If you're doing it right, your job starts way before and extends way beyond the demo itself.
Sales engineers, I'm looking at you. I know you pride yourself on your demo skills. I know you're overwhelmed by the sheer volume of demo requests, by requests to actually perform the demo, by requests for stepping into demos just in case the prospect has questions, and by the need to constantly update yourself on your product. You can't possibly be asked to do more.
I understand your point of view, having been there myself. However, I do want you to question it a little bit. There is a rut, mentally and career-wise, that sales engineers fall into when we think of 'creating custom demos' as our No.1 priority. It isn't. That is the No.1 responsibility of the 'demo resource', sure. But if you want to be a proper sales engineer, and a good one, you're doing it wrong.
The demo is holding you back.
The demo: the actual showing and explaining of a product and its features, is just a supportive element. When you're in the demo, you're selling not just a solution, but also yourself. You are the face of the business at that moment, and you need to be saying "trust me, trust my opinion, trust my suggestions." You won't get there if you're only focused on 'creating custom demos'.
Here's what I'm talking about:
- You didn't read up on the industry, because you were busy making the demo.
- You didn't do the research on the prospect, because you were busy making the demo.
- You didn't study the analyst report, because you were busy making the demo.
- You didn't look up the participants, because you were busy making the demo.
- You didn't attend the account meeting, because you were busy making the demo.
- You didn't have time to prepare well-thought-out, meaningful discovery questions, because you were busy making the demo.
That way lies stagnation, and ultimately, failure. Remember, there will be a time (very soon), when a lot of the tasks you're doing as the 'demo resource' will be automated. Low code no code is coming. As are several compelling tools that allow sales reps to go into demo environments and create demos, without writing a single line of code.
A sales engineer brings more to the table
You are the go-to person when it comes to product capability. You know how the product can be leveraged in various use cases in different industries. You need to be in the room, from the start.
Start by carving out time. Figure out a way to automate what you do. No, it won't make you obsolete. It will, instead, give you the time and headspace you need to do more than just 'build custom demos'. Create a demo library, a modular one, if possible. Create shortcuts that allow you to mix and match demos from the past to hasten the process. Find ways to do what you do, but faster, and with less effort.
Do your research. Learn what you can about the prospect, and don't reinvent the wheel when you do. Ask the account team to share their research, read about the industry (this will get easier as you go), and study the analyst report. Attend the account meeting, and stay switched on (the mind resists new tasks!).
Participate in discovery. If this isn't part of your business's sales process, request to be included anyway. Don't be a passive participant. Prepare your questions, and ask them. Talk to your sales rep and account executive about meeting protocol, and how much time you can take up. Work with them to come up with a system where all of you can get what you need from the limited time you have with the prospect.
Create healthy boundaries. Say no, if the demo can't be made by tomorrow. The account exec will push, it's their job. Sometimes you really can't deliver on both quality and time. Ask for extra time when you need it. You'd rather be right (and good), than quick. Also, (from personal experience) get your supervisor's buy-in before you begin pushing back. Initially, this shift meets a LOT of resistance and having your supervisor backing you will help.
Practice your demo delivery. Being more than the 'demo resource' involves a certain finesse when delivering the demo. The first time you do the demo out loud, it can't be in front of the prospect. Build yourself a script, but don't get stuck to it. Give yourself the freedom to sound like yourself. Use smart tools that help you deliver the demo, without the need to memorize everything.
Create a system. If you're doing the demo, the sales rep and the account executive are watching the participants' body language for signs of disengagement. You need to have a system where they can indicate to you when you've gone too far down the rabbit hole. Also, you can come up with clear responsibilities on what each person will do during the demo, so not all of it is resting on you alone.
Build relationships. You're the solutions guy. You're the one the prospect will need to trust most, as you're the one who will hand-hold them through implementation (yes, you!). Don't be afraid to put your hand up to take certain questions offline, especially when your rep indicates that you're down a rabbit hole. CTOs and technical staff can derail demos by getting mired in technical details, while the business folks just want to understand how your tool helps them do what they need to do better, faster, and smarter. Not only does this approach help in the demo, but outside of it, when these two groups discuss your solution in your absence - CTOs you've won over can be great champions for your cause!
Create a feedback loop. If you want to get better at anything, court criticism. Not the 'tough love' kind, but the kind that is invested in your growth. Create a trusted circle: start with your colleagues, then extend it to your friendlier customers. Let them tell you what you need to improve on. Then go do it.
Change is hard. Anytime we start something new, we're going to stumble a little. Don't expect to be great at what you do right out of the gate. Sales are all about handling rejection. You can't let early failures push you back into your comfort zone. Learn from them, instead. And come back stronger.