There's a considerable difference between selling a product that has technology that's widely accepted versus marketing one with brand-new technology. When it comes to selling a new technology, the details matter more -- a lot more.
As an engineer by training but more of a tinkerer by disposition, I’ve always been one of those people who sees something mechanical and then starts thinking about how to make it better. That's what led to my becoming an inventor and entrepreneur.
In 2006 a conversation with a friend led to my later starting a new business based on my patented invention: a retrofit for commercial air-conditioning units aimed at reducing energy consumption and relative humidity.
Over the years, I have found that the most important part of preparation for a sales presentation involving new technology takes place long before the call to arrange an appointment. Some people like to think that if they can just get into the meeting room, they’ll be able to wing it and make a sale. Yes, that might work -- but not very often, especially if the technical basis of the product is new. I never conclude a sales presentation with a visibly hostile or skeptical audience because I always lay the groundwork for a good presentation. Here are my insights about how to proceed:
Know the facts.
In making your case, especially for new technology, you have to be able back up whatever you say with facts. It doesn’t matter how good the idea is.
Early in my career, I learned an important lesson about knowing a product meticulously and being able to provide factual backup. Fresh out of college with an engineering degree, I worked for a large commercial air-conditioning manufacturer, Trane, with a knowledgeable and well-trained sales force. As a sales engineer, I seldom got any pushback about new technology from clients because the company's staffers were considered experts who understood the products inside and out. If there was a problem, we had the knowledge and expertise to develop a solution.
For my new startup, Enerfit, I spent seven years refining and testing the product before making a big sales push. That might seem overly cautious but now I have hard data as backup.
Many of individuals I’m presenting to have never heard of my small manufacturing firm in Chattanooga, Tenn. The last thing I want is to come off as some kind of a snake-oil salesman saying, “Take my word for it. It’s going to work.”
Know your audience and anticipate its needs.
Before a meeting it’s imperative to find out who the people are and assess their level of expertise in your industry (for me, it's air conditioning) and an idea of what's important to them (energy savings, humidity reduction, ease in servicing?). When possible, start off the meeting by noting the names of the attendees so as to be able to respond using names to specific questions during the meeting and follow up individually afterward if necessary. Let no questions go unanswered.
Spot check, listen and fine-tune as you go.
If you have intimate knowledge of the product and understand the needs of members of the audience, you can to some degree anticipate what they will want to know.
It's a sign that you're on the right track when you answer, “I’m glad you asked that. And in just a few more slides we’re going to address that very issue.”
If you do your homework, are well versed in your product's workings, have researched your audience and anticipated their areas of concern, your presentations will go a lot more smoothly.
That said, don't prepare to the point that the presentation is totally set in stone. Check in periodically throughout the meeting with people to see if you're addressing their interests and concerns. If you sense you're not in touch with the audience's needs, ask questions to find out how the presentation should be redirected.
Again, good preparation and product knowledge will allow you to change course on the fly and hopefully salvage the presentation.
Dealing with challengers.
It’s not unusual to have at least one naysayer piping up in the audience, especially early on. They generally fall into two groups: people who just want to show everyone else how much they know and those with genuine concerns about the information.
I always assume that I’m dealing with a genuinely concerned person and remain respectful. Once questioned, I put the presentation on hold and converse with him or her until I understand the concerns. If I can answer the issues right then, I try to do so and verify that the concerns have been addressed.
Sometimes I'll ask the naysayer to hold a thought till later, to a relevant part of the presentation. Then I address the individual by name and note that the upcoming information deals directly with his or her concerns.
For the proverbial showoff, this personal attention grants instant satisfaction. The truly concerned folks feel that I have taken their questions seriously.
Before leaving the topic, I ask if my explanation was sufficient. If not, I ask additional questions and converse with the naysayer until he or she is satisfied. Obviously, the entire process has to move quickly enough so that I can finish the presentation on time. (Fortunately, I haven’t encountered a really entrenched naysayer but I am prepared with a plan if I do: talking later.)
The presentation is never really over.
Too many presenters view their jobs as a “now or never” contest. While you can’t recast a first impression, that's very short-sighted. A truly good presentation is only the beginning of a dialogue with prospects. More technical products can take time to digest concepts before someone asks deeper questions. Recognize that not all audiences are eager to ask questions loudly and publicly from the floor. Natural shyness, intra-company politics and time constraints may allow good questions to go unasked.
I always try to allow 30 minutes to an hour for the “presentation after the presentation.” This stretch also offers the presenter a chance to learn and improve. Some of the most insightful things I’ve learned have taken place after most people have shuffled out. Include contact information in the final slide and keep a stack of business cards at the ready. “I don’t know, but send me an email or give me a call and I’ll do my level best to find out for you” is an honest answer and a good way to leave things with a sales prospect.