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Hi John,

I work for a small software company here in the Americas.
For the past five years, we have focused on the lower end
of the Small-Medium Business (SMB) market and have been
very successful with our one product. We have now made
an acquisition, revamped our sales team and moved
upmarket with our target audience. Because of this, we are
now involved in many competitive situations with larger
companies and are having to give a lot more presentations
and demonstrations. My question is:  When a client asks
you to make a sales presentation (as one of four possible
vendors) – is there any advantage in going first, last or in
the middle?


Bethany
Presales Lead
Chicago, IL


(Long time readers may recognize this question from a few years
ago. I've been asked it multiple times in the past couple of months,
so I thought it was worth repeating)

Hello Bethany,

Thanks for the question.
Certainly many sales professionals
have debated this question over the years. My personal
preference has always been that you should either be first
or last, but never in the middle. There is some basic
psychological research around the primacy and recency
effects – the classic example is reciting a list of ten items to
a person. They are far more likely to remember the first and
last items when asked, then any of the ones in the middle.

This applies to sales as well.

Classic sales theory is that if you go first you get an
opportunity to redefine the battlefield, set some
competitive traps and generally set the high bar for
everyone who follows. The other part of the theory is that
by going last you have an opportunity to sense how others
have performed, possibly adjust based on insider
(coaching) information, and leave the final impression in
the review committees mind. Many well-known companies
promote the “go-last” strategy. One of the most famous
examples was Siebel Systems when selling their SFA
application – they always wanted to go last; to the point that
their salespeople would find any excuse to reschedule the
presentation to go last. It was a standing joke in the
industry that Siebal salesreps had to attend their
grandmother’s funerals so many times each year that it was
a wonder they ever got any work done.

Fortunately there has been a small amount of scientific
survey work undertaken to investigate the first-middle-last
quandary. Judy Wagner and Noreen Klein published a paper
titled “
Who Wants To Go First? Order Effects Within A Series
of Competitive Sales Presentations”
in the Journal of
Personal Sales and Selling. (
A link is here – the article is
free if you access it through a US library). The summary of
their research is this.

    1.  Sellers who present in the middle are least likely to
    gain any boost from that position.

    2.  A market-leader does almost equally well going first
    or last. When market leaders go first, the primacy
    effect afford more credence to the information people
    hear first from sellers they already perceive to be the
    best.

    3.  A “me-too” up-and-coming company does much
    better presenting LAST. They benefit from the recency
    effect – meaning that the information people hear last
    makes the biggest impression – especially if the time
    between final presentation and decision is short. They
    gain almost no benefit from going first.


So – the science, and John, says that in your situation you
should always go last.

Good selling (but try to be more creative than killing your
relatives off every year!)