Sales Calls without PowerPoint: Why High-Tech Sales Gurus Go Low-Tech

The new low-tech trend in high-tech sales? Salespeople at Software AG, Borland and Symantec are ditching PowerPoint and engaging with customers using a whiteboard and markers. Here's a look at Software AG's strategy.

By Thomas Wailgum
Tue, June 09, 2009

CIO — High-tech sales pitches have historically fallen into one of two categories: not so bad or awful.

Typically, representatives from the prospective customer—clustered together on one side of a conference table—have had to endure a PowerPoint presentation delivered by a vendor salesperson who more than likely didn't write the slides; has not been a programmer or database admin in a previous life and doesn't understand the complexities of the software and how it applies to the customer's situation; and is so pressed to get through all 45 slides in 15 minutes that he has little time to actually converse with the users and IT staffers on the other side of the table.

"It becomes a 'show up and throw up' discussion," says David Jenkins, CEO of WhiteBoardSelling, whose methodology and tools aim to remedy those types of situations. "And salespeople aren't able to convey a confident, consistent and interactive message to customers."

[[ For more on presentations, see "5 Ways to Ruin Your Next Presentation" and "8 PowerPoint Train Wrecks." ]]

At the core of the problem, of course, is the salesperson's reliance on PowerPoint and the customer's expectation of a boring slide deck as what should constitute a sales call.

But what if there were no slides anymore? What if the meeting was more about a presentation that offered more interactivity?

That's essentially the business model behind WhiteBoardSelling, a two-year-old company cofounded by Jenkins that counts Software AG, Borland, Avnet Technology Solutions, CA, Blue Coat and Symantec as customers. WhiteboardSelling's training tools and methodologies essentially force sales reps to understand and communicate the material better, Jenkins says, because without slides to rely on, the sales pros must rehearse presentations and thereby internalize the material.

How those sales reps deliver the product pitch is, for the most part, up to them: on a whiteboard or flip chart, via a tablet PC and webinar, or even on the back of a piece of paper, says Jenkins. On delivering a presentation via a whiteboard and marker, Jenkins says, "I challenge your hand to draw something your brain doesn't understand."

The Perils of Pre-Canned PowerPoint Presentations

Software AG just recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Founded by three employees in Darmstadt, Germany, its worldwide sales force alone boasts nearly 400 people today, says Joe Gentry, CTO of Software AG in North America.

Just over two years ago, Gentry and his North American sales force (roughly 150 people today) began incorporating WhiteBoardSelling's processes into how its force operated. "What we found happening with our people is that we were leveraging a visual presentation or something pre-canned—whether in PowerPoint or something even pre-drawn—that we'd flash up on a screen," Gentry says. "The challenge is that it made the audience go into just a listen-only mode. And if the salesperson is doing all the talking, that's typically not a good meeting."

The WhiteBoardSelling process that Software AG uses goes something like this: With the input of WhiteBoard, Software AG will create a "script" for its salespeople, which includes the message that executives want the sales team to deliver to customers for each product. Then, the company will bring together the sales team for an intensive full-day training session on the new presentation, as it recently did in February 2009. The salespeople then break into small teams, rehearse their presentations (eight to 10 times each) and leave with their "study guides" in hand.

Gentry says that at first many salespeople are nervous, but soon "they gain confidence and can get off the PowerPoint crutch." Though the salespeople have a script to follow, Gentry emphasizes that Software AG isn't trying to create robots; they're trying to provide structure for the sales force—points to follow up on, areas to take the conversation in another direction and ways to communicate the vendor's value proposition.

This approach helps engage the customers as well. "We typically have diagrams and architectural views, but if it doesn't align with the customer's view of world, sometimes in the past we'd be trying to match up square pegs and round holes," Gentry says. "Now [the customer will] say: 'But our architecture doesn't look like this; it's more like this.' And they start drawing on the board.

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