Too Complex: A True Demo Disaster Story


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Here’s the true story of how a demo directly resulted in the loss of $245,000 from an order. It’s also a stunning example of why not to show all those neat, cool features…

What happened?

The Set-up

A salesperson had done an excellent job qualifying a customer. In the qualification discussion, it became clear that what the customer needed fit beautifully with what the vendor could provide – the specific capabilities the customer wanted were exactly what the vendor’s software did best.

The salesperson described these capabilities in the discussion and both parties agreed to schedule a follow-on meeting to see a demonstration of the product. This was to be a Technical Proof demo – the specific capabilities needed by the customer were very clear.

In parallel with planning for the demo meeting, the salesperson worked the customer through the balance of the sales process, including agreeing on quantity, price, licensing, and an implementation plan. The demo meeting was scheduled as the final step before completing the license agreement.

The customer was ready to purchase 50 seats of the vendor’s software, on an annual-right-to-use basis of $5,000 per seat – a $250,000 per year order.

The salesperson scheduled the demo meeting with a seasoned, veteran sales engineer (SE) as the demonstrator – the salesperson wanted to make sure that the person doing the demo really knew the product well. They discussed the specific capabilities the customer needed and the status of the sales process – they both felt well-prepared.

The customer audience included the “champion” and most of the fifty target end-users. The meeting was scheduled for one hour.

The Disaster

The meeting began on time. After introductions, the SE started right into the demo. In ten minutes, the SE showed all of the specific capabilities the customer had identified. The SE then looked at his watch and noted that he fifty minutes left in the meeting.

He said, “Since we have some additional time, why don’t I show you some of the other capabilities our software offers?” Well-meaning, well-intended…

[I can hear you crying out, Dear Reader, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!!” By the way, have you ever heard someone on your team say something like this in a similar situation?]

Well, the SE did do it. He spent the next fifty minutes showing that you can do this, you can do that, you can do this other really cool thing… and another really cool thing as well…

At the end of the meeting, the customer champion met with the end-users briefly and then re-joined the salesperson for a wrap-up discussion.

The champion said, “What we’ve decided to do is to purchase a license to a single seat of your software and install it on a power-user’s machine. Everyone else will bring their problems to the power-user to have them worked…”

“Why?” asked the salesperson.

“The users said the software looked too complex – they couldn’t visualize using the tool themselves,” responded the customer champion. “They got confused by all of the various functions and capabilities that were shown during the demo…”

Showing too much in this demo reduced the value of the sale from $250,000 annually to $5,000 annually – a negative conversion of $245,000 per year!

The Moral

Every mouse click, every keystroke, every additional capability, every new screen shown in a demo adds to the perceived complexity in the minds of the audience.

Focus on the specific capabilities needed by the customer to address their business issues – and hold everything else back. The demo should build a vision in the customers’ minds that they can easily visualize using the software themselves.

Focus and execute – and the reward will be the full order!

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.


  1. Peter,

    A sad story for the software company. Unfortunately, I have witnessed the same result more than once. I agree, the focus should be on the specific capabilities needed by the customer to address their business needs. These should have been clearly spelled out by the salesperson in a pre-demo briefying of the demo staff.

    In my experience, technically oriented people get too wrapped up in bells and whistles and get carried away. Not only can it make the software look to complex, it can give the customer the impression that the product is a one-size fits all solution when they want a solution optimized to their specific problem. At the end of the day, the salesperson needs to control the demo agenda intercede when things get off it.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Addicted Customers: How to Get Them Hooked on Your Company.

  2. Peter, great example of too much information at the wrong time.

    But what if, in fact, the software really was too complex for the end users? The extra time the SE spent then helped the customer avoid buying something they couldn’t use, and the vendor from acquiring a customer that will be dissatisfied.

    It seems to me there was more wrong with this demo than an SE run amok. I’ve sat through many a demo with the vendor putting its best foot forward, and it all looked great. But the real experience was far different, after the contract was signed.

    I remember one ex-Siebel rep telling me a few years ago, that the secret to their success was “a great demo.” Sure, Siebel closed a lot of deals, but ultimately paid the price when the market figured out that their stuff really was too complex, and much of the purchased software sat on the shelves. Not that the reps cared, because they had already cashed their commission checks.

    Is it any wonder that pay-as-you-go SaaS vendors have become more popular? Many offer a trial period to show customers exactly what they’re going to experience, rather than a contrived demo designed for just one purpose: close the deal.

    Putting on a customer-centric hat might mean sometimes not making a sale. Is that always a “disaster?”

    Bob Thompson, CustomerThink Corp.
    Blog: Unconventional Wisdom


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