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Don't Let A Course Demo Do In The Sale.

A supermarket lady brandishes tiny toothpicks of goat cheese. An SUV salesman veers off on an abandoned logging road. A body armor exhibitor goads onlookers to shoot him in the chest.

They're all demonstrating a product -- and in a mighty compelling way.

Kicking off a training sales call with a course demo can seem like an excellent idea, as well. Unfortunately, it rarely is. Here's why, and what to consider instead.

A. Your Audience Can't Relate

Too many training demos subject training decisionmakers to a blow-by-blow course run-through. This can be a big mistake if the decisionmaker can't personally relate to your course content.

Imagine you are an HR professional and a training salesperson insists on escorting you through an e-Learning course on "Building Linux Beowulf Clusters." You're intimidated by the content -- not to mention bored to tears. Who can blame you for tuning out everything else the salesperson has to say.

Better if the salesperson offered a demo that addressed your business concern that all e-Learning must be compatible with your corporate bandwidth and firewall standards. As for content quality, the salesperson would have been better served by helping you set up a pilot with members of your IT organization.

B. Your Audience Is Too Senior

Or suppose you are VP Manufacturing for a Fortune 50 giant, being asked to pretend you are a newly-appointed supervisor in a shop floor role play concerning chronic employee tardiness. You feel foolish -- then furious, as the salesperson "diplomatically" points out an error in your style.

Better if the salesperson had deferred to your stature and expertise and staged a demo dramatizing sizeable reductions in scrap rates and union grievances in plants where the supervisory course has been adopted.

C. Your Course Doesn't Lend Itself To Being Demo'd

Another problem with course run throughs -- even to a receptive audience -- is that few learning experiences are convincingly portrayed in a sales demo way.

Trying to compress 40 hours or so of instruction into 30 minutes can leave people's heads spinning. It's like trying to enjoy a five-star restaurant meal after the kitchen has caught fire. Nor is previewing just one course unit necessarily an answer -- particularly if each unit is based on learning that has gone on before.

Then you have the challenge of trying to translate a highly interactive community learning experience into a one-on-one sales simulation. Unless your salesperson can contort and shift roles like a method actor, this effort is almost always certain to fall flat.

So what do you do if your prospect ardently expresses an interest in -- or concerns about your course content? Well, begin by asking them to clarify what the primary issue is. Maybe all you need to do is to walk them through the syllabus so they can see if a vital topic is covered. If their concern is more broad-based, then consider referring them to a current client who can speak to the overall quality of your course content and learning design. Or, best of all, see about getting your prospect to set up a pilot group so your course can be evaluated under "battlefield" conditions.

D. The Demo Prevents Customers From Expressing Their Needs

This is a problem with all demos, but with course demos most of all.

Every moment you are conducting a Cook's tour of your course is a moment when your customer is prevented from expressing their needs or voicing their concerns. A course demo presumes customer decisionmakers are looking for you to build a pedagogical case. They are far more likely to be seeking a business case.

So before you launch into that demo on "Finance for the Non Financial Manager" its wise to ask questions like: "Are you satisfied that your people are incorporating bottom line concerns in their everyday decisions?" "What sort of approaches have you tried to help your people become more financially literate?" "If there were a way you could equip all of your people to think more like your CEO, would you be interested?"

Then, once you have scoped out the need and identified your prospect's hot buttons you can consider asking permission to demo part of your course by saying something like "You're skeptical that non college-educated employees will be able to grasp the concept of present-value accounting -- would it help if I demonstrated to you how that unit works?"

In sum, hold that demo until you have established your customer's needs and asked your customer's permission. And don't be surprised if the answer is "no thanks."

Questions you may have:

Q: Rather than demo our course during a sales call, suppose I invite the decisionmaker to sit in on one of our current public courses -- either as a participant or an observer.

A: This can work if the decisionmaker is genuinely interested in participating in the course and the learning is relevant to his or her job. However, it is not usually a good idea to station a decisionmaker as a passive, back-of-the-room observer. When people aren't actively involved in the learning it's easy to resort to becoming an evaluator critic -- or, worse yet, to fall asleep!

Q: Our salespeople are asking for a course sampler demo that they can leave behind with customers. Will this help move the sale forward?

A: Probably not. Our experience with course sampler leave behinds is that you wind up having to sell like the blazes just to get someone to sample them.

Q: We are thinking of doing a course demo at an executive level pre-sales event we are having in a hotel. Is this a good idea?

A: Remember, when you are addressing decisionmakers it is almost always better to demonstrate a business case rather than course content. However, if you are certain a brief excerpt of a course will engage your audience in a powerful and personal way and speak to the business goals they want to achieve, then, by all means, have at it.

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