Pre-sales, Beware of the Demo Category Illusion

I have a love-hate relationship with copywriting, but few things are more personally gratifying than a well-crafted blog on a subject of which I am passionate.  This is that Blog.

Pre-sales and demo experiences have been on my mind for 16 months – with roots that span 17 years back to 2005 when I began my journey in SaaS (back when it was called ASP.)  I got my start in pre-sales where I learned how much I loved to present software, craft a compelling story, and how to configure a sales demo environment that best resonates with the prospect or buyer.  I loved it – and still do.  Showing off incredible products that excite buyers brings out a level of passion and excitement that I rarely experience elsewhere in the business world.  So much, that l still jump on demos with our sales team and take the lead. 

Demo Experience Category

In 2021 the Demo experience category was formed from demo challenges two decades in the making.  My co-founder, Dan Hellerman, and I started building Saleo in April of 2021 to solve a problem that we both had battled our entire software career.   No matter what experience we compared, across the collective 10+ companies we had worked with – the challenges of creating custom, repeatable, demo environments on the fly were the same.  Pain. Lots of costly pain to provide relevant, personalized, and data-complete demos to the respective markets we served.   It was hard, expensive, and time-consuming to consistently do well.   

As with most newly-created categories, early vendors raise a great deal of capital and set the narrative for what a space would look like.  It’s a little like crafting RFP requirements for a prospect.  That document helps shape the buyer requirements to best position your company and the strengths of your product.  New category creation is no different.  

This is what happened in the Demo Experience / Demo Creation / Demo Environment space.  Early vendors launched in 2021 and they all solved the problem the exact same way.  It was definitely category “group think” but more to do with technical barriers and limitations on how the very problem was solved.  The issue is that their collective solution, although certainly beneficial, better serves Marketing and Product Marketing.  For anyone that has served in a pre-sales role, the challenges and needs for Demo Engineers, Sales Engineers, and Solutions Consultants have a very different charter.  It’s a daily challenge that can only be understood by those who’ve served in that role.  

Pre-Sales (Sales Engineers & Solutions Consultants)

For those that have served in a pre-sales capacity (Solutions Consultants, Sales Engineers, Solutions Architects, etc.) you understand the level of effort required to create compelling, intriguing, relevant, and straight-up awesome demos.  It’s hard, it requires immense demo preparation, presentation skills, and a knack for storytelling.  Let’s face it, it’s an art.  What to show, how to show it, and how to position each area that best represents your product while laying just enough subtle “landmines” for the competition.  Everyone can fingerpaint, but that doesn’t make them an artist.  I know many incredible SEs, but those that do this best, are a cut above.

“Product Tours” vs “Live Native Environments”

So what exactly is the difference between a “Product Tour Demo” (screen capture or demo cloning) and a “Live Demo Environment.”  The answer is A LOT – the chasm is wide and substantial.  “Product Tours” are a collage of images or front-end cloning of your demo environment.  All of them are “point in time”, and highly limiting for pre-sales.

  1. Product Tour (Basic): Screenshot of pages (think Google Slides)
  2. Product Tour (Advanced): Capture of the front-end, HTML, and DOM of the software.

Usage of a Live Demo Environment is just that.  The ability to demo out of the genuine, authentic software product (production, demo, or dev).  Product tours are quite limiting while Live Demos provide full demo capabilities of the authentic software. I had an old CEO that used to say “buyers have BS meters that measure parts per billion”.  This is so true – don’t give buyers any suspicion as to why you’re not showing your live demo environment.  Why give them a reason to question “Does it work”? “Are there load time or latency issues”?  “What breaks in production that I’m not aware of”?  Sales is risky enough so take this off the table.

Let’s walk through the “5” reasons why Pre-Sales teams MUST use a live native demo environment vs product tours click-throughs:

  1. Avoid Exhausting Screen Capture:  The effort involved in setting up a Product Tour or Cloned Demo Environment is immensely taxing.   Every click, every date or filter change, and each level of personalization is another page that must be set up or captured.  Say one has 5 different use cases and 5 different personas or products they are selling.  Take that times 30 different screens or modals in an app (which is conservative).  That is 750 different screens.  Now imagine adding personalization or different variations of data, graphs, flows, or text elements.  Now that number is in the THOUSANDS of screens.  To make matters harder – if your product changes or has an update…time to do it all over again.  Not sustainable or scalable for pre-sales.
  2. “Stump the Chump”:  If you’ve been in software sales for any amount of time, you know exactly what this means!  Buyers are curious.  Prospects have questions, and sometimes many.  As much as we want to stay on script for a demo, buyers will always want to see areas that help them visualize their usage of the tech and satiate their questions.  This is inevitable and can only be solved with the usage of the live demo or production environment.  
  3. Authenticity (superpower): One of the great powers of pre-sales is the credibility that comes with not being an AE or Sales Rep.  Buyers listen and respect sales engineers. This is one of the many reasons solutions consultants MUST demo out of their authentic and genuine product’s demo environment.  If buyers see a cloned copy being presented out of a fake URL with limited navigation, on-the-rails storytelling, or fake experiences  – it immediately raises the proverbial red flag.  Buyers want genuine, legitimate viewing of the authentic software experience. 
  4. Hidden Brick Walls:  When using click paths and cloned environments for an “on rails demo”, you’re limited to the effort provided in capturing the screens (a la point #2).  This creates substantial brick walls and potholes that prevent pre-sales from showing off unique use cases, impromptu buyer requests, and ultimately will erode buyer trust.
  5. Every single detail matters: Almost every software has some make-up of reporting, analytics, workflows, or visuals.  These elements are the most critical to a demo as they provide the “wow” factor.  The color.  The data points.  The story that most resonates with your buyers or the account.  To get the charts, graphs, or visuals to render correctly, and with authenticity, it must be done with the native front-end.  Fake graph libraries, supplanted images, and other tricks are just that..tricks.  Your buyers deserve more – they deserve the real thing and to not be surprised with a bad experience once they become a customer and realize their production instance looked totally different from what they viewed during the sales cycle.

In summary – the pre-sales motion is just a different animal with highly unique requirements in providing relevant, personalized, and incredible software demos.  Not to mention – in this macro-economic environment where every single deal matters, the personal human connection, and live demonstration will ALWAYS win out.

There is a place for Product Tours

In spite of the challenges above for pre-sales, product tours do have a place in marketing, product marketing, and other sales personas.  There are solid use cases to have one’s product represented on the website for top-of-the-funnel (TOF) demand generation, or for account executives to provide as a leave-behind to help bolster the value prop.  They are relevant and understandable, but nonetheless, they are synonymous with giving a Formula 1 driver wet tires on a dry circuit or asking a golfer to hit 300 yards with a putter – wrong equipment – wrong use case. Interactive demos are best deployed as quick explainers or on-rail micro experiences.

In addition, if you don’t solve the Sales Engineering challenges in the prior section, a company greatly limits the marketing team’s potential.

Want the latest and greatest from the field?  Want to take a compelling competitive use case that was presented to a key customer and bring that to the broader market?  You can’t capture any of the above if you don’t first solve the pre-sales problem.

Where does Saleo come into play?

Saleo was founded on the principle that all software companies should be able to easily present their authentic software, in a live setting, without all the difficulty in maintaining, supporting or preparing for those demos.  The key to that premise was that sales (pre-sales) should have full control over their live technology.  But what exactly does “full control” mean? Full control means:

  • Rapid adjustment of text, tokens or variables
  • Real-time modification of native graphs, charts, and metrics
  • Native Swapping of images or videos (SVG, PNG, JPG, MP4, etc.)
  • Injection or control over all table data (think large swaths of columns/rows of data, icons, etc.)
  • Quick modification of workflows, transactions or drag/drop functionality

To be considered “full control”, the entire list above MUST be possible within the live SaaS application – whether demo, production, or development.  It needs to be easily done, in real-time by pre-sales or sales, and with no reliance on internal product & engineering resources or Saleo. This is the Saleo magic and for most people reading this, the typical response is, “how is that possible” or “that’s too good to be true”.  The good news – it’s not too good to be true and it’s game-changing for a sales engineer or solutions consultant.   Multi-billion dollar sales & marketing leaders like Salesloft, Clari, Drift, and Outreach use it every day to dramatically reduce demo prep-time, eliminate a costly reliance on engineering or product to support their efforts, and greatly increase win-rates. The ability to adapt data and use-cases in real-time adds a level of personalization never before seen that leads to closing more deals, faster than ever.  

Pre-sales – it IS about you

This is not about what is possible with Saleo – this is about supporting Pre-Sales teams & communities and why the current narrative is grossly under-serving the pre-sales market and constraining “the possible”.  It just so happens the north star vision in building Saleo WAS and always has been for the pre-sales community.  Agility, self-sufficiency, adaptation, and brilliance are all adjectives that describe the best sales engineers.  Their solutions and tech-stack must serve this purpose and empower them to deliver incredible, compelling, and brilliant demos. 

So now what?  That’s entirely up to you.  The intersection of product and sales is my passion. I love products and I love helping companies by deploying great products – I know most of you feel the same way.  Excited to stay on this journey.

Sell hard.  Sell fair. Close those Deals.

Justin McDonald

Co-Founder & CEO

Saleo, Inc.