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“This Conversation Is Really About Me”

by David Brock on September 11th, 2013

The other day, I was speaking to a sales executive.  We were talking about improving the impact of sales people in engaging customers, finding and pursuing more opportunities.

Before I go further, this was a very sharp executive.  The sales organization was very focused and appeared to be a high performance organization.  They had a fantastic solution that solved important customer problems.  The sales people were sharp, articulate, appropriately aggressive.  The executive described the things they had in place, the things they were doing, their tools, systems, processes.  They were doing “Vito” letters, developing, and presenting cost justified solutions.

Both the things they were doing and the results, several years of double digit growth, seemed to indicate everything was going right.

I’m providing this introduction only to say that even the best of us get things wrong.  We get blinded by our success.  However well we are performing, some things are off, we can improve, creating even higher levels of performance.

So as we continued our conversation, I was wondering, “What’s wrong?  Why are we talking?”

The executive described, “We are doing the right things, we are focusing on the customer, we research them, we’re prepared, we know what to do in that very first meeting.”

“OK,” I responded, “So what’s wrong?”

“Well, we don’t seem to be engaging the right people.  We think we should be talking to more people, at higher levels.  We think we should be getting greater results from our first meetings,” he responded.  He asked if he could show me the “First meeting ” pitch–I mean presentation.  (I bet you can start to see where I’m going.)

He started walking me through their first meeting PowerPoint deck——now let’s put that to the side for a moment.  Yes, I wonder too, is that really the way you want to conduct a first meeting?  But their deck is illustrative of things all of us do unconsciously.

The deck had 18  slides.  The first was a personalized cover slide.  But it was a little odd—half the slide was filled with the logo of this executive’s company.  The title said, “Introduction to [Our Company]”  It was in 32 point font, bright blue.  Immediately below that, in a medium grey, in 24 point font, was the customer’s name.  “Hmm,” I’m thinking, “I’ve always thought these introductory presentations are supposed to be about the customer.”  I didn’t say anything, after all this had been refined in dozens of pitches.

The second slide was about the customer.  It was a great slide demonstrating the sales person’s understanding of the customer’s business.  They highlighted the customer’s business objectives, strategies, key initiatives and so forth.  The discussion that went with the slide focused on the sales person demonstrating their understanding of the customer’s strategies and challenges.

“This is great,” I thought, “They really do their homework about the customer.   I’m anxious to see where this goes.”

The third slide was the “About Us,” glamor slide–not the customer, but this executive’s company.  You know what I mean–the company’s great track record of growth, the list of big customers, awards, and so forth.  All the stuff that makes sales people puff out their chests, exclaiming, “We’re hot!”

The fourth slide was another glamor slide–it was the big corporate logos.  It’s purpose was to say, “Look at all these huge companies that must think we are great because they do business with us!”

The fifth slide was the “Why we’re the company to do business with slide.”

You can imagine my concern at this point.  5 slides in, they’re talking about why the customer should be doing business with them.  I think I missed the part where they determined that the customer felt they had a problem this company could solve.  I also must have missed the part where they determined whether the customer even cared about those problems or wanted to consider a change.  I guess the premise for setting up the meeting may have covered some of that—after all the customer wouldn’t meet unless there was some level of interest.  But somehow, it seemed by the fifth slide, they’d jumped all the way past, “let me understand what you are trying to do…..”  Somehow without learning whether the customer even cared, they were presenting why the customer should do business with us.

I won’t go through the remaining slides in detail. Slides 6-13 explained what their products did.  The 14th leapt into a demo, assuming that in this first meeting the customer would want a demo. and they could hit on the customer hot buttons with the demo (I wonder, did I miss where they determined the customer hot buttons).  Slide 15 reiterated why the company was so fantastic.  Slides 16-17 outlined next steps, using the assumptive close.  Slide 18 was a simple ending “Thank You.”  There were another 23 backup slides that did a deep dive into the features, functions, feeds, and speeds of the solution.  These were optional, based on the customer questions.

So in recap, out of 18 slides in the deck, 1 was about the customer.  The rest were about this executive’s company.  Perhaps, this is the reason they struggled to engage the right customers in the right way.

I didn’t go through this to embarrass this executive or this company.  This is an illustration about what too many people and organizations do.  Maybe not with this structure and flair, but in some way, all we really want to do is talk about ourselves, our products, and our companies.

Take a look at your own presentation decks–whether they are introductory decks or even closing decks.  Count the number of slides that are about the customer.  Count the number of slides that provoke the customer to talk about their business, what they want to achieve, goals, visions, dreams.  Count the number of slides that talk about opportunities they may not be aware of, things they can do to grow, things they can do to ramp their own performance to the highest levels possible.  Count the number of slides about the issues, challenges, or problems the customer cares about or may be facing.  Then count the slides that are about you, how great you and your products are.  What proportion are customer focused, what are “you” focused?  The majority–regardless where you are in the sales/buying process need to be about the customer.

But most of the time we fail to do this.  Perhaps, we have the mentality that because the customer has agreed to the meeting, they must be interested in us (In some cases, we’ve mistakenly trained customers to act this way.).  Perhaps, we really don’t care or haven’t taken the time to learn.

And this is the great disconnect.  Customers don’t care about us, how great we are, or even about our products.  If they do, they’ve already learned all the stuff we are dumping on them.  They’ve visited our websites and seen all the same stuff there.  They’ve done their research and homework.  They already know about us, the great logo’ed customers, and a good deal about our products.  So why do we insist on inflicting all of this on them?

What if we turned things upside down.  What if we made 17 of the 18 slides about the customer?  Naturally we would focus the discussion on opportunities or problems they have that we could do something about.  What if in those slides we engaged them in talking about their business, what they could be achieving, what they should be achieving, and what it would mean to them–individually and organizationally? What if we provided insights about what could be?  About new possibilities and how they might achieve them?  What if those slides guided a natural conversation in which both the customer learn?  What if we designed those slides and the conversation in a way that evoked a commitment from the customer, “This is too important for us to ignore!  We have to do this, we can no longer live with the status quo, but we must change!”  The 18th slide becomes very simple, it becomes, “Here’s how we will help you do this.”

What if we made the conversation about the customer?  After all from their perspective, they are saying, “This conversation is really about us.”

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  1. David Emes permalink

    Hi Dave, there is one quick way to start to fix this issue for any company involved in sales……..Questions. Its very hard to talk about yourself if you are asking something about others. Its also very hard to talk at all if you are listening to what the responses are.
    Now the tricky part is getting the questions right so that you get to the topics that matter but I would argue even some bad questions are bettre than none at all.
    If you are talking more than listening chances ar you are talking about your stuff not theirs.
    It is also really hard to fill 18 pages plus of Powerpoint with questions.

    • David: Thanks for the great comment. It’s so natural and easy for us to fall into “pitch mode.” So much of how we are trained focuses on pitching and persuading. But as you mentioned, questioning, probing, understanding, and learning is the starting point. Until we learn what customers care about and engage them in talking about those things, we can’t engage them in how we can help them. Thanks for the great comment!

  2. Dave,
    The sales techniques described in the article, are used by companies that sell replacement windows or aluminum siding.
    Slides, no matter the number, do not engage a customer. The use of slides by a sales organization creates an illusion – the illusion of selling.

    Unless the customer meeting is mutually defined as a “presentation” why in the world would a sales professional be presenting instead of selling?
    PowerPoint is often a counterproductive sales tool.
    An oft-heard PowerPoint joke is: Where’s the Power? What’s the Point?

    As David says, “What if we made the conversation about the customer?” When have slides ever been synonymous with conversation?

    The company’s 18 slides can be used for sales orientation. Empowered with that information, each sales person can then be trained to apply the knowledge about he company’s target markets plus the insights about the needs of specific customers.
    The goal is to be Conversationally Competent sales professionals.

    Conversational Competence

    • Thanks for the comment Vince. I hear what you are saying, in some ways you are being a little tough (as I was with this example). Clearly, this company was engaging customers in a way that customers were responding to—at least to a point. The company is tremendously successful. To have a meeting, leveraging this kind of presentation, required some level of set up and buy in from the customer in the first place.

      I also think this presentation was effective for the level of customer they were calling on. They were calling on more technical, operational level people. These people were focused on learning about solutions, not talking about their business. The challenge this company, and so many others face, is they wanted to start engaging higher level people.

      As you point out, we want to engage the customer in a conversation. I’m not sure the issue is about PowerPoint or not, but the conversation. To be honest, while I don’t do it often, sometimes I find PowerPoint an effective way to crystallize some issues, create a focus, and kick off the conversation–clearly once I’ve achieve that, I stop the PowerPoint.

      It will be different for everyone, but the point is a conversation and effectively engaging people in a conversation about their business.

      Loved your article! Thanks for the link! (Interesting that you wrote it in 2006, and it’s still such a difficult thing for us to understand and execute)

  3. My comment was meant to be snarky.

    For technology sales people to perform at the highest level, they desperately need best-in-class sales tools, training and tutelage. Regrettably, a few ” standard practices” are making it difficult for them to become best-in-class sales professionals.

    Trends that concern me are:
    1. Over-reliance on PowerPoint presentations.

    Many companies believe, and publicly state, that if a customer understands its technology, they will buy the product. That’s why sales people are trained to show technology slides, just like the product engineers or application engineers would present.

    1. Mentoring and coaching are lacking or ineffective.

    Email, Vmail, text, webinars and CRM are widening our communication gap.
    Q. What times are the best times for mentoring and coaching?
    A. Windshield Time and Lobby Time!

    1. A pervasive CRM culture is decoupling sales people from their critical resources: sales management, corporate executives, product marketing and application engineering.

    In my opinion, CRM is an illusion – an illusion of collaboration and commitment.

    The Ham & Eggs story illustrates that there is a stark difference between Involvement and Commitment. As we all know, the chicken is involved but the pig is committed.
    With CRM, many people are involved, but the sales person is the only certifiable “pig.”

    David, you said, “sometimes I find PowerPoint an effective way to crystallize some issues…” That sentiment also applies to the points I made. Nothing is black and white.

    The LinkedIn Group, Technology Sales & Service Reps, was created to discuss complex issues like Sales Training and Sales Effectiveness. Diverse viewpoints are shared among sales engineers, executives, Rep Owners and sales reps from the OEM, Rep and Disti channels.

    Group members comment on David’s discussion and are encouraged to be: Insightful, Passionate,Opinionated, Provocative and Snarky.

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