“Selling is not just what the Sales department does. We are all selling, all the time. This includes selling stories, ideas, products, and, let’s not forget, ourselves.” – David Pearl
In The Reasons Why People Meet, I introduced seven different types of meeting. In this post, we examine selling meetings.
The main purpose of a selling meeting is to convince an audience of something: an idea or approach, the merits of a product or solution, etc.
David Pearl explains selling meetings in detail from pages 207 to 214 of Will There Be Donuts?; this post borrows/adapts heavily from those pages, but is certainly not meant to be a replacement – and all credit to Pearl for his keen insights and useful advice.
The brief intro above touches on the variety of ‘things’ that are ‘sold’ during meetings – the act of selling goes well beyond a sales transaction for a product or service. Failing to recognize this important nuance means you won’t be setting up your selling meetings for success.
The table below outlines “the why” and “the who” of selling meetings.
Pearl tells us that, “Often clients aren’t aware that they are holding a ‘selling’ meeting. They think they are presenting or communicating or training and overlook the active ‘selling’ that is required to get their ideas ‘bought’ by their audience. The result is underpowered, rather dull meetings. Like a movie with the sound turned down. And the brightness.”
“Often clients aren’t aware that they are holding a ‘selling’ meeting. They think they are presenting or communicating or training and overlook the active ‘selling’ that is required to get their ideas ‘bought’ by their audience.”
Now let’s turn our attention to ‘the who’. More than any other meeting type, in a selling meeting it’s not what you say that’s important – it’s what the audience hears (wow, echoes of Words that Work).
I’ve been in a lot of selling meetings – on both sides – and it’s rare that the seller really gets it right. Getting it right takes preparation and real-time focus (on the audience’s subtle and not-so-subtle reactions) and adjustment (to precisely target your pitch in response to the audience’s reactions). To get us on the right track, Pearl advises us to find out a few basics about the audience:
- When did they last buy something like this?
- Who else is selling comparable things to them and/or competing for their attention?
- What’s their budget?
- What turns them on/off (tastes, preferences, hot buttons)?
- Are they in the market for what you are selling?
- What is their unexpressed need?
Let’s focus on that last one for just a moment, “What is their unexpressed need?” To discover the answer, we need to take a page from the toddler’s playbook: ask, “Why?” Many clients and customers will state their need or desired outcome very plainly, “I want to find an X.” But it’s only by asking, “Why?”, that we can truly understand their motivation or the ‘parent’ cause for their inquiry or attention. At the very least, the answer will better inform our pitch; at the most, it’ll unlock enormous new opportunities.
Many clients and customers will state their need or desired outcome very plainly, “I want to find an X.” But it’s only by asking, “Why?”, that we can truly understand their motivation or the ‘parent’ cause for their inquiry or attention. At the very least, the answer will better inform our pitch; at the most, it’ll unlock enormous new opportunities.
The How of Selling Meetings
I enjoyed this little bit of advice: “If you are planning to use technical aids, do yourself a favor and rehearse without any, ‘unplugged’ as it were, to check that what you are selling is compelling even with the bells and whistles. If your case is limp without those fancy color slides, it will still be limp with them.”
I have this fantasy* where I’m called into a pre-sales or sales meeting, and the account team expects me to launch into a wonderfully constructed slide deck from the front of the boardroom, just ‘presenting’ my ass off to the audience…but instead, I keep the projector/TV off, and we all have a conversation. During this fantasy conversation, I start with something like, “I’ve been invited in here today because I understand you’re looking for something that ___. Is that correct?”. Upon hearing a confirmation, we talk a little bit more, and then once I truly understand the audience’s needs and the specific context, then I verbally introduce our product or solution, and outline the main benefits, features, supporting points, etc. Maybe we eventually pull up some slides, if absolutely needed, but – honestly – I’d prefer to whiteboard the explanation.
*Yes, my fantasies are this mundane; I also regularly dream about doing chores.
Instead, far too many sales presentations turn into lectures. Hella boring lectures. The presenter doesn’t know the real problems and real solutions, or even the real audience, and no amount of slideware – no matter how beautifully and effectively constructed – can save the day.
And I say all of these comments from informed experience: As a product marketing guy, I get pulled into pre-sales and sales meetings for all manner of things for all manner of customers all over the world. Consequently, I get to work with many different account teams, and over the years I’ve seen remarkable variation in selling style and capability – from the head-smackingly incompetent (typically a blah blah blah presentation) to the truly effective (more conversational, audience-centric, precisely targeted in real-time, action-oriented).
The What of Selling Meetings
Here’s another bit of Pearl’s advice that rings true for me: “Ask yourself this, before you next go into a meeting for selling: what’s the simplest way you can have your message heard, understood, and remembered?”
“Ask yourself this, before you next go into a meeting for selling: what’s the simplest way you can have your message heard, understood, and remembered?”
Some of the most effective selling meetings in which I’ve participated started with a frantic and apologetic prospect or customer saying something like, “I’m really sorry – something critical has come up. I know we planned for a 90 minute session in the boardroom, but all I can give you is ten minutes in the cafeteria.”
In that instant, your presenter mind is forced to focus: you no longer have the time to tell your full, amazing story; you no longer have the projector for your myriad slides and compelling demonstration. Instead, you’ve got ten minutes to sit and chat. In this situation, you’re forced to distill your message into its shortest version, touching only on critical factors, and with little time for audience feedback.
The circumstance provides clarity, and forces you to construct a priority-driven hierarchy – you can’t say everything you want to say, but it’s critical that you at least say the most important things. The end result is often a higher-impact meeting that leaves the audience wanting more, rather than an exhaustive session that makes them feel like there’s nothing else to know.
I run through a similar mental exercise when I’m producing or reviewing content: throughout the process, I regularly ask myself, “If I only had five minutes to give this presentation, then what would I say?”
Are they buying what you are selling?
I always suspect such anecdotes are a bit apocryphal, or sometimes largely misunderstood, or sometimes both (*cough* faster horse *cough*), but I enjoyed this one that Pearl provided, and it illustrates the point nicely:
A much-quoted story was told to me by the one-time chairman of J. Walter Thompson, Jeremy Bullmore. He’d been called in by Black & Decker to help them figure out why they were losing market share to another manufacturer of domestic power tools. They were particularly concerned about their drills. Despite the very best innovations, they simply weren’t selling as well as they should. Jeremy Bullmore spent three weeks talking to the engineers, sales folk, and, most importantly, customers. At the end of his allotted time he met the Board, who were keen to know what was wrong with their drills. “Nothing is wrong with your drills,” he reassured them. “But your customers aren’t buying drills. They are buying holes.”
Black & Decker were fascinated by their machinery, understandably. Their customers, it turns out, were not. The majority of drills were being bought by housewives who were interested in what the machinery could do. If they could have put shelves up or hung that wedding photo another way, they probably would have. The drill was only the means to that end, and no amount of macho claims about multi-speed torque power was going to sway them either way. The clients were crestfallen, but got the message and adapted their marketing accordingly to emphasize ease of use, lightness, and mess-free operation. They had been selling drills. Now they were listening to customers who were buying holes.
Pearl’s advice? “The message for anyone who ever sets up a selling meeting is to put yourself in the customers’ shoes and figure out what they are buying. Let that be your content.”
“The message for anyone who ever sets up a selling meeting is to put yourself in the customers’ shoes and figure out what they are buying. Let that be your content.”