Be ruthless about preparation

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(MoneyWatch) Panic. Fear. Frustration. Inevitably, someone on your sales team is going to stand up just before you approach a potential customer and say, "I think we've got this all wrong. We have to change this whole thing or we might as well not bother pitching it."

You can almost count on fearful emotions bubbling up. And these panicked salespeople win a lot more often than you would think. The fatigue of working through the process just starts to wear people out. The frustration of not being able to get it perfect will cause people to give up on their current path and start over.

Sometimes, breakthroughs happen when frustration gives way to a release of creative energy. But don't count on it. My word of warning: If you cannot take the changes being offered and integrate them into the current pitch, don't switch your overall approach.

If so, then what do I do to avoid such eleventh-hour anxiety attacks?

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Be ruthless in your preparation. Insist on giving all of the data to all members of your team as early as possible in the process. That includes a dossier on the target company, a profile of all participants in the buying process, and a copy of all communications regarding this deal.

Pick your team early. The team will shape the story, the key pitch points, the elements of "pitch theater," the chemistry, the manufacturing process -- all of it. Don't do the majority of the work and then bring them in -- you just end up with more fights and more efforts to hijack the process.

Set three meetings, minimum. That includes meetings to discuss deal strategy and prepare the pitch, along with a dress rehearsal or final review. You need these to be long enough to allow for vigorous discussion, a healthy fight, and brainstorming.

And no mind-reading allowed. That leads to people seizing on the tiniest scrap of information about people on the prospect's team and making enormous inferences based on about what they want to believe, rather than the way things really are. Because of the desire to sell people at an emotional level, the more emotion connected to these scraps, the more they become the focus of the discussion of what we should pitch. This can lead to some very dangerous conclusions. Start with the facts you know; then evaluate the opinions you have heard, and finally take a moment to consider the gossip. Just make sure you don't do it the other way around.

Assign roles. People need to know up front what they will be responsible for:

- Who is handling communication with the client before and after the presentation or submitted solution?
- Who is responsible for creating the documents and pitch decks?
- Who will be the conductor during the pitch?

If you assign these duties early, people will do a better job of handling the job and of planning time to do a good job.

Don't get me wrong, this won't completely fix things. I'm on a plane as I write this, leaving one meeting where I saw another pitch hijacked, and I am on my way to another meeting where I know I have a mind-reader. That's OK, and it's to be expected; the energy is potentially really healthy. My management tips are about containing and focusing that energy on what will help you to win.

Taking your team through different kinds of maneuvers ahead of the real sales meeting will guarantee that everyone will know what to do. And this is priceless.

Sometimes sales teams feel awkward about practicing in this manner. Don't worry about it. They'll begin to relax -- and even enjoy -- this prep work after a while. Once they find out how effective such techniques are, they'll insist on doing them every time.

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