Imagine a virtual world where all the traditional experiences of face-to-face meetings could be realized entirely over the web – including virtual tradeshows and conferences, complete with virtual booths, plenary halls, cafes and restaurants, and informal areas for relaxing and ad hoc discussions. Imagine a virtual world that mimics – or goes beyond – traditional meeting rooms. Imagine a virtual world that enables rich, fully experiential virtual demos, discovery conversations, and other vendor-prospect and vendor-customer interactions, regardless of the physical location of the participants or even language limitations. Imagine joining a post-go-live celebratory dinner with all the players from the vendor and customer together, toasting their mutual success, and enjoying a real (not virtual) meal together!
It is all possible – and perhaps it's just around the (virtual) corner…
Most of us have been 'living in Zoom' for nearly two years, and Zoom fatigue is real. Something seems to be missing from working online and meeting colleagues, prospects, and customers. We are looking forward to meeting in-person again and harvesting the advantages of face-to-face meetings on a personal and professional level.
Virtual Sales is Here to Stay
However, isn't that wishful thinking? Research by McKinsey shows that most B2B buyers are happy with the current sales model. The last two years only magnified a transformation that started ten years ago with a global economy, with colleagues, customers, and prospects dispersed worldwide. If you are still waiting for things to go back to normal, you might be waiting forever. Virtual meetings are here to stay.
PreSales professionals were ahead of the curve. They conducted online meetings long before the pandemic. Discovery calls, Q&A sessions, and proof demos have been executed online for many years. And while they were a bit rusty before, the pandemic has positively affected their execution. Online demos are done much better today, and the audience is well-trained in receiving them. But the difficulty comes from our attempt to mirror an in-person meeting with online demos. I wonder if this is the best way to embrace the "digital transformation" of the PreSales profession?
Most online demos nowadays follow a consistent pattern: The AE (salesperson) invites a few people from a prospect for a Zoom (or Teams, Webex, etc.) meeting at a specific time. The AE and SE (PreSales person) prepare a presentation and demo independently from each other. The AE starts the meeting at the agreed time. Because meetings are often scheduled back-to-back, some people from the prospect arrive late. The vendor team has prepared a lot of content, leaving little time for introductions. Many attendees are still muted with their cameras off (although this is improving slowly). After a 20-minute overview presentation by the AE, the SE delivers the prepared demo. There are no questions from the prospect. When the vendor team asks a question, there is only the echo of silence. The customer champion asks a few questions to get interaction going, but they stop after two attempts as nobody responds.
The SE continues the demo, and their tone gets flatter. After 35 minutes, a question is asked by someone called '9gghk77bek', according to the Zoom pane. The SE is caught off guard, stumbles with answering the question, and returns quickly to the prepared script. Five minutes before the end of the meeting, the AE interrupts the SE to thank them for the demo and asks the prospect if they have any questions. There is no response other than complete silence. The AE thanks everybody for their attention. The customer champion replies, "Thank you for the demo. We will be in touch," and those who are still in the meeting immediately leave quietly. If you'd like to read more on the topic, click here for Peter Cohan's article "Stunningly Awful Web ‘Overview’ Demos – The Gruesome Anatomy of a Traditional 1-Hour Web Overview Demonstration – And Some Solutions."
Perhaps this example is exaggerated, but it shows limitations that are typical for these kinds of demo meetings:
- No interpersonal connection
- Lack of interaction as there are very few questions asked, nor response to questions by the vendor team
- No collaboration or discussion between prospect participants
A New Approach
What if we are taking the wrong approach? Why are we trying to mimic a traditional in-person meeting in a physical conference room? What if we could embrace the possibilities in the virtual world and do things entirely differently than before?
Over the last few years, and especially since the beginning of the pandemic, technology has changed rapidly. Lessons can be learned from the gaming industry, and technology vendors are looking beyond the boundaries of brick-and-mortar buildings.
An Enterprise Metaverse
I would like to illustrate this using an "enterprise metaverse." This instance is called Virbela, but there are other related technologies including Whova, Hopin, Airmeet, and vFairs. Virbela’s website mentions that it “brings people together to work, learn, meet, and train in an immersive virtual world – from anywhere." What does this mean? You, colleagues, and prospects can move around in an office-like environment with multiple areas to stay, walk, sit, read, listen, and converse – all in a virtual environment.
There are still many limitations to what the various technologies offer. Today, you would need to combine multiple platforms to achieve what is required to transform your communication with clients. Let me paint a picture of how a customer demo might look like in the (near) future.
Imagine you are a salesperson and an important prospect in the manufacturing industry desires a demo. You have had a couple of discovery meetings in which you have learned about their situation, their pain points, and what they need from your software to meet their business goals. The prospect wants 20 internal stakeholders to participate, including the CEO and CFO, some people from IT, a few middle managers, and some end-users.
You invited the prospect team for a half-day meeting with your sales team in your virtual world (including a virtual office building, perhaps).
As each attendee joins your virtual world, they register with their name and job title. They answer a few questions , upload a picture of themselves and log in.
A Warm Welcome
As your guests enter the virtual world, they are personally welcomed by you. If necessary, you explain some standard functions (how to navigate the space) and guide your guests to a meeting area in a virtual café, where the rest of the vendor team is waiting. The vendor team members proactively choose guests with the responsibility that equals their expertise and start a conversation. (This is like what you would do in-person at a coffee machine to make a connection with one or more guests). It gives your guests a feeling of belonging and being taken care of.
After a few minutes, your master of ceremonies (MC) starts the official part of the meeting. They use the interactive boards available in the café. One of the boards displays the agenda of the meeting and the other displays the MC's face. Because the face is shown at a large scale with non-verbal communication visible, it is easier to relate to the MC. When the MC is talking, all other voices are muted. The MC explains that this meeting will be held in several rooms and spaces, enabling the diverse interests of the prospect to be satisfied. The coffee break in the middle can be conducted in an area of choice and at the end of the program, all will meet in a plenary room to discuss next steps.
Attend the Session of Your Choice
In this customer event, the vendor team consists of the MC, the AE, a sales director, multiple SEs and some specialists. Each of them takes their respective positions in your virtual offices:
- One of the SEs will deliver a demo to a middle-manager and their team members of the planning department.
- The Sales Director conducts a session for the prospect's C-level participants, covering topics that are relevant for them.
- One specialist presents a session for IT on how to integrate your solution into existing architecture.
- A second SE facilitates a session on the end-user experience.Another specialist conducts a virtual reality session for the maintenance of the plant. The prospect perceives being in the plant, seeing the machines and experiencing the software physically. The prospect uses the software in the role of a maintenance engineer.
The prospect team joins the appropriate in-depth sessions and if desired, they can join multiple sessions.
Collaboration in Each Session
Let's take a closer look at the individual sessions. The presenter and audience meet in a virtual room where they can all see and hear each other, while people outside that space cannot hear them, just like rooms in a brick-and-mortar building. The uploaded pictures are avatars (icons or figures representing people in attendance). Laptop cameras capturing the facial expressions translate them to the participants' avatar faces, enabling emotions to be seen and understood. The presenter uses an interactive screen in the virtual room displaying the software or presentation. Everybody in the room can see the screen and zoom in to see more details. The presenter initiates the discussion with questions relevant to the guests they have met in the welcome cafe. Both presenter and participants can annotate the screens focusing the discussion and stimulating interaction, just as if they were both at a whiteboard together in a real room.
Imagine a real-life conference room where every wall is a whiteboard and has a beamer, so multiple sets of information can be displayed and discussed as desired. Now, visualize a virtual room with the same capabilities (plus more).
The presenter shares a list of topics for the participants by opening a collaboration tool on a second interactive screen. Participants select their preferred topic from the list. At the end of the meeting, the presenter summarizes, and this summary is sent to all participants, including some pictures of the most valuable screens of the software. After these discussions, the presenter guides the participants to the virtual coffee area, where they join the balance of the vendor and prospect teams.
And here is something to consider: There will likely be things that are possible in the new virtual world that cannot take place in traditional physical demos, like the ability to jump instantly into another room and back again. In the virtual world, there is an unlimited number of rooms available. We should not limit our thinking of possibilities to what we see today.
Cross-Pollination During Breaks
All prospect team members and the vendor team meet in the break space. This area is divided into different smaller zones for one-on-one conversations. People outside the zone are not able to hear the conversation. Some of these zones serve as an expert area with virtual walls and interactive screens for extra explanation on specific topics. Virtual whiteboards or software display screens can be pulled up whenever and wherever you need them.
Some of the guests have additional and more detailed questions and walk to the expert area, some meet in one-on-one zones to discuss internally, others have a one-on-one with the vendor on a specific topic, and some may choose to just stay in the lounge to have a chat. The vendor team quickly deploys team members to a private room to respond to the prospect's questions. One of the SEs hears that the CFO has some specific questions, and this SE approaches the CFO with the AE. After a brief introduction by the AE, the CFO and SE discuss the topic without being disturbed by others.
After the break, new sessions start, and everybody joins the session they are interested in. The AE pops in and out of various sessions to feel the atmosphere. When the AE receives a private message from the CEO, the two meet virtually outside to discuss.
After the last session ends, everybody meets in the plenary meeting room. The AE summarizes the outcomes of the different sessions and discusses the next steps with the guests. The AE shows the guests where they can download detailed information that has been shared via interactive screens and collaboration tools. The AE thanks everybody and invites them to stay in the café for post-business meeting conversations.
A few guests leave as they have other appointments, but others stay and build relationships. They might start discussing the outcomes from the event. Here is where the magic happens! You can find out more about the project and the pros and cons of your solution versus your competitors. When all guests have left, the vendor team debriefs in a debriefing space where virtual notes are used to discuss next steps and sales strategies, and feedback is exchanged to improve the customer interaction and individual performances. The overall conclusion is that the prospect was very enthusiastic, not only about your software but also about the meeting.
In the end, what we want to achieve is the same, preferably better, formal and informal communication and relationship development that we had when all meetings were face to face.
Technology is Key
All the ideas used in this article and most of the technology is available today. Many tools support your ability to connect, interact, collaborate, and discuss with your prospects in fully virtual meetings. Today's challenge is that these tools are not integrated yet and some need to improve further. Do we need technology to replace the coffee machine conversations, to see and hear each other in a more relaxed way than looking into your laptop camera? Or do we need technology to have parallel interactions instead of chronological, to replace avatars and to have fun together online? The key is not to replace the former in-person communication, but to find a much better form of online communication than was ever possible before.
What it Means for Demos
I believe it is time to present demos in a version of the prospects' virtual environments, using augmented or virtual reality to build a lab, a plant, an office, a website, a sales funnel, and to visualize using the software. It is time to parallelize multiple demos, mimicking the real world where multiple teams act simultaneously. It is time to have more extended and richer demo experiences, well qualified and well prepared. It is time for a dialogue with prospects to jointly create the future using Design Thinking skills (more information). It is finally time to stop pushing features and have a customer-centric approach. All of this is already possible; we just need to connect the virtual dots!
What is your vision for future demos? I would be happy to connect those dots with you! Connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.