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Avoid the Fatal Presentation Trap: Why Making Presentations Can Cost You the Sale




Chicago, IL (June 2005)--If you're a salesperson, you can probably relate to this scenario. You spend days preparing a razzle-dazzle presentation. Duuring the big event, you expound on the greatness of your company. You show slides of your top-notch manufacturing facilities. You paint a rosy picture of the future the prospect will have if he buys. What happens after you wrap up the presentation is anyone's guess. But two things are certain: you've spent valuable time and resources on this little "dog and pony" show, and you're left with the unsettling knowledge that the decision to buy from you (or not) is completely out of your hands.

Sound familiar? Probably so. And right now you may be thinking, well, that's just the nature of the beast. Presentations are no fun, but they're part and parcel of selling. Right? According to Jeff Thull, absolutely not. Not only are presentations almost always a waste of time, says the strategist and business advisor, they actually decrease the chances that you'll make the sale

"Think about the nature of the presentation and you'll see why it's so often an exercise in futility," says Thull, author of The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn Trade Publishing; 2005; ISBN: 0-7931-9522-5;). "Salespeople think that they are educating the prospect, but a presentation is a lecture. It's been proven again and again that a lecture is the least effective way to educate." Why? Well, chances are we are doing the worst thing an educator can do. According to Thull, "we are answering unasked questions!"

"You're probably spending 80% of your time talking about your solution, while the prospect may not even understand his own problem," he continues. "So no matter how impressive your product sounds, he's not going to grasp how it applies to his situation. Finally, he probably has several other presentations just like yours lined up. In his mind you are a commodity. The only way you're going to 'win' is if you're the lowest bidder, and that doesn't guarantee success." The major tragedy of this overwhelming urge to present and propose (by the way--a hang over from much simpler times) is the high number of these pursuits that end in no decision at all. Thull suggests, "tthe strongest sign of the ineffectiveness of the presentation is the percentage that results in no action on the part of the prospect.

Thull says that presentations actually create the Value Gap--his term for the misalignment between buyers and sellers in the business-to-business marketplace--deeper and more daunting. This worsening of already-present barriers occurs in at least three areas:

  • Relevancy. It's quite possible that your solution isn't what the prospect needs at all. Since you haven't talked in depth to people in every department your product will affect, how would you really know? It's arrogant to assume that you do. Your prospect may feel bullied and/or manipulated and go on the defensive. Preaching is the worst of all presentation characteristics.

  • Comprehension. Let's say that your solution is what the customer needs. You know it beyond the shadow of a doubt . . . but does your customer? Probably not. While you are bombarding him your painstakingly prepared presentation, he comprehends maybe one-quarter of it, says Thull. You simply can't fully convey complex ideas in an hour-long "lecture." And if a prospect doesn't understand, he isn't going to buy.

  • Inflation of Benefits. By its very nature, presentations are intensely focused on the positive: the features and benefits of the product being sold. You play up the glowing future the prospect will have if he buys your solution, while playing down the (often costly) changes he must undertake to implement it. If he does buy it, he will feel misled and frustrated when your solution's performance falls short of the value promised.

    In short, presentations lead to frustration, misunderstandings, conflict, and adversarial relationships between you and your potential customer--all of which impede your ability to create cooperative and trust-based relationships. The solution is clear: don't do them. Sidestep the presentation trap altogether by taking a diagnostic approach. (As Thull often says, physicians don't do presentations, so why should you?)

    He explains this process in detail in The Prime Solution, but here's the gist:

    When the prospect asks for a presentation, agree and then discuss how you will prepare. "Your prospect probably will ask for a presentation," says Thull. "That's the standard system he operates by. Your goal is to avoid getting caught up in their system. Reframe the issue in terms of preparation. Discuss how you will interview various people in his organization in order to fully understand his situation and determine where your solution fits in--if it fits in at all. Then you'll be able to build a diagnostic presentation which is based on the customer's businesss, their situation and the cost of their problem. It will be a discussion guided by powerpoint rather than a presentation."

    1. Pull together a "cast of characters" to help you diagnose. Identify and recruit cast members from the customer's organization who have the information, impact, influence, and insight needed to undertake an interactive decision process. If the prospect balks at allowing you access to these employees, explain that you would be very uncomfortable doing a presentation without the preparation and focus the interviews would provide. If still no access, politely decline and withdraw from the sales engagement. There is no point in wasting your time with an organization that doesn't allow access to diagnose the situation so that you can help resolve their problem.

    2. Commit to finding a Prime Solution. You and the cast of characters will travel together through the multiple decisions that must be navigated in a complex sale. It is important to create mutual understanding and goals around your customer's situation and the best solution to address it; and ensure a secure foundation for value achievement, both now and in the future.

    3. Show the prospect the cost of his problem. The decision team must thoroughly examine the customer's situation. It must look for the common indicators of the problems the solution has been designed to eliminate and then identify the consequences across the entire organization. It must analyze the consequences and track the business impact. Finally, the team must report the findings, unveiling figures that represent the total cost of the problem.

    4. Show the prospect the cost of the solution. Sellers are usually happy to discuss the price of a solution, but few are nearly so forthcoming about the true cost. Implementing and using your solution may require that the prospect change his manufacturing process, add staff, train (and re-train) employees, build new facilities, and so forth. In the brave new world of complex solutions, the costs of implementation and use often exceed the selling price. Walking the decision team through this process quantifies the cost of change and gives the prospect all he needs to make a confident, informed decision.

    By the end of this process, whether or not the prospect should buy your solution has become crystal clear. You're enabled with what Thull calls "decision acuity." There is no longer any need for the traditional presentation.

    "The interactive decision process that you set in motion creates trust and transparency," says Thull. "It gives the customer the confidence to invest. It lays a foundation for future efforts to help the customer maximize the value inherent to your solution and to measure results. If you're still relying on presentations, you're not only wasting your time, you're actually working against your own interests. Rethink your approach now. Your customers will stop seeing you as a purveyor of a commodity, or worse, an adversary trying to wrangle dollars from them for your benefit, and will start seeing you as a trusted partner."

    Remember, says Thull, "there are only three problems with presentations, audience, content, and timing."


    Jeff Thull is a leading-edge strategist and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies worldwide. As President and CEO of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies like Shell Global Solutions, 3M, Microsoft, Intel, Citicorp, IBM, and Georgia-Pacific, as well as many fast track, start-up companies. He has gained the reputation for being a thought leader in the arena of sales and marketing strategies for companies involved in complex sales.

    Jeff is a compelling, entertaining, and thought-provoking keynote speaker with a track record of over 2,500 speeches and seminars delivered to corporations and professional associations worldwide. Jeff Thull's work is published in hundreds of business and trade publications. He is also the author of the best-selling book Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes Are High and the newly-released The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale.


    About the Book:
    The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn Trade Publishing; 2005; ISBN: 0-7931-9522-5;) is available at neighborhood and online booksellers or by calling (800) 876-0378.

    Dearborn Trade Publishing, a Kaplan Professional Company, is the nation's premier trainer and information provider for business and financial leaders committed to profiting from breakthrough ideas. Dearborn Trade Publishing, a Kaplan Professional Company, is the nation's premier trainer and information provider for business and financial leaders committed to profiting from breakthrough ideas. Kaplan Professional provides licensing and continuing education training, certification, professional development courses, and compliance tracking for financial services, legal, IT, and real estate professionals and corporations. Kaplan Professional is a unit of Kaplan, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of The Washington Post Company (NYSE: WPO).


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