Last week’s Ceridian Insights user conference was very interesting as it had content, sessions, executive contact and more that was intended to please not just customers, but prospects as well. Yes, other vendors do let a few non-customers attend their shows, but the numbers are often quite small and the prospects are often shadowed carefully by vendor personnel to ensure that these prospects don’t end up hearing something that they shouldn’t.
Customers might want to attend these shows to understand the corporate culture of the vendor (e.g., are all the vendor’s employees jerks like our sales rep?), or negotiate a final contracting term or two with the vendor CEO or COO at the show, etc. In short, there are lots of reasons for prospects to attend.
Vendors rarely want prospects to be there in any quantity as they might upset existing customers. That might not be a great idea.
Why I knew this show would be different
On my flight to Las Vegas, I noticed an exceptionally large number of people going to the Ceridian show. Most of the first-class section was full of these attendees and several more joined me back in the cheap seats. My seatmate was one of them.
It turns out about 20 or so people on that plane were from one major firm. They had narrowed their HCM software finalists to two vendors: Ceridian and Workday. This trip was to clarify their decision and double-check their understanding of what the Ceridian Dayforce software could do.
Granted, I run into people on planes all the time that are going to the same user conference that I’m attending. However, the number of these attendees is usually 1-3 and almost always are customers, not prospects. In fact, I frequently see customers and vendor personnel in equal numbers on these flights.
The sheer number of prospects on this flight indicated that something different was afoot. Plus, business travel still hasn’t been as robust as it was pre-pandemic and few firms can afford to let so many people leave work for the better part of a week to attend an event like this.
What prospects saw
Ceridian’s Co-CEO David Ossip is actually the founder of Dayforce. Dayforce was a cloud HCM solution that Ceridian acquired several years ago. Ceridian liked the product and Ossip so much that they made him Co-CEO of Ceridian.
Ossip is one of these rare tech CEOs who can do a full-on demo of their product by himself. His command of the nuances of the products is impressive. He’s also an approachable and friendly sort. He even shared his three email addresses with the prospects so that they knew it was okay to speak with him as a prospect or customer about most anything.
At Ceridian Insights, he did a session just for prospective customers. It was about an hour-and-a-half long with the Co-CEO stopping throughout to answer all kinds of questions. These questions ranged from simple functionality concerns, to regulatory matters, to product roadmap items, to support for some vertical requirements, and, more.
I counted the chairs in this presentation room and noted that he had about 450 prospects up close and probably another 50+ ringing the room. By the end, it was an SRO event. This is a key data point as this represented a material number of people at this show. I’ve never seen the prospect-to-customer ratio this high at a software conference nor have I seen a software CEO drive this kind of an in-depth, prospect-only talk. This was different and unique.
Prospects saw a Co-CEO speak a bit excitedly (after all, this is his baby), with authority (the guy really does know the space and the products), and without ever bashing the competition. He showed them aspects of the solution that have benefited from recent R&D efforts (e.g., the new UX, data visualization capabilities, etc.). And, for whatever reason, there were lots of questions from prospects about employee survey data that I don’t think Ossip anticipated, but answered fast and effectively throughout the briefing.
Non-founder CEOs can struggle with this sort of product/prospect interaction. Why? Some of them inherited the job from a founder and were made CEO just to do a financial deal, an acquisition, an IPO, etc. They were not hired as CEO to be a demo diva. That said, prospects see value in working with a CEO that really understands their issues, the product’s functionality and the technical innards of the solution. A financially-trained and driven CEO does not impress prospects the same way.
Some vendors may not want prospects at the show
So, why wouldn’t every vendor have prospects attend their user conferences? It turns out, there could be a multitude of reasons like:
- Some vendors have some really upset, vocal customers. How do you think a prospect would react if it saw customers booing the vendor’s management at a user conference?
- Some vendor sales reps can’t get to the show to shepherd the prospects. These representatives fear what might happen if a prospect is not monitored 24/7 at the show. Given what I’ve seen that can happen in Las Vegas, that can be a legitimate concern. However, smart vendors should have methods, practices, etc. in place to ensure all attendees, prospects and customers, maximize their time at the show.
- Top vendor executives will overly focus on a couple of whale-sale prospects to the exclusion of all others. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly. If your firm is on the smaller side of a vendor’s target or ideal customer profile, you might not get an invite to the show or get ignored if you do attend.
- There’s no convenient golf course/restaurant/strip club to take prospects to. If you’re considering a vendor whose solutions are a bit dated, then they know they can’t win on bleeding edge technology or AI-powered functionality. And, you’d certainly notice that at the conference. That vendor can only win by plying a prospect’s leaders with plenty of booze at a racetrack, golf course, etc. Some might call that salesmanship; I call it sleazy.
- Sales reps want to focus on in-fill sales to existing customers at these events and not net-new customers. This fact of life is all-too-real. Sales reps believe there’s a faster sales process (and lower risk/less-competitive one, too) to peddle add-on, in-fill products to existing customers. The margins can be greater, too. But, more than anything, just a few in-fill sales may be all that’s needed for the sales rep to make this year’s President’s Club. If the rep thinks your deal will close in a later quarter or the year after the user conference, then you’ll be watching this year’s user conference over the web.
- Partner firms (e.g., implementers, integrators, outsourcers) will try to steer these prospects to their off-site get-togethers. These ‘partners’ love to cut prospects from the conference herd and get them offsite. They’ll do anything to get the prospect anywhere but on the conference expo floor or near other customers who might plant ideas in the prospect’s head re: other implementers. Trust me, if you want to know where the best bars, restaurants, golf courses, etc. are near a user conference, ask an implementer.
Vendors are fond of reminding industry analysts, press and partners that a user conference is first and foremost by and for the customers. No argument there. But, savvy software buyers want to check out the vendor, the other customers, the new product releases, etc. They want to get first-hand commentary from other customers about the customer experience. They want to trade ideas, best practices, etc.
Circling back to the people on the plane, I offered to connect them with Ceridian’s Co-CEO. Why? I think it’s important to check out the culture of a software vendor as part of one’s software selection due diligence. Moreover, I believe culture often emanates from the top and that buyers can learn volumes about a software firm in just a few minutes of CEO interaction. I’ve seen potential deals go completely downhill because the vendor CEO was not deemed trustworthy, bad-mouthed competitors, or would not even entertain a potential partner sort of relationship with the prospect.
And, as to whether prospects should attend user conferences, I wholeheartedly endorse this idea. Besides some of the items discussed above, prospects can:
- Develop long-lasting relationships with functional, technical and product experts at other customer firms. I’ve used these relationships to help my project teams navigate thorny technical, functional and performance issues with a software product when I wasn’t getting help from the vendor.
- Better understand the product line’s roadmap at these shows. A local sale rep might have some of the information a prospect might want but the product manager that creates a roadmap is almost always at these shows.
- Read the pulse of the install base. Are existing customers happy with the products, customer support, etc.? Fellow colleagues of mine (e.g., Ray Wang and Jon Reed just to name a few) camp out in the dining hall and break bread with customers. How else do you think we learn all kinds of amazing tidbits about the products? Not everything we know comes from the vendors and we need to independently verify some of these claims, too, to remain credible and market relevant. Prospects should do the same.
Remember, software selections are political, economic, functional, technical, financial and strategic decisions. They can also be personal, emotional and gut-driven, too. Great software shoppers try to touch on all these dimensions and you can get eyefuls at a conference.
The next conference I’ll attend will be in January. Will I see you there?