Presentations are the Penultimate Sniff Test


In B2B sales, supplier presentations are the next to last step (penultimate) before final contract negotiations. And “sniff test” isn’t a flattering description for such a crucial step in a buyer’s’ evaluation process.

So, please forgive the combination of the professional with the vulgar.

But when suppliers don’t understand the true purpose for having presentations, and show up only because buyers tell them to – well, the result is often vulgar.

In their ignorance suppliers make fatal mistakes, eliminating themselves and removing potentially valuable solutions from buyers’ selections. All because suppliers don’t know what a presentation is really for.

Vulgar Presentations

Imagine sitting through a supplier’s 73 slide PowerPoint where the top dog starts talking at slide 1 and doesn’t draw breath until slide 73  – reading text off every slide. After one or two questions, the supplier team packs up and rushes off to catch a plane.

That example, besides being monstrously bad, is also vulgar. Its ugliness exposes a supplier who doesn’t “get” presentations. They wrongly believed they were there to answer questions only and fill in gaps from their RFP responses.

Presentations are More Than Clarification Meetings

Clarifying Questions are not the Only Reason for Supplier Presentations

Supplier presentations are never only about clarifying suppliers’ RFP responses. If only clarification was needed, buyers could accomplish that in conference calls or web meetings with suppliers.

The reason buyers take the time and effort to sit through presentations is to experience what the future might be like working with that supplier.

Most supplier presentations are only for the down-selected few. Those suppliers who have been evaluated on their RFP responses and pricing and are considered the top contenders. If a supplier has made it to the presentation phase, they’re in the running for final selection.

Based on my experience, and this LinkedIn discussion, here is what buyers are looking for in supplier presentations (though some buyers may not know it).

Culture Match – Do You Like Paisley Too?

Culture Match

Buyers select suppliers that can match, or work within their culture. RFPs alone can’t do that.

Presentations enable buyers to sniff out their best fit suppliers and ditch the rest. Buyers are seeking to avoid suppliers who show up at their work as conspicuously as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.

Culturally-aligned suppliers blend in and are indistinguishable from their customers’ employees. They function more effectively because they don’t scare employees or cause friction by their differences – they get in, do their job, and appear like their customers. These suppliers can emulate their customers’ cultural signals and behaviors, such as:

  • Social attitudes: respect, integrity, diversity, etc.
  • Dress code: polos & khakis, black suits & ties, t-shirts & jeans, etc.
  • Communication modes; SMS text, IM, cell, web video, etc.
  • In/Formality; tech-engineering geeky, structural-engineering rigid, financial industry formality, etc.
  • Personality; fun/serious, extraverted/reserved, intuitive/scientific, etc.
  • Work styles: standardized processes vs. improvisational entrepreneurship, 9-5 M-F vs. around the clock, public agency corrective discipline vs. fast and furious from the hip, etc.

Interestingly, during supplier presentations many buyers don’t explicitly prep their team to look for cultural matches. It may not matter because suppliers’ who don’t fit, make themselves blatantly visible during the presentation; through the way they interact with each other and buyers, the way they’re dressed, their attitudes, etc.

There’s no hiding when a supplier’s culture collides with the buyer’s.

Presentation Skills – Will You Present Well to Our Boss?

Presentation Skills

When buyers report upstream to their bosses, they may want to include their supplier in meetings to present selected topics or detailed insights. But buyers will only do this if they know their supplier can add value, be trusted, and help them look good in meetings.

The selection process provides buyers the opportunity to assess suppliers’ presentation skills. Suppliers who can present complex information concisely and quickly can become valued partners and help contribute to buyers’ success, rather than being an anchor.

Presentations also enable buyers to test suppliers on how they deal with challenging questions and conflict. Imagine a supplier getting defensive, or stumbling over a direct question about accepting responsibility when something has gone wrong. Suppliers’ responses become another indicator buyers can use to determine if they want to work with them over the long term.

Personal Likability – Will You Love Me When It Goes Sideways?

Personal Likability

Supplier presentations provide a great opportunity to assess an intangible that no procurement professional would ever put in an RFP question. That question would be: Will we like working with you as an individual?

Personal affinity is probably the biggest unspoken, yet influential reason suppliers are chosen, or dropped, from the final selection – Personality conflict anyone?

Delivery of the contracted service comes over time, with delivery (account management) performed by an individual. Therefore, the individual the supplier appoints as the buyer’s contact is key. If buyers like that individual, they likely will work with the supplier when service goes sideways. Of course, if service continually fails, even a likeable individual may not be able to save the relationship.

Personal likability is one of the reasons suppliers are asked to bring their candidate for account manager to the presentation. Sniff test for likability: check.

Analog Examples – Ever Try to Eat a KPI?

Analog examples

The last and least frequent reason to hold supplier presentations as part of a selection process is to experience a physical sample. Think food catering: how is that soufflé going down over email?

But also, there are software application demos that just don’t fit in a proposal, no matter how cool that document is. So, for these situations, buyers will hold supplier presentations.

Alas, all the conditions mentioned earlier will still impact a supplier’s chances for success; they will still have to match culture, present well, and have a likable account manager.  But with a physical demo, suppliers must also clear this hurdle without a major hiccup.

Summary: The Penultimate Sniff Test

Summary Penultimate Sniff Test

At the end of the day, down-selected suppliers must know why buyers want them to present in-person. Ignore buyers’ presentation desires and suppliers will eliminate themselves from the running with a vulgar presentation.  Buyers want to assess suppliers’:

  • Culture Match
  • Presentation Skills
  • Personal Likability
  • Analog Examples

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