Preparing a Presentation for a Client Sales Meeting: Yay or Nay?

“She makes a presentation for every client. That’s the last thing in the world I would do,” he said. “She does seem to get business, though. I’ll never understand it.”

presentationI was working with the top three salespeople at a financial services company to build a sales training for new hires in the company. Part of the content for the training was a deconstruction of the top performers’ sales process.

One of the salespeople had separated his clients into categories, mostly by the structure of their entity. For example, was it a family business, a joint venture, a corporation, a trust, a fund…? For each type, he had identified a handful of issues that were relevant. When he sat down with the client he would start by exploring each issue. Usually, he’d find an area that his potential client was struggling with. Using that as a springboard, he would identify other stress areas and knock-on problems.

“Rule number one for me,” he said, “is to get them talking. I don’t want to be the one talking. If I am, it’s going to be a short meeting.”

The number two salesperson had a similar mantra: “Explore their reality, uncover all issues,” he said.

It was no surprise to me that both the top producers focused on identifying problems.

I mentioned to them both that I was meeting with the number three salesperson the next day to talk about her process. The two salespeople looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“She makes a presentation for every client. That’s the last thing in the world I would do,” said the first. The second concurred. “Why would I want to be talking to my slides?”

“She does seem to get business, though. I’ll never understand it,” said the first.

Kate did prepare a presentation for every client. It began with an analysis of some key statistics and indicators about their company, and her guess as to where they were headed. This was two slides and two minutes and theorized what their strategic focus was, if she could discern that focus. If she couldn’t, she guessed. Then she found a transaction; ideally one that Kate or the firm had worked on that seemed to exhibit the variables that were consistent with her client’s desires. And she would walk them through the details, especially those that were tailored to the needs that Kate anticipated her prospect might share.

“But why do you do a presentation?” I asked.

“So I can interrupt it.”

Here came the payoff insight. “While I’m presenting, I watch the faces of my client prospect, as soon as I see a flicker, a flinch, a sidelong glance, anything that indicates interest or disagreement, I ask. The presentation is just a platform. A platform for questions.”

Suddenly her method and the methods of the other two salespeople didn’t seem so different. Kate’s presentation created a structure for the meeting and gave her the credibility to ask questions about what was on the screen and her client’s reactions.

I asked her what happened if her assessment of their strategy was way off.

“If I’m wrong,” she replied, “it’s as good as being right. If I’m right, it indicates that I understand their business — I get credibility. If I’m wrong, they’ll explain it to me. They’ll say more when I’m wrong then when I’m right. Wrong means I get to ask questions and learn. If the whole presentation is right on, I actually lose. I need to be at least a little wrong to really understand.”

A presentation can be an effective mechanism for your meeting. It establishes credibility and it provides a platform from which you can ask questions. Just make sure you don’t spend your meeting presenting your presentation.

The ideas from this post come from Tim and Tim’s book Never Be Closing.

Getting a Yes to the Meeting

If your business isn’t competitive on the sales side or there are many possible buyers, make the calls, ask for meetings. You’re much more likely to get a yes anyway from folks who aren’t bombarded. If the sales landscape is competitive, follow Sun Tzu’s advice and create some favorable terrain before you engage.

“The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.” — Sun Tzu 300 BC

I hesitate to quote Sun Tzu‘s classic Art of War because it reinforces the analogy that business is like warfare, an assumption to which I don’t subscribe. The quote suggests that you only engage when you already know the outcome will be in your favor. I can’t help but think of this Sun Tzu quote whenever I call a prospect for the first time to set up a meeting. What’s their response going to be? Are they likely to agree, or am I more likely to be brushed off?

So how to take Sun Tzu’s advice? What might be all the ways to get on an important prospect’s radar screen so that when you do call, they’ll say yes to your meeting request?

In some industries the landscape is very competitive. Many business people are bombarded with requests to meet with salespeople. Clients won’t agree to see with everyone who asks for a meeting. A person bombarded by requests is compelled to determine who might be most useful to them, and meet with only those people. Deciding who they won’t meet with is part of their job. And, once they’ve said no to your request to meet with them, it’s very hard to turn that no to a yes. That would be like un-checking something off a to do list. You can keep asking, but you risk being perceived as pushy, overbearing or annoying.

open_windowA negative response to your meeting request has an even greater downside in industries where there are a small number of large buyers. You don’t want to make the annoyance list of the few companies who dominate the buying landscape. If they centralize their purchasing, you could annoy a mere three people and be almost completely cut out of the marketplace.

The good news is all you really need is one successful connection. If you have that, most people will agree to meet with you if you ask. There are many obvious, though not always quick and easy, ways to do this. Half the battle is taking the time to stop and ask yourself: Is this an important prospect? Do I have a reason to believe they’ll decline my meeting request?

If you answer yes to these two questions, then you probably want to invest in making a connection so you don’t lose this client before you even begin.

Here are some techniques to get on your important prospect’s radar screen.

1. Find a referral.
In building and using your professional network, seek people who can introduce you to prospects. Ask around, especially to senior people in your own organization. “Do you know anyone at Hyper Consolidated? I’m trying to get a meeting with their acquisitions team?” One email from someone your prospect knows that mentions you is usually enough. Get a linked in referral from someone well known in the industry. Attach the referral to an email, telling them you’ll be calling on a certain date.

2. Gather information about the company.
Go to their web site, read press releases, find the annual report’s CEO message. Or, find someone who works or worked there who will talk to you about the organization; it’s structure, reach, strategy or culture. You are looking for one topic that connects you to the person you want to meet or to their organization. They want to expand into the German market, and you just closed two deals with German companies. Communicate that to your prospect and you’ve just created positive separation between you and most other salespeople.

3. Research your prospect as an individual.
Internet searches can turn up loads of information on hobbies and other interests. For example, most road races and triathlons post the results on internet sites, and a triathlete or runner is likely to show up in several places. Even if you’ve never ridden a bike, an email congratulating them on their biking split at the Denver triathlon is probably enough to get a yes to your meeting request.

This is basic block and tackle sales research. Just remember to do it with a focus. You are looking for one connection between you or your company and your prospect or their company. Dig up two or three possible useful connections, and make notes. Look at the notes later and other ideas to connect you and your prospect will occur to you. Your notes will also be useful in preparing for the meeting that they are going to grant you.

As soon as you have your idea, execute. Send the email congratulating them on their triathlon time, with tickets to the Exhibit at MOMA, with information on the German market, or referencing a referral they received on your behalf. Then call and ask for an appointment.

To recap, if your business isn’t competitive on the sales side or there are many possible buyers, make the calls, ask for meetings. You’re much more likely to get a yes anyway from folks who aren’t bombarded. If the sales landscape is competitive, follow Sun Tzu’s advice and create some favorable terrain before you engage.

Questions for Them

Good questions might be a mash up between coaching and selling. A personal or business coach, in the purest form, only asks questions. Yet a good coach can provide plenty of value to a client. Ask good questions, be a coach to your clients, and you’ll benefit from the value you provide.

Demonstrating value is an integral part of any client meeting. It’s being useful to your client. It means that they are deriving benefit from their interaction with you.

From the salesperson’s point of view, the ideal demonstration of value is explaining how your product or service can solve a problem for your client. A problem which, if solved, will help them achieve a larger goal or objective.

There are other ways to provide value. One way is asking questions. “Asking questions?” You ask. Yes, asking questions. Not any question. Only some questions provide value. A simple way to separate those that don’t offer value and those that do is to divide them into questions for you and questions for them. Questions for you are questions that they have already asked themselves, especially questions they have already asked themselves to which they know the answer. When you ask questions that fall into this category you’re not helping your client, you’re informing yourself. This may be necessary so you can provide value later on, but you are using up your credits when you ask questions for you. (Neil Rackham’s book SPIN Selling includes situation questions, the S in his acronym, in this category.)

question_postitsQuestions for them (which, by the way, are also questions for you) are questions that your client has not yet asked, and doesn’t yet know the answer. They catalyze, invite new thinking, or reframe a situation. They often begin with one of these catalytic question stems: How might you…? What might be all the ways…? In what ways might you…? or How to? (An english professor, in England, once told me, with frustration, that “How to” results in a phrase not a sentence, so it’s technically not a question. But it can still be an inquiry, which is the point.)

A catalytic question poses a question from a new perspective, one that has not yet been considered. It doesn’t just transmit information from them to you. It opens up a new space to explore. It creates opportunity, and opportunity has value. A colleague was once consulting with a team from Accenture. (She was a consultant to the consultants. I find it refreshing that they take some of their own medicine some of the time.) She followed up on her first meeting by sending them a list, not of next steps, not action items or solutions, not suggestions, not even ideas. She sent a list of twenty-five “How might we…?” questions that she had derived from their conversation.

Accenture’s response?

“We should be doing this for all our clients.”

Simply by asking questions she demonstrated value.

Good questions might be a mash up between coaching and selling. A personal or business coach, in the purest form, only asks questions. Yet a good coach can provide plenty of value to a client. Ask good questions, be a coach to your clients, and you’ll benefit from the value you provide.

How to See What’s Not There

persist_thaumatropeThe other day I participated in an innovation day for the supply chain management division of a large company. The morning was spent on several presentations about how the group had innovated over the past year. One of the major innovations was a regular meeting in which suppliers and customers could talk with one another.

Now, I think this is a great idea, and I’m sure it made things more efficient for everyone. But as good an idea as it is, a regular communication meeting is not breakthrough innovation.

I see this kind of thing a lot — companies patting themselves on the back for breakthrough innovations that are really incremental improvements. Incremental improvement is powerful and positive, but it’s not the same as breakthrough innovation. Incremental change results from Reproductive Thinking. But for game changing innovation, you need Productive Thinking. Here’s the difference:

Reproductive Thinking is a way to refine what’s known. Think of continuous improvement, Six Sigma, or positive incremental change. It’s what you need for ferreting out inefficiencies, improving quality, and ensuring consistent outcomes. Reproductive Thinking is characterized by what the Japanese call kaizen, or good change.

Productive Thinking is a way to generate the new. Think of big AHAs, eureka moments, and breakthrough change. It’s what you need for seeding innovation, disrupting the marketplace, and changing the rules of the game. Productive Thinking is characterized by what I call tenkaizen, or good revolution.

Both types of thinking are useful, but if you want to create something truly new, Reproductive Thinking is the wrong tool. You need Productive Thinking.

When you were a kid, you probably had a thaumatrope. A thaumatrope isn’t a childhood disease; it’s a toy, popularized in Victorian England. It consists of a small disk with a picture on either side, mounted on string that lets you spin it. If you get the disk spinning fast enough, the two pictures merge. A common thaumatrope shows a bird on one side and an empty birdcage on the other. When you twirl the disk, you see the bird in the cage. Although there is no actual picture of a bird in a cage, you see it as clear as can be. You see a picture of something that isn’t there.

Productive Thinking is like spinning a thaumatrope. It’s a way of combining old ideas and insights to make something new.

Striving for reproductive efficiency is great. By all means, go for it. But don’t think that’s the same as game-changing innovation. You can’t fool yourself into being innovative. You need to learn how to think productively.