As part of the research for my book on executive sales presentations, I have spent the past two weeks interviewing senior executives in order to get an understanding from them about what they see when they are on the receiving end of sales presentations. Although I haven’t completed all of the scheduled interviews yet, some very clear insights have emerged. I have bad news, worse news, and ultimately some good news.
First, the bad news: I asked each executive how they would rank the general quality of the sales presentations they see, and the average is between 5 and 6 on a ten point scale, with a very wide variance within individual estimations. In other words, those who said “5” also said they saw some 10s and some 1s. What this tells me is that there is a lot of inconsistency and a lot of room to improve.
Here’s the worse news: the salespeople that senior executives thought were average presenters are generally the best of the best. They have to be in order to earn the right to be in the room presenting to begin with. Most senior executives listen to sales presentations at two times during the sales cycle. In the early stages, they may get involved to set the initial vision for the project and commit resources. At closing, they get involved with their teams to help make the decision. When it comes to initial calls, they may get up to 100 requests a month from salespeople, but generally agree to see one or two at most. You have to be really, really, good to get to that initial presentation. By the time of the closing presentation, their staff has probably spoken to many vendors and has filtered them to the top two or three.
Fortunately there is good news. While it may require hard work, it’s not that complicated to do the things that will make you stand out, or to cut out the things executives hate. Here’s a list of some of the dos and don’ts that came through loud and clear in my discussions.
Top 3 “Dos”
Prepare. Telling salespeople to prepare is like putting warning labels on cigarettes: it’s amazing how many of them ignore the warning even at these levels. It’s not just time spent in preparation, it’s the focus. Spend less time on the fonts and pictures in your slides and more on getting to know my company. Do enough homework to be able to articulate a clear idea of how you can help me, but don’t go too far and assume you have all the answers. “Preparation is paramount”—the care you show in preparation sends a clear message to us about the care you will show in implementing the solution and handling the account. Preparation becomes even more critical in team presentations, and at the level where we get involved, they’re almost all team presentations.
Get to the point. Most of the executives I talked to expressed frustration with rambling presentations where there is little clarity what the main point is or even what the salesperson wants them to do. One of the biggest surprises from my interviews is that this is not actually a time issue; it’s about getting value from time spent. In fact, because of what’s at stake in most of these presentations, executives are willing to spend whatever time it takes making sure they have what they need to make the best decision—as long as the presenter makes the time relevant.
Make it interactive. Ask questions and expect that they will ask you questions as the presentation is progressing instead of waiting until the end. There are two reasons for this. First, it allows them to go right to the parts they find most important. Second, it’s often their way of separating gold-plated from real gold—they like to scratch the surface by asking questions and see the depth of thought underneath and gauge your confidence from your answers. Of course, in order to be interactive you have to cut back substantially on the number of slides you present.
Top 3 “Don’ts”
Don’t have 17 slides telling me how great your company is. By the time you’ve reached me, you’ve passed those tests. I want you to talk me about my company and how you can help me.
Don’t ask for me to attend unless there’s a good reason. I like to push decisions as far down the organization as possible. What are the good reasons? If it’s strategic to my company direction, if it involves a major risk, if it impacts multiple functions, or if it’s a large dollar amount, then I will probably want to be involved. Otherwise, don’t try to get me in the meeting just because your boss says you should call high.
Don’t get so focused on the big picture that you screw up the little details. One of the CEOs I spoke to formerly headed up a small company which had the same name as another company in the Midwest. Whose logo do you think the salesperson put on the slides? Another executive was a prominent member of a university athletic department. When I asked him about don’ts, he said, “Don’t wear an orange and blue tie if you’re selling to the University of Georgia.”
There is a common misconception that senior level executives do not like to see salespeople. My interviews showed me that’s untrue. One executive, who just retired from a company that was so large that he only sat in on sales presentations which involved at least a half a billion dollar investment, told me, “I was always open to seeing vendors. We needed them.”
The truth is, they just don’t like to see bad salespeople.
 From a methodological standpoint, it’s important to realize that the question about dos and don’ts is very open-ended—none of the answers were prompted or skewed by the way I asked the question.