The Fatal Sales Presentation Trap

By Jeff Thull

If you are a call center salesperson, you can probably relate to this scenario. You spend days preparing a razzle-dazzle presentation. During the big event, you expound on the greatness of your call center. You show slides of your top-notch operation. You paint a rosy picture of the future the prospect will have if he buys. What happens after you wrap up the presentation is anyone’s guess, but two things are certain. You’ve spent valuable time and resources on your “dog and pony” show and you’re left with the unsettling knowledge that the decision to buy from you (or not) is completely out of your hands.

Sound familiar? It probably does. You may be thinking it’s just the nature of the beast. Presentations are no fun, but they’re part of selling, right? No! Not only are presentations usually a waste of time, but they can actually decrease the chances that you’ll make the sale.

Think about the nature of the presentation and you’ll see why it’s so often an exercise in futility. Salespeople think that they are educating the prospect, but a presentation is a lecture. It’s been proven repeatedly that a lecture is the least effective way to educate. Why? Because, chances are we are doing the worst thing an educator can do; we are answering unasked questions!

Sales people probably spend 80% of their time talking about their service, while the prospect may not even understand his problem. So no matter how impressive your call center sounds, the potential customer is not going to grasp how it applies to his situation. Finally, the prospect probably has several other presentations just like yours lined up. In his mind, you are a commodity. The only way you’re going to ‘win’ is if you’re the lowest bidder, and that doesn’t guarantee success. The major tragedy of this overwhelming urge to present and propose, which is a carryover from simpler times, is the high number of these pursuits that end in no decision at all. The strongest sign of the ineffectiveness of presentations is the percentage that results in no action on the part of the prospect.

Presentations actually create a value gap, the misalignment between buyers and sellers. This worsening of already-present barriers occurs in at least three areas:

  • Relevancy. It’s quite possible that your solution isn’twhat the prospect needs at all. Since you haven’t talked in depth to people in each department your service will affect, how would you really know? It’s arrogant to assume that you do. Your prospect may feel manipulated and become defensive. Preaching is the worst of all presentation characteristics.
  • Comprehension. Let’s say that your solution is what the prospect needs. You know it beyond the shadow of a doubt, but does your prospect? Probably not. While you are bombarding him your painstakingly prepared presentation, he comprehends maybe one-quarter of it. You simply can’t fully convey complex ideas in an hour-long “lecture.” If a prospect doesn’t understand, he isn’t going to buy.
  • Inflation of Benefits. By its very nature, presentations are focused on the features and benefits of the service you are selling. You play up the glowing future the prospect will have if he selects your proposal, while playing down the changes he must undertake to implement it. If he does buy it, he will feel misled and frustrated when your solution’s performance falls short of the value promised.

In short, presentations can lead to frustration, misunderstandings, conflict, and adversarial relationships between you and your prospect, all of which impede your ability to create cooperative and trust-based relationships. The solution is clear: don’t do them. Sidestep the presentation trap altogether by taking a diagnostic approach. Physicians don’t do presentations, so why should you?

Your prospect probably will ask for a presentation; that’s how he or she operates. Your goal is to avoid getting caught up in that system. When the prospect asks for a presentation, agree and then discuss how you will prepare. Reframe the issue in terms of preparation. Discuss how you will interview various people in his organization in order to fully understand his situation and determine where your solution fits in, if it fits in at all. Then you’ll be able to build a diagnostic presentation, which is based on the prospect’s business, their situation, and the cost of their problem. It will be a discussion guided by PowerPoint rather than a presentation.

  • Pull together a “cast of characters” to help you diagnose. Identify and recruit cast members from the prospect’s organization who have the information, impact, influence, and insight needed to undertake an interactive decision process. If the prospect balks at allowing you access to these employees, explain that you would be very uncomfortable doing a presentation without the preparation and focus the interviews would provide. If still no access, politely decline and withdraw from the sales engagement. There is no point in wasting your time with an organization that doesn’t allow access to diagnose the situation so that you can help resolve their problem.
  • Commit to finding a prime solution. You and the cast of characters will travel together through the multiple decisions that must be navigated in a complex sale. It is important to create mutual understanding and goals around your prospect’s situation and the best solution to ensure a secure foundation for value achievement, both now and in the future.
  • Show the prospect the cost of his problem. Thoroughly examine the prospect’s situation; look for the common indicators of the problems your call center’s services have been designed to eliminate. Then identify the consequences across the prospect’s entire organization. Analyze the consequences and track the business impact. Finally, report the findings, unveiling figures that represent the total cost of the problem.
  • Show the prospect the cost of the solution. Sellers are usually happy to discuss the price of a solution, but few are nearly so forthcoming about the true cost. Implementing and using your solution may require that the prospect change his processes, train (or re-train) employees, or make other changes. In the new world of complex solutions, the costs of implementation and use often exceed the selling price. Walking through this process quantifies the cost of change and gives the prospect all he needs to make a confident, informed decision.

By the end of this process, whether or not the prospect should buy your solution has become clear. You’ve enabled “decision acuity”; there is no longer any need for the traditional presentation.

The interactive decision process that you set in motion creates trust and transparency. It gives the prospect the confidence to invest. It lays a foundation for future efforts to help the prospect maximize the value inherent to your solution and to measure results.

If you’re still relying on presentations, you’re not only wasting your time, you’re actually working against your own interests. Rethink your approach now. Your prospect will stop seeing you as a purveyor of a commodity or an adversary trying to wrangle dollars from them for your benefit and will start seeing you as a trusted partner.

Jeff Thull is President and CEO of Prime Resource Group. He is the bestselling author of the recently released The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale. For more information, call 800-876-0378 or email

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2008]

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