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Specialists, Samples and Demos


 “Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, --- One if by land and two if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be, Ready to ride and spread the alarm...”  While visiting Boston earlier this week, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s immortal words kept ringing through my mind.  


Boston is the home of many things, it’s the home of Paul Revere’s ride, the home of the famous tea party and based on a short discussion with one distributor manager – it’s the home of tens of thousands of dollars in lost demos and samples.   And, that number comes from a single distributor location.


Distributor salespeople need samples and demos to be effective – from the complex system sales to the low end widget – they place these products into customer’s hands for evaluation, for old fashion show and tells and for compatibility testing.  To be effective, Specialists need to make their product or technology group easy to sell.  Samples and demos are just advanced sales aids – very expensive sales aids. 


Increasingly, Specialists find themselves responsible for product samples, expensive demos and a mixed bag of test systems.  Distributor owners and managers, often burning from the “sticker shock” of lost equipment, search for a good place to hang ownership.    Manufactures find it makes sense to “push” this responsibility down the line to distributors – and Specialists make logical sense for the responsibility. 


Now, let me paint a mental picture for you.  Spring is in the air, it’s a beautiful Old World setting.  The sky fills with thousands of swallows; all flocking to Capistrano.  Now the picture turns eerie.  You realize these beautiful birds are green back dollars.  They flock together and fly away.  They are your company’s dollars and they have your name written on them.  And, they are flying away.  Suddenly, it’s not a pretty picture.  It’s a nightmare.   


Whether we like it or not, the responsibility for Demos and Samples is migrating toward the Specialist.  In this article, I hope to lay out a few guidelines and suggestions to make this situation just a wee bit more palatable.


Samples and Demos Defined

For sake of discussion, let’s define the difference between a demo and a sample.

  • Samples typically exist in order to enable a customer to evaluate the product.  They may be built into a larger system, sent to a test facility or used in the customer’s harshest application at a later date.
  • Demos are products, groups of products or systems designed to illustrate product features or capabilities.  Many times, these demo units are used as training aids.


Consumable Samples

Many Specialists work to stay clear of responsibility for consumable samples.  They justify their actions by saying, “they don’t cost much and I don’t want to bog myself down.”  Yet, when an important sale is lurking on the horizon, the first person most salespeople come to is this same Specialist.  And, in the moment of need the good ones find reach into their top secret stash and come up with a sample. 


I believe Specialists can literally “earn their keep” in the sample business by investing just a bit of time early in the game.  When introducing a low cost product, samples should be part of the product launch.  I believe no product launch should commence without at least 5-10 pieces of literature for every sales person.  No literature, no launch – period.  The same rule applies to product launches where samples are appropriate. 


These early samples can often be had on a no-charge basis from the factory.  Note; I said from the factory not from the manufacturer’s sales person.  As a Product Specialist you enjoy a unique relationship with many of the marketing people for the products – back at the factory.  Believe it or not, most times these people operate under a different budget than the field sales force.  You can exchange information for samples.  Remember, factory based marketing folks are “starved” for information for real life distributor sales efforts (Really, they are trust me on this).  They want you to succeed.  And, you need a ready source of samples to fuel your sales effort.  You sell more, and then tell them about it – they keep you supplied with demos.  It’s a pretty good deal for both you.


I coach every Specialist to keep track of the sample products he is able to “score” using this source.  A running tally of products you brought into the organization using your personal clout comes in mighty handy when you sit down with your manager.  And, more importantly, having a good record of free samples you acquired puts you in good stead when the time comes that you need to buy one out of stock.


Try Before You Buy - Samples

More expensive samples need to be carefully managed.  Customers, the good ones, expect to compensate you for a product that is consumed in an evaluation - if it’s a clear cut case of consumption.  Here in lies the landmine.  Many times products aren’t consumed, but they are no longer a new product. 


As strange as it may seem, purchasing people are perplexed by the missing sample / demo dilemma too.  Malcolm Mills is a veteran of 20+ years on the purchasing side.  In his book, “It’s a Tough World Out There; 25 Ways to Loose a Customer and 25 Ways to Fix It”, Malcolm devotes an entire chapter to the subject of “samples”.  In his mind, samples lead to head aches across numerous departments of customer organizations.  Our customers want to keep track of products in their plants.  Without careful communications and without the proper tracking methods, problems raise their ugly heads and roar.


To illustrate the point, let’s turn to a recent example.  A hardworking distributor offered a Variable Frequency Drive to the customer “to try”.  The drive was put into a nasty application on the factory floor.  Things worked well, but after a several weeks the customer discovered he could fix the problem very cheaply with a slightly different mechanical coupling.  The drive was returned for credit.  Here’s the problem; the drive was caked with dust and dirt, wholes where punched in the enclosure and the lugs where worn and discolored from the installation. 


A car dealer friend once told me when you drive a new car from the showroom floor the value drops 20% after the first mile.  A “slightly worn” VFD drops in value by somewhere close to 80%.   The incident caused bad feelings on both customer and distributor side, and the distributor ended up eating the loss. 


How should this have been handled?  Agreement needs to be reached with all levels of the customer prior to handing over the new drive.  What happens if the drive works, what happens if it doesn’t work and, more importantly, what is the definition of working? 


An order needs to be placed with a special addendum defining all of the parameters – in detail and in writing.  I have seen many “try before you buy” programs that crashed because the distributor didn’t spend enough time up-front defining the program.  In their haste to “get their product in the door”, distributors didn’t ask the some of the obvious questions.

“Try before you buy” Checklist

Do we have a definitive time period defined?


What is the ultimate sell price? 


Is there a PO number to track product?


Who owns the product while in the customer’s plant? 

(In case of fire, theft, damage, etc)


Does the order become final at the end of the time period?


What is the definition of success?


What happens if the product works but another solution is found?


Who is responsible for ending the “test”?





Far too often the pit fall in a “try before you buy” scenario is lack of buying authority.  The maintenance person (who has befriended you) might be the greatest, smartest and most charming person in the world, but does it make sense that she has the clout to set a new direction for plant architecture?  Avoid embarrassment for you and your customer contact by building an official “try before you buy” checklist.  And, sign it together.   I have a sample for you to get started with – just ask.



A visit to the demo closet of most distributors reveals a disaster zone - a hodge-podge of twisted wires and unorganized pile of parts.  The front door of ever demo storage area should be clearly labeled with a sign saying;


“This area contains the equivalent of thousands of dollar bills bundled and stacked to a height of over 48 inches; feel free to break, bend, mutilate and scatter around at will.”


Salespeople grab borrow parts for customer emergencies.  Specialists build special demos.  Both plan to return the demo to usable condition – Tomorrow.  But, tomorrow never comes.


The root cause of most demo issues comes from a lack of tracking.  Salesperson A grabs demo unit from storage area and gives it to his customer for a week.  Upon returning, Salesperson B sees her carrying it into the building and says, “Hey, let me save you some steps, I wanted to show that to my customer next week.”  Three weeks later, Specialist C tries to locate the demo.  After hours of frustration, he/she decides to just pull another unit out of stock.  And, as Batman would say, “Holy Demo Unit Robin, we just blasted away another grand.”


Here are a few ideas to improve your demo equipment process:

  1. Assign a price sheet for every demo – let everyone know the replacement cost.
  2. Develop a procedure for demo sign-out.
  3. Establish a basic configuration for each demo.
  4. Regularly review your demo equipment for future obsolescence – get rid of it before it becomes worthless.
  5. Build a spreadsheet with all distributor owned demo equipment, share this with your vendors.
  6. Take advantage of any and all vendor demo support programs.


There are a zillion good ways to keep track your demo equipment.  If you don’t already have one already, drop me an email and I will send you the one I recommend.


Parting Comments

Think of samples and demos as money.  If you were dealing with money, you would keep close track and look for new ways to bring in more.  Build two spreadsheets – one for demo units and one for samples.  Use these spreadsheets to track your progress in harvesting free samples and measure the cost of demos used in your business.  Measuring is half of knowing.


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