When you shop for a new car, you are probably not an automotive expert who knows all about the fundamentals of a vehicle’s quality: all the hidden things such as the engine, transmission, steering and brakes. How well will the vehicle perform, how reliable will it be, etc. But you can see the car’s finish, and you can slam a door to listen for that satisfying sound that tells you it’s solid and precisely machined. On the other hand, if you notice a blemish in the paint, it’s likely that no number of impeccable reviews would overcome your impression of poor quality. Although you might not admit it, those little quality signals can have a huge influence on your final decision.
Let’s carry over the idea to B2B sales presentations. Suppose you’re a high-level decision maker for a very expensive and technically complex investment facing your company. You have people who have done the detailed work of gathering information and winnowing out potential vendors, but now it’s your responsibility to make the final choice, and you are about to listen to each salesperson or selling team make their pitch. What will you use to decide?
In my book Strategic Sales Presentations, I shared the story of the PR firm that presented to the senior leadership of a large West Coast technology company. The presenting team did such a marvelous job during the presentation that they last person was barely out the door when the CEO turned to my friend and said, “Hire them.”
That CEO had made a decision based on the substitution principle. Daniel Kahneman tells us in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that our minds like to take shortcuts, so when we are faced with a highly complicated and difficult decision, we often substitute an easier question for the harder one:
“Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.”
Any time you make a buying decision, you are essentially making a probability judgment: that the decision you make has the highest likelihood of making you better off while avoiding additional problems. Probability judgments are always hard, and even more so when they are based on multiple factors that are outside your area of expertise—and the larger and more important the deal, the greater the chance that the key deciders will be generalists. So, it behooves you to get the quality signals just right.
This is in no way a repudiation of my cherished principle that content is king. You absolutely must have a strong and relevant solution to succeed in the long run—a professional and smooth presentation won’t sell a bad solution. But unfortunately good solutions can easily be derailed by bad presentations. Your company may have billions of dollars of assets, thousands of highly competent employees, and state of the art technology, but the decision makers who count can’t see all those things. All they can see is you. You are a signal of quality.
What signals do potential customers look for, albeit unconsciously?