Isn’t it Wonderful When Presentations are Conversations?

If you ask 100 B2B sales reps how they feel about making presentations the vast majority will likely say they love giving them.

Ask 100 customers how they feel about sitting through those presentations and they’ll likely say they hate them.

Why the gap?

Being “talked at” versus “talking with” — monolog versus conversation. This disconnect comes from sales reps’:

  • Out-dated belief that a presentation is the rep’s big chance to sell and/or
  • Ignorance of what is a sales conversation

B2B sales presentations are part of a customer’s decision-making to select a supplier-partner and begin the negotiation phase. Presentations work best when customers get the information they need to assess their options and determine which supplier might help them best realize their goals.

Yet many sales reps may not understand what is a sales conversation. Out of ignorance they default to delivering a monolog, which has earned the unfortunate name of “show up and throw up.” And what customer wants that?


Not All Sales Conversations Are Equal

All B2B sales conversations are important but one is more so than others.

While early, pre-RFP sales conversations help suppliers build credibility and capability with customers, the most important sales conversations are in the downselected suppliers’ (aka short-list) presentations.

These sales conversations occur when customers have moved closer to a decision and now look at fewer options with actionable intent.

In addition to getting their informational questions answered, customers are unconsciously assessing the likeability, credibility, and cultural affinity of their supplier options. Read more here.

Short-list presentations offer downselected suppliers real opportunities to win the contract in the 11th hour, snatching victory away from the jaws of an earlier leading supplier.

Sales Conversation Defined

Sales Conversation Defined

A sales conversation can be defined as…

“…a symmetrical, oral exchange of observations, opinions, and ideas between suppliers and customers — where its form helps make good buying decisions, shares information relatively equally, and starts mutually beneficial business relationships.”

To unpack this, consider these clarifications:

…symmetrical — both supplier and customer talk, not silence from one while bombast from the other

…observations, opinions, ideas —  Acknowledging fears and concerns about something that hasn’t happened yet, in addition to data

…good buying decisions — from the customer’s POV. After all, it’s their money until exchanged for the supplier’s offer

…shares information relatively equally — the more info customers share, the more valuable supplier solutions they may get. Yet customers’ adversarial purchasing or past supplier experience keeps them from fully doing so.

…starts mutually beneficial business relationships — suppliers want more than a sale, they want long-term, loyal customers, and customers can receive greater value from well integrated suppliers over time.


“Form” versus “Structure” in Short-list Presentations

Savvy suppliers pay more attention to form over structure because suppliers can’t do much to impact customers’ structure of presentations. Yet suppliers’ success greatly increases when they influence the form of sales conversations in presentations.

Let’s look at structure and form in sales conversations.

“Structure” of Sales Conversations

In short-list presentations, sales conversations generally follow this structure:

  • Informal introductions — as customers enter the room and/or as suppliers are setting up
  • Formal introductions — typically led by customers’ Procurement stating the obvious reason for being in the room
  • Suppliers’ dog & pony — suppliers take off on their spiel
    • Alternative: Customer-directed Agenda — suppliers follow a prescribed agenda of customers’ topics or questions provided in advance
  • Q&A — customers ask their questions at the end
  • Suppliers’ summary — wrap up of suppliers’ pitch attempting to hit customers’ hot buttons

As you can see, there’s not much advantage to gain for suppliers being better at structure than their competitors.

“Form” in Sales Conversations

In short-list presentations, sales conversations can take good, bad, boring, or fatal forms; they don’t follow a common form.

Form is the answer you’ll give when someone asks how your presentation went.

Your reply of “Great!” or “We stunk up the place,” or “It was just so-so” is your judgment of the sales conversation’s form.

Form is ephemeral and best thought of in terms of the color or tenor of a sales conversation.

Form will impact the degree to which customers engage and interact with the presenting supplier, which in turn leads to increased information retention and greater persuasion when customers do make a selection.

Structure on the other hand doesn’t give suppliers an edge. You’ll never hear sales reps boasting they’ve increased their chances of success because they followed structure to a “T” but were awful in their form.


Shaping the Form of Sales Conversations

So how can suppliers shape the form of sales conversations?

Replace the way one thinks about presentations

Suppliers must recognize and accept that form is more important than structure.

Their presentation teams must accept the reality that sales presentations are conversations; that coloring within the prescribed lines of structure is never as powerful as a lively, engaging conversation; that if customers are not engaged but sit there passively and quietly, then the supplier’s team failed and should pack up and go home.

Once the “show up and throw up” model is dropped, why not choose the reality of a customer conversation, one that is symmetrical, engaging, and persuasive?

Prepare more to engage than overwhelm

Suppliers must spend the majority of their rehearsal time on tactics that get their customers involved.

Of course suppliers’ team members must know who speaks to which topics and when. Yes, there must be rehearsal to move gracefully through the structure.

But in addition to that basic rehearsal, suppliers must practice presenting their solution in ways that enable them to elicit customers’ feedback instantly in the moment.

Immediately after talking about their topics, presenters must ask follow on questions addressing customers’ interests and concerns.

This doesn’t mean presenters only ask questions of customers.

It does mean that presenters present a short info bite and then converse with customers; give and take, honestly listening and considering what customers are saying, before responding to customers’ input and building their follow-on responses off it.

In the end

And in the End

A supplier will know when they’re on form in a sales conversation because customers will begin to visualize the supplier’s solution. Better still is when customers start revising the solution to better suit their needs as they see it. And of course, the ultimate is when customers begin to discuss the details of implementation.

This is the give and take of short-list presentations where the supplier has become one with their customer. This is an exchange of observations, opinions, and ideas that help make good buying decisions, where information is shared relatively equally, and forms the beginning of a mutually beneficial business relationship.

All it takes is a conversation.


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