How to give a winning sales pitch
At Smorgasbord, we work across most business sectors with clients who want to grow. One of the things we have noticed is that the people we advise often want more sales, but they also sometimes undervalue, or misunderstand the skills involved in selling. They also find the whole thing excruciatingly painful and awkward. If you search Google on topics such as building a sales pitch, it is easy to see why people who run SME businesses are confused by sales, what it is, what makes a good salesperson, what makes a good sales pitch, and ultimately why sales is an undervalued profession. So here is an introduction to answering the questions around what a good sales pitch involves, how to make a sales pitch that sells, and some information about sales pitch scripts with a few examples of examples how to give a winning sales pitch.
The bad news for SME business owners is that most people in the SME world need to get better at selling. You will find yourself in a selling situation more times than you ever thought; including dealing with your bank manager, your staff, your larger suppliers and of course your customers. The good news is that selling is not an art, it is not alchemy, and doing it well does not need to be a mystery, or too painful. Good selling is not about slick conversation, slick people, or sales tricks; those days have gone.
Selling is not about pushing product or service features, it is about solving your customer’s problem, or your customer’s customer’s problem.
We all sell, or negotiate every day; with our husbands and wives, our children, our parents. We do it all over the place, we just don’t think of it as selling. Selling is not about building rapport, it is about building trust. These days your customer probably knows more about you than you think, so we need to delve into the process and how selling today is about positioning you, and your product or service in a balanced partnership that solves a problem.
Selling today is not about selling, It is about enabling your customers to buy.
There is a lot of confusion about the difference between selling and marketing; for the purposes of this blog I am going to use the simple definition that marketing is what you or a company does when you are not in direct contact with a customer, sales is what you do when you are. This includes being face to face, on Zoom, email to email, phone to phone. In-store, in the boardroom, on the exhibition stand, one to one or one to many, whatever the situation the elements are pretty much the same.
A saying we like at Smorgasbord is that 'marketing gets you in the right room, sales is what you do when you get there'. The irony is that the best way to sell something is to forget about selling and to understand and define at a deep level what your company does for whom, what problem you solve, and the value you add that encourages a customer to part with money. We run workshops and advice sessions all about understanding customer problems but here is a 'fill in the gaps' game that helps you think about what you do as a business:
'We do X, for person Y, who has problem Z so that they can do/stop doing A.'
If you cannot articulate the problem your business is solving, for whom, and what value you create or the pain you solve, then it is not the sales or marketing function that is at fault.
What really matters is what we call 'The only four questions that matter'.
If you can dig deeply into four questions as a business, you might then be able to find where your different target customer groups hang out, and what you can do to solve their problem for them that encourages them to part with money and give it to you. And here are the four questions:
Who is your customer?
What is their very specific problem?
How big is their problem?
Does our solution fit exactly with their specific problem?
There are lots of types of problems. There are problems that the customer doesn’t even know they have, the problems that are not urgent or big enough for them to want to do something about it, the problem that they need to solve now, urgently.
The customer with that last type of problem is easiest to sell to. Thought through thoroughly, you can end up with a compelling value proposition for each type of customer you aim to serve. And then you can go about getting in the right room with them, but that marketing stuff is for another day.
For now, let’s assume that you have your value proposition to the customer nailed.
There is a theory that there are only three things most B2B business owners care about; increasing revenue, decreasing cost, and increasing efficiency. In a B2C environment, it is often more about how a product makes us feel but we will touch on that later.
In a B2B environment, you need to work out, in a specific pitch to a specific person or group of people, how your product or service does one or more of the three things, and why they should care. But when presenting your solution do not patronise the buyer by pretending to know what they are feeling or going through. There are few more annoying things in life than someone pretending they know how you feel when they cannot possibly understand, or haven’t taken time to find out from you. Anyone who has teenage children will have heard them shout at you that 'you just don’t get it, do you?'
Business is like the rest of life in so many ways, we sometimes just need to apply the same logic.
What makes a bad sales pitch?
So you are in the right room and you might just be with the right person or people. Here are some sales pitch howlers you should avoid at all costs.
'I' statements: Your sales pitch has limited real estate, don’t waste it on talking about yourself.
Complicated explanations of product features or capabilities: During the prospecting stage, buyers aren’t ready to discuss solution details. You can’t tell the whole story, so don’t try, they will not remember it, they will get confused. As psychology has proven, if you give someone too much to think about, they tend to do nothing.
Overfamiliar greetings like 'How was your weekend?': Unless you’ve met the prospect before, this will come off as creepy. We will cover asking good questions later.
Generic pitches: If this pitch could work for any prospect, then it’s probably not tailored enough to capture buyer attention.
Promises you can’t keep: It may be tempting to promise buyers the moon, but this approach will ultimately set them up for disappointment and erode trust rather than building it. Be realistic and let the strength of your product or service speak for itself.
Regardless of whether you are in a B2B or B2C situation, the problem with most people’s image of selling or of salespeople is that they are not authentic. Sales has often been the victim of bad training or no training at all. In the US selling is regarded as a profession. In the UK, like being a waiter or waitress, sales often seems to be something we just end up doing, without being shown what good looks like.
Our job is not to sell something to anyone, our job is to put our opportunity in the right light to the right people, build trust in us and our offer, and enable them to make a mature decision.
Framing is key.
'People will forget what you said to them, they will forget what you did, but people will not forget how you made them feel.'
I am pretty sure Maya Angelou didn’t have a sales pitch in mind when she said this, but none the less it is true.
The purpose of framing is to position us and what we say on a more equal footing than is common in the traditional view of a sales situation. The problem with most sales situations is the assumed balance of power. The traditional relationship is that the buyer has all the power and the seller is subservient. But if you think about some B2C sales environments, especially in high-end consumer goods, the consumer often feels grateful to be in the store or the showroom despite them being the buyer. This is one of the reasons companies spend fortunes on framing their offer with branding, location, store merchandising, and staff training.
Sales cannot be a zero-sum game, I win you lose; it needs to be a relationship where all parties are trying to solve a problem. And to do that, the seller in a B2B situation needs to build some respect and trust.
And it is not done by superficial questions or long-winded stories. Be polite but I would suggest that cliches and asking people too many personal questions until you know each other can come over as superficial, or even invasive.
A lot of sales training today still focuses on trying to 'build rapport' but that does not necessarily give the seller much of the balance of power in the relationship. And it is important to gain your share of the status available. Be polite and curious, but don’t be a puppy dog.
The reason we create rapport is to position ourselves on at least an equal footing as an expert with something the buyer needs you for. So don’t go on about you, or your old war stories, give your one big achievement that will mean something in this negotiation. This is framing.
This is a start to how you frame the whole sales process.
As mentioned, brands in retail use framing all the time, certainly in fashion. The car showroom is traditionally the hunting ground for some of the worst salespeople in the world, but BMW does not spend all that money on showrooms without thinking of the frame of mind they want to put you in while you are there.
Framing works both ways. Big corporations invite suppliers into their world partly to control the framing of the conversation. We are big. You need us. Or in Walmart’s case, we are very big but we are so cost-conscious you will sit on a schoolroom chair in a sparse room. We are sparse, we can give you volume, but at razor-thin margins for you.
So, we have covered how to position yourself, what bad looks like, what problem you are solving, and how you might create a value proposition that adheres to the three questions that most businesses are looking to answer around selling more, reducing costs, and being more efficient.
What I have just done in my last paragraph is called 'signposting' and it is also part of good sales technique. Stop the conversation, remind the buyer what you have covered, why you are of value, and where you are going to take them next.
Research, research, research. As Abraham Lincoln said:
'If I had eight hours to chop a tree down I would spend seven hours sharpening the saw.'
In the modern business world, it is so much easier to find out about people and companies than it ever was before. It is said that across the board in a B2B environment, a buyer has probably made up his mind to a level of about 80% before they ever get in direct contact with the supplier. Twenty-five years ago the figure was nearer 20% so the sales process had to do far more of the process. So as the seller you had better do some research on the buyer if you can and worked out what the 20% is that you need to focus on.
None of this means that sales is easier now. There is generally more choice and it is easier for a buyer to investigate more options, it is easier to pitch suppliers against each other. And often these days, buyers are often less knowledgeable about the detail of products as often they buy across more than one category. Selling can be more difficult in these situations.
This is why marketing and sales working hand in hand is so important these days.
Buyers are likely to be able to find out a lot about you, you should find out as much as you can about them. Real research insights are everywhere. The company, the people, the problem, the fit. Research who is likely to be involved in the decision, what is important to who in the buying team. It’s a courtship. If a date is worth getting ready for, this is.
We have been given the opportunity to use so many tools these days across verbal, written, and graphic communications. Research tools on the internet, LinkedIn, social media, the list is endless.
For instance, a simple customer relationship management system will tell you what to do, when. It will help you to allocate time to selling activities, create a routine and a rhythm for action. But most importantly you need to allocate the time and do the tasks.
Ok, so we are in the room with the buyer or buyers, and this is when we need to concentrate on what is happening in the room. The best way to open is to frame the conversation quickly, often just thirty seconds to get everyone on the same page, out of where their minds were, and then have three good questions ready, based on your research or what you think is the problem you can solve with them.
So to frame the pitch remember the reason you got to this stage. What was the big idea? Remember the problem-solving phrase we mentioned earlier? Well, this is your chance to nail what value you can add based on your research.
It might go something like this:
'For (people like the buyer) who are dissatisfied with (Y problem) our (product or service) is a (key benefit) that (solves a big problem) unlike (competitive product Z) our product (does this is better).'
Crick and Watson who cracked the DNA code explained what they had done in a five-minute presentation. If they could explain the building blocks of all life in five minutes, I think we can frame a pitch in less than that.
Asking intelligent thoughtful questions should add to you and your framing as a value giver with insight. If you have framed yourself well you do not need to tell too many stories but you can seed your discussions with phrases and questions that impart expertise.
The aim of questions is to gain facts, commitment without being cheesy, and to move the pitch on.
Remember build rapport, do not be a puppy dog, and get on with it. The aim is to put you in control but put them at ease. The best way I know of doing this puts people at ease is to get on with it and say something like 'I don’t believe in wasting time so I will be brief. I will only talk for x minutes then if there is time and interest from both parties let’s discuss things further'.
Listen like crazy.
There is a lot of talk in sales about mirroring and NLP, but I think active or aggressive listening is the most important thing. It’s as much about how someone says something as what they say. But if you want to know more about this, read 'The Mom Test' by Rob Fitzgerald.
A word about rebutting and bouncing interrupters
It takes practice, like everything, and you will get to your own way of doing things but if someone, normally the senior person in the room, wants to hijack proceeding by asking that ‘Can I ask one fundamental question?’ question, it needs to be rebutted or you won’t control the pitch.
A potential answer is: 'You certainly can and I am sure my preparation for this meeting will answer it, and I would like we just need to take a few minutes to cover the details then I will come to you if I haven’t covered it'. Or if they insist on asking the question say 'Great question, I will get to that in a moment'.
Who makes the decisions round here?
It is very important to work out who is involved in the decision. We do lots of work with clients around identifying who is in the decision-making unit (DMU) and what each of the decision-making unit member's problem is, who we need to speak to first and what type of problem each of them has. There may be someone with the financial sign-off who has a 'spending problem', a user who has a different type of problem, a department head, or any manner of other people. But they will all have their own reasons for caring.
It might be down to those three business problems, increasing revenue, decreasing cost, increasing efficiency, but each member of the DMU will have their own angle on things.
Many salespeople make the mistake of having a take me to your leader' approach. Badly trained, or not trained at all, they think that they need to get to 'THE' decision-maker.
Think of a mother and child in a sweet shop, it illustrates a decision-making unit perfectly. The mother is the person with the money but boy oh boy there is an influencer and user in the picture too; the child. There is a reason that multi-billion-dollar confectionary companies make their packaging appeal to children and put their products in the eye line near a checkout. Marketing places the product where the DMU hangs out together, the colours, packaging, point of sale presentation and incentives frame the pitch and close the deal.
And what about the pitch content?
While putting this blog together I found literally hundreds of different 'how to put a pitch together' options on Google. Mostly around tech and pitch decks so I won’t bore you and you can find pitch deck templates that work for you. But I would suggest playing the long game by having a short pitch. Humans cannot remember more than about three things and cannot concentrate for more than about twenty minutes. Disappointingly for some business people, the sales pitch is not for you to showcase you, it is for you to demonstrate that you can contribute to solving a problem for the buyer. If you focus on them, they will think better of you.
Here are some things that should be in a sales pitch, be it verbal or a combination of verbal and pitch deck
Your value proposition as you see it for this client.
What you see their problem as. Probably just one, and make it a big one.
The scale of the problem from your experience of other companies in the market if you serve them.
What’s the idea. Not in detail, they won’t remember it all. And make sure you rebut questions at this stage. Don’t let them run your show.
How you solved just one problem for another client without transgressing confidentiality. But be brief. Use the story format of the beginning, the end, the middle. 'We had a situation we solved with client X as they had Y problem. In the end, we worked with them and got the result Z. We did this by doing A, B, C'.
Pricing. Lots of people recommend not talking about price, but I think it creates a distracting elephant in the room if you don’t. There are several ways of talking about price but make it about value and output.
The last point is worth expanding on. Value pricing commits you to nothing, and it goes something like this:
'You probably won’t need us to supply the whole consultancy piece of work I have outlined but just so you understand, the full consultancy is £25000. Now, I am guessing you would rather pay us for our skills, knowledge, and expertise rather than to be very well paid typists, so at the next stage of discussion we can work out what we don’t need to do and that often reduces the costs by as much as £X.'
By discussing price in this way you have not committed to anything, and you have not promised anything. But you may have set some expectations that you can manage during further discussions and you may well get a reaction that you can adapt to while using further negotiating questions.
So in short:
Firstly understand your value proposition, and make it succinct.
Understand as much as you can about their DMU.
Understand their problem.
Understand how you might solve it with them.
Understand that they may not see it your way immediately.
This blog cannot dig into all the types of sales pitches for all the different types of businesses, but remember, some people are more graphic responsive, some are more word responsive; I generally follow the traditional football formation of 4-4-2. No pitch, in whatever format, should have more than four ideas or make more than four points. You probably need two versions, one for the face-to-face and one to send over later with more words in it.
At the end of the pitch it is great to back up or follow up with other collateral as it is often forgotten or underused; printed testimonials, handouts, brochures, and even fluffy ducks and other promotional gifts also have their place.
What is my friend, what is my enemy?
People always seem to think primarily about price. Price is always a consideration, and that is why it is worth mentioning in the pitch. However, work out what other resources you have at your disposal. For instance, time can be a great resource to negotiate round in terms of how long or when a project will happen. Others include availability or scarcity, add-ons, after service, and guarantees
And a word about guarantees; prospects are used to being lied to, or sales pitches being over-optimistic, that honesty is rare and of value in itself. A guarantee is cast-iron, simple, honest, and real. In one of my consultancy businesses, we can give a cast-iron guarantee that we will beat any like for like price from our competitors. We know we can, we have built a business that is incredibly efficient and know we can do this. And we do.
'If you need to close, you probably haven’t done the opening properly.'
Great sales pitches do not use closing techniques, the world has moved on. If you have done the groundwork you will hopefully enable the buyer to make an informed decision. Closing techniques and cheesy cliches do no one any good, they erode trust and create awkwardness. Just ask the potential client what they would like to do next, or if they would like to proceed, or just ask for the order.
The follow-up, pick up the damn phone.
You cannot do the follow-up until afterwards, so don’t try to. People are naturally action-orientated, impatient, and try to get a decision without letting the buyer think about the pitch and reflect on the value of it. So even more than the research, the personal, and I mean personal, phone call follow-up is the most important part of the pitch. All the networking, emails, phone calls, pitches are a waste of time if you do not follow up. And that does not mean closing, pestering, stalking. But it does not mean ignoring the follow-up.
The other main issue that hampers sales activity is not using the right tool for the right job at the right time. Tools help you dig in the right places, use the right one at the right time. When I ran a sales team it was amazing how many times I would see people sending an endless stream of emails. You may not be successful, you may not get through, but do pick up the damn phone as it is probably the most efficient way of getting to hear and understand what is going on in the mind of the buyer.
Get to ‘No’.
If you are going to get a no, get there, get over it and move on. Ask what you could do better, learn from it, and it will get you closer to a yes. And do not take it personally, accept rejection is painful but do not fear it.
So that is my top tips for a good sales pitch.
And here is a final thought. Top sales pitches are built around a process that involves preparation and research; they are also given by experts. You are not here to show off, you are pitching in order to build trust. You can build trust on your own, but it is also built by what others think and say of you. Good credentials, testimonials, published articles, five-star ratings point your prospect to those independent accolades that position you as an authority.
But most important of all, you are pitching to enable the buyer to make a sensible decision. Yes, you want to control the process, but that is not about manipulation, it is about communication. If they are the right buyer with a big enough problem, you are simply putting your solution in the right light so that they will ask you to help them solve it.
Now that didn’t hurt, did it?
Patrick Burge is a specialist in business growth having helped build online and offline businesses in many sectors including tech start-ups, apparel, sport, fitness, health, printing, retail, coaching and consulting. Apart from specialising in the brand licensing and franchising sector, he has also advised numerous businesses on getting their strategy and funding in place as an advisor and Delivery Partner CEO on The UK Government Startup Loan Scheme. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org