Let Go Of Defensiveness
First, on the fear of appearing hesitant and harming the customer relationship: In innovation, the reality is that we don't always know what customers want, so we are in fact a bit uncertain. Would customers penalize us for admitting it? That hasn't been my experience. Customers are frequently treated fairly badly by the companies they do business with. Most customers are thus thrilled to be sincerely asked for their input and positively elated when that input makes it into the product/service.
Listening Is Not Agreeing
Second, is hosting a demonstration akin to committing to implementing every suggestion? If left unmanaged, it might be, but this is where customer preparation comes in. Expectations must be set that although feedback will be noted, it will be compiled across a number of customers and considered through the lens of the organization's strategy. Thus, there is a promise to listen, but not necessarily to agree. In my experience, most customers are OK with that.
Third, should the organization's doers be the ones presenting, or should that be left to slick sales/marketing types? I believe the right of first refusal should go to the doers. Most doers rarely (if ever) see, talk to, or hear from customers. Therefore, most will relish the opportunity. The impact of this activity on the doers's level of understanding of the overall business context and empathy for customer needs is almost magical. No doubt the presentations will be a little rougher, more raw, and less polished, but is that such a bad thing? Probably not! I would bet that many customers are a little tired of being managed, influenced, and sold to by public relations-types. Therefore, the rough edges are likely to impart an air of authenticity to the proceedings. That said, however, it probably does make sense for the Product Owner to open and close the proceedings.
On the above point, there is another side benefit to having less polished demos. Research has shown that people are generally reluctant to provide negative feedback if they think one has put a lot of effort into the thing being reviewed. Therefore, too much polish is probably harmful to the quality and quantity of feedback.
Image by John Cook via Flickr
Fourth, might sales be delayed by unveiling future versions of the product? Sure, yet demonstrations are held with only a sample of customers, not the entire customer population. Thus, this potential impact on sales should be quantified and the cost/benefit of the feedback evaluated. Don Reinersten provides guidance on valuing information. I never advocate doing anything out of inertia; deliberate decisions are much better.
In summary, can all risks be taken out of customer demonstrations? No. Does the value of the feedback received exceed the potential cost of the risks? If the demonstration is properly managed, I think the answer is an emphatic "yes." Customer demonstrations don't have to be thought of as minefields of risks. They are events that can be prepared for the greatest benefit of all participants. As with most other processes, a clever organization will get better at it with practice. In the comments section below, I invite you to share your tricks to get the most out of customer demonstrations.
A former colleague insists that no demonstration should conclude without the Product Owner asking, "Would you buy this today?" as a way to better assess the value that the customer perceives in the product. I think this is a great practice when the value cannot be marked-to-market through an actual exchange of money. The question will likely garner a lot of Nays, but the eventual Yays will more than make up for it all.