Vendors love nothing more than getting in front of their customers and talking about their products. You’ll always learn something from a presentation, but mostly they are an exercise in death-by-powerpoint. In this post, I’ll provide some some tips on getting the most from your time in these presentations. Vendor presentations can be really informative and helpful if you prepare well.
In-house vendor presentations work best when you provide clear direction to the vendor in advance of your meeting. Sure, you can choose to let the vendor just ‘present their stuff’. However, if they don’t know much about you or your needs, you’ll mostly get bland, generic and irrelevant presentations.
Do some basic research before you get to the presentation, and build your list of questions. Ask some peers for their inputs if you like. The key here is to get those questions to the vendor in advance of the meeting. Make it clear to the vendor that you want them to bring an engineer with the capability to answer those questions.
You may need to accept that your company isn’t big enough to get access the vendor’s top engineers. However, you can be resourceful. The presenters at Cisco Live or similar conferences are excellent. Be sure to take advantage of the ‘ask the expert’ sessions while you’re there.
You should also tell the vendor what style of presentation you want and where to focus, especially if you don’t know the vendor. For example, “We’re a layer-2 shop and don’t want to focus on routing and MPLS features.” And tell them if you want an informal meeting, a clinic-style whiteboard session, or a live demo.
Another tip is to set an explicit time limit for the presentation. This forces the vendor to skip quickly through the fluff like mission statements and that stupid slide with the endless list of customer logos. If you want to be sneaky, you can secretly book the meeting room for an extra thirty minutes. Then you can extend the meeting if you find the presentation to be really valuable.
Keep the meeting small. You get much better answers from vendors when you have a smaller audience. The very best answers come from the vendor’s technical experts in off-the-record discussions, especially when the account manager is not in the room.
Carefully curate your local attendee-list. Inviting junior engineers helps them learn, but you may need to cut their questions short if you’re not getting the answers you need. Likewise if you have non-technical management staff in the room, you will gain very little from the presentation. The sales rep will shift gears and start talking about benefits, strategy, vision. etc.
Before kickoff, you should confirm that the slide-pack will be shared at the end of presentation. Save your note-taking for questions and observations. You need to free up your senses to watch and listen. Watch for the ‘who’s going to take this one’ look-of-panic after a tough question is asked. Also listen carefully for crafted responses like, “Yes that feature will be supported” and “that is definitely on our roadmap”. Take note of performance figures which may be stated but not included in the slide pack.
When you ask questions, please don’t try to score points off the presenters. Vendor representatives are professionals just like you and me. They just happen to be sitting on the other side of the table. They deserve a basic level of respect and decency, regardless of their technical competency. That’s right, even sales guys!
About ten years ago, Nortel were giving a presentation to my company. There was a pretty large audience and a ‘colleague’ of mine bluntly told Nortel that their gear was ‘garbage’ and that Cisco gear was of course ‘excellent’. Our meeting facilitator rightfully came to Nortel’s defense, calling the comment ‘unprofessional’, and forcing an embarrassing public retraction from the fan-boy. Cheap shots aimed at the vendor add zero value and make you look like an idiot. Avoid.
Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions from your vendors, but please limit them to questions you don’t already know the answer to. You see the “statement pretending to be a question” a lot during sessions at Cisco Live. Everyone else recognises this for what it is; it’s cringeworthy.
When the presentation concludes, be sure to get the contact details of the engineers you have dealt with. Ask for the slide pack to be emailed to you and ensure that the vendor takes ownership of unanswered questions.
The vendor may ask you to lunch, dinner or drinks afterwards. It’s entirely your call, as long as your company ethics policy permits it. Remember that you get nothing for nothing, so prepare to be questioned. Mostly, I skip the whole dinner thing, but if you’ve got a smart account manager and a good crowd, it can be enjoyable.
I hope these high-level tips will prove helpful to you. In a follow-on post, I will provide a list of more detailed questions that you can use to dive deeper on the vendors solution. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.
Note: The Tech Field Day guidelines for presenters page has lots more tips for high-value presentations.