Our instincts—and our compensation plans—pressure us to make the most persuasive and confident arguments that we can devise, get from Point A to B as surely and efficiently as possible, and shorten that sales cycle. We focus on the key decision maker in the room, marshal all the facts on our side, and prepare carefully to crush any objections from any potential blockers.
We want to make the sale, we want to be right, and we want to “win”. Books that teach presentation skills (including my own) emphasize this.
But the problem with this “Always Be Closing” approach is that even if your proposal is absolutely perfect in every way for the client, there is a high probability that it may lead to an unsustainable agreement, one that will be implemented improperly or incompletely. That can lead to a lot of value being left on the table for the client, customer dissatisfaction, and big demands on your time down the road.
In my own sales experience, I can admit to deals I sold because I won over the decision maker, but then had to contend with lower level people who were less than enthusiastic in their efforts to support the training, if not downright hostile in some cases. And I’m not alone: In his book, Why Decisions Fail, management professor Paul Nutt documents a study of more than 400 important corporate decisions over 20 years, in which he found that over half failed, mostly because of errors in the early process—errors tied to settling too fast on the first acceptable quick fix.
The process of decision making is often more important than the content of the contending arguments. Processes that widen the search for alternative early in the process, take into account political factors, and think realistically about implementation challenges are much more likely to succeed. In short, they will be sustainable. Paying attention to the process is especially important when you’re dealing with complex projects that carry important results for the client and have a wide span of impact within the organization.
What makes for a sustainable agreement?
People will buy into an agreement for two broad reasons: either it aligns with their self-interest or it is perceived as fair.
Integrative proposals. Any time a company makes an investment decision it is allocating resources, and causing more work or risk for various parties within the organization, so objectively there are winners and losers. But with a little imagination, it’s sometimes possible to make the pie a bit larger and give more to all concerned.
Sense of fairness. People are realistic and are team players, so they will get behind agreements that hurt their individual interests—as long as they perceive that the process to reach that agreement was fair. It’s called procedural fairness: did the process allow them to voice their disagreement and be heard, or did they feel like they were railroaded into it? Was there serious attention paid to diverse points of view? Were all reasonable alternatives given a fair hearing?
How do you adapt your presentation preparation, content and style to achieve it?
During the preparation phase:
Spend time truly understanding all points of view; reach out to potential blockers as well as your allies and champions. Strategically, you run the risk of tipping them off and giving them time to organize opposition, but here’s what you get in return:
During the presentation:
Show both sides. Intelligent audiences are more swayed by two-sided arguments that demonstrate that you’ve thought about more than just your own interests. Acknowledge different concerns and interests.
Be prepared to show your thinking. I often warn people away from providing too much context, because it takes a lot of time. But sometimes you have to show the background, context and how you arrived at your ideas, especially when you have a lot of analyticals in the audience. (Or at least be prepared with backup material in case you sense it’s necessary.)
Make it more interactive. People need to feel that they’ve been heard to perceive the process as fair, so encourage questions from the audience. Ask a lot of questions—in fact, if you sense that someone is holding back, you can call on them by name. Of course, this means that you have to pay close attention to audience response. By showing that you’re not afraid of dissenting points of view, you’re setting an example of open-mindedness, and they may return the favor.
If you haven’t already done so in an interactive presentation, build plenty of time into the agenda for discussion so that everyone who wants to comment can feel that they’ve had a fair shake.
Don’t be afraid of getting disagreement. In fact, you should be more afraid if no one disagrees, because it may mean that they’re just biding their time to sabotage you later. If there is going to be opposition, it’s best to get it out in the open.
Be prepared to “negotiate”. Ideally, you would like to be able to integrate opposing viewpoints into a perfect solution for everyone, but this is not always realistic. If you think ahead, you can have some minor modifications or concessions in your proposal in your back pocket that you can trade for agreement.