Why High-Tech Sales Gurus Go Low-Tech

By Thomas Wailgum , CIO.com |  IT Management, sales

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 WhiteBoard Selling, 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."

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 WhiteBoard Selling, a two-year-old company cofounded by Jenkins that counts Software AG, Borland, Avnet Technology Solutions, CA, Blue Coat and Symantec as customers. Whiteboard Selling'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 WhiteBoard Selling'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."

[ See: 8 PowerPoint Train Wrecks ]

The WhiteBoard Selling 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.

"Instead of having a canned, standard technical diagram," he adds, "the salesperson really gets a view of the customer's world."

A New Way to Sell Software

Today, Software AG has six WhiteBoard-developed and -inspired presentations for its sales force. Gentry says that while his salespeople have accepted and embraced the selling method, customers are often shocked when the salesperson doesn't bring a laptop and projector.

"They're thinking: Here comes vendor, plug in the projector and run the PowerPoint show for us," Gentry says. "And then you say: 'There won't be any PowerPoint today, and I don't even have my computer with me, and I just brought these four markers with me. So if you could point me to a whiteboard or flip chart, I'd appreciate that.'"

Beyond any pleasant customer "shock value," Software AG salespeople who have rehearsed their presentations demonstrate a new level of confidence, Gentry adds. "With WhiteBoard Selling, you're helping them gain their confidence, learn the message and feel good about their delivery of it," he says. Salespeople can also go off script with ease or shrink their message for a harried executive who can meet only for 10 minutes.

PowerPoint still has its purpose and place at Software AG-in meetings with 500 people, for instance, the WhiteBoard method isn't as effective, Gentry says. "There's a time and place for PowerPoint, but unfortunately it's become a crutch for most people," he adds. "This way, it forces them to really learn the story."

As to a return on the time and money invested, Gentry can't definitively say the WhiteBoard Selling methodology has "lead to this amount of money or this particular [customer] win," because there are a lot of elements in play in a customer engagement, which can last several months.

However, he's heard plenty of successful stories from customers who appreciated the PowerPoint-free process. In addition, he tracks when and where the WhiteBoard Selling method was used in a customer-facing process. And in more and more the opportunities when Software AG is the winner, he says, a salesperson has used the WhiteBoard presentation.

"It's not just for software vendors," Gentry adds. "It's for anyone who has to communicate effectively, engage audiences and tell a story-but also tell a story that's aligned with a message."

Do you Tweet? Follow me on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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