If You Need Smarter Prospects, You Need a Better Message

I have learned the hard way whenever I wish for smarter prospects it means I need to improve my presentation, demo, or proposal: whatever it is that I have offered them that they didn’t understand, or believe, or decide to act on.

If You Need Smarter Prospects, You Need a Better Message

“Why is the human skull as dense as it is? Nowadays we can send a message around the world in one-seventh of a second, but it takes years to drive an idea through a quarter-inch of human skull.”
Charles Kettering

When my daughter was little she loved balloons for her parties–birthday, tea party, end of school, we had a multi-party system in my household–and I frequently found myself blowing up the skinny balloons that come the size of your walnut and inflate to the size of a basketball, but getting them to orange or grapefruit size, stretching the rubber to let more air in would frequently leave my lips tired after blowing up a few.

I sometimes have this sensation when I am trying to explain a new concept to a prospect. They just don’t get it, they refuse to even let the possibility of a better way of doing something into their minds as a temporary guest. It leaves me with the same weary feeling before the start of one of my daughter’s parties.

First Seek to Understand Before Trying to Persuade

Here’s the thing though. Whenever I find myself wishing for smarter prospects it really means that my presentation sucks. I am failing to appreciate their perspective and their operating reality. The first thing I need to make sure of is that I understand their needs. Can I state their problem and any constraints on a solution so that they recognize and acknowledge it? If they are looking to hire my product for a particular job-to-be-done can I outline the job description and requirements to their satisfaction?

Is Your Message Understood?

“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
Mark Twain

Next I need to make sure that I have explained what the product can do in terms that are relevant and comprehensible. Every industry has terms of art and specialized language that I need to learn. Sometimes there are multiple ways of saying the same thing with slightly different  nuances. I need to pay attention to how the prospect talks about their problem and needs and adopt their language.

A few years ago I was involved with a sale call for an EDA tool that was useful for timing analysis and we started to discuss clock edges and how they were represented and managed. Things had gone pretty well up until that point but the next ten minutes involved one of our team referring to “positive edge clocks” and the lead technical person describing the problem  in terms of the “rising edge” of the clock.  The two terms are synonymous but neither person wanted to use the other person’s language. The meeting ended shortly after that and we were not able to get invited back.

It reminded me of another long drive back from an unsatisfactory sales call with a different startup where CTO said “I don’t understand. We won the argument. Why didn’t we win the sale?” He was very disappointed at their stupidity and stubbornness.

Is Your Message Believable?

The next thing I need to be able to do if I have demonstrated an understanding of their needs and I feel that they understand what our product can offer is to provide proof that we can actually deliver what we say we can. This can take many different forms but typically involves a basic demonstration of capabilities, a technical proof demo where I use their data or examples, case studies and testimonials from other customers, on site visits to other customers, an on-site evaluation in their hands, and other direct tests or third party substantiation as may be requested.

Have You Offered Them Something They Need To Act On?

Even at this point nothing may happen. More often than not nothing happens: if I can win 1/3 of the proposals you make as a startup that’s good. They may decide to go forward with someone else or they may decide to live with the problem. If they decide to live with the problem it may be because–even though they believe the product can do what I way it can do–it did not offer enough of an improvement that made it worth the time, trouble and expense.  Or it could be when they looked at the problems they needed to solve in the next three months or six months or year that they had more serious problems. I was solving a real problem, it just was not a critical business issue.

One clarification: when I said if I can win 1/3 of the proposals  I am doing good that assumes that I actually lose the other 2/3’s. If half the time the prospect lives with the status quo, makes “no decision,” then while I did understand their problem I didn’t confirm up front that it was a critical problem that they needed to solve in the near term.

If You Are Asking Them to Act Have a Project Plan Ready

It’s been more than a decade now but I can remember going on a number of sales calls for a very complex and niche product and having prospect after prospect in effect say either “I don’t have that problem” or “I cannot understand how this would help.” So we focused all of our efforts on diagnosis and explaining the benefits. A few more sales calls by and suddenly all of our improvement efforts paid off or we simply got lucky because everything went smoothly and we got to the last slide that said “Questions” and they said, “Just one, how do we get started?”

We sat there quietly for what seemed like the better part of a minute but was perhaps only ten or fifteen seconds. Then someone on our team said, “Wow, no one has ever said that before” and they asked it to give it some thought and get back to them. But we could never seem to get another meeting. So I learned that it was possible to fumble right on the goal line and that no matter how remote the possibility seemed I needed to have a plan for getting started ready.

One clarification: the answer “cut us a check” or “give us the order” is not a sufficient project plan. It may be what you need to happen to meet payroll but they need  a plan that shows them how to improve their business before they will give you the order.

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