Companies spend millions of dollars trying to craft next generation messages to “arm” their respective sales forces with a more impactful elevator pitch. Then they hire me—and when I show up, I tell clients that starting with an elevator pitch puts the salesperson or entire sales team in an extremely weak position.
The phrase “elevator pitch” is a colloquialism that characterizes the initial statements salespeople often use to open their conversations with prospective customers. The reference comes from the visual one would get if you suddenly found yourself in an elevator with the key decision-maker at one of your important prospect accounts. As soon as the decision maker pushes the button for the 12th floor, you essentially have a small window of time in which to say something that would hopefully be impactful enough to get the prospect’s attention. This situation occurs at the beginning of every sales call as well. Knowing that prospects are quick to form impressions, salespeople feel a similar pressure to say something impactful that will grab and hold the prospect’s attention.
Starting your sales calls or presentations with a brief elevator pitch is problematic, because it is the quickest way to commoditize your value. Why? Well, let’s first ask: What issues are important to your customers? Reliability? Quality? Time to market? Cost effectiveness? Now, let’s ask: What percentage of prospects are likely to form an impression of the salesperson as they first engage? The answer is 100%. Literally everyone you talk with will start forming their impressions from the very beginning of your interactions with them. The question is, what impression(s) do you want prospects and customers to form about you?
When I respond to sales training requests, I figure that most Sales VP’s have already experienced plenty of training programs over the years—some good, and others not so much. Thus, it’s safe to assume that whatever I say about the QBS methodology will likely be compared to whatever impressions they have formed as a result of their previous sales training experiences. Knowing this, I definitely don’t want to start spewing buzzwords that will make me sound like the rest of the sales training establishment.
The standard elevator pitch for QBS might sound like this. Take a moment to digest and form your own impression.
Example of What Not to Do: Sample Elevator Pitch for Sales Training
“After 17 years in the trenches of corporate sales and management, I developed a high-end sales methodology called Question Based Selling and I now teach salespeople how to be more effective in penetrating new accounts. I help people uncover needs, increase the buyer’s sense of urgency, build internal champions, shorten the sales process, increase the size of their sales forecasts, close more deals, handle objections, increase margins, maintain market share, be proactive versus reactive …blah, …blah, …blah, …blah.”
Isn’t this what every sales trainer says about their program? It absolutely is! Everyone who offers sales training talks about pipeline generation, penetrating new accounts, handling objections, and closing sales. And you can be sure they all make similar claims of superiority that sales executives have heard many times before. Consequently, when prospects hear the same old pitch, they tend to form the impression that, “Hey, this person sounds just like everyone else.”
If the company you represent sells high value products or services, you don’t want to sound the same as everyone else. Instead, you want to differentiate your solutions, your company, and most importantly, yourself, causing prospects to form the impression that,“Hey, this person sounds very different (and potentially more valuable) than everyone else!”
Let’s me ask you, what do you suppose is more important to the typical customer when you first engage—their problems or a sales pitch? From my vantage point, it’s clear that the vast majority of customers are much more focused on their own problems, issues and concerns. Thus, it no longer makes sense for a customer-focused salesperson to open his or her presentation with a data dump of product information, rather than focusing on the customer’s problems.
Nonetheless, salespeople are quick to do exactly this, as countless training seminars and sales courses still espouse the value of sellers opening with a perfunctory elevator pitch about their products and services. I’m sure some of you might think to yourselves, “I don’t do that.” And maybe you don’t. But to prove how prevalent this elevator pitch mentality is among sellers today, try this experiment. Next time you deal with a salesperson of any kind, make it a point to ask them, “Can you tell me about your product?” Then, time them on your watch to see how long they ramble on about themselves, their products, or their company, before they realize that they have absolutely no idea what you might need, or even why you asked the question.
What’s the alternative to opening with the standard elevator pitch? Well, the answer will reveal itself if we apply some deductive reasoning. In order to even have an opportunity to provide solutions, one must first be able to identify the customer’s problem. To the extent that selling is about helping people accomplish their goals, objectives, issues, and concerns, then whatever advice and direction a salesperson ends up providing should be prescriptive in nature, as opposed to just a data dump.
Having good intentions is not the issue. Sellers who lead with their solutions do so in the hopes of engaging prospective customers in a more in-depth discussion about their needs. After all, uncovering potential problems is ultimately what creates sales opportunities. But leading with your solutions, in order to get into a discussion of the customer’s needs, follows an illogical progression. Besides the fact that an elevator pitch filled with industry buzzwords is so easily commoditized, positioning your solution first makes no sense. Prospects don’t have needs because a salesperson happens to call offering a potential solution.
To communicate the value of your product or service, you must first have something to build value against. Therefore, rather than trying to bond with potential customers on your solutions, you will create many more opportunities to provide value if you bond with them on their problems, issues, and concerns. To illustrate this point, let’s go back to my conference call with a Vice President of Sales from XYZ Company.
First, I introduce the call with something purposeful and look for the opportunity to say: “I would be happy to tell you all about Question Based Selling. Can I ask you a couple specifics about your sales team so I can give you relevant information?”
Of course, he will say, “Sure.”
Now, with one simple question, I have instantly transitioned the conversation out of “presentation mode,” and into discovery. This creates a perfect opportunity for me to ask questions that will help identify potential needs. Practicing what I preach, I usually start with a series of diagnostic questions—a QBS technique that enables sellers to establish credibility early in the dialogue.
TF: “How many people do you currently manage?”
VP: “Approximately 300.”
TF: “Does that include Systems Engineers?”
VP: “No,” he said, “we have another 65 SE’s.”
TF: “Do you currently leverage an inside sales organization?”
VP: “Actually, two,” he said. “One of our inside sales teams is in the Northeast, and the other is in Atlanta.”
TF: “Are most of your people centralized in regional sales offices or spread out in virtual offices?”
VP: “We have several regional offices, but many of our salespeople are transitioning to a virtual environment.”
Once the conversation was appropriately kicked off with a series of relevant diagnostic questions about his sales team, I switched gears with my questions to focus on needs development, in order to bond with this prospect on his specific needs. Let’s continue the dialogue.
TF: “Well, let me ask you this. Do you have salespeople out in the field trying to penetrate new accounts, making lots of sales calls and leaving lots of voice-mail messages, but not being called back?”
VP: “We absolutely do!” he said. “Penetrating accounts at a strategic level is a big challenge for us.”
TF: “Question Based Selling will solve that!” I said.
TF: “And, since we’re talking about your goals for the training, let me ask you about something else. Do you find that with newly hired salespeople, some ramp up in a very short period of time while others struggle along and sometimes never make it over the hump?”
VP: “Yes. Ramping new salespeople up is another challenge.”
TF:“QBS solves that too.”
VP: “Can you tell me how it works?” he asked.
Suddenly, the conversation we were having was very different than it would have been had I opened with the standard elevator pitch, where instead of fending off buzzwords, he is interested and inviting me to tell him or her more about my solution options.
After raising some key business challenges, you earn the right to engage decision-makers (like this VP) in a productive conversation about their needs and your solutions. Bonding with prospects on their problems is also the key to broadening the sale by creating many opportunities for you to provide value.
(Excerpt from revised edition of Secrets of Question Based Selling, Chapter 14 – Re-Engineering the Elevator Pitch)