The Case Against Software Demos

Looking for a Customer Success Solution? Skip the Demos.

You probably think I’m joking, right? I’m not. Generally speaking, watching product demos is one of the worst ways to judge the quality of a company and its product. In the world of Customer Success especially, it can be very misleading.

Full disclosure up front for those who don’t know me. I work for one of the Customer Success solution vendors—Gainsight. And I’m not here telling you to look at our demo and not anyone else’s. I’m telling you that the best way to determine the right solution for you is not through sales pitches and demos. It’s by determining which company is best at the thing they are claiming to improve with their software. In this case, Customer Success. Back to that in a moment.

(Oh, by the way and just for the record, our demo absolutely ROCKS! 😃)

How Marketo Dominated Marketing Automation

I learned this lesson long before I joined Gainsight—back when I worked for Marketo. Marketing Automation was a crowded market. Eloqua, Marketo, Pardot, Hubspot, Act-On, and others were all viable solutions. Four of those companies either did an IPO or were acquired or, in the case of Eloqua, both. At some point in a market that saturated, all vendors basically claim to do the same things (this is why websites are often intentionally obscure). And they each have a demo to prove it.

But the way Marketo created the credibility needed to lead the way in their market was by executing digital marketing at the highest level, not by making their PowerPoint and demo better than the competition’s. Any astute observer could see (and did see) the quality of thought leadership, quantity of valuable content, and the sophisticated email campaigns they were running. And that was the proof that Marketo knew how to actually do this thing they were talking about. Invariably, during my time there, our customers would ask us how we did it or make that most flattering of statements: “I just want to do it the way you do.”

The Marketo Demand Gen team were the most demanding customers of the product in the world. They were at once Engineering’s best friend and worst nightmare. And they proved, at least to me, that the best product comes out of the company with the highest degree of domain expertise. And the market clearly agreed.

A 5-Step Process to Defining Your Category

Here is a pretty clear step-by-step process to the differentiating result:

  1. Truly and deeply understand the domain into which you are providing solutions. This must include hiring people who really “get it.”
  2. Commit to executing on that domain at the highest possible level. Merely talking about it, no matter how articulately, is not good enough.
  3. Allow that commitment to relentlessly push your product to do whatever is required to fulfill your internal needs.
  4. Voila! End up with the best product in the market.
  5. Now remain fully aware that your internal needs most likely do not encompass every use case in the world.

The point is the vendor who pushes the envelope furthest on the execution of their discipline internally is the vendor who will end up with the best product. Every time. It truly is survival of the fittest because, at least in the case of Digital Marketing and Customer Success, execution of both in today’s world is a business imperative. This means the vendor must be willing to take risks and try lots of things that don’t work or don’t make sense in the product at the time. But some of those risks will pay off and some of the things that make the least sense at the time will expand the market in the most interesting and valuable ways.

Why This Matters More In Customer Success

This process is actually more crucial in our world of Customer Success than it is in Digital Marketing—or perhaps any other discipline. Because in Customer Success, the benefit is not just creating the best product, but also the delivery of the best customer experience. The customer wins at every turn—they get the best lifecycle process delivered to them alongside the most robust product. And they also receive what is arguably the biggest value from the vendor: the assurance that their product will continue to lead the way in delivering against the ever-changing needs of the market.

I’m not saying it’s easy to figure out which vendor is best at Customer Success. But it’s certainly easier than trying to predict your own product needs beyond the next few months. And then trying to accurately compare products based on demos (or worse yet, RFPs) from three to four different vendors. In a typical sales process, you’ll end up basing your decision, at least in part, on how much trust you place in the sales rep.

But isn’t that totally wrong?

I’m not saying it’s inherently bad to trust a sales rep. It’s just less effective as a way of predicting outcomes. Wouldn’t you be better off figuring out whose Customer Success process to trust rather than whose sales process to trust?

Why Reference Calls Are Becoming Obsolete

The really good news is the evolving digital world is working in our favor big-time here. Independent review sites abound, which allow you to see ratings of most companies in the space. TrustRadius, G2Crowd, and Salesforce AppExchange are just three of these. These aren’t survey results or hand-picked references. This is the good, the bad, and the ugly from real customers with no agenda other than to provide helpful information to their peers.

And perhaps even more valuable than review sites is that little tool we’ve all come to know and love—LinkedIn. LinkedIn literally allows you to find people you trust who have experience with vendors and solutions you are evaluating. This is the new reality: “Your prospects are talking to your customers whether you know it or not.” It renders your reference program almost useless. B2B vendor references are going the same way as personal references on a résumé. I seldom call a candidate’s personal references any more. But I almost always go and find someone I know who has worked with them and ask them if they’d hire or work with the candidate again. It’s way more valuable than hand-picked references who are basically guaranteed to be positive.

Customer Success: A Bad Business for Hypocrites

Here’s the bottom line: Use the tools at your disposal to figure out if a company is actually good at Customer Success even as they try to sell you a solution for your own Customer Success challenges. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spoken with Customer Success leaders who have purchased a solution and then start their assessment a few months later with these words: “If you want to know how NOT to do Customer Success, talk to this vendor.” Ouch. If that’s the assessment of even one customer, then you should question whether you want to do business with that vendor. I say that very carefully knowing that we are definitely not perfect as a vendor either. But our failures (yes, we’ve had customers churn, too) are almost never failures of our Customer Success process or commitment.

Now I know this blog, written by someone you’ve never met, is probably not going to stop you from seeing demos as part of your process. I’m not fooled about having that kind of power. But I hope it gets you to stop and think about all the things you WON’T learn by going through a typical sales process. You may learn a lot about how vendors say it should or could be done, how they would recommend you do it, or even occasional glimpses into what they claim to do. But it will tell you nothing about what they will actually do if/when you become their customer. You will have to dig to figure that out—but there’s gold in that dirt, so start digging!

*This blog is part one of a two-part series. We’ll update this post with the link when the second part is online.