On-the-ground events are back - though they aren't necessarily better. Unfortunately, enterprise software vendors didn't rethink events during their downtime. Attendees are so happy to see each other, they'll cut vendors some slack - but maybe not for long.
You'd think that a customer panel would be an event bright spot - think again. Unfortunately, the panel format turns on itself - and no one needs another yawn-inducing, excessively-moderated customer panel.
A great panel brings out lessons that are invaluable for other customers - and highly informative for analysts, pundits, and prospects. So why do so many customer panels fall short? Because putting out a great customer panel requires a bold approach.
So, next up in my semi-satirical event series, it's the art of messing up a customer panel. Want your panel to be just as boring and forgettable as the rest of 'em? Then be sure and follow these steps.
Before we go on, just a reminder: this is all in snarky/hopefully instructive fun. It's all based on real experiences, but it's meant only as satire - not as finger-pointing. For our purposes, let's limit this to customer panels. It's way too easy to make a panel boring without customers.
How to ensure your customer panel is a world-class yawn festival
1. Make sure to script all the questions, and go over them beforehand. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Branded messaging for the win!
2. Whatever you do, don't ask one of your own customers to moderate the panel. That would be wayyyy too interesting. Preferably have someone from your sales team run the panel, or maybe a marketing enthusiast. Make sure they say "that's fantastic!" or "amazing!" after each customer answer.
3. Make sure the moderator directs each question to each customer. You wouldn't want an open-ended discussion to break out in the middle of your panel. Bonus: if you make sure all panelists answer every question, you can easily use up the entire session with just a few boilerplate questions.
4. Don't ask customers to prepare quantifiable benefits ahead of time they can share during the panel. Better if they are vague about whether you have delivered any results for them, and unprepared to go into it.
5. Never take questions from your customers and prospects in the audience - until you've almost run out of time. Stick with your
canned prepared ones. How much time? Glad you asked:
6. Allow no more than five minutes for questions at the end. Unscripted interaction between panel and audience is way too interesting for our purposes here.
7. Do NOT have anyone from your company in the audience monitoring social feeds, asking live questions raised by the virtual stream. It's better not to include virtual participants.
8. Never, under any circumstances, ask the panel how you could serve them better, or what you could do to improve.
9. Do not ask them what their biggest challenge was during the project - or what the hardest part of the implementation was.
10. DO ask them how excited they are about your latest AI, machine learning and low-code demos, previews, slide decks, infographics, and early stage proof of concepts. Make sure you ask them in an upbeat way that would make them look like legacy Luddites if they express skepticism about next-gen tech, or demos not yet operating at scale, or included in their software license.
11. Do not ask about obstacles they faced working with your consulting or ISV partners. Everything went smoothly anyhow.
12. I'm not even going to make an awkward joke about the awkwardness of all-male panels.
13. Make sure you have pre-approved, long-winded intro bios to read for each panelist. Try to eat up at least ten minutes of panel time in introductions and "housekeeping." The record for panel intros and bios? Twenty minutes by my count - maybe you can break it.
14. Put someone from your own company on the customer panel! After all, you are technically a customer. (Yes, this really happens; you must try it).
15. Do an extended "about the vendor" intro for the panel - one that includes solution slides.
16. Don't show the bio and contact info for the panelists, and if you do, make sure to pull it down quickly. No need to update the bio slide if you change panelists last minute. It's close enough.
17. Always keep the discussion narrowly focused on your products - be careful not to ask about the customer's industry challenges, or transformation efforts.
My take - customer panels want to be great
They say "information wants to be free." Let's add "customer panels want to be great" - and make it so!
Snark aside, this was probably the hardest piece to write in my enterprise event series. I have huge respect for customers willing to talk openly about their projects. Let's face it - there is as much potential downside as upside for them. And, in truth, I get something from any customer panel, even the most awkward one. Hearing from customers under almost any circumstances is gold.
So why did I write this? Because so many events are missing a huge chance to put on truly memorable customer sessions. In the last seven years, I've only seen a customer panel moderated by a customer once. Why don't more vendors take that chance? What a display of confidence that is!
Involving audiences in panels changes everything for the better. And yes, it does take facilitation chops to pull that off. A few years ago, I ran a panel where I told presenters:
You have one minute to share opening thoughts, no slides, no bios. Then I'm opening up the entire panel to the audience. No pre-planned questions whatsoever.
It took the audience a while to warm up. They simply weren't used to being asked to step up and participate so actively. But soon, we had a 150 person audience or so asking terrific questions, raising issues I would have never thought of, sharing struggles and getting feedback. The awkward period getting folks used to an interactive format was well worth the canned alternative.
Now, this was not a customer panel. If it were a customer panel, I would have had the customers talk for a bit longer to get them comfortable - before opening it up.
True, not all customers want to be part of an open and unscripted panel. But vendors can help themselves here also. Pick customers that are more open or used to speaking publicly. Some vendors are hung up on getting their biggest brand names on the panel. Well, often, bigger brand names are more conservative with what they allow their folks to say publicly (more legal and PR hoops, etc.).
A big brand name might work better for a 1:1 interview with the CEO during the keynote, where questions can be more scripted for a shorter segment. For a panel, a straight-shooting customer with a sense of humor that can speak to real challenges and tangible benefits is what you're after. How well-known their brand is really doesn't matter.
Most of this advice is geared towards the non-keynote customer panel, where you usually have 45 - 60 minutes to get into a real convo. Even so, I advise against more than three panelists.
You may have noticed one contradiction: while I am down on over-preparation for panels, I make an exception for prepping numbers and benefits. Most customers need internal approvals before sharing the quantifiable numbers that really make an impression. The legwork ensuring the customer is comfortable (and approved) to share numbers, if they want to, is time well spent. It may make sense to publish a case study that the customer can draw on, so the numbers are already vetted.
Oh, and I'm not a fan of the off-topic "what's your hobby/astrological sign/favorite pet" type of question either. The only exception is if it's a big audience, in which case a quickie personal question can calm nerves. Otherwise, there's too much to talk about to get into somebody's favorite sandwich.
Over the years, my enterprise event survival guide has now covered numerous aspects of putting on great events, including: panels, analyst days, customer approval fails, user events, webinars, customer case studies and keynotes, along with media days, bad PR pitches, good PR pitches gone bad, and, more recently, a series on the art of virtual and hybrid events. What's next?
End note - I reworked and updated this based on a piece I published four years ago, so if you recognize a few bits, that's why.