In selling, these two words are often used interchangeably, as if they have the same meaning. They don’t. This is more than a matter of semantics. Many sellers truly don’t understand the difference - is it a proposal or presentation? Not knowing can leads to a lot of wasted time and wasted opportunities.
Maybe it will help to consider the dictionary definition of both words. They do have distinct meanings, and the words themselves set up a certain expectation for the buyer. Expecting a proposal and then getting a presentation often leaves buyers feeling disappointed.
How to Tell if It's a Proposal or Presentation
A presentation is “an introduction, exhibition, display, demonstration or performance.” The word suggests that something will be shown or made known.
By contrast, a proposal is “a suggestion, recommendation or plan.” The word implies a certain level of personalization – after all, it is the word we use when an offer of marriage is made.
Sellers seem to get confused when they have a lot of materials and pitch elements available to them – collateral materials, sell sheets, pre-fabricated slideshows, product demos and samples, videotaped customer testimonials, etc. All this stuff, usually quite professional and eye-appealing, lacks the substance needed to be a proposal. Pre-made materials, produced by the marketing department, will always be the stuff of presentations, not proposals.
Of course, there is a right time, right place and right way to use presentation materials. But they don’t belong in proposals. I’ve worked with many sales professionals who have never drafted a proposal. But they think they are delivering proposals every time they take out marketing materials and a price quote. A presentation plus a price quote still does not equal a proposal.
First things first. The right time, place and way to make a presentation is when you are introducing, exhibiting, displaying, demonstrating or performing. All these actions require you to talk about and provide information related to the product or service you sell. That’s what they are for, and that’s all that they do.
Presentations ought to be made when you are speaking to group of people or are required to talk to many people briefly and as quickly as possible. Trade show and exhibition sellers, telemarketers and guest speakers at meetings make presentations. They do “show and tell” to describe what’s interesting about what they are selling.
A presentation is used to generate buyer awareness and interest. It might even trigger some buyer desire. But presentations seldom cause a buyer to take the final step in their process which is action. The act of buying isn’t the natural or typical response to a presentation.
That’s why sellers need to do more than make presentations. They need to make proposals. When a buyer sees or hears a specific suggestion, recommendation or plan, they will have more to consider and will be more likely to take action. The more specific the suggestion, recommendation or plan, the better. Better yet is when that specific suggestion, recommendation or plan is linked directly to the needs or problems that this buyer is experiencing right now.
You can think of this as the difference between what the sales department does and what the marketing department does. Marketing provides product information to the masses. Marketers have a generic message that is meant to appeal to a lot of people. But they aren’t closing sales. That’s why a sales team is needed, too. It’s the job of sellers to build on the buzz created by marketing and see the sale all the way through to the close. Marketing, through its presentation materials (distributed in various media and formats), can connect with the buyer early in the buyer’s process to generate awareness and stimulate interest, perhaps even desire.
Sellers can’t over-rely on the very same materials to advance the sale to a close. Those materials are not intended to build desire or prompt action. That’s because doing something for the masses is inherently limited. People buy when something is personalized for them. They need to have a suggestion, a recommendation or a plan that includes them.
Here’s an example we can all relate to; Marketing presentations like television commercials and online tools and magazine articles cause us to become aware of, and perhaps even interested in, new car models. You may become highly interested in a car you see at an auto show, and your desire may build up as you research the car and learn more about it. That’s why you stop by the dealership one Saturday.
What happens next is up to the sales team. If they hand you a brochure (produced by marketing) and start listing all the features you already know as if they are demonstrating or exhibiting the product, it’s unlikely that your desire will build. On the other hand, if a seller learns a little bit about your needs and makes some suggestions for the features you would like to have, your desire will build. You might even take the action of buying if the sales proposal (i.e. payment plan, recommendation of how to get behind the wheel and take ownership, etc.) is compelling enough.
Proposals pick up where presentations leave off, and when a seller stops short of personalizing and putting together a plan, that seller often misses the opportunity to close a sale.
So remember, proposals are about the customer but presentations are all about your product. Make proposals in order to make more sales.
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Editor's note: This post was originally published March 2013 and has been recently updated.