Sales: Powerful presentation should precede written sales proposal

Let’s say you sell rain gutters to homeowners. The prospect calls, you go scope out the job, ask some questions about color preferences and style, shake hands, smile and say, “Thanks, I’ll mail you a proposal.”

Or suppose you sell sophisticated technology or management consulting. You spend several visits analyzing the prospect’s needs, then hunker down with your staff to hammer out a proposal, which you then deliver, then follow up as you try to snag the deal.

Both sales cycles probably sound familiar. And they’re both examples of missed opportunities.

If you were the gutter salesperson, you should have asked the homeowner for 10 minutes at the kitchen table, then conducted a brief, informal presentation, perhaps with a few props to sell your ability to do the job better than anyone else. 

And if you were selling sophisticated services to a corporate prospect, you should have arranged for a business presentation to the prospect’s senior management in order to demonstrate your keen understanding of their business challenges and, in turn, selling your ability to do the job better than anyone else and ensuring management’s support for the project’s success.

In both cases, the proposal isn’t what snags the sale. It’s merely a confirmation. The clincher, instead, is the presentation.

Proposals are confirmation tools

Few sales activities are treated with more reverence than writing a sales proposal. Yet the idea of “effective proposal” is an oxymoron. No prospect puts the sweat into reading your proposal that you put into writing it, and of all your activities in the sales process, the proposal is among the least likely to have an impact.

The reason is simple: A proposal has no emotional content. It doesn’t call the prospect to action. Yet an emotional call to action lies at the heart of effective selling.

The real purpose of the proposal should be simply to confirm the message you’ve already conveyed to your prospect in a presentation.

The power of the presentation

A few years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter noted an upcoming earnings report this way:

“IBM will report its earnings today, but its stock and possibly the broader market, could be more influenced by a presentation by IBM’s CFO than by the numbers themselves. What seems to matter most to analysts and investors isn’t the official IBM earnings figures but rather the words and body-language of Mr.…”

As the saying goes: the messenger is the message!

Good presentations are the one thing you can do to instantly enhance your effectiveness as a salesperson. Yet few salespeople make presentations a standard part of their sales repertoire. Instead, they shy away from conducting them. Or they mistakenly think they’re already doing presentations, when they “present” their proposal to a customer or prospect.

A true business-to-business sales presentation has one purpose: To frame the rationale for a business relationship between the selling company and the prospective buying one. I call it the “business fit.” If it’s a new relationship, the goal is to establish the basis for one. If a relationship already exists, the goal is to set the direction, often a new direction, for that relationship.

Be a media minimalist

If we were playing the word-association game and I said the word, “presentation” most people would probably respond with “PowerPoint.” PowerPoint is fine. But I encourage salespeople to think of other media first. If the group is small enough use a flipchart.  Frankly, the most effective presentations I’ve ever seen have been white-board “chalk talks” that have the appearance of impromptu.

However, if PowerPoint is your medium of choice, apply the law of halves: most presentations would be twice as effective if they used half the number of slides, half the number of bullets, and half the number of words per bullet.

Don’t dispense with proposals entirely. They’re still necessary to confirm the sale. But put a lot less stock in them, and commit yourself instead to mastering the presentation. When you do so, you’ll find that far more of your proposals will come back to you with that one little word you want to hear: Yes.


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