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How to make sure your customer panel is boring and forgettable again this year

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 7, 2018
It takes skill and determination to make a customer panel truly boring. But if you follow these seventeen tips, you too can roll out a truly yawn-inducing panel. After the satire is over, I reveal the keys to avoiding this fate.

The enterprise event silly season is upon us again. That means we're all bracing for another heaping helping of yawn-inducing, excessively-moderated customer panels.

A boring panel is great for nappers (as long as they sit in the back and don't snore), and smartphone/email addicts, but it's not so great if you want to leave a lasting impression on attendees. It's a shame too, because it's a ton of work to get your reference customers to agree to appear on panels.

A great panel brings out lessons that are invaluable for other customers - and highly informative for analysts, pundits, and other waifs and strays. But putting out a great panel takes 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. Making a customer panel boring is the real challenge. But we can do it - oh yes we can!

Seventeen ways to ensure your customer panels are world class yawnfests

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. Prep them by recommending they say "that's fantastic!" 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.

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 the very end of the panel. Stick with your canned prepared ones.

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 and asking questions raised by the audience live.

8. Never, under any circumstances, ask the panel how you could be serving them better, or what you need to 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 blockchain 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.

11. Do not ask them 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. This isn't Thunder from Down Under.

13. Make sure you have pre-approved, long-winded introductory bios to read for each panelist. Make it your goal to eat up at least ten minutes of panel time in introductions. The record for panel intros and bios I've seen is twenty minutes - 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. If you're really after yawns, you must try it for yourself).

15. Do an extended "about the vendor" intro for the panel that includes product demos and 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. Don't update the bio slide if you change panelists last minute. It's close enough.

17. Always keep the discussion focused on your products - be careful not to ask about the customer's industry challenges or transformation efforts.

Heading to presstime, I teased my article title, and got this prescient response from SAP's Timo Elliott:

Sounds like Mr. Elliott has sat through his share of boring panels - though surely never by SAP. Number 17 is prompted by Elliott's tweet. Well done sir; you could have saved me an article.

/end snark

The wrap - customer panels want to be great

They say "information wants to be free." Let's add "customer panels want to be great." Alas, they rarely are.

I won't lie: this was probably the hardest piece to write in my semi-satirical event series. I have huge respect for customers who are willing to talk publicly about their projects. Let's face it - there is probably as much potential downside as upside for them. And, in truth, I get something good 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 a truly memorable customer panel. In the last five years, I've only seen a customer panel moderated by a customer once. Why don't more vendors take that chance?

Involving audiences in panels changes everything for the better. And yes, it does take facilitation chops to pull that off. Last year, 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. 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.

Speaking of which, I'm not a fan of the customer keynote panel. Not enough time during a keynote for a panel in most cases. A 1:1 chat format tends to work better as part of a keynote. So, 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.

Five panelists end up scratching the surface, with a first round of opening answers chewing up loads of time. The best stuff comes in Q/A or deeper chats with only a few panelists. If you must have 4-5 panelists, prep that you won't ask all of them to answer each question. Otherwise you won't cover enough topical ground.

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 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.

And why don't vendors have someone tracking social comments about the panel in real-time? They can potentially ask a Twitter question or two during the Q/A, or even interrupt the panel for a really good/timely question. That type of interruption is the unscripted gold that wakes people up - and gets the conversation going.

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.

Okay, so my enterprise event survival guide has now covered 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, bad AI press releases, bad blockhain press releases, and bad tech predictions. What’s next?

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