Chapter 5: Three Ways to Fail During a Sales Presentation

What happens when a client can’t properly articulate his or her company’s needs?

That’s easy.  We do what most salespeople love to do…we TALK. Oh, how we love the sounds of our own voices. We interrupt our clients so that we can finish making our point. We keep talking after they have told us they want to buy from us, because we’re not done with our sales pitch.

For example, I needed two tablet PCs to use as part of a major presentation to a Fortune 50 company. The choice of tablet PC was easy, as the prospect had a key relationship with one of the tablet PC makers. With no research to do, I walked into the store and said, “I’d like to buy two of those tablet PCs.” The correct answer? “Yes sir, here you go.”

What answer did I get? “You know, those have dual-core processors.” Now this might seem like a minor sales transgression, but if I had more time on my hands, I would have said, “Oh, in that case, I don’t want them” and walked out of the store and into another. But I stayed, and endured hearing about all the technical features that this tablet PC had, the cool apps you could get for it, and so on. He committed one of the most terrible sins of all sales sins:  he kept pitching after he had the sale, potentially talking me out of the sale.

In your sales world, what else is wrong with going through your rehearsed presentation? Instead of working to understand your prospect, are you just telling them what to do? Without a back and forth discussion, you risk a one-sided solution, potentially resulting in a lack of buy-in from your prospect. If the project fails, guess who will get the blame? Besides appearing arrogant, your force-fed presentation may keep you from learning about other problems that your company could solve.

When is not okay to take the money and run?

What if the client knows exactly what they want (like me when I bought the tablet PCs)? If you are going to have a long term relationship with this client, then you risk that they are wrong when they tell you what they want to buy. Again, guess who gets the blame? There are other problems, however. If we haven’t added any value to the transaction, then we have just entered the dreaded world of commodity sales. And if we haven’t established a base dialog on the prospect’s issues, we will never understand the root causes of the problems they face, and once again we won’t be able to solve any additional problems they may have.

The only thing worse than these two sales transgressions is what I see over and over again – guessing. Of course, we don’t call it guessing at all. We have a short meeting, form opinions, declare that the problem can be solved with the product or service that we just happen to sell, and then formalize this mass of guessing into a glorious, search-and-replace, cut-and-paste rehashed document called a proposal. The thicker the better.

I’m betting that the majority of the client interactions done in the world of large, technical, or complex sales fall into one of the above three categories. Is there a better way? Perhaps a way that keeps us from wasting our time and increases the odds that the prospect will become a long-term, profitable client who values our wisdom and expertise so much that they become the gatekeeper who excludes our competitors from knocking on their door?

There is a way that has served me and others well over the years. In Chapter 6, “Partnering With Your Prospect,” I will give you an overview of this alternate way of doing business with your clients.

Chapter 3: Becoming an Expert in Order to Qualify Successfully

If you had no need for money, but still wanted to work for your company, how would you treat your customers?  With no need to hit a quota, earn a commission, or impress a boss, would you interact in the same way as you do now? Let’s assume that you wouldn’t.  Let’s assume that you would only spend your time with clients who had problems you could solve, that you would work hard to put together the right solution to solve those problems, and that the client had the resources to enact your solution.

Now wouldn’t that be an enjoyable working relationship?

What if you are like most of us, and you need to hit your quota, earn your commission, and impress your boss?  You can have it all – great relationships with your clients, happy customers, and a great income, but you and your clients will have to change how you interact.  It means that in order to be an effective salesperson, you will have to greatly increase your knowledge of your prospects and their industries.  It means that you will have to earn the trust of the key people within those prospects.  And it means that you will need to push your prospects to dig for information that they don’t even know exists.

Joseph Stiglitz won a Nobel Prize for his work in economics.  One popular phrase to come out of that work is that “There is no such thing as perfect information.”  It has always surprised me that when I quizzed salespeople about a prospect that they were working on almost no information.  Often, all they knew was that there was an RFQ on the street. Salespeople would work hours and hours responding to these projects.  A handful of competitors would do the same, with nobody (often including the company who issued the RFQ) really understood the problems that the prospect was trying to solve.

How do you get this information?  It starts by increasing your knowledge of your prospects industry and the challenges that companies within it face.  For example, if you sell to the healthcare industry, do you know about HIPAA requirements and how they affect your prospect’s business?  While your product or service may not directly affect a hospital’s HIPAA requirements, this is something that greatly affects many aspects of a hospital’s business, and the more you understand the business drivers of your prospect, the better chance you have of becoming a trusted expert with integrity.

Those who only sell products become commoditized; those who provide wisdom and guidance become trusted experts who can’t be displaced by a competitor with a lower price.

There is no secret to learning a prospect’s industry.  The internet is an obvious place to start, and we won’t spend time discussing such basic things.  Learning about the major problems faced by the prospect’s industry in general is also straight forward, and just requires a commitment to spend the time learning about those problems.  Learning about the problems and key business drivers of a particular prospect is more difficult.  But this work is essential, and is part of the qualifying process that we discussed in Chapter 2.

One way to start this process is to join industry groups on LinkedIn or industry trade sites and respond to the postings there with comments or advice.  Join online groups associated with the problems and solutions that companies in your prospect’s industry are experiencing.  An important note: LinkedIn groups should be used to establish competence – this is not a place to give even a hint of a sales pitch.

You can use LinkedIn to determine who are the important people at your prospect’s company.  Join the groups that they have joined, comment on posts that they may be reading, and get introductions to them through your other connections.  With a bit of diligence, you can become an expert who is sought after instead of a salesperson to be avoided.  By doing this prep work up front before first contact with your prospect, you will be way ahead of your competitors.

Chapter 2: Dialing for Dollars, the Newbie Salesperson’s Nemesis

We’ve all done it.  Most likely, during our early sales careers, or when joining a new company, or opening up a new territory. The dreaded cold call, also known as “Dialing for Dollars,” using a list of the area’s major employers.  “Hello, Mr. Prospect.  I’ve done no research on you or your company. I have no idea what problems you face, and frankly don’t care.  Can I meet with you for several hours to show you a poorly done PowerPoint presentation, and then e-mail you a ‘cut and paste’ proposal with multiple misspellings?  Hello?  Hello???”  The formula was very straight forward:  call, fail, call, fail, call, fail, call, get meeting, write proposal, fail.

Oh, the humanity…

I got better in time, as we all eventually do.  But why did sales have to be so hard?  I have always had a burning need to work very little, while earning an embarrassing large amount of money in the process. There had to be a better way.  There was – the surprising thing was that it came to me while working at my only non-sales job.  The most valuable lessons I learned about selling came from my short time working as a consultant for customers.

Firstly, what does a consultant do, and why do end-users hire them?

My company was hired primarily because our clients did not trust the people who were selling them products and services.  Usually, after several companies had met with our clients (call, get meeting, write proposal, fail), they would call us to try and make sense of all the proposals.  We would almost always have to start from scratch, evaluating needs, creating a budget, writing a specification, putting the project out to bid, and then awarding the project to one of the bidders.  Our goal was to level the playing field so that if a company was pre-qualified to bid on the project, we could choose the lowest price bid. Where was the selling here?  In essence, we turned salespeople into bid responders.  Our consulting company was able to charge high fees to do this work, primarily because no salesperson had been able to establish himself as a trusted advisor to the customer.

What were the big lessons I learned as a consultant?  One of them was that in reality I never sold anybody anything…if I was lucky a customer bought from me.  More important: I got to hear what the customer said after the salespeople left the room.

What a gift!  My favorite people in the world, the people who write checks for purchase orders, were explaining what they liked and didn’t like about salespeople, presentations, demos, proposals, and (ack!) unread corporate brochures.  While it was painful to learn that many of my “secret sales moves” were at best ineffective, I was able to take our client’s comments and apply them at my next sales job.  This education helped me to open up a new sales territory that was a four hour drive from my home, had no existing clients, and full of prospects who had no idea who my company was or what we did.  Armed with this new end-user knowledge, I was able to do more business in a year than the home office did with three salesmen.

Was I a great salesman?  No.  I have always been, at best, only an above average salesman. But my short-lived consultant career taught me what worked and what didn’t work with end-users.  I learned what an ideal prospect looked like and what a time wasting, low price buying, revise-the-proposal 32 times prospect looked like.  Qualifying became the foundation of my sales success.

What is qualifying?  Is it surfing the web for companies that fit your product or service profile?  Maybe kinda sorta.  Really, it is much more than that. While qualifying is an important first part of the process, it really doesn’t stop until you have the purchase order in your hand.  Most people do an initial qualification, but then halfway through the sales process, with red lights flashing and warning flags waving, they ignore the signs that the prospect is no longer (or perhaps never was) a qualified prospect.  “I’m halfway through writing the proposal…I can’t stop now,” they reason.  “I’ll finish it up, submit it, and hope for the best.”  And when they eventually lose the sale, they kick themselves for pursuing a lost cause.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  By continuously qualifying a prospect, deeper and wider within the organization than you may be used to, you can make sure that you spend your time with the right people within your prospect’s organization.  This is especially important with large, technical, or complex sales. You need to focus on broadening your contact base, because the person with whom you are working with, the person who swears that he or she is the person who will be making the decision, is almost certainly not the person who will be making the final decision.  The only exception I have personally ever seen to this is when selling to the CFO.  More commonly, a host of people whom you have never met will be part of a group that makes the purchase decision.

There are only two ways around this.  The optimum solution is to get to all of the right people, which is easier said than done.  We’ll explore strategies to do this in future posts. The other option is to teach your prospect how to sell your product or service to his or her management team in an effective way.  We will explore the craft of qualifying in great detail as well.

Chapter 1: Why the World Hates Salespeople (and Why they Should)

Wouldn’t it be great if your prospect gave you a checklist to complete, and if you followed that checklist, they would buy from you?  Of course it would – what fool wouldn’t follow a set of directions handed to them by the person who writes the check?  And yet it happened to me this week. Six times.  And all I was trying to do was buy a new car.

That’s right.  I was dealing with one of the most despised creatures on earth:  the car salesperson.

The checklist was simple.  It gave the exact make and model, the options I wanted, and the color.  In addition, I explained that I would not be paying for any other factory options or dealer ad-ons like floor mats.  If they didn’t have the exact car I wanted or couldn’t get it, they could hit the magic delete button on my e-mail.  All I asked for was the price of the car, the monthly lease fee, and all the other nickel and dime things up front before I stepped in the dealer’s showroom.  I wanted the paperwork all done through e-mail before I picked up the car, and wanted to spend no more than 45 minutes in the showroom the day I took delivery, no test drive needed.  Nowhere did I say I would choose a car based on price.  Simple, right?

Well, no.

All six dealers sent me form letter e-mails, inviting me come in for a chat, look at the colors and options, discuss my budget, and take a test drive or two.  So with all of my “buying signals” given to them in writing, how is it that six different companies blew a sure thing sale?  Professional salespeople attend expensive week long seminars to learn how to detect these buying signals.  Senior level sales professionals are paid more than junior level sales professionals because they have decades of experience which enable them to pick up on these barely visible signs that buyers try to hide.

Is there a more dysfunctional selling paradigm than that of the automobile sale?

Doubtful.

And yet I see variations of this every day, from the simple consumer electronics gadget sale to the multi-million dollar global IT system sale.  Why is this?  Why are so many salespeople so bad?

Maybe that is an unfair questions, but not because most salespeople are good.  It is an unfair question because half of the blame resides with the customer.  That’s right.  The guy on the other side of the table, the one with the checkbook, the furrowed browed guy who keeps looking at the price page of your proposal?  Yes, that guy.  He has been taught by you and dozens of your peers over the years that he needs to protect his company against you and your ilk, because he thinks that you’re out for yourself, trying to charge as high a price as possible, and will then head off to your condo in Maui for two weeks and ignore his phone calls.

Is it the buyer’s fault that they see salespeople as adversaries instead of partners?  I don’t think so.  But there is a better way forward for salespeople.  If you choose your prospects and clients carefully, if you can develop a relationship to the level where they are willing to learn from you why your product or service is the best overall value, and you can then have them bring you up through their company to the decision makers, then you can dramatically improve your sales and waste far less time.

This is not hard stuff.  I’ve been successful selling this way for decades, and I’m as lazy as a salesman can get.  Maximum results for minimum effort is my goal.  I have taught these skills around the world in various formats, from two day crash courses to week long full immersion courses.  You can get the same information right here (minus the important student interaction portions, unfortunately) on this blog.  So go ahead and bookmark this page and come back to it for the next chapter at least once a week.  I’ll do my best to make it worth your while.

And the car fiasco?  Finally, one dealership figured out how I wanted to buy, followed my format, and sold me the car.  He wasn’t the cheapest, but he made it the easiest for me, and with this purchase, that is what I was looking for.

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