For Better Presentations, Build a Better Foundation

By Heather Baldwin

How would you rate your presentation skills – as good, needing improvement or poor? While considering your answer, think about this: according to a recent study, 74% of sales reps are either poor or need improvement in presentations. Even more stunning than the fact that three-quarters of reps need work in this critical area is that most are unaware of it. They come out of a presentation feeling that the call went well while the prospect is vigorously crossing that rep off his list of potential vendors. What’s going on here?

In short, salespeople aren’t doing a good job of identifying the prospect’s business problem in the initial call. Thus when they come back to give a presentation, the presentation winds up being more of a generic product pitch than a solution tailored to a client’s specific challenges, says Miklos Klempa, executive vice president of Proudfoot Consulting and part of the research team that compiled Proudfoot’s “2005 Productivity Report,” an international study of company-level productivity.

Here’s an example: Klempa observed a salesperson who sells call center solutions giving a big presentation to a potential customer in the banking industry. The rep went into great detail about how his organization could build a big call center with 300 to 400 seats with all the latest technology. He was feeling pretty good about the whole thing – until the end of the presentation when a member of the audience pointed out that they already had a 70-seat call center, which was all they needed, and that their biggest gap was in training their call center reps. By then, however, the allotted presentation time was over. And not only had the rep failed to provide a solution for the prospect’s problem, but he had established himself, in the eyes of the prospect, as too big for their needs. All because he failed to understand the business problem before planning the presentation.

Here’s another example that shows how this problem starts: A sales rep for a big construction company in North Carolina made a call on a prospect to assess the company’s needs before his presentation. Klempa says the rep started out well and got the prospect talking about construction issues and where he was taking his business. Then the prospect mentioned engineering and the rep jumped in to talk about his firm’s great engineering capabilities and all the companies for whom they’d done engineering work. He talked for 30 minutes, says Klempa, and then the client said, “That’s great, but engineering isn’t our problem.” And the call was over.

“In most cases, we see sales reps doing 99 percent of the talking and the client doing about 1 percent,” says Klempa. “We coach that in the initial meeting, reps should spend about five or ten minutes positioning their company, then allow forty to fifty minutes for the client to talk about his business, where the company is headed, what his challenges are.” The reps who follow this rule, he adds, are the ones who are able to present to the client’s needs.

The bottom line: if you want to become a better presenter, you need to first become a better listener. You need to repress your urge to talk in that initial customer meeting and instead become comfortable with asking questions, probing for information and listening to what the client is saying without jumping in to offer solutions. Once you have mastered these critical skills, preparing and delivering the presentation will be a snap because you’ll be confident that you understand the client’s problem.

Proudfoot’s “2005 Productivity Report” is based on nearly 11,000 hours of observation and analysis of 2,614 detailed studies from 100 client projects in medium to large firms in 12 countries. For a copy of the study, visit