Bad Things Happen When You Turn Discovery Sales Calls into Presentations

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Readers, be warned. I am angry and frustrated from seeing way too many initial/discovery sales calls/meetings that are supposed to be dialogues turned into presentations. Point to all the insight selling data you want. Quote the (great book) The Challenger Sale all day long. Yes, we need to bring value to sales calls and be prepared to share insights with customers (prospects). I get it. Everyone gets it. But bringing value and sharing insights doesn’t mean that we toss proper sales call structure out the window.

Hear me as I scream: Presenting is not a synonym for selling! In truth, “presenting” should only be a small part of the entire sales process. Most salespeople talk too much and present too soon. And because of that bad things happen.

Isn’t it common sense? Discovery must precede presentation. Don’t we need to learn what’s taking place in the prospect’s world before presenting a solution? How bizarre would it be if your doctor wrote the prescription for your medicine before examining you? As one of my mentors (the owner & CEO of Slim-Fast Foods who’s worth billions today) liked to remind salespeople, “When you’re talking, you’re not learning, and sales calls are about learning how we can help the customer.”

Here’s the crazy part for me. No one argues this point. Pretty much everyone agrees we need to do adequate discovery work prior to delivering presentations, demos or proposals. Yet, few seem willing to do it. Just recently, I observed a sales call with a significant prospect. The salesperson was well prepared for the meeting, ready to set up the meeting by sharing the agenda and getting the customer’s input. Just a few minutes into the scheduled one-hour meeting, the prospect asked the salesperson a simple question that required a one-sentence response. But instead of just answering the question and staying on the planned course, the seller saw this as an opening to jump to “presentation mode.” Out came the slides before he asked one question or learned anything about the prospect’s situation. It was 45 minutes later before he got back to probing/discovery and we had learned nothing about the prospect’s situation. Friends, I’m sorry, but that is sales malpractice and premature presentation syndrome at its worst. But before you shake your head to condemn this salesperson, think about all the different ways you or your team members also present prematurely.

  • How do you respond when a prospective client you were not pursuing, and know nothing about their situation, requests that you come in and do a “capabilities overview” (or “dog and pony show”, or, in the agency world, “make a pitch”)?
  • And if you were to actually track the percentage of time/words you are speaking during discovery sales calls/conversations versus the percent of time/words spoken by the customer, what would the results show?

Bad things happen when we turn initial discovery meetings into monologues and presentations. Not only don’t we learn what we need to, but we communicate to the prospect that we know what’s best for them without having to listen. We come across as arrogant. Pitching creates cynics and critics. It’s impossible to be perceived as a value-creator, trusted advisor or consultant when you present prematurely. You’re also making it really clear that you are there to “pitch at” the prospect, instead of “working with them” to address their issues, solve their problems, etc. Presenting prematurely causes the buyer to raise their defense shields and to see you as nothing more than a pitchman pushing a solution. Is that really how you want to come across to customers? I didn’t think so.

Do yourself a favor: let your discovery sales calls/conversations be just that – discovery sessions dominated by dialogue. Leave the projector or your thumb drive with slides at home. I promise you’ll not only learn a lot more about the prospect, but you’ll be much more effective when you do present — at the proper time.


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