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October 20, 2022
You can do more than sell in a sales demo. Jane walks through how to reposition demos as relationship building and research opportunities.
Jane Portman is the co-founder of Userlist and the host of the UI Breakfast podcast. She's passionate about helping founders connect with their customers and learning more about their stories. She's hosted more than 170 episodes of her podcast, UI Breakfast, and loves connecting with other UI/UXers.
Erin: [00:00:40] Hello everybody, and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today, we're here with Jane Portman. She is the cofounder of user list, that's a customer life cycle email tool for SAS companies. She's involved in product there, has past experience as a UX leader. She hosts a podcast called UI breakfast.
Um, and today we're going to talk about how you can actually use sales demos as a really good customer research tool and how she's gone about doing that. At user list. So thank you so much for joining us, Jane.
Jane: [00:01:15] Hi Erin. My pleasure to be here.
Erin: [00:01:18] also got JH here. Okay.
JH: [00:01:20] Yeah. The overlap of sales discovery and user research has always fascinated me, but it's not something I've thought about a lot, so I'm excited to dig into it.
Jane: [00:01:27] Awesome.
Erin: [00:01:29] Well, let's dig right in. So Jane, tell us a little bit about, I know your background, you know, you came from UX previously and you host the podcast all about UI. How did you come to start using sales demos as a tool for customer research in your current role?
Jane: [00:01:50] Well without defining the format, whether it's a sales call or demo or anything like that, we always knew that talking to customers live on a call is, is a life changing practice, which is super important to our product. So we did a round of interviews even before we started doing the product, and those were not sales calls, but rather customer discovery calls.
So we use couple of different methods for those. But once we started building the product, then we adopted this practice of getting on the call with people who wanted to use it. So the early, early adoptors, they couldn't even get access to the tool until they had an in-person call with the founders and it worked out pretty great.
And with the time we, we started to feel more confident, we gained more skills as interviewers, and at the same time we became more confident than the product. So right now it feels much better and it also feels like we have a few tips to share with those who are just starting out.
Erin: [00:02:51] Fantastic. And so you, you could not use your product, become a customer without doing a demo. Is that right? So I said.
Jane: [00:03:00] that's right. We would, vet the people who would want, who would want to use it, and we wanted to make sure they're a good fit before handing them the keys to our MVP version of user list. That was like a year or two ago that we started
JH: [00:03:16] Where did, where did that idea come from? Like what, what was the thinking behind it?
Jane: [00:03:20] Great question. I think we just, all of us, there was a team of three at that time. We shared the sentiment that, the early customers should be very qualified. So we wanted to learn from them as much as to let them know how to use the product. Both of that.
Erin: [00:03:34] And as you're, when your product is new, right? And you know, correct me if I'm wrong, but you're figuring out, right? Like that product market fit. Who is that ideal customer? Who is that qualified customer? How do you know what to screen for to find these, you know, good fit customers. As you're figuring out what a good fit customer means, you know, how do you do those at the same time?
Jane: [00:03:59] I guess this question should be answered differently for each individual business. As for our team, we were from day one, Pretty much set on building tools for SaSS founders like ourselves, to have a quality tool for running very day to day operations, to talk to their customers, et cetera, et cetera.
So we didn't have problem identifying good fit. it was more about screening out. People who had, being misinformed about like what our tool can do. Maybe they had some false expectations that it was an email marketing tool. While it is a tool for sending automated email to the customers after they sign up.
So, making this difference between like pre-sign up and post sign up communications has been pretty, pretty crucial actually. Took us like a year to figure out how exactly to communicate that so that then people aren't as confused anymore. So it w and, we also had some consultancies who were going to use us for client communications and maybe mobile app owners and all of these people, they could probably.
Like really bend user list to use for their use case. But we were just particular looking for SaSS founders, who have, you know, started recruiting their customers already and just, just running a product with a solid website or with a solid idea and so on, so forth.
JH: [00:05:25] Nice. Yeah, it's a really clever idea. when you say, you know, you can use sales demos for user research, like how do you and the team think about it? Is it like, is it, it's a sales demo first, and if we learn anything. on the insight side, that's great. As a secondary effect, or is it kind of 50, 50? Or is it actually more about user research and then at the end you pitch the product to, or like what does, what does that like actually look like in a, and how you do it day to day?
Jane: [00:05:51] I guess it depends on the approach you take to the demos. In, in our demos, we spend enormous amount of time talking about their product, the problems they're starting, they're struggling with what kind of solutions they've been trying to find before they came across user lists and so on.
Founders, they're never tired of talking about themselves. And this is like gold mine for us in terms of product research, we understand what they don't like and other solutions, what, what needs they have. And also use the list is, a tool that like, the primary use case is probably onboarding users and onboarding users is a struggle for every SAS.
So it's always interesting to learn what particular steps they're using us struggling with and how our product mechanics can help with that. And another tip that we did was, showing up together, at least two people out of three, for every call.
So it was not just learning, but more like, finding out customer insights in real time. And we didn't have to share the recap because of the decision makers were all in the call. So we were much, much closer. To our users this way than just building a product in the dark sort of
Erin: [00:07:10] Nice. So it sounds like you sort of in a way, stumbled upon the opportunity by not having, you know, an hour's worth of demo content
to, to present. And they're like, actually, this is a, we have this time. This is a good opportunity to go ahead and use it to get to know the people that we're trying to, to build that future product for.
At the same time.
Jane: [00:07:34] It's stuff like we didn't know that an hour long demo presentation can bore everyone, like any possible person in the world. so yeah, but it was the, the form had kind of emerged over time from us being very shy and just like finding the perfect answers. Now we're a little bit more. Straightforward with, with answers, with the questions that we really care about.
because like the early ones were really all over the place. but yeah, it's something along, along those lines
JH: [00:08:03] Yeah. What's, what's cool about this too, right? Is it seems like, Your customers can change over time, like your early adopters might be different than your later adopters. And so if you kind of have the practice of always doing some discovery before a demo, you can a like tailor the demo hopefully in a more compelling way to the, to the person based on what you know.
But it sounds like also, you know, if there's trends in your user base that are changing over time, like you, you get some awareness to those have, has that, has any of that been the experience that the team has seen.
Jane: [00:08:30] Oh, absolutely. And like everything changes all the time. The product itself changes. Then you learn how to talk about your product better and uh, It never stops to improve really, because you get to know more people and you hear them. Talk about their needs. So you know better how to explain your features and how, like you mentioned tailor, those, explanations to what the person actually needs in their business.
Erin: [00:08:58] And so how has your customer, you know, evolved or your understanding of your customer evolved over the, you know, year or two you've been doing these interviews.
Jane: [00:09:09] Oh, great question. It's hard to say we have this a mythical. Imaginary persona, OFA SAS founder, and now that we've seen dozens of them, they become more embodied, sort of. And we've done, we've done some exercises on positioning and we have a. Figured out that, generally speaking, they're two different directions where our customers are.
So one is very, very tiny teams where the founders typically technical, and we are talking to the founder in particular, and the other customer persona is probably a dedicated marketer at a slightly larger team, have like larger user accounts and different needs. So over time we have. S realize that we are probably better off serving category one, but it's, it's probably still a learning curve.
We're still figuring out like what particular state is the best fit for it for user list
Erin: [00:10:14] So tell us more about these interviews. and the, you know, these, sales demo, sort of customer interview hybrids. How do they, how are you, you structure them and how do you get them on your calendar?
Jane: [00:10:25] We have. Secondary call to action on the website. So the hero section has, the primary call to action is a start your free trial. And the secondary one is book a demo, which sends the person to our, Calendly account. And then they book a demo and we use the round Robin feature, which allows us to schedule a with one of the few team members.
So for each demo there is one responsible person and the other one kind of joins voluntarily if they can, but most times it does work out. And, And the important part for us was to put together a pretty detailed, a lending page for people who have booked a demo. So they have like a couple pages of tech, well, not a couple pages, but some texts to read some ideas, links to different materials that can help them prepare.
maybe do some reading, watch our walkthrough video or something like that. So that they come more equipped and therefore we can make the discussion more focused. So that has been working out pretty well. And, some of the customers have already, for example, which the walkthrough video, so they don't need to be explained the basic features and we can dive into more intricate details or discussing their particular use case.
JH: [00:11:45] That makes sense. What a, what sort of questions do you typically ask? Are there ones that you like always go to in these, upfront in the demos?
Jane: [00:11:53] Sure. Well, tell us more about your businesses. Definitely a number one. yeah, but that's more of an opener. how did you hear about us? And that usually expense into the situation that they were in. And another favorite of mine is what other tools have you been considering? Because we're never shy to recommend our competitors have their better fit.
So just understanding the customer's vision off the product space is always very helpful.
Like one of the biggest struggles is that there are so many tools out there, but most of the people who come to our calls, they only familiar with like two, three solutions. So we want to know what they think a off of the solutions and how they think user list relates to that.
And that's also helpful to know just how they learn and what part of our marketing message resonated with them. So that helps with the learning about the user, but also learning about. What, what worked in our marketing efforts, which is really, really helpful. And, I guess the. Well, definitely gold buying comes up when we ask what challenges they have when it comes to user onboarding and what challenges they have when it comes to using other email tools.
And especially in the early calls, we learned a lot about frustrations with, with other tools. So we always tried to make notes of that and, somehow reflect that. Now product development. Now, her favorite is the closing question, which is, we borrowed it from Steli Efti to be honest because we didn't have a strong closing before, but his question sounds something like, how can we help you become a bank customer?
Erin: [00:13:43] How can we help you give us your money?
Jane: [00:13:48] yeah, this puts the conversation into really closing. A situation without being overly salesy. So it's not like, how can I get your credit card right now it's more about like what the next steps are for you.
Erin: [00:14:03] No, I like it. I like how direct it is. It's like, look, let's be adults here. We want you to be a customer. What's, what's it gonna take? I like that a lot. so you're asking a lot of the same questions to different people who meet this pretty tight. Kind of definition you have of what a good customer is for you.
What are you doing with those answers? Are you, you know, cataloging them in some ways so you can see trends over time? Or how do you kind of get them to add up to, to, you know, more than the sum of their parts?
Jane: [00:14:35] we don't have a super detailed way of cataloging the answers. So I guess for the feature requests, that part we, we tried to be more meticulous about. because we do make notes about the features they asked for. So when we do bring this feature alive, we can get in touch with those people, may be their customers by then, or maybe they remain leads and let them know that this is now live and they really wanted it.
So that part is as an important part. As far as the . Insights themselves. It's more of like a general feeling. And that, in that regard, the two people being on the call together, helps because we all accumulate those insights, from straight from the source in real time. And no need to recap because I think it was.
Introduced by base camp. They didn't particularly have any feature request logs or something like that, and basically a something that's on your mind all the time, something that comes up all the time, you can not really forget about it, so it really hurts and therefore you'll probably be addressing that first.
JH: [00:15:43] Yeah. Yeah. The good ideas have a way of coming back, coming back up over and over.
Erin: [00:15:47] And that is, I guess the beauty of, you know, being a small team is that you basically have nearly a hundred percent coverage of you and your cofounder being on these calls. So yeah, the idea of let's file this away and tag it with metadata and you know, this robust library for ourselves to access when we were there in the is probably probably too heavy for your needs right.
Jane: [00:16:09] We have definitely, I'm a, as, as a host of a UX podcast, and generally speaking, UX practitioner, I'm definitely aware of the solutions. For example, Sophia Quintero's enjoy HQ for, cataloging customer feedback. It looks amazing and I can't wait until we have the volume to, to use things like that or maybe ProdPad by Janna Bastow.
Similar products. they definitely are necessary if you are dealing with hundreds of customers. We're not dealing with hundreds of interviews yet. It's more like dozens. So maybe a little bit later
JH: [00:17:22] do you find that users are always kind of up for the questions before getting to see the product? I'm just thinking about an experience I had a couple of months ago where I was on a demo call for an app. I had, you know, looked into quite a bit. And they were doing some similar discovery stuff and it was kind of dragging out.
And I just found myself at some point being like, can I just see the thing? Like I just want to, like, I just want to see what it looks like. does that ever come up or are people usually happy to, you know, answer the questions and dig in upfront?
Jane: [00:17:46] Yeah. I guess this is different for each ecosystem in our like founders space that we live in. People are always happy to share their founder stories where their business is at at the moment. So we've never really experienced anybody like really bored. Cause you can really talk a lot about yourself and your business.
However, I wanted to give you an example of a superhuman demo that I was having maybe half a year ago, something. And the lady on the other side, she didn't even ask anything about myself. how I use email. I mean, she did have a couple very brief questions, but I was really left like. I'm in a place where I'm not interesting to them at all as a person.
They just wanted to take me through the very same drill that they do for everybody to train me to use their sharp pats in real life. Well, that's an entirely different approach to demos. And that might work. It's kale, but in our place, we're very much in their relationship building business. So it's not as important for us to close the deal as it is to learn about the people and the people to learn about us to a certain extent, and to, to see that there are humans on this side.
JH: [00:19:02] it sounds you, you get a lot out of these, you know, demo. Con conversations and questions and stuff. Do you also do more traditional user research to supplement that and get further insights that way or or does this actually provide enough input that it's most of what you spend your time doing.
Jane: [00:19:18] at the current stage of our product, we don't have any dedicated user interferes down the road. Well, we do have some customer conversations from time to time just to learn how people are using the tool, but that does not. not even close in numbers to, to the demo calls and maybe later it will have more systematic ways of doing that.
When it comes to research, we sort of advocate the, for each feature, we build a very simple version of it and then we roll it out and collect feedback in written form. That's how our product loop works. For existing customers. So, it's more like product driven as opposed to interview driven, even though of course, it'd be great to have both.
Erin: [00:20:04] Well, I hadn't written for him. You don't hear that a lot or, yeah.
Jane: [00:20:10] Just because we do roll something out and then people start using it. So it's easier for them to get to just dropping out if something is working or if it's not. and the most, obvious ways just to collect a feedback in that way as opposed to proactively asking them to schedule calls.
Erin: [00:20:29] Right, right. And do you, do you have like something in app, like leave feedback at this email address or some sort of form or a way to collect that feedback or,
Jane: [00:20:40] We have a pretty pretty active email list. was used to be a waiting list, and now it's a mix off waiting lists and the customers. So we do notify them of new features. So sometimes I will just. Well see that and them use that. And when they do have feedback, they will just get in touch. And since most of the customers, they do get in touch with our support team while onboarding because they do have questions.
It's like. Different type of questions maybe about the integration or setting the right conditions. So it's, it's a relationship business. Once again, therefore, it's not a problem for them to just drop us an email and we'll, we'll get a reply.
JH: [00:21:27] I feel like this almost should be a spinoff episode we do at some point, because I've, we have like pretty close relationships with, you know, some of our users as well. And then I've actually been times where I saw the use something in a, in an interesting way and I'll shoot them a note and like ask them for feedback on it or.
You know, we're exploring a new concept for something that they've given us feedback on the past and I'll send them a mock and just say like, Hey, if you have a second, what do you think about this? but I'm always hesitant to talk about it cause it feels like kind of like something you shouldn't do.
It feels like you should always be on a call,
Jane: [00:21:53] Why
JH: [00:21:55] I don't know. I, you know, I, I find like it's really valuable, but, it'd be a cool, that's like a whole nother topic to explore. Maybe we should do that a separate time.
Jane: [00:22:01] Absolutely, absolutely. Well, we have found when the early stage who had that requirement to get on the call with us, we had found that a large portion of people, they either don't have time on dedicated for us or just downright not comfortable talking to people about like. Products or demos, and if I didn't know the demos could be so nice, I would probably have the same feelings like a few years ago.
So because there is a bunch of terrible demos out there as well.
Erin: [00:22:33] Well, that's a good point. How do you, how do you, or do you do anything to let folks like that know? And I'm one of them, you know, I'm like, kill me. I don't want to be on a demo ever. you know, how do you let people know it's not going to be a terrible experience for them and that, you know, it's in their interests potentially to spend some of their time with you on a demo.
Jane: [00:22:53] We don't try to tell them that. It's just we have different, opt in options, on the website. So if you went to, you're welcome, here's a self-serve sign up, or here's the little secondary wide button where you can jump in a call.
Erin: [00:23:08] Nice. There's all these different inputs for user insight. There's passive and active, and you've got insights coming in from, you know, in a larger organization where you have lots of teams, you've got insights coming in from your sales team, from your support team, right?
From support tickets from Slack and email, and you know, all these different channels. Of, of feedback coming in one of the, you know, concerns with having, well, really anybody, right? We all bring biases to conversations, but with a sales, you know, driven conversation where the goal is to sell. how do you overcome any potential biases or conflicts of interest to make sure that a, you're, you know.
Doing your job as a founder and a salesperson to sell, but B, also really getting objective or useful insights at the same time.
Jane: [00:24:07] This is a fantastic question, and of course there is no silver bullet there. Like how do you remove biases from a very
Erin: [00:24:14] Right. How do you be a perfect objective person at all times? Yeah.
Jane: [00:24:18] I guess one of the recipes to that is just to be more realistic at all times about yourself and to understand a few things that a, you are not the center of their universe. The like hearing nice things probably is not exactly an equivalent for these people ready to start being a paying customer. So we have.
During the demos, we try to nurture relationships while when it comes to actually using the product, then we start to be more serious about, Like making these insights very important. Like during a sales call, we can get the like tan different feature requests, but this person won't even ever become a paying customer.
So it's nice to have their imagination run wild, but we will probably give their feedback more weight when they started demo, started their trial and get on board. And actually. Produce way more, like contextual feedback about the product itself. That's when it becomes more, more important in our eyes.
And before that it's more about relationships and just having a nice conversation and learning about those struggles as opposed to like hearing what they want to have because people never know what they want to have. And then they have hard time, like imagining what the solutions might be. So just learning about the problems is probably a good idea.
Erin: [00:25:51] It sounds like you're really, and again, this is one of the benefits of being. In every conversation and being a smaller team, you're doing a lot with that data you're bringing in, right? You are treating it as a sales call and a user research call where, well, depending on who the insight is coming from, we're going to process it in this way.
I'm the one hand, we're building this relationship to, you know, to, to nurture a customer, get a customer. But then, you know, at the same time, again, depending on where we are in the relationship and who the person is, there's product insight there too. So that takes a lot of skill to be able to do all of that with one conversation.
Right. But that's, you know, being the UX background and the founder, you kind of are equipped to do all of that. Is that a fair assessment of what's going
Jane: [00:26:43] so much, but it wasn't so much as so much praise in a few sentences, but you really don't have to be that, deliberate that I don't know wise or that educated or that experience to get started with this. Basically just getting on a call and talking is already huge step in that direction.
And you, you might as well make it entirely unstructured or whatever, play by ear.
and that would still be a huge step in that direction as opposed to surveys and other ways of just collecting written insights from people. Because like the way that the written feedback with the person that you don't know. It can be skewed, like emotionally in all kinds of directions. You never know what they really intended.
You never know their emotions. You can't ask for clarifications. It's, it's really different story.
JH: [00:27:34] Hmm. Here's a, here's a random offer I'll throw out. There for any listeners. If you're a UX researcher, go sit down, go sit in on a few sales demos and then come talk to us about what that experience was like. Cause I don't think people do it very often. I think, I think in large orgs, people are pretty siloed and it'd be cool for somebody to do it.
And then like, cause I think, I think you're right that there's a lot lurking here that goes kind of unseen or unheard.
Erin: [00:27:56] It's true. And I do think there's like, there's no one, there's no one channel, right. Where honesty is poured out, and then the others are sort of. Suboptimal to that. Right? So like we know we're not supposed to ask leading and hypothetical questions and we know that when we're trying to sell our product, we're going to bias against honest answers.
But there is something about, you're on a sales call. I am trying to sell you something. and the customer says, look, you know, I'm not gonna buy this because of the price or because we need this feature and this is mission critical to our work. Now they, you don't really know if they're going to buy until they buy.
Right. But there is a real raw honesty there that is very useful product information. Right.
Jane: [00:28:42] You know, we don't even, I think, treat this as much as a sales call. I mean, the word sales, it probably, it's, it's more of a direction where this is heading in terms of like both people who are on different sides of the mic, they have the same solid. Like intention, one is presenting a solution and the other needs, needs to solve their problem.
So I would rather call these like problem solving cools. And in the end, it can be either a sale of our product or it can be us pointing them to other solutions, which happens quite a bit. And we're always happy to do that because they're like, socials have multiple different complexity out in their Mark in the market.
So it's more like problem solving calls. And, Like as part of the people we love problem solving bead in the level of an individual customer or at the scale of product a software product.
JH: [00:29:37] It's almost like a first eight right? It's like, let's get to know each other and see if, see if there's anything
Jane: [00:29:41] yeah, that's a good way to put it.
Erin: [00:29:44] I was gonna say therapy, the same difference, you know, let's solve her problems together to tell me about your life. Right? As you said, founders will talk about themselves for for some time. So depending on who your audience is, but just what does that product, that problem discovery look like?
But I think that's interesting.
Jane: [00:30:06] We've had a few calls with, consultants who work in the email space and, they can talk about problems in the mall space, even more than founders. And just basically every person who does real work, they are always happy and thrilled to share their findings, especially if that those findings are from like working with multiple clients in the industry.
Erin: [00:30:28] Yeah, absolutely. I've never, I always ask, you know, any kind of interview I'm doing. Not a podcast, but user research. yeah. Like some version of where's it, where's your pain, what are your problems? And never once has anyone had nothing to say.
Cool. What else? You know, it's a part of this macro trend, and I'm sort of seeing too, and maybe this is just my nature, that, you know, confirmation bias, but you do see this kind of blending of what is a sales call and what is a user research interview?
What is market research? What is user research happening in that. You know, you were saying, well, is it a sales call or is it a problem discovery call? but that sales folks in general are trying to make their approach more consultative. Right? And more user-driven and discovery driven and less hard salesy.
so I do think there is this natural kind of blending of formats where everybody in every team ultimately. Has slightly different goals and objectives they're trying to hit as a department or a person, but ultimately understanding the user is the pathway to reach that goal no matter what.
Jane: [00:31:44] absolutely. And I would say that a sales calls are, in my mind, a a subset of those generally speaking, user research calls, but it's even easier because you're not disguising. Your sales intentions there, like when it is that call, like I am white, let's just jump on a call. I will ask you a few questions, and you were like.
I'm, this might be my personal problem because my marketing guard is always up to the sky like on these, because I know what stands behind that and most likely they do have one to sell me something in the end when it is a sales demo, we all know like why we are here. it's always better to be clear about your intent.
And I would even say that it's more much more productive when this intent is on the table and when people like sit down to figure out whether it's a good fit or not.
JH: [00:32:42] Yeah.
I have a tangent, a question. How, how did you land on the name UI breakfast for your podcast? I remember coming across that when I was listening to a bunch of different UX podcast and, it always stuck with me. It's very unique.
Jane: [00:32:55] Oh, thank you. it's, it's a long story. It comes back to like, goes back to 2012, 2013. I was, before that I had grown up to being a creative director in an agency. And then, in 2012, I started working as an independent consultant. And I sort of dabbled and productized consulting and tried to put together a product.
I spec it just for my design services. That was many years ago and I had a, don't laugh now. I had packages which were cold, like, I think. Like mobile espresso and double device latte and something else. So I had these like coffee cups as illustrations for them. The overall logo was UI breakfast, and I don't particularly remember why exactly that theme came up in then.
So my consulting practice has been under that name for. Years and when it came time to starting the podcast, I probably in 2014 I think. Then I just, I just brought the same name to the table. So, so now consultancy is wrapped up because now I'm a full time founder, but you're on breakfast remains
JH: [00:34:09] cool.
Erin: [00:34:10] Fantastic. Anything else? Uh, Jane, that we should know about sales demos that aren't really sales demos for user research?
Jane: [00:34:20] I guess general practices, apply and that's why I really like keep the name of your show because a awkward silences. Pushing your opinion, but like literally shutting up and listening, what other person has to say? It's probably number one advice to anyone who's doing anything on customer calls. So that's always good to remember.
Like of course it comes there, especially now at a later stage, we have a nicer product. I always want to boast and talk about stuff, but it takes more courage to just not talk and listen and instead.
Erin: [00:34:59] Just letting that one
ride for a second.
JH: [00:35:01] silence. I fucked it up.
Former Content Writer at UI
Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.