May 14, 2015

What if You Prepared Better and Practiced More before Big Customer Meetings?

Professionals practice; amateurs wing it. When it comes to sales, which are you?

Look at how many swings pro golfers make on the practice range compared to the number they take in a tournament. Or how about the number of swings or ground balls a major league ballplayer takes before every game? I have no clue what the actual math is, but it’s safe to assume that professionals’ practice reps outpace actual game reps by a factor of 20 to 1, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the  number was 100 to 1 in some cases.

Salesperson, are you convicted yet? How much time do you spend practicing before a big customer meeting? How many practice reps are you taking for every game rep?

If you’re like most sales professionals, the answer is clearly “not enough.”

As much as I hate the word presentationthe reality is that very often we need to make presentations; they’re part of life and part of sales. Last month I was leading a new training session called “Powering-Up Your Presentations” for a long-term client. We spent a good deal of time sharing our perspectives on why and where presentations derail and I had the group share their frustrations and horrific presentation experiences. We had a lot of fun. Participants were very transparent about their own boardroom disasters so we laughed with and at each other plenty! While everyone was smiling and their guards were down, I put up a slide with the image pictured above and asked some pointed questions about how they were preparing and practicing for big customer meetings and presentations. The tone in the room changed as these highly-compensated, professional business development people began to realize how woefully unprepared they often were heading into major meetings. Then one very honest, very bold, senior person said this:

“The truth is that we spend significantly more time preparing for internal QBRs (quarterly business reviews) and meetings with executives at our own company than we do for presentations to customers.”

Ouch. The room fell quiet. Then someone said, “Wow.” Another chimed it with, “It’s true.” Someone else offered, “We’ve lost our minds and our priorities are completely screwed up.” No doubt, the point was made. So I had them break into groups and tackle these questions:

  • Who owns the preparation and practice before a big customer meeting/presentation?
  • If it’s the salesperson, what are his/her responsibilities as the Quarterback at practice?
  • How can you increase both the quantity and the quality of preparation for big meetings?
  • Are there certain minimum standards (hours spent practicing, # of prep meetings, deadlines for materials to be completed – days, not minutes before the presentation, arrival times in the destination city, etc.) that should be set in stone?
  • How can you do a better job prepping your technical experts/SMEs/engineers to maximize their impact and minimize the damage when they do go rogue? (Yes, rogue technical experts could be its own blog post and if I get enough requests, I’ll write it)

Even if your upcoming meeting doesn’t involve lots of people from your company or isn’t a big presentation, isn’t it worthy of a little more mental prep than what you come up with while walking from the parking lot to the customer’s office? Shouldn’t you be outlining your sales calls from beginning to end? Do you have a clear plan for the meeting? Are you armed with provocative probing questions, relevant client success stories, and powerful objection busters? If you are truly prepared, you wouldn’t be winging it at all; you’d walk in ready for whatever the customer might throw at you.

And if you are delivering a presentation, how well should you know it? How many times should you have run through it in real time? One of my best speaking coaches bluntly challenged me that flipping through slides is not the same thing as practicing. He made it clear that I needed to practice in real time, out loud, standing, in an environment similar to the one I’d actually be in for the presentation. That was some of the most helpful coaching I’ve received. And I’ll admit this, too:  For a few big talks I gave earlier this year, the clients required my presentation slides to be turned in a full week prior to the event. While at the time it was frustrating, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. Having to turn in the final presentation prevented me from tinkering with it till the very end and forced me instead to practice it!

Allen Iverson, former NBA guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, was very entertaining in this press conference when asked about his practice habits. His lackadaisical attitude about practice may or may not have hindered his basketball career, but it’s probably not the best attitude if you’re looking to up your sales game.