When to Ask and When To Tell in a Sales Presentation

Boldness is important, but so is sensitivity. Can I be commanding?  Do I need them to like me? Should I tell them how it is going to be, or ask them how they want it? What’s the balance, and how do I get there?

Recently, I coached a competitive sales interview (part presentation and part Q&A conversation) for a company in the architectural / engineering / construction (AEC) field. That’s a meaty, meaningful project involving big dollars for one of three capable competitors.

My client was not favored to win for two reasons, one of which was their higher pricetag.

SagePresence can help you increase your win rate in AEC interviews

Image courtesy of Pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The other, larger problem was that one of the two competitors – the real opponent – was already working for the client. Their relationship with the project owner was great, and their trucks and crew were all over the project parking lot. The owner was already happy with this vendor of theirs, and it seemed that the only reason for the interview was to demonstrate objectivity and responsible fiscal decision-making to their stockholders. At best, the owner was checking to see if anything could change their mind.

My work with my client became a question of strategy. How do we unseat the shoe-in for this project when the prospect is already in a satisfied relationship with them, especially when we’re more expensive?

RULE OF THUMB: Challenger Trumps Existing Relationship
(If the challenge is bold enough to shake the prospect out of its comfort zone).

This strategy requires a fine Yin-Yang balance. Challenging can fail if the challenge doesn’t hold enough water, or if it isn’t presented boldly enough, or if it isn’t honest.

Challenger trumps relationship in sales

We needed to build our presentation around Yang — challenging our prospect — to scare them enough that they might consider an alternative to their current path, but involving a touch of Yin — nurturing them — so we didn’t scare them away. We wanted to scare them to us.

Crucially, we spoke only what we believed to be true, and structured the message so they would grasp it the way we wanted them to.

We needed to make sure they recognized their concerns, but didn’t want to be overt in “scaring them,” so we thought about each topic in our presentation as a metaphorical “trojan horse.” We talked positively about good things, offering solutions and recommendations to help them, but in the process we recognized concerns in their minds so that after welcoming our recommendations, they would later focus justly about those real concerns that would affect success.

Since we offered solutions to those concerns, they didn’t view us as a fear monger, but as a concerned partner who could guide them away from fear and towards success – which we firmly wanted to be.

This “subtle challenge” was our key differentiator, and we chose to challenge them based on understanding their business drivers. Whereas our opponent no doubt would simply talk about key aspects of the building project, we focused on how key aspects of the building project impacted the owner’s business goals.

The money conversation was not just about a quote for the work to be done, but about how we could ensure that stockholders would view their decision as good for stock value. Timeline wasn’t about “fast delivery” so much as it was about speed to market as defined by their business plan. Architectural design wasn’t just about “aesthetics.” Aesthetics were tools for us to help them address their employee engagement concerns.

Ultimately we challenged them to see that “just a building” wouldn’t meet their business goals, and they couldn’t afford to partner with a firm who didn’t know how to recognize and support their business drivers in the process of building a building.

And that challenge was accepted. At the end of the interview, the client was knocked out of their zone of comfort enough to ask for a second interview.

By challenging the client, we won round one and now for round two we’d need a new strategy.

What was supposed to be an easy decision for the prospect (namely to stay with the provider they had) became a hard one, and instead of awarding the project to our opponent, they instead scheduled a second interview. We knew our challenge succeeded in impressing the prospect, but now they had new questions: What would this bold challenger be like to work with? Would they be fun, friendly and flexible, or would they drive all over us like a steamroller?

To win the second interview, we’d have to shift gears from commanding to nurturing. If we scared them into considering us in the first interview, we now had to demonstrate great relationship skills and collaboration to close the deal. So the strategy for interview #2 was all “Yin” as we tried to bring them comfort.

RULE OF THUMB: Collaborative discussion builds relationships quickly.

Preparation for the second round was all about active listening and collaborative conversation, an authentic tenant of this company’s philosophy. Strategically, we were taking the opposite approach than we took in the first interview – heavy on nurture with a hint of command, so we could show
Sometimes command takes a backseat  to nurture, so your presentation  can speak to chemistry and relationships.them our ability to create a good working relationship. It’s an easy thing to say, but a difficult thing to show, so collaboration and discussion were essential in showing the prospect that we understood what they wanted and needed.

The essence of active listening is to speak back what you understand they’ve just told you. The SagePresence approach to active listening is story structured active listening. First, you ask questions about the prospect’s problematic beginning situation and desired goal situation. Get the other person talking and speak back what you hear to get confirmation that you understand before moving on.

“Let me say this back to you to make sure I understand the problem you’re experiencing.” When you get a “yes,” move on. “This is what I’m hearing as your vision for success here. Do I have that right?” When you get a “yes,” move on. In either case, if you don’t get a yes, explore further until you can speak it back to their satisfaction.

When you get agreement on the problem and outcome, then you can collaborate on the solutions in the middle. “I have some ideas here, and I’m sure you do too. Let’s talk through what we can do to get you from where you are now to where you want to be.”

Our team went into the second interview focused on the client, brimming with appreciation for them, and committed to asking questions and actively listening to their answers. And the client was convinced that a relationship with us could not only be valuable (because of our ability to challenge them) but enjoyable (because of our ability to work with them).

We first challenged them, then nurtured them with active listening, appreciation, and collaboration, and were awarded the project.

The answer to ‘When to tell and when to ask’ is simple: If we have to unseat an existing opponent to get in the door, then we have to challenge them – we tell them what to do with strong recommendations. If we want to show team-work and chemistry then we need an interactive process  – we ask them what needs to happen in a discussion-style collaboration.

What do you think of all this? Where you do find it beneficial to focus on nurturing a relationship by asking questions vs. building your credibility by challenging assumptions? Share your thoughts and questions below, and if we can help you with an upcoming presentation, check out our preparation services here.

NEW POST on new business interviewing (Do’s & Don’ts in Competitive Interviewing).


  1. Pam Hull on June 18, 2015 at 9:36 am

    Beautifully written post! I can see this application working for intrapreneurs who are trying to “Sell” and idea internally and for consultants when they are approaching a new project. Thanks for increasing my wisdom!

    • Dean Hyers on June 18, 2015 at 1:29 pm

      Appreciated, Pam! And yeah, I think the principle at work here does apply to almost any human communication because “we’re all in sales” even if it’s just our ideas. There’s a time for Yin and a time for Yang and a time for a mix of the two. And I doubt I increased your wisdom. At best I shook the snow-globe of your existing wisdom and shook a few nuggets into the swirl. But thanks for saying so.

  2. Vanessa D. Willis on June 18, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    I like this information very much. I found it helpful and educational. Keep up the good work

    • Dean Hyers on June 18, 2015 at 2:46 pm

      Thanks! We’ll do our best!

  3. Harriet Nix on June 18, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    Your dissertation helped me nail down something crucial, and simple, that’s been missing from my sales process. How in the world did I neglect Info/Confo ??!

    Thanks Guys !

    • Dean Hyers on June 19, 2015 at 3:26 pm

      Glad to have been of help, Harriet! Can you elaborate?

      • Anonymous on June 19, 2015 at 4:40 pm

        Of course……
        No matter how industrial and large, or personal and unique your product is, no sales strategy is going to be effective without the proper degree and intent involved in the discovery. Active listening is only part of the equation; developing third level discovery requires reaction to the emotive qualities picked up from the individuals……..we let the client lead us to dig deeper by perceiving not only the factual needs, but also the accompanying service/attention preferences.

        Repeating back to the client or prospect exactly what it is they have told you about whatever
        the project is ( their own words you heard) AND how they FEEL about the handling of the process ( their attention requirements you have perceived) is the silver bullet. Your answer has to be correct; the client heard themselves say it. And we know the client is always correct, right ?
        Information confirmation is probably the strongest tie down a master level closer has.

        Caution: it is not for the contrite or inexperienced professional. Third level info confo MUST be delivered with complete sincerity and ability to follow through and solve any issues.

  4. […] or an outlier coming in from left field. I’ve helped many underdogs unseat the shoe-in (more here), but it’s only doable if you own your position as the alternative. If you don’t […]

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