Whether you’re selling a product to a customer or an idea to your manager you need to know how to manage the pitch. Otherwise, you’re just wasting time.
Even if you don’t work in sales, you will be selling. You may not pitch products to customers, but you’ll pitch ideas to managers, peers, and others in your organization and out. Sadly, many people are horrible at selling. One key skill is managing the sales pitch. No matter what you’re pitching or how you’re pitching it, it’s important to manage the process.
Recently I had a very frustrating sales pitch from a vendor. I hate vendor pitches in general, but this was just poorly managed. The first call with this vendor was a typical hour-long call as the vendor ran through their demo. That may be useful for some potential clients, but it wasn’t useful for me. It did seem to be good for my colleague, so I sat back and let them continue.
Mistake number one, the vendor assumed that what he was going to tell me was what I needed to hear. That may be the case when your customer doesn’t know enough to know what to ask. It’s not good for an educated customer. To be fair, I didn’t stop him because, again, my colleague seemed to find it useful. However, the salesperson never checked to see if I found it useful.
Post call I told my colleague I had a bunch of questions that weren’t covered so we set up a two-hour call with the salesperson and their CTO. Right from the start I said, “Here are the three things I want to learn from the call.” One of my colleagues added a few other things which set us off for nearly two hours on other questions. That’s fine; her questions were just as valid as mine. As they wrapped up the meeting, they asked if there was anything else we needed. I said, “yes, the three things I asked at the start of the meeting.” I was frustrated having now wasted three hours with this vendor and still having no answers. The vendor was confused because they thought they had addressed my questions during the discussion and didn’t understand my frustration. (For the record I usually would have walked out of that meeting long ago but since my colleague had connections to the company, I had to follow certain social protocols.)
This isn’t an isolated incident. I can think of quite a few pitches where I walked out (or tuned out in my earlier days when I was too junior to walk out). The salespeople went down some path that they thought was appropriate but was meaningless to me. (Hint: if you spend more than sixty seconds talking about your company’s founders, history, or customers, you’ve lost me. That matters if I’m investing in you, if I’m buying your product, we need to talk about how you’re solving my problems. I’ll ask about that stuff if I think it’s relevant to my decision-making process.)
More generally you need to manage expectations. The best salesperson I’ve ever known is a former army ranger. When we worked together, before we met with any customer, he laid out the meeting, who speaks first, what they cover, then who goes next. Most importantly he managed expectations. He did a check in early on to see if what he had planned for the meeting was relevant for the potential customer. He considered their needs at the start of the meeting and adjusted his plan to meet their needs. He also did check-ins to make sure we were on track.
If you’re in sales, try to use these basic questions. (If you’re familiar with de Bono’s six hats, these are all blue hat questions.)
In the military you don’t walk into battle without taking the circumstances into account. There’s also the famous quote, derived from Helmuth von Moltke’s original writing, “No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” My sales guy, being ex-military, understood this. You may not need or want to choreograph the sales pitch the way he did, but you certainly want to make sure that it’s being conveyed effectively, by checking in with and responding to your listeners, even if you have to adjust on the fly.
As a salesperson hopefully you go into the meeting with your sales pitch and deck at the ready. But every plan in business adjusts as it goes. Sales is improv, not sketch comedy; pay attention to your customer, ask if they don’t tell you, and adjust as you go. Ultimately sales is not about you giving the pitch, but about the potential customer getting the pitch. Make sure you give them what they want, at least in the pitch, even if the product or idea isn’t to their liking.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.