It was my very first job. I must have been less than six months into it-selling life insurance. I had just landed my biggest prospect to date – a chief engineer of a multinational firm. After a flawless presentation, we found a vacuum which my product could fill and agreed that I submit a sample of the contract for his perusal before he made the final decision. Boy I was excited! I always kept such a copy in my folder for my own perusal. Immediately, I flashed it out and gave it to him. He promised to revert in a week’s time. And that’s when it all went haywire!
You see, I had noticed and escalated a gaping anomaly in the wording of a paragraph in the policy document (contract) which was unfair to the client. My copy of the contract even had this offending sentence underlined. And I had just submitted the same copy to the prospect! To cut a long story short, I was fried! And the sale was, of course, lost.
Today, while training, I usually give this story to demonstrate that you can never be too prepared for a sale’s presentation. Like most things in life, the basics are what people forget. They consequently wonder why relationships (social and professional) keep on going wrong despite their wealth of experience. Over the years, as a firm, we have sieved preparation into five components-representation, repertoire, research, rehearsal and repetition. We call them the 5Rs.
To begin with, let’s look at representation.
One day my wife was looking for a day back. That’s a house help who would work for the day and leave. She visited a place she knew they congregate in the hope of being picked to earn an honest day’s wage. Among the few who were available, one stood out from a distance. My wife beckoned her, and as she approached, my wife saw emblazoned right across her worn T-shirt the word LOSER. The interview was over before it started. To the prospective day back, the T-shirt was probably just another item of clothing she had bought, possibly because it’s what she could afford without paying attention to the implications of the word LOSER. But therein was the problem. She was selling and so long as she was doing so, how she represented herself (her presentation) would be judged by her customers, and not by herself. First impressions may not be the last impression, but in presentations they tend to be.
Looking presentable need not to be an expensive affair; you look sharper in an ironed second hand shirt than you do in a creased Giorgio Armani suit. And presentation is also reflective of the industry. Where pinstriped suits were what interviewees expected at one time, today a team building expert appearing in a track suit or a creative spotting dreadlocks and jeans will possibly have more representation sway than one, wearing a suit. Likewise, how many artists auditioning for a talent show or agricultural officers selling chemicals to farmers would you take seriously if they arrived in a suit? Representation does not stop with how you look on the outside. It actually starts with how you carry yourself inside. Your significant other may have forced you into that impeccable suit, but it is useless when you wear it with a loser’s outlook.
The second R is repertoire.
Usually, every firm has its own sales repertoire, called sales kit. These are tools of trade necessary to make the presentation and close the sale. Your job as a sales person is to strategically place items in the kit. For instance, you do not have to clutter the prospect’s desk in search of a calculator. On the contrary, you should place it strategically the moment you sit down. For this to happen, the kit must be regularly reviewed-otherwise the salesperson may find himself presenting a flawed policy document and getting fried for it. The novice salesperson starts off with the complete kit, then proceeds to shed off bits in it as he gains “experience”- and then wonders why he has hit a plateau. Perhaps a more common case is the salesperson who never seems to have the most basic of items-a pen. And then there’s the salesperson who progressively converts the kit into a personal storage and one day he opens it exposing to the prospect his chewing gum, cigarettes and coins among other unnecessary items.
The third R is research.
Google has quite literally brought information to our fingertips. Yet, I still find sales people gushing all the things the prospect’s website says they do not condone. And the only reason that such salespeople do this is simply because it worked in a previous sales call and so should work now-a prospect is prospect after all. Research allows you to ask the upwardly mobile senior level manager how the price penetration strategy is working; the doting supervisor how her son who recently topped the region in Math is fairing; and so on. In many ways, a sales call is equivalent to a social date; what worked for Jean will not necessarily work for Joan and Joan will be more endeared to you when you say things that she can resonate with and certainly not what she knows, worked for your ex, Jean! The importance of research cannot be gainsaid. When a salesperson points out something you hold dear, say recognition of your recent promotion, you are more likely to strike a rapport with him faster than if he’d neglected that bit. However, there’s a thin line between interest and stalking. For example, even if the salesperson knows, through research, that the board is unhappy with the CEO, or that the prospect beats his wife this is not information he goes sharing with him. All information is a piece of ammunition, yes, but to be used wisely, not carelessly. It follows therefore that depending on what the salesperson is selling, the board being unhappy with the CEO and the man beating his wife may be information that could certainly be shared if the salesperson in question is a recruitment agency or the wife’s lawyer, respectively.
Rehearse is the fourth R.
Whether you are on your fifth day in sales, or your fifth year, you need to practice. Practice makes perfect is not a cliché, it’s a fact. A negative attitude, laziness to set appointments, spending less face-to-face and more monitor-to-face time is practicing bad habits. Bad habits are so much easier to develop. Good habits require discipline. Practice the presentation to your mirror, colleague or supervisor. If you must use PowerPoint, keenly go through it every time before you see a new prospect to ensure remnants of the past prospect are absent. Embarrassing is not enough to describe making a presentation to a bestselling magazine, with images and taglines of a competitor magazine showing in your proposal or PowerPoint. Perhaps this is the most difficult of the 5Rs. And the reason is because of that misguiding word called experience. Unfortunately, for many salespeople, experience isn’t always commensurate to their duration in the profession. No; it’s worse. Instead, of having a continuous growth experience for over a period, say, ten years, most of them will have one year’s experience ten times. The learning curve plateaus after a time and the only dynamic remaining is time. And so they start winging their presentations. In the initial stages they succeed. Sadly this success emboldens them to believe that ‘they still got it’. I say sadly, because, this initial success is possible merely because of the momentum of past presentations. Just like releasing the accelerator of a speeding car doesn’t stop it immediately but over time, likewise, the success will gradually slow down to a stop-and, you make a blatantly embarrassing error. You therefore get fried. When the salesperson says he doesn’t need to rehearse the presentation because, (I’m used to this) he’s no better than the driver who insists he’s used to driving without a seatbelt. One wonders what exactly he is used to: perhaps being plunged right through the windscreen when an accident happens!
The fifth R is of course a repetition of the first four and it is meant to reiterate the importance of preparation.
There are those who say that if you do something for 10,000 hours, you become an expert in it. Then there are those who claim that to drop an undesired habit, you must take up a competing one for 21days continuously for it to stick. I say, the things that make your preparation effective as a salesperson are a continuous appreciation of your outer and inner representation; an unabated review of the contents of your sales kit to ensure they are up to date; a never-ending appetite for research into the world of your prospects; an unquenchable thirst for rehearsing your presentations and a ravenous capacity to repeat the cycle. The 5 Rs apply to all and sundry because we are always selling- ideas to our spouses; asking for increments from our bosses or even asking for a date. As a professional salesperson though, be steadfast in the scout’s motto: be prepared-always!