Wimbledon is arguably the most prestigious professional tennis championship in history. Hosted every June in London, the best players take the world stage on grass courts for their shot to be crowned champion. Thousands flock to the grandstands to watch these elite athletes who must perform under extreme pressure (and some uncontrollable circumstances – it’s rained 130 of the past 135 years!) to achieve tennis glory.
I learned to play tennis long before I ever knew what a demo or Solutions Engineer (SE) was, but there are clear similarities between great tennis players and the best SEs. In true Wimbledon fashion, grab some strawberries and cream and let’s look at five tennis tactics you can incorporate into your next live demo.
1. Read the customer’s position
One of the best tips I learned in tennis was to draw an imaginary line between you and your opponent across the net. As you play out the point and move around on the court, the goal is to always keep this line between you and your opponent connected. Doing this ensures that you are always in the best position to return any shot they hit – it’s the physical location on the court with the highest probability of the ball coming back to you where you can hit it easily.
The best Solutions Engineers actively engage the customer throughout the live demonstration to get a sense of the customer’s sentiment and feedback in real time. Based on this feedback, an adept SE can pivot their demo on the spot to foreshadow a key value that will alleviate their pain point, or even ask a follow up question to learn more about what is driving the original comment. Good SEs “draw the line” with the customers in the demo and keep it connected throughout the entire presentation, anticipating the next value feature to showcase and talking points to emphasize based on the customer’s real-time feedback during the demo.
Rather than waiting until the end of the presentation to solicit impressions and feedback, SEs should make a habit of connecting with the customer throughout the live demo and making meaningful acknowledgements to their feedback, whether it’s adjusting a talking point or even slightly reframing a portion of the demo. SEs who do this well exude confidence, build deeper trust with the customer, and demonstrate genuine empathy (emotional intelligence).
2. Choose the “winning shot” carefully
In tennis, a shot that is unreturnable by the other player is called a winner. Like going for the buzzer-beater three-point shot in basketball, there is nothing more exhilarating and tempting than hitting a winner.
Like an athlete with the desire to win dramatically, less-experienced Solution Engineers can easily be enticed by this “winning shot” mentality. As the subject matter expert of your product, you know all the phenomenal features, bells, and whistles your product can deliver, as well as the massive value that can be harnessed through them. But the best SEs know that a live demo is not the time to roll out the full catalog of awesome features; instead, they identify specific value themes ahead of the demo, contemplate scenarios and timing, and exercise extreme discipline during the live demo to deliver the winning shots that demonstrate value to the customer.
Demos that win deals target the specific needs voiced by the customer, convince the customer that the product can deliver value today, and enable them to expand their business or capabilities beyond what they had previously considered. The demo may also demonstrate why your product prevails over competition. It is the SE’s role to help cast the vision for what is possible through these winning shots (sometimes called value vignettes), executed thoughtfully and timely.
So, how does a Solutions Engineer identify the “winners” for each customer? The process starts well before the live demo with discovery. Understanding the prospect’s current needs is essential. The Solutions Engineer should glean the prospect’s goals and help the prospect imagine capabilities that were impossible with their previous solution. Mapping these aspirations to the specific values (not features) your product delivers is where these winners begin to materialize. Identifying the right winners for each prospect is essential. If you’re unsure on how to identify winners through discovery and map them to your demo flow, check out this blog post: Overhauling the Demo using Value Vignettes.
Once you have drafted precise, meaningful (to the customer) winners for your live demo, the next step is to consider the best sequence of winners in the demo flow. As mentioned earlier, the focus of the demo should be illustrating to the prospect how your product delivers top value; winners should be thought of as the core values and proof points that demonstrate why a long-term partnership and future of your product with your prospect is a profitable one.
The rule of thumb with winners in a demo is quite like that of tennis: make a plan for when to present them, but always read the customer and be prepared to adjust if necessary. In the live demo, the goal is for the customer to acknowledge and believe that their pressing requirements are met with value from your product. Being too hasty to demo a winner too early or failing to “draw the line” and read the customer’s engagement level can result in what we call an unforced error in tennis (i.e., a mistake) or in worst cases, a deal breaker. A winner presented at the wrong time can run your demo off track at best, or at worst, jeopardize how the customer perceives your product and your commitment to resolving their voiced concerns.
In every live demo, I also incorporate a small “bonus” winner – this could be something like showcasing an integration that will reduce manual entry and save the prospect additional hours per month or how the prospect can connect with their end users in real time through our in-product chat feature as a new method to boost brand transparency and connectivity. The bonus winner should focus on creating new opportunities for the customer, not simply satisfying a pain point (for more on this mindset shift, read Ed Jaffe’s article on the difference between solving pain points and showcasing opportunities to your prospects).
To identify a bonus winner, I put myself in the shoes of the customer’s CEO – what other opportunities could take my company to the next level of profitability, or growth, or user adoption? Then, I map these ideas to value that can be harnessed through use of my product, and I pick one to form my bonus winner.
Remember, what defines a winner is not how large, extravagant, or showy it is; it’s a highly relevant value of your product that leaves the customer inspired and thinking about what else could be possible for their business with your product in their hands. A winning demo goes beyond merely alleviating pain points. If the customer is coming off mute with comments about future ideas or brainstorming with other colleagues on the call on how they can use your product, it’s often a good indicator that you’ve executed the winner successfully.
3. You always get two serves
One of my favorite aspects of tennis is that when you start a point, you get two attempts to get your serve (the first shot) inside the lines. In both tennis matches and live demos, I tend to get nervous. Knowing that I have that second serve chance is a reassurance when I am playing tennis, and that mindset should be extended to demos, too.
Live demos, particularly when the prospect audience includes executives, can be nerve-wracking. And, perhaps after all this talk about winners, you are a bit worried about making some of these “unforced errors” in your presentation. As a new Solutions Engineer, I was nearly paralyzed if anything went unplanned in my demo. Whether a blip in the internet connection or a misstep in the demo flow, it would leave me in a tense sweat and flustered over how to recover the rhythm.
It’s so important to remember that, while live demos are essentially reflections of you and your product, nothing is guaranteed to go perfectly. And just like serving in tennis, I am a firm believer that you always have a second try at rolling with the punches when a technical malfunction or presentation hiccup occurs. If you answer a prospect’s question and realize you misspoke, take that second serve and clarify. You can always course correct, and when you don’t know the answer or realize something went wrong, follow up calls and emails can also work wonders.
It is always better to take the opportunity to make the best of mistakes – in fact, you can often appear more relatable and confident when you demonstrate to the customer that you are comfortable working through unexpected circumstances or trip-ups. So, if you miss the first time, take a breath, and take the second serve – you can still win the point!
4. Your AE is your doubles partner
In tennis, you either play singles (one vs. one) or doubles (two vs. two). I have played a lot of both and can say with confidence that bearing the pressure of competition with a partner makes a huge difference! In PreSales, the SE and Account Executive (AE) should be a dynamic duo. You both represent the face of the product from different angles and should be a unified front.
The best doubles teams in the world have a surprising similarity: one partner’s strengths are the other’s weaknesses! One player is a pro at hitting balls from the net and in close range; the other excels at hitting deep shots from the baseline and anticipating the angles. Together, there is not a single shot or inch of the tennis court that the collective team cannot cover.
Where the magic happens, however, is not simply the result of having yin-and-yang skills; it’s each person’s commitment to setting up their partner with the shots they hit the best. Rather than focusing on how one person can win the point for themselves, doubles partners are constantly working to give their partner the best chance at winning the point for the team.
Is your relationship with the AE(s) you work with like this? Do you know what your AE’s strengths are, where they thrive, what they love to do? Do you compare notes and give each other feedback after product presentations? If not, I encourage you to give them positive feedback on what you notice they excel at and ask them how you can help leverage that more in your joint partnership on prospect engagements (and if they don’t ask you the same, offer up what would be meaningful to you!). You will likely find that your relationship with your AE “doubles partner” will grow stronger. Having this team mindset and working to complement your AE’s skills or approach can truly be deal-changing. Nothing helps quell live demo nerves like having the confidence that your AE has your back and you’re not going it alone. Win together!
5. Know your game and practice it
Our last tactic from the tennis court is nothing new but can’t be overstated. The best tennis players in the world have put in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hours of practice. No tennis match is exactly like the last, which means preparation is always essential. Live demos are no different. Every customer is unique, and while the product being demonstrated remains the same, world-class SEs know how to translate the values and features to what the customer seeks.
The previous four strategies covered require practice:
- Draw the line during live demos. Practice engaging the prospect for reactions and feedback (“Does this resonate? Does your team struggle with X? How would you handle this task in your existing system? This has saved other customers roughly Y hours in their monthly reconciliation process. Do you have a sense for how much time this might free up for your team and are there other more valuable tasks they might focus on with that new time?”).
- Hone your winning value vignettes. Practice focusing on generating opportunities, not just alleviating pain points.
- Take the second serve. Practice humility and objection handling and remember you can always course correct.
- Partner with your Account Executive counterpart. Practice building trust and camaraderie with your AE as your proverbial demo doubles partner.
When you build up the muscle memory in these strategies, you will likely find yourself more focused and confident in live demos. Like Wimbledon-level tennis, achieving world-class demo glory takes determination and continuous improvement, but you can do it!
As one of my old tennis coaches used to say, “Go enjoy it!”
Senior Presales Solutions Consultant