Vendor Demos: A Little Homework Eases a Lot of Pain

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Of all the poorly managed meetings I've sat through over the last 10 years, some of the worst have been tech vendor demonstrations. They last forever, they are chock full of information that's completely irrelevant to your situation, and when it's over, at least half of the folks on your side of the teleconference have exactly no idea what just happened.

And it's almost always your fault.

Vendors have no idea about your business plan. They have no idea about what new business lines and revenue channels you hope to open via your investment. They have absolutely have no idea what you might consider a success metric for the project. (Although they are certain to have a few canned success stories.) And they certainly have no concept of the tech you already have in place (and probably hope to salvage, to some degree).

You have to tell them. And you should tell them as much as you can up front.

We at IT Business Edge are going through a vendor discovery process as we consider a build-some-more/buy decision on a key system. In preparation, I sent along about 15 questions to two vendors that outlined the framework of our current system, along with some issues that might well constitute "gotchas" -- at the very least, pretty substantial hurdles -- to adopting a new tech.

The first demo was late last week, and I can say we learned a lot in our 75-minute Q&A -- primarily because we spent only about 15 minutes on a couple of slides rather than the 45-minute drill the vendors' team told us was more typical.

By asking a few pointed questions up front, we helped our sales rep (who was most receptive and helpful) line up an internal tech resource to knowledgeably answer most of our questions. Because we compiled and circulated our question sheet to the internal review team prior to the call, we all had a pretty good idea of the questions we needed to cover. Formulating follow-up questions (and of course, there were follow-up questions) was painless.

This all seems like common sense, but most vendor demos I've attended over the years start off with the assumption that I've never heard of business intelligence, Web analytics or content management systems. Hard to blame the vendors there -- I'd imagine much of their sales pitch (particularly these days) is targeted at business owners who a) have only the dimmest notion of what this presentation might be about and b) have not been briefed by IT on the tech.

Some might say my approach is a little cart-before-the-horse, that by going into a vendor demo with a lot of pre-canned questions you are closing your mind to the new doors that the tech will open for your business. I say tell me about another business meeting you are willing to walk into as blindly as most of us do to vendor demos.

Before your next demo:

  1. Ask your sales rep if you can get a copy of the presentation you're destined to be walked through before the call. This should help your team calculate some smart questions, and at least get your head around where the vendor proposes to offer the most value -- think of it as a safety net against missing the obvious.
  2. Ask each of your internal stakeholders to submit at least two advance questions for the vendor pertaining to their line of business. Which can be a good starting point for ...
  3. Do some kind of internal diligence. Make sure a) your stakeholders have a clear notion of the tech to be discussed and b) that you understand the key business goals of the project. Again, this may seem to be incredibly basic stuff, but during how many demos have you cringed when one of your VPs asked a painfully obtuse question? Best case, it's a little embarrassing; worst case, it's blood in the water for an aggressive vendor sales team. The last thing you want is a business decision-maker to be "educated" on a tech by a vendor.