A Lesson on Sales at a Conference

Monday, October 19, 2015

I spoke at a conference a while ago. It was a two day affair with a speakers' dinner beforehand. After checking into my hotel, I went to the dinner and took part in that awful business ritual known as small talk. Pleasantries were exchanged, we all gave our introductions, but discussions soon turned to something of consequence: the presentations that we'd be delivering.

Within a few minutes, I felt vastly outgunned. Each person told me that he was a polished, award winning speaker. Each told me that he was an expert in his field. One person even said that he had been working on his presentation for years - he had distilled everything he had ever learned into his talk.

Soon I was sweating bullets. How could I possibly compete? Even worse, my talk would be presented on the second day of the conference. By the time I stood up on stage, the audience's expectations would be in the stratosphere.

The next day the presentations began. To my relief, they were terrible. Awful! Not only did many of the presenters fail to provide any actionable or useful information, but their presentations were poorly rehearsed and terribly paced. One of my colleagues later admitted that he hadn't practiced a single time - he simply built a slide deck and decided to "wing it." I remember laughing in horror as I saw one highly touted speaker prance about the stage barefoot while playing clips of famous musicians (a strange sight at a software conference).

For many business transactions, the products and services being offered are experience goods. The buyer simply has no means of determining their value ahead of time, so he must rely on other factors - namely the salesmanship of his vendors.

My presentation proposal had included significant proof of value. I mentioned my book on software pricing. I listed my degrees in economics and business administration. I even included a video recording of a similar presentation I had given in another city. I had done everything in my power to ensure that my speech could be classified as a search good. I wanted the conference organizers to be able to judge my abilities with a minimum of effort, because such judgments were sure to work in my favor.

Other speakers selected a dramatically different business strategy - and for good reason.

Demonstrating value can be very costly for a producer. This signaling effort takes time (and often money) away from value producing activities. It's much simpler to cheat - to turn one's product into an experience good. I've seen many charlatans who have learned to talk up their abilities, make claims that are impossible to disprove and even make things up. Their rule: fake it until you make it.

No matter how honest the seller, he will have to find a strategy to compete with shills because provable statements of value can't always stand against dubious statements relating to hopes and dreams. My advice? Find customers who can differentiate between facts and hopes. As for me, I'll be avoiding that conference next year.

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