Selling 101

B-to-B: Giving an Effective Sales Presentation

Business-to-business sales usually involves giving a prearranged presentation, whether in person or on paper, of your product or service. This differs from retail sales to the general public, which is usually spontaneous and immediate.

In business-to-business environments, the selling and buying process is often not simple. Many times you'll never meet the person who will ultimately use your product, the person who'll authorize the purchase of your product, or the person who signs the check. If you're dealing directly with the buyer, consider yourself fortunate. You have to convince only one person of your product's suitability and of its superiority over competing products. If you've pulled together your product benefits properly, if you're talking to a buyer in a market that genuinely needs your product, and if you've positioned yourself appropriately against the competition, you should be in good shape.

However, you may be presenting a proposal to a selection committee of a large corporation. Several of the people present may have competing agendas you don't know about, or you may discover after making your pitch that no one in the room has the authority to say yes. You may be speaking to a purchasing agent who makes the decision based on agreed-upon objective criteria. In that case, all you can do is prepare the best proposal you can, all the while focusing on making the description of your product and your company match as closely as possible the demands of the proposal request.

Despite these difficulties, the bottom line is the same: Personal sales makes commerce happen. And if you are the one making the sales pitch--or if you supervise those who do--fine-tuning your presentation techniques can pump up your bottom line. If you have a meeting with a company, you know that, at the very least, you're being taken seriously and that you have a reasonable chance of coming away with the order. So what should you do? Here's a handful of tips from the experts.

Get informed: know the buyer. Are you presenting to a company that can conceivably use or afford your product or service? Just as a real estate agent must qualify prospects, so salespeople must maximize their time by prequalifying potential clients and eliminating those that don't have the financial resources, that have proved themselves bad credit risks, that have a business that doesn't match up well with the strengths of your product and so on. Focus on prospective buyers whom you have a reasonable chance of winning...and who are worth winning.

Then, once you're at the stage where you're making an oral or written presentation, ask yourself whether the person you're presenting to has the ability to say yes. If the person doesn't, you may be better off trying to work around that person and presenting to someone who can give you the go-ahead. Once you've set up a serious meeting with customers who have purchasing authority, ask your contact who's going to be there and what their stake in the decision is. Get your hands on an organizational chart so you have a feel for the hierarchy. What are the people in the meeting likely to be most interested in? For instance, if the finance person is there, direct your comments on financial payback and return on investment to him or her.

We're talking business politics here, but that doesn't surprise you, does it? You've got to scope out the terrain of the sales battle before you can give it your best shot, and you'll have more success in the major meetings--with significant dollars on the line--when you understand the situation you're confronting.

In addition to knowing whom you are presenting to, give some thought to why you are presenting. What is the company looking for? What is the current situation that's driving their request for your presentation? Is there anyone else who works with you in your office who might have an insight into this company and why they are having you make a presentation? Are you presenting along with other potential suppliers, or is it you or nothing? Are there other noncompetitive suppliers who might give you some information on what's happening inside your target company? If you are able to ask clarifying questions before the actual presentation (this is common in governmental work), don't miss the opportunity to come up with some questions to ask...just to establish a working relationship.

If presenting is something you do several times a week, you may not need to do much research or rehearsing. Let's face it, after a few months of presentations, you'll have your pitch down pat, and you'll have a good feel for the terrain of most sales situations.

Rehearse your pitch. If presentations are not something you do regularly, then you need to rehearse what you're going to say and how you're going to say it. Work with someone in the office, a good friend or your spouse to smooth out the flow of information and make yourself as concise as possible.

Most of us have been in presentations when the presenter was out of touch with his or her audience, rambling on long after any audience interest had left the room in despair. Think in bullet points and headlines. You want the attendees to come out of your presentation with just a handful of clear benefit statements about your product. Don't drown your competitive advantages in a lot of chatter about your company, your history or your golf game.

If you use equipment to make your presentation (flip charts, computer printouts, PowerPoint on a laptop), bulletproof your equipment and carry spares of essential parts like disks, bulbs and power cords. People tend to understand when you have a little technical trouble, but they do expect you to fix it. They're hiring you because of the resourcefulness of you and your products, right?

Get some sleep and eat your Wheaties. No matter how tireless your personality type, you've got to be your best when you're on stage. That means being well-rested, well-fed and relaxed. Get a good night's sleep beforehand, and eat breakfast. Get any materials prepared in advance, and proofread them carefully. Get near the presentation site early, relax with a cup of coffee or juice, and review your notes and your plan of action.

Once the meeting begins, you're expected to be the focus of attention. When people listen to a presentation, they're in a "receptive" mode--they expect to be informed and even entertained. You have to deliver the goods with style and high spirits. You're the driver...make this vehicle go where you want it to. Don't come out of the meeting wondering if you were too low-key.

Sell the benefits, not the features. We've been talking benefits for a while, and now's the time to put them to work. Key your entire presentation on the need your product satisfies, not on your superior technology, not on your well-trained staff, not on your wonderful reputation. What's in it for the people in the room? How will their company come out ahead if they choose to do business with you? What existing problem is this company wrestling with? This should lead your presentation. Your product is the answer.

Also, don't forget that the people you're presenting to also have a personal involvement in the sale. If they hire you or buy your product, will it be a feather in their cap? If they're at risk for choosing you over a better-known competitor, how can you reduce their exposure--extend a warranty, offer additional case histories, provide documentation to pass up the chain of command? Fine-tune your presentation to appeal to the individuals in the room as well as to the company they represent.

Invite a dialogue. When you start your presentation, outline how you plan to organize the meeting--and make sure your audience understands that they have a role beyond merely listening. You expect them to ask any questions they have, raise any objections they feel, outline special applications they may have for your product, and explain how they'd like the product integrated into their operation. By inviting and encouraging their participation, you enlist their help in figuring out all the ways your product or service can benefit them.

Be prepared for any objections. Sales objections give salespeople, especially new ones, the greatest difficulty. You're really rolling in your pitch. You think you're definitely receiving good vibes from the right side of the table. You're well ahead of schedule for your allotted presentation time. Then the mild-mannered fellow in the camel-hair suit scrapes his chair, raises his hand and with fixed eye says: "I just don't see how this will work for us. The specs seem in the ballpark, but you're a new company, unproven, and this piece of equipment is too important to us. We've got to go with a proven provider, even if we give away a bit in capacity. It's just too risky."

The smoke from the explosion clears. Maybe some of the other people at the table climb on board and reveal similar feelings. Maybe you draw some sympathy. Maybe the meeting freezes, with no one set on how to proceed.

If you can't handle high-inside-fastball objections, you're never going to be successful selling. The sales experts counsel a calm approach:

  • Hear the objection out. Don't interrupt. Don't cut it short. Focus your attention on what's being said, taking some notes (without cutting eye contact for more than a brief period) so you capture all the details.
  • Don't panic. People who object are at least taking you seriously. When you get in a presentation where everyone smiles at everything you are saying, you're in trouble. When people object, they're looking for more information, or they want you to clarify their perception of your product or service. You should be prepared for every objection with a killer response.
  • Find something in the objection to validate. No matter whether it is well-founded or ridiculous, the objection must be taken seriously. You want to credit the questioner for mounting the objection. Acknowledge that you're a new and essentially unproven company, for example. In fact, you'd have the exact same objections if you were sitting where they are. If you need a few moments to gather your thoughts, respond to the objection with a clarifying question: "What kind of experience have you had with your existing equipment regarding downtime?" or "What's a doomsday scenario in your production? Let me see if I can address it." This technique will also help you zero in on the true nature of the objection.
  • You've already developed a script with answers to every objection, right? Now's the time to pull that script up to the top of your mind and satisfy the objection-raiser. Go through it calmly, getting your inquirer's assent at every step of the way. When you're done addressing the objection, make sure the individual feels comfortable with how you handled it.

Talk money and ask for the business. You shouldn't end the meeting without addressing directly the issue of cost and terms. Some presenters hate to talk money, preferring to dance around the subject while focusing on the product and its benefits. I don't think that's effective. People want to know price, regardless of how little importance you try to attach to it. If your product is more expensive than the competition, make it a point to explain why, emphasizing the greater value the prospective customer will get from your product. If your product is less expensive than the competition, you should hammer away on that benefit, emphasizing how you're able to deliver top quality without charging a high price. Don't apologize for your price, either high or low.

Finally, you have to ask for the business. How does the sale happen? You can make the order form a part of your presentation kit and ask them to fill it out then and there. You can ask about which particular model they want to order. You can inquire as to which delivery timeline they're working with. Make what's called the "presumptive close," by which you presume you've been successful and are simply making arrangements for delivery. This can push some buyers over the edge into making an immediate decision.

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