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Smart Presentations: The Steamroller Selling Blues

In search of new office space a while back, I found myself sitting in the conference room of a prospective location. I knew exactly what I needed and how much I was willing to pay.

Across from me was the property manager, who was trying to sell me on their building. He did a typical "features" dump and never once asked me what I needed. Or what my business is about. Or even whether I thought it was going to rain or not. Just a typical sales guy.

Even worse, he didn't have all the answers…particularly those pertaining to costs. Normally I would've walked at this point, but the location was great. So I waited while he got the "founder" to come talk with me. If that was meant to impress me, it didn't. I just needed some answers—and perhaps, some flexibility—from them.

So the founder walked in and started a very polished spiel. I stopped him. "Bob," I said, "I work with salespeople and sales pitches all day. Let's just talk about some details."

"I'm not trying to sell you," he replied. "I just want you to see the wisdom of moving in here. Why, in two months you'll be thanking me for…"

Twenty minutes later, my threshold for professional curiosity and masochism had reached its peak. I got up and left with the barest of goodbyes.

Sound familiar? We're all assaulted with misguided or unwanted pitches. Even "do not call" listings don't keep the telemarketers at bay. And there are lots of strategies for dealing with intrusions or long-winded pitches.

But how do we make sure we don't inflict the steamroller selling blues on our clients and prospects? Here are some ideas:

Focus. Too often, salespeople are so wrapped up in what they have to sell that they fail to address what their prospects need or want. Sounds obvious enough, but every pitch beginning with company or product/service descriptions is going down the wrong path. Even if you plan to address their needs later, your prospect may be gone (literally or figuratively) by the time you get around to focusing on them.

Where focus really gets steamrolled is when a salesperson stays glued to his or her script, despite repeated interruptions, requests, or objections from the client or prospect. It sounds like lunacy to ignore or brush off a prospect's queries, and yet, it happens a lot.

The fix: Don't rely on arguments of logic, or force of will, to influence someone. Be sure you know what their needs and goals are, and then show them how can meet those needs. And don't repeat your case more than once. When it gets to the point where your prospect can recite your spiel with you, they've definitely been steamrolled.

Relevance. Another obvious point, but one too often missed by a lot of salespeople: Make sure everything you discuss is relevant to the prospect's needs or goals. Don't assume you know what they need, or that the benefits are obvious to them; your assumptions may be wrong. If you shower them with features and details, with no understanding of which (if any) are meaningful for them—if you just give them a canned pitch—then you're steamrolling them.

The fix: Be clear from the start about what their needs or goals are, then relate each detail back to those needs or goals. So instead of saying, "Our operators are available 24/7," you're better off saying, "Your customers will be able to reach you at any time, from anywhere. This service perfectly meets your need for round-the-clock coverage."

Brevity. Boy, it's hard for some people to stop talking—as if once they stop, the prospect will say "No thanks." In the face of this type of steamrolling approach, however, the prospect has often already said no in their head; they just nod, in bobble-head fashion, waiting for the steamroller to run out of gas. They might still buy, but if they do, it'll be in spite of the pitch rather than because of it.

The fix: Key in on the three things they need most, and give them succinct answers for how you can help them achieve their goals for those three needs. Your product or service may be able to help them with far more than those three things, but don't give them an encyclopedia. If you can solve their three most pressing needs, that will be enough.

Keep the focus on them, make everything relevant, and be brief—those are the keys to success. Anything else could be keys to the steamroller.

John Windsor is president of Creating Thunder, a Boulder, CO-based communications training and consulting company. He has held executive positions in marketing, sales, and business development and has worked with companies like American Express, Reuters, Staples, and Knight-Ridder.