Tag Archives: stages

Sorry, But Demo Is Not A Sales Cycle Stage

I think two demo practices are nearly universal these days and I’m not a big fan of either:

I discussed using demo as the primary website CTA in a previous post.  In this post, I’ll cover my objections to using demo as a sales cycle stage.  I know that both of these viewpoints are controversial, so please classify them in the thought-provocation department [2].

What are Sales Cycle Stages?
Companies use stages to decompose the sales process into a series of steps.  For example:

  1. Prospecting
  2. Contacting
  3. Qualifying
  4. Presenting
  5. Objection handling
  6. Closing

Sometimes those steps are phases that you exist within, other times they are milestones that you pass [3].  Companies use stages to track the progress of deals, the aging of deals to ensure they don’t get stuck, and typically weight the pipeline by stage as a way of triangulating the forecast.

Seller-Out or Buyer-In?
When you first learn about sales cycle stages they are typically presented, as they are above, from the seller’s point of view.  Over time, most people realize this is wrong, particularly when they’ve moved to the increasingly popular framing that selling is not a process unto itself, but more the facilitation of a customer’s buying process.

In this paradigm you try (and it’s not always easy) to define stages from the buyer’s viewpoint instead of the seller’s.  For example, using milestone-based stages, this might look like:

  1. Need established.  Buyer a has problem for which they are seeking a solution, typically as verified by an SDR.  [4]
  2. BANT verified.  Buyer has not only a need, but budget, authority to spend it, and a timeframe for purchasing a solution — all as verified by a seller.  [5]
  3. Deep dive completed.  Buyer has performed a deep dive with the seller to fully explain the problem and answer questions about it.  [6]
  4. Solution fit confirmed.  Buyer believes that the seller’s product can basically solve their problem.  [7]
  5. Vendor of choice.   Buyer believes that the seller’s product is the best choice of solution to the problem.
  6. Redline.  Buyer’s legal team has reviewed the contract and submitted a turn of redline markup.
  7. Contracted.  Buyer has completed the contract and other required paperwork.  Also known as closed/won.

Notice that the first word of every stage definition is “buyer” in order to keep us focused on the buyer, not the seller.  There are three other great features of the above style of system:

  • Every stage is verifiable.  In many staging systems, it’s hard to know what stage you’re in [8] and nearly impossible for a sales manager to verify it.
  • Sellers can be pushed for evidence in deal reviews and pipeline scrubs.  Example.  Manager: “You classified this as stage 4, why?”  Seller:  “Because, they said they think we can basically solve their problem.”  Manager:  “Who said that and when?”  Seller:  “Paula the VP said it at the end of the meeting last week.”
  • Management verification can be done by asking the buyer a single question.  Manager:  “So, your seller Joe says you’ve done a deep dive together on the problem you’re looking solve?”  If yes, stage 3.  Manager:  “So, your seller Jane tells me you think we can basically solve your problem?”  If yes, stage 4.

My Problems with Using Demo as a Stage 
Given that I like buyer-in, verifiable staging systems, it’s probably no longer a surprise that I don’t like demo as stage, but here’s the full list of reasons why:

  • Demo is seller-out.  I learned to hate seller-out stages back in the day when “proposal” was also a stage.  You can send a proposal to anyone at any time — what does that actually tell you about the progress of a deal?  Nothing.  The same holds true for demo.
  • Demo is not buyer-in.  It doesn’t tell us anything about where the buyer is in their buying process.  Just that they got a demo.  By the way, which kind of demo did they get?  Did we do a custom demonstration mapped to a precise problem they are desperate to solve or did they just passively watch a 30-minute generic demo?
  • Buyers may want demos at very different phases of their buying cycle.  Gadget people want a demo of everything.  Others may want a demo before making their long list.  Some may want a demo before making their short list.  Others may only want demos of two finalists.  Many will want multiple demos to different people along the way.  Remind me how demo tells you where are you in the sales cycle again?
  • Buyers should be able to get demos when and how they want them.  Could you imagine saying, “you can’t have that white paper until we’ve completed step 3 of our process?”  That’s effectively what you’re doing when you make demo a stage.  Think:  “I’m sorry, demo is our stage 4 and we haven’t completed stage 3 yet; can we get back to what I’m focused on, please?”  In a world where buyers want ever more control over the buying process, that dog don’t hunt.
  • You risk building an expensive custom demo into your sales process.  Once demo is a declared a stage, sellers start focusing on the demo as the big event.  Well, we need to gather requirements for the demo.  Oh, we’ll be showing you how that works as part of the demo.  Yes, we’re working on customizing the demo for your industry and solution.  What if the customer didn’t want or need some big customized demo to buy your software?  What if believing you could basically solve their problem and thinking you were the market leader (i.e., safe choice) were enough?  You risk imposing the demo on the buyer (“well everybody does it”) in the name of process rather than remaining focused on their buyer and their solution.
  • Conceptually, demo is part of confirming solution fit.  The usual reason for a demo is to help the buyer establish if the product can (basically) solve their problem [9].  What we should be focused on is whether they think we can solve their problem [10], and not whether they got the demo.
  • Be careful what you wish for.  If you wish for a lot of demos, you’ll end up doing a lot of demos.  The question is will they lead to sales?  I’d rather focus on convincing a lot of people that we can basically solve their problem or that we’re the best solution to their problem — or that we can basically solve their problem and we’re the clear market leader — than on giving a lot of demos.
  • Demo defaults to the reference point.  Once people start using demo as a stage, it quickly becomes the default mid-funnel checkpoint and two metrics rise to the top of management reporting:  demos/week and demo-to-close rate. If you think demo is effectively meaningless as a stage, this is obviously problematic.  It’s like saying how many schmumbles did we do this week?  50.  How many did we do last week?  30.  Awesome, schmumbles are up this week!!  What’s a schmumble?  I don’t know.

All that said, I understand why people like to use demo as a stage — demos are tangible, you know when they happened, they often do happen at roughly the same place in the sales cycle, and they are indeed often required.

But making demo a sales cycle stage hard-codes demos into your sales process and, like hard-coding in programming, while it may be expedient in short-term, you may well live to regret it in the long.

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[1]  Except in product-led growth (PLG) models, where it’s trial, which is indeed the point.

[2]  In both cases, I know these practices are entrenched so I’m not asking anyone to blow up their website or their sales pipeline management process.  I am, however, asking you to think twice about how you use demo both on your website and in your sales cycle, with an eye towards potentially changing your approach.

[3]  It’s shocking how many companies can’t answer the question:  are your stages phases or milestones?  That is, does “stage 4” mean you are “in” stage 4 or that you have completed stage 4.  When defined as phases, you will often find “exit criteria” that define what needs to be done to exit the stage.  Either way, it has to be crystal clear when you have exited a stage or not.

[4]  This is typically done after other preliminary qualification has occurred, such as company-size or industry to ensure the buyer is in the target market.

[5]  Also known as a sales-accepted opportunity.  This is the point, in most companies, where the opportunity officially enters the pipeline.

[6]  This may involve a single meeting, or a sequence of them, depending on the complexity of the problem and the potential solution.

[7]  Notwithstanding certain detailed issues that remain open questions, but overall, the buyer has reached the conclusion that the product can basically solve this problem.  This is not to say that it’s the best, the only, or the most cost-effective solution to the problem; merely that it can solve the problem.  Think:  a tank could likely solve my stump-removal problem, but then again so could The Dominator.

[8]  Among other ways, this can happen in a phase-based system where there are lots of exit criteria per stage.  I’ve literally seen systems where you could win the deal before clearing all six of the stage 3 exit criteria!

[9]  Putting aside purely educational demos which I think are best handled by marketing.

[10]  Which can be accomplished through other means as well — e.g., case studies, reference calls.  Believing that someone like me solved a problem very similar to one like mine is often a far more powerful way of confirming solution fit.  As is merely demonstrating deep expertise in the problem to solved by, e.g., completing a few of the customer’s sentences when they’re describing it.