AM is comfortable…” apparently without considering how that translated to Pacific Time…!
  • Prospect Names and Other Identifiers (people, products, locations):This type of customization can be done before the demo, during, or both.Before the demo, you can input prospect-specific names and data for the applicable dashboards, reports, and workflows.During the demo, instead of using “test” or other obviously fake data, use the prospect’s real names and data (this is known as “Customer Fill In” in Great Demo!).Suspend disbelief!
  • Signage:When vendor organizations are back to hosting prospect visitors in face-to-face meetings, including the prospect’s company name on a “welcome” sign or monitor is a nice touch.
  • Zoom/Webex/Teams Meeting Naming:While many vendors send web meeting invitations out with their product name as the default meeting Subject line, others include the prospect’s company name to “customize” right from the first interaction…!

The Appearance of Customization

Other than the Small Things items above, how do we sufficiently customize our demos for our various audiences without investing hours and hours in preparation?Goooood question…!

Our objective is to achieve high levels of perceived customization with the least possible work.We need to find ways to make it appear that we’ve tailored everything to our prospect’s specific situation – but do it with maximum reusability and minimum possible energy. 

One way to do this is to break up your “traditional” demo pathway into discrete, “atomic” components and then select and re-assemble these components as needed for each demo scenario.

For executives, for example, the desired components would likely be specific reports and dashboards, along with showing how these are delivered to the execs in the fewest number of clicks or steps.For many of these situations, the “demo” could consist of opening an email that includes the report or link to the relevant dashboard (think “Monday morning” for this executive).

Middle managers might start similarly, plus going a bit deeper into your system to define and assign tasks.Each of these could consist of one or more atomic components.

Staff members’ atomic demo components might include:

  • The workflow to process a task, without any issues or problems (the “standard” workflow – e.g., processing an expense report that has no issues or exceptions);
  • A workflow where escalation or approvals are required (for example, where the expense report amount exceeds a threshold);
  • A workflow to identify a root cause (seeking to understand why so many expense reports have certain unanticipated types of charges);
  • A workflow to remediate a specific problem (payment of certain expense reports takes too long);
  • A workflow to set up a process (e.g., establishing a new expense category, account, or region).

Our job is to understand the Specific Capabilities needed for each Job Title (discovery), then to assemble the demo for this scenario from the appropriate atomic components (customize).Add introductions and summaries for each segment, and we have a cleverly customized demo, created with a minimum of work!(How to do this is richly developed in – wait for it – Great Demo! Workshops.)

(Note that this idea of defining and reusing consumable components – or componentization – is standard practice in many industries from coding to pharma to manufacturing to food service.It is time for these same advantages to be applied more broadly to the wonderful world of demos…!)

Successfully Suspending Disbelief

Customization of your demos may span all five of these dimensions and well as other dimension we haven’t considered (cue the Twilight Zone theme music).Are there other dimensions or customization ideas to suggest?

  • Buying Cycle Stage
  • Industry/Geography/Demographics
  • Job Title
  • Workflows vs. Reports and Dashboards
  • Discovery

Are your current demos sufficiently customized, from your prospects’ perspective?What more customization could you do to improve your demo effectiveness?

Copyright © 2021 The Second Derivative – All Rights Reserved.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Peter Cohan
Have you ever seen a bad software demonstration? Peter Cohan is the founder and principal of Great Demo!, focused on helping software organizations improve the success rates of their demos. He authored Great Demo! - how to prepare and deliver surprisingly compelling software demonstrations. Peter has experience as an individual contributor, manager and senior management in marketing, sales, and business development. He has also been, and continues to be, a customer.


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