“Try It, You’ll Like It!” The Power and Pitfalls of Trying Before Buying


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Me? I’m way too savvy to fall for slick marketing gimmicks. But a trip to my local Whole Foods Market upended my fragile arrogance.

As I approach, the automatic doors part to a welcoming aperture. Across the threshold, I am embraced in an olfactory orgy – an ambiance of savory and aromatic fruit, flowers, and vegetables. A scented declaration that one can only interpret as, “welcome, customer with credit card, we’re so glad you’re here!” Life is good. You know, I think I’ll take a class in Michoacán cooking!

Today’s excursion has a banal purpose. I’m headed to the nether regions of the store for a bottle of dishwashing liquid and three bricks of tofu. But before I can claim these items, I must traverse a gauntlet of strategically placed trays stacked high with hundreds of sample pieces of fruit. Each tray is sheltered under a clear Plexiglas bubble, and each portion has been thoughtfully skewered with a toothpick. I’ve just come from the gym, so I’m a little hungry. I test one chunk of cantaloupe, immediately followed by a few more. I’m too distracted looking for nearby scowling faces to tally my exact consumption. All clear, so I search for the largest piece on the tray, and quickly down that. A short pause for epicurean analysis, and . . . I’m hooked! One melon gets tossed into my cart, and I continue on. Another inscrutable basket of goods to confound their data scientists.

I didn’t interview anyone at Whole Foods for this article, but I’ll climb out on a solid limb and guess that magnanimity is not the goal here. I posit that Whole Foods gives away samples because it increases sales – and helps customers reduce the risk that the melon they bring home doesn’t have the flavor and consistency of paraffin.

What’s their ROI? Well, I don’t know. But I have no doubt that at the company’s headquarters, there is an employee who can instantly regurgitate the company’s total annual spend for in-store sampling, right down to the last toothpick. And that person also knows what happens to sales of strawberries in their Lincoln, Nebraska store when samples are offered when samples are offered, versus when they are not.

“Try it! You’ll like it!” Spurring customers to spend by giving away a bisele of this, and a bisele of that has been a durably reliable, low-risk way to move dates, pomegranates, and other edibles since before Babylon. Today, the tactic requires little capital, and no software development. Best of all, in-store sampling enjoys wide consumer adoption, unlike other gimmicks such as rebates and digital kiosks.

Chunks of fruit. A dab of makeup. A squirt of cologne. Name an equally visceral pathway to a prospect’s taste buds, vanity, or libido. For many consumer products, trying-before-buying is deeply embedded into the customer experience. At Lather, a skin-care products retailer, you can test many concoctions, including their Bulgarian Rose Phyto-Nutrient Spray, Cucumber Ginseng Facial Mist, Sweet Almond Exfoliating Crème, and Forbidden Rice Body Scrub. These names offer just the right amount of titillation without the sales staff having to get overly-explanatory. Which presents a selling challenge: how do you get a newbie customer to spring $24 for something called Yuzu Sugar Cane Body Buff? The company is betting that splathering a dab of this exotic formulation on your skin will flip inventory faster than a freestyling snowboarder. The open sample tub that customers plunge their curious fingers into makes it clear that the retailer has accepted a cold marketing cost of risk, expensed through the company’s General Ledger.

But for products of greater complexity and value, the risk/return calculus becomes less straightforward. A sign in my local bike shop explains the store’s policy for customers seeking to take a set of wheels out for a test spin. “Before we implemented this, a few of our frames never quite made it back,” the owner told me with a melancholic smile. The store now requires customers to surrender a driver’s license, pending the return of the bicycle, including its seat, derailleurs, brakes, and other removable components.

Test drive a car – something that approximately 83% of consumers do before buying – and you’ll experience similar rigmarole. But car dealerships have upped the customer ante: you’ll be expected to give up a few more tidbits of personal information. In particular, how to contact you in the event that you bolt from the showroom without initialing “accept” on a buyer’s contract. That problem doesn’t particularly bug the bike store’s manager, but such situations present major risks for car dealers. When you’re financing expensive inventory, watching an “up” waltz out the door is painful, because few return.

My bike shop reports that year-to-year, nearly 100% of their customers take a test ride before deciding to purchase. But, oddly, the percentage of consumers who test drive a car is declining, according to DME Automotive, a research company. DME’s 2014 survey “found that, before purchasing, 16% [of prospective buyers] took no test-drive, and 33% test drove only one car. And more than two-thirds (68%) reported that they visited only two dealerships or fewer before buying – with 40% visiting only one dealer. . .This avoidance of physical dealerships is in stark contrast with how much online vehicle research is happening: 4 in 5 people now use the Internet for car buying, visiting 10 auto websites in the process, ” said Dr. Mary Sheridan, Manager of Research and Analytics at DME. Data doesn’t lie. If you ask the average adult driver in the US to choose between visiting a dealership to test drive a car, or going to a dentist for a root canal, many would have to think about it. For car buyers, replacing the traditional test-drive with online research doesn’t seem like a bad trade-off.

As different companies experiment with the try-before-buy approach, the tactic has found its way into unusual places. “If you can test drive a car, why not a house?” asked Candace Jackson in a Wall Street Journal article, Buying a Home? Try it Out. “A handful of [real estate] developers, listing agents and homeowners say they are willing to let potential buyers hang out with the neighbors, have dinner in the kitchen or even spend a night or two in a home before making a final decision.” For buyers, this seems a great way to discover whether the next-door neighbor entertains friends between midnight and 4:00 AM, and how long their guests hang out before heading home. But for sellers, there are many ways this offer can go wrong. “That clanging racket when you turn on the shower? Nothing to worry about. It’s always done that . . .”

Still, buyers are biting the bait, and sellers are moving the inventory. “Wheelhaus, a company that manufactures luxury prefab houses, recently launched a ‘try before you buy’ campaign where potential buyers willing to travel to the company’s headquarters in Jackson, Wyoming, can spend the night at a resort made up of several Wheelhaus models. The company fully reimburses the cost of a stay if a guest goes through with a purchase . . . So far, about 40 people have taken advantage of the program, and more than 75% have ended up purchasing [from the company],” according to the Wall Street Journal article. Consider just how far we’ve come. Now, when you can get your prospect’s foot in the door, 75% of the time, you’ll close the deal! Customers benefit too. As the company’s founder, Jamie Mackay, said, “It’s good for our buyers to get to touch and feel.”

No surprise the same thing occurs in B2B, because we have our own versions of Yuzu Sugar Cane Body Buff. They’re called SAP Business Suite, CA IntelliCenter, Microsoft Dynamics NAV, and a long list of other similarly enigmatic names. And for prospects, they portend equally enigmatic outcomes.

“TI continues to scale sophisticated innovation into ADAS solutions for entry- to mid- level automobiles.” Such technological adoration has caused marketers in many industries to tilt toward using fuzzy parlance, abandoning pedestrian nouns like product in their promotional materials. In its place, system, solution, innovation, and engineering have muscled in, but for customers, those words only increase the mystery. When it comes to results, what, exactly, can a prospect infer from something anointed a CRM Solution?

Try-before-buy remains an important step for demystifying flamboyant, jargon-saturated vendor claims, especially in high-tech. Unfortunately, you can’t perfunctorily schpritz a screen or two of software and convince the buying committee that the full suite will work for optimizing a parts network in a global manufacturing supply chain. The testing process demands greater time and resources, and involves greater risk for vendors and customers alike.

In B2B, product trials don’t always achieve their intended outcomes. For prospects, they can expose product problems before they become catastrophes. They can allay concerns, and reduce both fear and risk. But they can give a false sense of security, divert precious resources, and waste gobs of time. In addition, when software is involved, testing can introduce interoperability problems, along with malware.

For vendors, product trials often fill a crucial persuasive void that marketing content, and even customer testimonials don’t address. In some situations, vendors themselves need client testing to learn whether their offering can withstand a rigorous full-scale rollout. But Pilots can also be unreliable as progenitors of customer purchases. They can expose prospects to a vendor’s dirty corporate laundry, quality issues, and operational quirks that otherwise would be hard to discover. As Dick Lee, author of a new book, We Are Buyers, You Are Sellers, You’re Busted, commented about his pre-purchase trail from a major software vendor, “it was so buggy, it required an exterminator.”

So vendors must consider whether product trials are worth the effort and the risk. For example, do product trials facilitate larger purchases? Do pilots provide meaningful value to buyers? How much bugginess are prospects willing to put up with? Should limited-use trials be offered as part of the sales process, and if so, under which conditions?

As an IT solutions account executive, my results with product trials have been mixed. Some blossomed into fabulously large purchases after being solidly proven in a protected test environment. With others, I got ambushed by Murphy, and face-planted in the muck of sales debacles I’d rather forget. And many worked well, but left me wondering whether the product trial I lovingly nurtured simply delayed my capture of the beefier prize.

In preparing this article, I used LinkedIn forums to learn from other business professionals about their experiences. Especially, whether try-before-buy programs reduced their risks, or added new ones. The ensuing dialog bubbled with pointed opinion, and offered some excellent advice.

First, there are distinct, graduated steps in try-before-buy:

Proof-of-concept (POC): These projects can range from small to large, and their purpose is to test an idea or assumption. When POC’s are conducted between trading partners, the interactions are highly collaborative, costs and risks are often shared proportionally. Legal contracts establish terms and conditions. “A POC should clearly state what it is to be proven and to what degree. For example, it may not be enough that a message can be transferred from system A to system B if the complete solution calls a specific level of performance and reliability. You may need to test under certain conditions,” according to Seth Gottleib, who wrote a blog on the topic.

Prototype: Prototypes build on discoveries made during the POC. While prototypes can be detailed and substantial, they are not the same as the full production model, or standardized product. Vendors frequently offer prototypes as a way to receive valuable customer feedback outside the testing lab, which can be used to develop product improvements and other changes. Costs and risks are still commonly shared between trading partners, and contracts govern the financial arrangements, including which company ultimately owns the final product, and how it will be offered for sale.

Pilot: Pilots are try-before-buy opportunities that enable prospects to test contingencies, such as benchmarks, before proceeding with a larger purchases. The key difference between Pilots versus POC’s and Prototypes is that Pilots use a vendor’s standardized products or tools. Transaction costs for prospects are frequently confined to covering a vendor’s expenses for the trial deployment. Pilots can also be packaged, and sold for a nominal fee, or offered at no charge. As an added enticement, a vendor can allow fees to offset the purchase price, should the prospect eventually decide to purchase. Limited terms for use frequently accompany the offer. But investment of time, resources, and money for both prospect and vendor can still be substantial.

In B2B, Pilots are a common tactic when the product offered for sale is mature and field-proven. But despite the often-large investment, many pilots are conducted without preconditions, stipulations, or contract governance. And that’s how vendors get into trouble. Executives get delusional, believing that their product really does sell itself. They don’t put any teeth into their trial offer. “Just let us know how you like using it . . . .” Oh, what a rocky road you’re about to embark upon . . .

With Pilots, salespeople frequently don’t clarify what constitutes success, and they don’t plan for the end at the beginning. And prospects frequently don’t know exactly what they are looking for. Or, they get as far as installing the pilot, but they lack commitment, and never get around to using it. “The reason for doing a pilot is to get a better understanding of how the product will be used in the field and to refine the product,” Gottleib says. “Maybe there are some open ended questions about scalability that only a live audience using the product can answer. If you are doing a Pilot (or Beta) for a reason other than to build hype, make sure that you target the right group of people and you are prepared to collect the right metrics. You may consider prepping your pilot group to evaluate the full breadth of the application and give them channels to provide feedback. Determine what kind of quantitative metrics you will be collecting and have the tools and time to analyze them.”

Here are the highlights from what other business development professionals had to say:

Pro’s for Pilots –
• They offer buyers a lower hurdle for accepting a product
• Vendors can “work out kinks” that might be experienced in a full implementation
• Vendors can get valuable feedback on performance
• Prospects and vendors can develop stronger collaborative connections, and can better develop improvements
• Enables evaluators to become more comfortable with the solution
• Reduces the risk that customers will experience a bad post-purchase surprise
• If it’s an exclusive pilot, dominate the evaluation time that could go to a competitor

And, the Con’s –
• Delays the larger sale
• Prospects have low, or no ‘skin in the game’
• Time wasting “science project” if there’s low, or no buyer motivation
• Little value if the full product cost is a low multiplier of the pilot cost
• Mostly unnecessary if the product is widely-used COTS (Commercial-off-the-Shelf); use customer references instead
• Can soak up extraordinary amounts of sales and support resources

Some notable Do’s –
• Avoid situations that are unlikely to convert into sales, especially when pilots are costly to offer. In particular, listen for statements such as, “we need the pilot to sell upper management on this project,” or, “if this is successful, I can get you in front of a bunch of decision makers!”
• Understand your prospect’s situation when the pilot is tested. For example, if you learn that your product will be tested and evaluated in a “bake off” between two or three finalist alternatives, there are additional details that should be gathered, such as which competitors are under consideration.
• Request a formal purchase order, even if you are not charging for the pilot.
• Before initiating the pilot, request a minimum level of transparency about the decision process, and require a complete list of benchmarks that will be used in the evaluation.
• Ahead of time, ask to be awarded a purchase order at the conclusion of the pilot if benchmarks are met.
• Allow adequate time for your prospect to become familiar with your product
• Specify your reciprocal expectations from prospects, such as commitments to provide feedback at key testing milestones, access to people involved in testing your product, and a deadline for completing the testing period.
• Conduct post-event reviews for every pilot activity, and share the knowledge internally
• Track your win percentages and transaction amounts to determine whether pilot programs are providing adequate return.

And, some important Don’ts –
• Don’t jump immediately to offering a pilot before first understanding what your prospective customer wants to learn or discover from testing your product.
• Before providing a trial product to a prospect, don’t accept vague, open-ended statements such as “we’ll check it out and get back to you.”
• Don’t engage in pilots if you don’t already have a strong customer experience story. Avoid them if your product is embarrassingly buggy, has persistent quality problems, and if your customer support is spotty and difficult for first-time users to navigate.
• Don’t pay sales commissions for pilot trials, unless you have a sufficiently high conversion ratio, or if salespeople are encouraged to promote them as part of the selling process.
• Don’t allow unrestricted product use that could make your product easily available to competitors.
• Don’t allow too much testing time that compromises the urgency to evaluate.
• Don’t leave your product information vulnerable by failing to protect it with an NDA (non-Disclosure Agreement).

From food tasting to technology, try-before-buy has helped buyers and sellers alike deal with uncertainty. Four hundred years after Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, his proverb is still meaningful: “Al freir de los huevos lo verá.” – “You will see it when you fry the eggs.” Or, when you try the cantaloupe.

Shout out to all on LinkedIn who provided valuable ideas and input for this article, and to Doug Kane, Sales Director at Pramata Corporation, who spoke with me to share his insights.


  1. This is great stuff, and it’s a testament to how more customer-centric companies, especially retailers like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, justify their higher prices (and margins) by making purchase experiences more engaging and personal. Even though you were only looking for dishwashing liquid and tofu, the store was able to make the excursion emotional and memorable.

    These approaches sort of remind me of how local pet stores offer kids free goldfish in a plastic bag at community and county fairs – the parents then have to spend $50 more for a goldfish bowl, food, etc. The goldfish can be considered a ‘pilot’.

  2. Hello Andrew,

    In a world of false coin (lies and deliberate deception) or just simple bullshitting (indifference to truth and falsehood to make the ‘sale’) it pays as a buyer to ‘try before buying’. What is Google if not an access to ‘trying before buying’? What are user reviews but a form of ‘trying before buying’? What are user review sites but a form of ‘trying before buying’?

    More than ever Caveat Emptor (buyer beware) applies. And yet one cannot always take the easy/desktop routes to ‘trying before buying’ that I have listed above. For one, the seller can game these routes. So when is left with the burden of / opportunity to actually taste the melon for oneself or try out the much touted software.

    Imagine a society where you the buyer can actually count on the seller to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. What are all the costs that would drop out? One can dream.

    All the best to you and thank your sharing such an informative article.


  3. This profoundly thorough piece takes the famous “Puppy dog Close” to a whole new level. “You don’t have to decide today if you want to buy the puppy; just take him home for the weekend. If you decide you don’t want to buy him, you can bring him back on Monday.” Rarely were puppies. But, elevate the “test drive” concept to more complex B2B sales and you have far more to consider than poop, whimpers and promises of attentive care! This is one of the clearest, most well articulately post I have read on CustomerThink. Thanks for your scholarly research thoughtfully conveyed. I learned a lot!

  4. The “Puppy Dog Close” selling ploy cited by Chip is a great metaphor. This is a classic technique that has been used, for example, by luxury auto dealerships for years. Once a sleek, glossy high-end motorcar sits in the driveway for a weekend, or a week, hard for a buyer to imagine its not being there – or how he/she ever got along without it.

    With technologically-oriented products, there’s also the opportunity for beta-testing, a related form of trial; and this provides not only pilot and proactical use but also performance enhancement insight for the manufacturer. IBM’s Watson Analytics is a paradigmatic current example – thousands of beta testers helped make the newly introduced software more user-friendly, especially for the legions of managers who don’t have in-depth big data experience.

  5. Michael, Maz, and Chip – thanks for your comments. There are lots of flavors of ‘try-before-buy.’ What came across in my research was that companies that are effective in offering this resource to buyers orchestrate the process very tightly and very deliberately. Companies that struggle throw caution to the wind, especially when they don’t attempt to consider how product trials can go wrong. For example, offering trial software, but not providing specialized assistance to prospects. Or, offering no support pathway at all.

    People who I queried for this article were split on whether ‘freemium’ plans were actually another type of ‘try-before-buy’ program. Most felt they weren’t, and instead, considered them part of a pricing model that a company might deploy. But a few lumped them in. I did not mention freemium strategy in my article, but I’m curious about your thoughts.

    And Chip – kind words. Thanks. I’m blushing.


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