Seminars—Tell More to Sell More

If the rising cost of sales calls has your company’s back against the wall, maybe it is time to look at ways of reducing the number of calls your people are making in each territory and market segment.

At face value, this idea runs counter to what would be considered prudent practices if you are to increase sales. Making three or four calls to the same company, however, does not improve your chances of closing. In fact, 50% of the calls are spent just finding out who the decision makers really are.

That is a lot of wasted time, money and effort. One way of making sales calls more efficient and cost-effective is what we call the “front-end loading process.” Rather than beat the bushes for live prospects, bring the most likely suspects to you and help them sell themselves.

How? By conducting meaty seminars tailored to your product’s application areas.

Does it work? One company we worked with gained $4 million worth of annual business as a result of a three-day, off-location seminar. Another closed $2 million worth of business that had been pending for more than six months as a result of a five-city, one-day seminar program.

Three-Day Seminar

The first company’s effort was highly tailored and targeted because they had been working with a group of 25 major purchase prospects for more than a year developing proposals. The decision process went on and on. The objective was to shorten that process to a definable period of time.

To accomplish our goals, a defined program objective was established. In this instance, it was Testing Quality Throughout the Corporation. Next, we selected our presentation areas including those that could be presented by the technical staff as well as outside experts (obviously not from the competition) and existing customers.

After obtaining confirmations from the various speakers that they would make the presentations on the specific subject areas, a meeting agenda and personal letters were sent to two key individuals in each of the prospect companies. The meeting was truly a management level overview of needs, approaches to problems and prospective solutions. The companies covered their attendees’ transportation costs to and from the meeting, and the seminar sponsor paid for most of the expenses during the conference. In addition to full meetings during the day, we also planned off-hour functions including activities for spouses, a hospitality suite and luncheon/dinner speakers on general business issues.

Fifty key members of prospect companies attended the seminar. Even though the attendees knew who was underwriting the conference, they had plenty of time to talk among themselves and with their counterparts in other companies.

The total cost of the meeting/seminar was $50,000. Three months after the conference, however, the company received a company-wide order from one of the attendees for $4 million as well as more than $2 million in smaller orders from the other attendees.

What would it be worth to you to have 50 of your best prospects away from their facilities for three days talking about almost nothing but your products, their problems/issues and their applications?

One-Day Seminar

In the second example, the company annually conducted what we called the June Seminar Series. This was a one-day seminar in five major cities around the U.S. Each area sales office was responsible for selecting the location and providing the corporate office with names and addresses of 200 to 400 prospective customers in the area.

We then worked with product marketing management to develop audio-visual presentations including multimedia, slides and overhead projections. In addition, product/service promotional materials were developed that could be easily set up in the various seminar locations.

The invitations were sent from corporate to the prospects around the country with a request that they contact the local sales office to ensure their reservations. In addition, the sales personnel followed up to make certain people they had been working on for some time would attend.

This type of seminar program is particularly hard on the people who must give the presentations. As a general rule, we allowed one free day between presentations. This meant there was a day of presentations and then a day to travel and relax, followed by another day of presentations. To ease the load, two people carried out the presentations; however, even then it meant that two key people were away from their offices for a two-week period.

The presentation days were filled with technical, application and product information. In addition, there was ample time for questions and answers and the exchange of ideas among participants and attendees. We found that the seminars usually lasted two hours past the planned shutdown time because of questions from the floor.

The key in this type of situation is to have well-trained speakers. We found that the best way to do this is to put them through “dry runs” of their presentations a few times so that they are familiar with the information they are presenting, the audio-visual materials and questions that may arise.

After reviewing their presentation mannerisms and content, and having technical and marketing people ask questions on what was presented, the people going out in the field were ready for almost anything. It is also a good idea to capture the presentations on video, edit them and put them on DVDs, so that they can be sent to prospects who can’t attend the seminars.

In addition to the presentations, every attendee received summaries and in-depth materials describing the various areas covered at the seminar. As a result, they were able to take back with them complete information as reminders. They also received automatic letters from the corporate office thanking them for attending the seminar and inviting them to direct additional questions to the local sales office.

The total cost of such a seminar, including the audio-visuals, display materials, invitations, leave-behind materials and similar items (exclusive of staff time and travel), usually ran $25,000 to $30,000 per five-city swing. As a general rule, 50 to 100 people from prospective customer locations attended the seminars in each city.

The cost per sales call came down dramatically, and sales invariably followed the seminar effort each year.

Return on Investment

In both instances, there was a tremendous return on investment. The key was that a considerable amount of planning and preparation went into each seminar. It is one thing to say seminars are worthwhile, but it is quite another to carry out a strong and effective program.

So, what does it take for such success?

Present more than just product information. Give people an overview of the state-of-the-art new trends, and why the alternatives you offer make the most economical sense.

Bring in experts and users. If at all possible, recruit experts from the outside and/or users. Existing customers tell some of the most believable stories in such seminars. Provide your guest speakers all of the assistance possible, including help in writing their presentations and assistance in the preparation of their audio-visuals.

Mix the audio-visuals. Do not stick with only one method of visually presenting information, especially if you are concerned with holding attendees’ attention for a full day or up to three days.

Provide take-away materials. Give attendees complete backup information when they leave so they have reference information when they return to their offices. They cannot order if they do not remember all the information covered.

Do not be totally hard sell. You have 50-plus prospective customers hidden away for a whole day. Give them time to mingle and talk to others. They often help you sell their counterparts by reinforcing or amplifying points brought out in the presentation.

Be thoroughly rehearsed. There is nothing worse than watching someone fumble through a presentation, especially if the presentation is going to last for an hour. At the end of that period, it will take at least another half hour to get the group’s mind back on you and what you are saying. In addition, know the information you are presenting and be able to field questions. No matter how well prepared you are, you will never know everything. When a tough question arises, admit you do not know the answer, take down the question and the name of the person making the inquiry, and then get back to them. It reinforces your credibility.

The first four such presentations or seminars are the hardest. Then they either get harder or easier depending on how you look at them. They get harder because you are constantly searching for areas that can be improved. They get easier because you learn from your mistakes what can and will go wrong.

When properly planned, developed and carried out, a seminar can shorten decision-making time, reduce the number of sales calls required for major purchase decisions, and improve your image in the prospective marketplace regarding your firm’s technical and product leadership.

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