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The Presentation Trap

Today's transformative sale environment can be characterized by an inordinate preoccupation, even obsession, with the presentation of solutions. Everything salespeople do before—the prospecting, contacting, and qualifying of potential customers—seems to be aimed at creating the opportunity to present their solutions. Everything after—the downhill run to the sale itself that includes overcoming objectives, negotiating, and closing—is designed to support and reiterate the presentation. Accordingly, sales organizations devote tremendous amounts of time and resources to creating compelling presentations and proposals.

The irony is that most of this effort is lost on customers. Presentations that are too early in transformative decisions are largely a waste of time.

Conventional salespeople hate to hear this; the presentation is the key weapon in their sales arsenal. It is their security blanket, their comfort zone, and they loathe giving it up. "Wait a minute," they protest, "our presentations are aimed at educating customers. They will not buy what they don't understand."

Exactly right, customers will not buy what they don't understand. A presentation can lift the customer's level of comprehension. However, it is one of the least effective methods for accomplishing that goal because of three reasons:

  1. A presentation, even one that includes advanced multimedia elements, is, in its essence, a lecture. The salesperson is the teacher and the customer is the student. The salesperson teaches by telling. The big problem with teaching by telling is that hardly anyone remembers what they hear. People retain only about 30 percent of what they hear. The use of visual aids (e.g., a PowerPoint slide show) boosts retention rates to 40 percent. But the generally accepted rule of thumb among learning experts is that more than half of even the most sophisticated presentation is lost. [2]

  2. A typical sales presentation rarely devotes more than 10 to 20 percent of its focus to the customer and their current situation. Generally, 80 to 90 percent of a typical sales presentation is devoted to describing the salesperson's company, its solutions, and the future being sold. Therefore, while a presentation may raise the customer's comprehension level, that gain is usually centered on the solutions being offered. All too often, salespeople are dealing with customers who are not sure of the exact nature of their problems. Nevertheless, those salespeople are spending most of their time talking about solutions. As a result, while customers may be greatly impressed with the offering being presented, they still lack a compelling understanding of how it applies to their situation and they do not know why they should buy it.

  3. There is a third compelling reason that presentations are a waste of time in transformative sales: Your competitors are following the same strategy; they are busy presenting, as well. Unless you have no competition, your customers will surely see them. They have meetings set up with you and one, two, or even more of your competitors. In each meeting, a sales team is presenting the best side of its solutions. Your team is telling the customers that they need the solutions that only your company offers, and your competitors are making the same arguments about their solutions. In every case, the presentations are heavily skewed toward the seller and the solutions.

Look at this from the customer's perspective. Based on what we said about the customer's area of comprehension, it is highly likely that two-thirds or more of the information that customers hear falls outside their area of comprehension. Further, what they do hear sounds very much the same. It all deals almost exclusively with solutions and is not connected to their unique situation.

How do customers then respond to competing conventional presentations? They concentrate their efforts on the information that falls inside their area of comprehension. Customers attempt to make the multidimensional understandable by weighing those elements that vendors' offerings have in common and eliminating those elements that do not fit neatly onto an over simplified comparison chart. When this happens, salespeople's ability to differentiate their offering from the competition is subverted, and price, the one common denominator of all offers, again raises its ugly head and is likely to become the deciding factor in the sale.

Customers may also respond by not responding. They listen politely as you "educate" them, thank you for your time, and promise to get back in touch when they are ready to make a decision. This is the setup for the Dry Run, as described in Chapter 1.

Finally, some customers may actively respond. They may ask you to justify the information you have presented or challenge the viability of your solution. This is the response set that every conventional salesperson is expecting. The customer objects and the sales professional goes to work overcoming those objections. It is a time-honored element of selling, and it contains the final, major trap of the conventional sales process.

[2]Bill Lucas, Power Up Your Mind: Learn Faster, Work Smarter (Nicholas Brealey, 2001), p. 126 for retention rules of thumb.


The topics covered herein concern solution sales, consultative sales, and consultative selling.

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