In many conversations with sales professionals, I am often surprised that even the most sophisticated professionals get caught presenting too early. Historically, everything salespeople do, from prospecting to contacting and qualifying potential customers, seems to be aimed at creating the opportunity to present their solutions. Consequently, sales organizations devote a tremendous amount of time and resources creating verbal presentations and written proposals. The irony is that most of this effort is lost on customers. Presenting prematurely is largely a waste of time.

Conventional salespeople hate to hear this because the presentation is usually the key weapon in their sales arsenal. It is their security blanket, their comfort zone, and they don't want to give it up. They seem to be on a mission to relentlessly educate the customer. They believe, "If I can only get them to understand how great my product is, they will buy."

In reality, there are two fundamental reasons why people do not buy; either: 1) they don't believe they have a problem (that includes the problem is not big enough to resolve), or 2) they don't believe the proposed solution will solve their problem. In the majority of cases, it is the first reason. Therefore, a presentation designed to educate the customer on the solution is really not dealing with the real issue.

There are two major challenges with presentations:

  1. Even a presentation that includes advanced multimedia elements is, in its essence, a lecture. The salesperson is the talking teacher and the customer is the listening student. The big problem with teaching by telling is that little information is remembered. People retain only about 30 percent of what they hear. The use of visual aids (e.g., a PowerPoint slide show) boosts retention rates another 10 percent, but the generally accepted rule of thumb among learning experts is that more than half of even the most sophisticated presentation can be lost.
  2. The larger challenge is that a typical sales presentation rarely devotes more than 10 to 20 percent of its focus on the customer and their current situation. Generally, 80 to 90 percent is devoted to describing the seller, its solutions, and the rosy future if you buy. Therefore, while a presentation may raise the customer's level of understanding, that understanding is usually centered on the solution, not the customer. All too often, salespeople are dealing with customers who are not sure of the exact nature of their problems, the risks they are facing, and how their business is impacted by the absence of the solution. As a result, while customers may be greatly impressed with the offering being presented, may even agree to its inherent value, they still lack a compelling understanding of how it connects to their situation.

To help you avoid falling victim to the Presentation Trap, here are four critical steps you can take:

  1. Pre-determine the physical signs (symptoms) your customer would be seeing in their business without your solution.
  2. In collaboration with your customer, confirm that they are experiencing the physical symptom(s).
  3. When you have identified the symptom(s), help the customer quantify the financial impact this is having on their business.
  4. Determine if the impact is serious enough for your customer to take action.

Connecting your solution to the symptoms your customer wants to address will make your solution and therefore your presentation relevant and timely. If you are unable to create this foundation and connect it to your presentation, your chances of a successful sale are greatly reduced.

The advice I share with sales professionals wishing to avoid the Presentation Trap is "Don't present." Instead, use a diagnostic approach -- simply stated, conduct a thorough diagnosis to uncover problems and expand the customer's awareness of their situation. Once the problem is clearly understood and the customer perceives all the ramifications of that problem, then the salesperson is justified in making recommendations, and a presentation will not be necessary.

When you guide your customers through this process, you will be establishing a high level of credibility and find yourself jointly developing optimal solutions, which will ultimately benefit both you and your customers.