The demo efficiency frontier: When should a demo be shown on the first call?


Author: Jonathan Friedman
Last updated: Published:

There’s been a controversy brewing in B2B software sales surrounding one key question: how quickly should a prospect see a product demo in the buying process?

From my vantage point, there are two schools of thought:

  1. A great demo must be tailored to what the buyer is trying to solve, or it will fall flat. Your demo is only as good as your discovery - it’s not one size fits all.
  2. Show a product demo as fast as possible. Stop dragging buyers through multiple calls before ever seeing your product.

This controversy only became more evident thanks to a recent LinkedIn post by Breezy Beaumont that took off with nearly 1,000 comments debating back and forth on how this should be done.

Both sides make valid points, so what’s the right answer?

As with most complex problems, there’s nuance, but not enough to remain an unsolved mystery.

The Tried and True B2B Sales Motion

If we zoom out on this topic, one thing becomes clear: the B2B sales motion has looked one way for quite some time. It’s as if we got it down to a science, and every sales organization plugged in the same tried and true formula…

Lead requests a demo on the website.

SDR handles the first call to qualify them. Sure enough, the prospect indeed passes BANT criteria, so the SDR proceeds to book a second call with an AE to dig in further.

AE then uses the call to do deep discovery… What problems are you trying to solve? How are you addressing those today? Who else is involved in this decision? And so on. Now that they’ve done their proper discovery, the demo call gets put on the books.

The next call (now the customer’s third) is the big reveal - a custom product demo, tailored to the buyer’s needs and use case. Surely, with a customized solution for their business, and an SE to serve as the technical resource, this deal is going to be no problem getting over the line to a Closed Won.

And there’s a reason this line of thinking has been the default for decades. Discovery has long been known as one of the most important skills for a sales person to nail in order to be successful. Your pitch is only as good as your understanding of the problems your customer is trying to solve.

But the truth is, the modern buyer’s expectations have changed. So it then begs the question, how should our sales process adapt?

The PLG Perspective

On the other side of the aisle is the product-led growth mindset - basically, let your product sell itself.

In contrast to the tried and true, high touch sales motion, this perspective is all about making it as easy as possible for your buyer to buy. Remove all friction, ungate product experiences, and allow the user to get their hands on the product faster.

There’s a ton of validity behind this side of the debate as well.

First off, it’s centered around the buying process, not just the sales process.

After all, we’ve become accustomed to the Amazon experience of getting household items delivered within hours rather than having to make a trip to the store. We consume entertainment on demand. And a few seconds of a Tik Tok reel is about where our attention span stops.

Yes, we’re talking B2B, but these are still just people behind those buying decisions, and their expectations on a seamless experience aren’t all that different from the consumer side.

The modern buyer does 80% of their research before ever talking to a salesperson. 54% of millennial buyers (the next generation of leaders) prefer no interaction with sales at all.

And so, it’s no surprise that buyers are sick of being dragged through multiple conversations before ever seeing what they came to see: the product.

The problem here is that in order to show product sooner, that means a canned, generic demo.

Or does it?

The Demo Efficiency Frontier

I don’t think the answer is as simple as saying one side of this debate is right, and the other wrong.

Rather, there’s a direct relationship between the time investment from the buyer and level of customization expected, and I’d like to propose a methodology to help sellers strike the right balance.

The perfect demo is a mirror. It should reflect exactly how your customer would leverage your product, serving as the blueprint for what you implement together once the deal is signed on the dotted line. Ideally, it showcases your buyer’s most acute wishes for how they’d use your product. But since that’s not always reality, there’s a simple scale of the levels of mirroring you can showcase in your demo:

  1. Generic demo
  2. Company template: vertical or size (fintech, government, enterprise)
  3. Company + persona template: persona + vertical + size (enterprise tech company for the VP Finance, SMB company for the head of sales)
  4. Company + user specific: persona + industry + skinned customizations (logo, company name, prospect name, etc.)
  5. Mirrored customer: All of the above, with workflows and content speaking to the buyer’s specific use cases

The amount of time required ahead of time from the buyer must correlate to the level of blueprint customization done after discovery.

There’s also a simple scale of how much buyer’s time is requested upfront:

  1. Immediate access: Product-led growth
  2. Light: Demo on the first call (product-led sales)
  3. Heavy: Multiple calls before a demo (traditional B2B sales motion)

If you ask for a prospect’s time, it has to pay off big time. Every minute of their time spent with you should translate to massive customization. Anything less, and you’re wasting their time. If internal notes are the only outcome of your discovery process, your sales organization will not succeed. Sales must be able to chart a map between the customer and product usage. That’s the demo.

If you ask for no time commitment, a generic demo is a fine trade off. Many buyers are perfectly ok with that expectation if it means they can get their hands on the product without jumping through hoops. Discuss the expectations with the prospect early to align.

On the other hand, other sales processes have buyers happy to invest their time if it means a fully reflected demo where they can understand without a doubt how their specific business would see value from your solution. This is all dependent on your industry specifics and is heavily influenced by the deal size. The larger the deal, the higher the touch, and the higher the expectation on customization. After all, there’s more on the line for your buyer if their name is attached to a seven figure deal, so due diligence before closing a deal is only appropriate.

But if you can find the answers to your discovery questions online, are they really worth spending your prospect’s time on in a live call? Research can and should be done before a discovery call to minimize the time commitment from your buyer. Partner with your RevOps leader to get this data. Beyond the plethora of information on LinkedIn, Angellist, Crunchbase and other public databases, there are great tools in the market to make this data available (we partner with RevenueBase). Sales training on this matter is also crucial to help AEs learn to translate research into the right demo asset.

The holy grail is of course to have no time commitment required while showing a fully reflected demo. My point is that a lighter level of customization may very well still accomplish the goal of the call, depending on where you fall on that efficiency curve. Can you prospect out to a customer with a vignette that fully captures an issue they’re struggling with internally? Can demos be pushed through the outbound motion? I think so, but that’s a story for another post.

You don’t necessarily need to choose one method or the other either. You can choose a path of progressive demos - show a vignette on the first call and ask for time to show a fully customized one in a follow-up call. Consider it a disco demo. Sure, you’re jumping right to showing product, but that demo vignette is really just a trojan horse for discovery. It serves as the backdrop for your conversation, allowing your demo to become a two-way dialogue.

Yes, today’s buyer wants to see product as fast as possible, but your need for discovery doesn’t just disappear. An approach like this scratches the itch of the customer and building momentum by giving them what they came to see, while you can still save the heavy hitting custom demo for after you’ve learned more about their business goals.

Measuring the Impact

Of course, for any change to business process, the juice has to be worth the squeeze. If you’re going to change your demo strategy, measuring the impact is crucial. Test different levels of customization and time commitment based on customer segments or stages of your sales cycle, and track the impact they have on your revenue acceleration. At Demostack, we test and learn by asking questions like:

  1. What is the uplift on win rate when a demo is shown on the first call?
  2. How is deal velocity impacted by using level 2 versus level 4 customization?
  3. How many more deals can a rep handle if they spend less time on customization?
  4. What is the right threshold of customization before sales productivity takes a hit?
  5. How does demo template A perform versus template B in terms of attributed revenue?

Set up an experiments framework to test hypotheses with different areas of the efficiency frontier and find your sweet spot.

But you don’t have to be overly prescriptive with those findings. Framework or not, there will still be a lot of gray area between the various levels of mirroring. It may very well be that there isn’t an exact playbook to follow in every situation, but rather, that your sales team needs to be able to pull an audible and change course based on the customer.

While this might sound daunting, it’s easier than you think with modern demo tools. By arming your sales team with an arsenal of demo assets, they can pivot on the fly based on the conversation, and in doing so, remove a lot of friction (and frustration) from the buying process.

Bridging Enterprise Sales with PLG

It’s true that not every product was meant to just be handed out to any user that wants to take it for a test drive. Complex solutions built for the enterprise may not make sense for free trial or immediate sign-up option, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pull elements of the PLG mindset into a more high-touch sales motion. Putting the buyer at the center of how you go to market is where it all begins. How can you make it easy for your buyer to buy without letting your aha moment fall flat?

Finding your sweet spot on the efficiency frontier will lead to revenue acceleration. Your product demo is the proof behind your value proposition, a window into the soul of your company, and pulling the right levers on how and when you showcase product can have an outsized impact on your business.

Discovery done without translation into your product demo is indeed a waste of your prospects' time. Mirroring in your demo what you heard through discovery used to be a tall task because it required actual deployment and usage of the product. With modern demo platforms, this can now be simulated by go-to-market teams without technical know-how, so the bar has been set higher thanks to breakthrough technologies. It's now a race to who adapts first.

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