The legendary comic actor W.C. Fields famously said, “Never work with children or animals.” But not because he didn’t like them; because they are unpredictable.
Fields, who started his career in vaudeville as a juggler in front of live audiences, knew that unpredictability is not a welcome ingredient for a successful performance.
The same is true in sales. When making a presentation to a client, or going into orals or “yellow pad” sessions for an RFP, unpredictability or spontaneity are potentially disastrous. The path to a successful sale is built on rigorous preparation: mastery of the substance, understanding the process and lots of rehearsals with your team to find out strengths and weaknesses.
During a presentation for a software product some years ago, the company I worked for at the time put a highly-experienced technical lead at the front of the room to execute the demo. One of the client’s executives watched with interest, and then interrupted the presentation to ask: “Well, couldn’t you also do it by bringing the data through those other fields instead?”
Our technical lead paused, clearly displeased by the interruption, and said, “Well, yes. We could do it your way. Or we could do it the right way.”
In W.C. Fields’ world, that was the equivalent of the trained dog relieving itself on the people in the front row.
We did not recover from that gaff but I learned an important lesson early in my career that is part of my preparation for any major presentation: rehearse under stress. Before meeting with the client, put the presenters up in front of the room and subject them to a barrage of difficult questions. Get emotional. Yell. See how they react. Clients can always be unpredictable in their behavior, but I can’t have surprises from my sales team!
So I want to see how my team will deal with the worst I can throw at them. Will they wither? Falter? Or will they maintain composure under fire. We can’t always predict what clients are going to say. But as a sales strategist, I make it my goal to know how my sales team is going to respond.