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Crashing at the Finish: The Last, Winning Step Too Many Salespeople Skip

She was so close. She had worked to develop the opportunity for two years. She had created a couple of key relationships, and developed them very well. She had a good understanding of the customer’s circumstances and special needs. With help, she created a strong proposal and delivered it to her primary contact. Her primary contact recommended that her proposal be chosen. So she rightly believed she was in the lead. And then she lost it. Why? She didn't ask for the opportunity to make a presentation before the final decision was made. She thought her excellent proposal was enough.

By Wayne Peterson
Published: March 19, 2015

She was so close. She had worked to develop the opportunity for two years. She had created a couple of key relationships, and developed them very well. She had a good understanding of the customer’s circumstances and special needs. With help, she created a strong proposal and delivered it to her primary contact. Her primary contact recommended that her proposal be chosen. So she rightly believed she was in the lead. And then she lost it. Why? She didn't ask for the opportunity to make a presentation before the final decision was made. She thought her excellent proposal was enough.

You really cannot expect the proposal itself to finish the sales process. This is frustrating for salespeople to hear when so much effort is required to build a strong comprehensive proposal. But it is a true statement. There is no good substitute for a presentation to the work group that is going to make the final buying decision. 

A “Post Proposal Presentation” meeting (a P3) is something I coach salespeople to request for any high-value opportunity or relationship they are pursuing. Lots of salespeople prefer to avoid them. I hear a variety of excuses offered as explanations:

• “I don't know what to say.” This is a pretty strong signal that the salesperson has not figured out the customer’s motivation and their selection criteria. That’s a topic for another time. But it could signal that the salesperson is taking specifications both at face value and as definitive. Only rarely will a set of specifications or published buying criteria tell even most of the story about how the decision will be made and the winner chosen.There is a pattern or a sequence of buying decisions that I still see play out consistently. In a B2B buying decision that’s significant for the buying organization, there’s an initial screening. Then three decisions are made from among those contenders remaining: First, the decision to “buy” the salesperson as “this is someone with whom we could comfortably and effectively do business.” Then, the decision to “buy” the company as in “This is a company with whom we can confidently do business.” Finally, there is the decision that the product or service being offered is the “best fit” with the specific needs of the body organization. Only in that last decision are specifications especially important.

• “I'm not good in front of groups. And I hate public speaking.” This signals a great development opportunity. Presentation and speaking skills are now non-optional for successful salespeople. Period. Excellent communication skills and real poise in front of people are incredibly powerful. And I’m far from the only one to recognize it.

In a commencement address at Columbia Business School Warren Buffett described taking a Dale Carnegie course in Public Speaking early in his career. The billionaire went on to say it was one of the best business investments he’d ever made. Putting his money where his mouth was, Buffett offered $100,000 in seed money to any of the graduates in return for 10% of future earnings. For those willing to demonstrate public speaking skills or to invest in public speaking training, he upped the offer to $150,000.

Nothing is more powerful for a salesperson than the ability to connect effectively with an individual, small group, or a larger audience. Nothing. For salespeople, communication is the killer app.

• “It's all in the proposal.” This signals the belief that the proposal itself can actually sell. Three things are wrong with that assumption. First, if it were true there would be no real role for a professional salesperson. Second, nearly all purchasing decisions are made emotionally, and within seconds or minutes. I have yet to see a written proposal that could engage me emotionally that fast. Third, it signals a misunderstanding of the role of strong proposal.


• “I have already said it all to all of them.” This tells me the salesperson is suffering from deal fatigue. That happens when a salesperson has poured herself into a particular opportunity for months or years, and cannot bring fresh eyes to the deal. When a salesperson reaches that point it is incredibly difficult for her to hold onto perspective. Admitting to herself that she’s just plain tired of working on this opportunity is difficult. So expect to hear it expressed in other ways.

Over the past 10 years, important buying decisions have moved up inside most organizations. The research and the vetting of potential suppliers and potential choices often get delegated to a technical buyer. Sometimes that technical buyer is the primary end-user, or the person who will have the most consistent interaction with the supplier. As the research and the vetting process go on, the technical buyer is often providing written, summary updates to everyone who will be involved in the buying decision. I have seen lots of instances where everyone involved in that decision met to discuss and consider it only once, and only after the proposals were in hand.

When asked, anyone within a buying workgroup will describe himself or herself as a decision-maker. In some cases, that is true because everyone in the group may have the power to say no. However, only one person usually has the power to say the final yes. And that person, the one who could make the final commitment, may be withholding judgment and deferring a serious review of the potential options until she walks into that meeting. I have seen that behavior and that pattern play out repeatedly.

Failing to ask for the opportunity to make a final presentation is equivalent to running a marathon with no intention to put on a final sprint at the finish.

Expecting the proposal itself to finish the process is really the same thing as delegating the completion of the sales process to the technical buyer, expecting him to sell you, your company, and your offer to the decision-maker in your absence. When I describe it that way it should begin to look silly to you. Even if the technical buyer is sold and believes that you, your company, and your proposal are the best, there's no reason to believe that technical buyer will be especially effective convincing and gaining agreement from the rest of the workgroup and from the final decision-maker. As a salesperson, that's your job not his. Recognize the need to ask for an opportunity to make a final presentation after the proposal has been delivered. It cannot be seen as optional. Getting over the reluctance to prepare and deliver a P3 is an essential first step. But doing anything can sometimes be worse than doing nothing. So step two is learning to build and deliver a great pitch.

Great final presentations have three things in common:

1. Talk about the customer, and not about you. This seems painfully obvious, and I don't intend to insult your intelligence. But in my work with sales organizations I am surprised by the frequency with which a final presentation focuses on the seller and not on the customer. If you get nothing else right about building strong final presentations, please get this right.

One of the most powerful ways to ensure that you talk about the customer is to tell a story. Nancy Duarte has described how to use the Hero’s Journey when building any compelling presentation. It is especially powerful in this context. Newsflash: you are not the hero. The story you're going to tell is the journey of the customer. You are going to begin with their current challenge, describe what they are now experiencing, place yourself in a supporting role as a mentor and guide, describe how they will overcome the challenge and seize the reward, and finish by describing their better life at the end of the journey. If you've done your homework well, this simple structure is both easy to use and very powerful.

2. Focus on outcomes, not processes. Yours may be the most elegant and most exciting new technology, new process, or new service to appear in a generation. For you, that's fabulous. Don't be surprised if it's a yawn for the customer. Hammering home tangible and measurable results that your customer can expect and will pass the “So What?” test is what’s important. This is especially important if this is your first opportunity to be in the same room with the ultimate decision-maker, the one with the power to give you the final yes. She is more likely to care about the destination than about the route to get there.

This doesn't contradict, by the way, what I just said about storytelling. Because stories are so compelling, the decision-maker will happily listen. What she won't listen to is a description of the nuts and bolts of your particular process, product, or service. She doesn't care about the how. But she does care about the what.

3. Make an emotional connection. Buying decisions, including B2B buying decisions, are made emotionally. Emotionally is how we choose. We then marshal facts to justify the emotional decision we've already made. Therefore, it's vital to demonstrate emotion (“This will be so cool for your firm!”) and also to legitimize positive emotion on the part of the customer (“I hope you’re going to feel relief and confidence almost as soon as we start.”) The range of emotion you’re trying to trigger isn’t complex, and Plutchik modeled it clearly. You’re aiming for trust, joy, and anticipation.

Strong presentations include emotion among the rewards for answering a call to action. Yes, it does need to be done with a light hand. I’m not suggesting high drama or a dive into the maudlin. But to communicate that the customer is entitled to feel some measure of trust, joy, and anticipation as a direct reward for the decision is appropriate and powerful. Consciously including references to the emotional and psychological rewards will help you make a stronger connection to the customers around the table than focusing on facts, data, comparisons and other rational factors alone.

“Pitches” and “deals” get unfairly connected with unsavory aspects of amoral sales behavior. That’s unfortunate, because both terms are useful shorthand terms. A great pitch meeting (a post-proposal presentation) can be a wonderful thing both for the well-equipped salesperson and for the customer. Salespeople who skip or shy away from them (for any reason) give up a powerful opportunity to forge a strong relationship, and to distinguish themselves from their competitors who may do little more than show up and say: “You’ve got our proposal. Any questions?”

What do you think?

Wayne Peterson is the Principal of the Black Canyon Consulting Group Inc.  Wayne’s practice focuses on three areas: strategy and marketing, rapid sales growth, and customer retention. Reach for Wayne directly at 540 751-0852 or wmp@blkcyn.com.

 

Discussion

By Catherine McGavin on Mar 19, 2015

Wayne, thanks for capturing this vital idea so well. "...to communicate that the customer is entitled to feel some measure of trust, joy, and anticipation as a direct reward for the decision is appropriate and powerful." Indeed.

I find it helpful to remember that customers see our "done deal" as the start of a committed relationship. We in sales do wonders for both reputation and success rate if we demonstrate and guide that commitment, especially as we approach the altar together!

 

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