After Two Minutes … Just Shut Up!

If you’re on a sales call and find yourself talking for long stretches, you should stop.

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A friend and sales neophyte we will call David asked if I would introduce him to a potential business prospect who was also a friend of mine. I obliged. He then asked me if I would accompany him on the call, first to make the introduction and second to offer my thoughts on his sales approach.

Gladly, I said. We even traveled together to the meeting. 

The call started just fine. My contact had invited several associates to the meeting, and we waded through the obligatory introductions and small talk before getting down to business. David took the floor, saying he liked to explain his product using analogies, and proceeded to offer several: one about coaching his son’s baseball team, one about a car he and his father restored in high school, and one about his favorite vacation spot. Analogies that I’m sure seemed pertinent to him, but I could tell from their expressions that the others in attendance at the meeting shared my confusion about how any of them related to the subject at hand.

I began to fidget, a little embarrassed for David and also embarrassed that I was responsible for making the introduction. By now, close to 20 minutes had expired, and the people at the table weren’t even sure what the meeting was about.

Attempting a rescue, I suggested to David that he take just a minute or two to explain how his product could help the prospect’s business and perhaps ask them a few questions about how they might see it working in their enterprise.

“Sure thing,” he said as he fired up his computer and an accompanying PowerPoint presentation. For another 10 minutes, he droned on, reading technical bullet points from the screen. Some eyelids began drooping, a couple of attendees snuck glances at their smartphones, and my contact looked quizzically at me and then down at his wristwatch.

Clearly everyone in the room was wondering where the meeting was going. Everyone, that is, except David, who wrapped up his presentation and proceeded with an equally uninspiring product demonstration. 

Finally, he looked up at the group and said, “Well, our time’s about up. What are the next steps?” The response was a slightly kinder version of “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Back in the parking lot, David said, “That went pretty well, don’t you think?” I asked him if he wanted my honest answer, even if it included some constructive criticism. He accepted. I asked him how many questions he had asked of the customer. He thought back and admitted that he couldn’t think of one. I asked him to explain to me how his analogies and stories related to his product. “Wasn’t it obvious?” he asked. I told him that if it were obvious, I wouldn’t be asking.

I asked him how far the meeting had proceeded before he thought the attendees had much of a concept of what his product did or how it could help them. He thought back and correctly responded that perhaps when he got to the demonstration—35 minutes into the meeting—they may have had begun to grasp it. 

I asked if he picked up on the visual cues that he was losing his audience: the phone checking, wristwatch glancing, attendees nodding off. He realized that he had gotten so wrapped up in his own presentation that he hadn’t paid much attention to the attendees’ reactions. At that point, he started to get the message.

“So how would you do it differently?” he asked.

I started by suggesting that he should be able to summarize his product and how it could help a potential customer in a paragraph or two. Certainly, nothing that would consume more than two minutes.

I told him that he should devise a list of five to 10 questions he could ask a potential client. Had they ever experienced the problem his product could solve? If they had experienced the problem, how did it impact their business? Had they taken steps to solve the problem before? What were the results? If the solution they tried wasn’t successful, why hadn’t it been? Would they be open to trying another solution with better odds of being effective?

Not only would asking great questions fully engage the people around the table, I explained, but he would be completely armed with a litany of information to which he could respond throughout the rest of the meeting.

I suggested he devise three specific and brief stories (not vague analogies that nobody but he could follow) about how he had worked with clients in the past, summarizing the problem they had when he started, how his product had addressed the problem and how doing so had improved the clients’ businesses.

Skip the recitation of PowerPoint bullets in favor of a brief product demonstration. 

Finally, I told him to skip the recitation of PowerPoint bullets in favor of a brief product demonstration that included frequent references to the answers the group had provided to his previous questions. This would offer the audience an abundance of opportunity to interject with questions and comments along the way. I suggested that, following his demonstration, he could ask the audience if they could share how his solution might help them. “If they think you can add value,” I said, “they will ask you back. If they don’t, you’ll be able to move on to the next prospect without wasting a lot of time on someone who isn’t going to buy anyway.”

He thought this sounded liked a good plan, but asked me to summarize it.

“Try this,” I said. “If you’re on a sales call and find yourself talking for more than two minutes at any one time, shut up!”