Food for thought
What you are probably doing wrong in your sales pitches
by Julia Weiss
“We have 90 offices with 30,000 employees and more than €50 billion assets under management.” I interrupt the ambitious young real estate consultant’s presentation to ask: “Is this the first slide you will be showing in the major pitch you have been preparing?”
He eagerly nods. “Of course. We want to make sure the client knows we’re perfect for the job.”
You never get a second chance to make a first impression
We proceed by reversing roles – I take over the presentation and the consultant takes on the role of the client. He enters the conference room, we enact the greeting and I start the presentation with the first of the prepared slides. And suddenly, the consultant realizes: “That’s not at all what the client is interested in, he already knows all of this. We wouldn’t be here pitching otherwise.”
Together with three additional members of the pitch presentation team, we work out the most important issues that should be addressed within the first minutes of the presentation, from a client’s perspective: Knowledge of the initial situation, an understanding of the client’s objectives, ideas how to reach them. Suddenly, the room, previously bored by the endless rounds of repetitions, is filled with energy. The consultants ease into the position of their clients. They have longstanding relationships with most of them and an in-depth understanding of their clients’ expectations and way of conducting business – they simply failed to incorporate this valuable knowledge into the preparations for their pitch presentation, wanting merely to use it in the “audio track”.
Lacking client orientation is one of many mistakes that teams of ambitious high performers frequently stumble across in the preparation phase for presentations. Over the course of many years, while building our consulting and coaching practice, we have identified major Dos and Don’ts for pitch presentations. We would like to share these lessons learned in a series of blog posts. To kick off the series, we will to address issues important for the preparation and the first minutes of a presentation.
The most common pitfalls
The wheel (of preparation) is continuously reinvented
It is surprising to discover the lack of routine even in organizations that tackle major pitch presentations on a frequent, i.e. almost weekly, level. A client describes the situation: “When an request for proposal (RFP) comes in – and that of course is a good thing – you’ll often see aimless activism taking over the team, like they’re completely blindsided.” Which is what our assessment confirms. We hardly come across standardized checklists, milestones, schedules or procedures in place for the preparation of a pitch. These are, however, vital to offer the team guidance and significantly reduce complexity. The closer the pitch date looms, the less time there is to prepare. Important parts of the process are neglected – which is unfortunate, as preparatory steps such as rehearsals are key to the team’s performance.
Most pitch presentations still kick off with a company presentation and the introduction of the global team. What a bore! These standard slides are often defended with surprising vigor. Of course they provide the comfort of well-trodden terrain to the speaker, allowing him get into the flow of things. However, in view of the fact that the time to discuss the really important issues at hand is usually limited, they are frankly more often than not a total waste of time and neither ensure a closer connection with the client nor do they create momentum. Let alone produce a unique selling point. The client already knows that you are relevant, trustworthy and efficient, otherwise he would not be there. Right from the start, the central question is whether he feels understood. You never have a second chance to make a first impression. If the initial impression you leave is that of a narcissistic consultant, the ensuing exchange will not get any easier. If you think the client might not be sufficiently informed about your company, then simply ask. Clients are usually happiest with consultants who focus on getting to the point. The bottom line: Follow the principle of giving the client the feeling that he is the focus of your attention and in the driver seat of the process.
Too much focus on the written word – lacking consideration of „route of transportation“
Most pitches come at short notice, with increasingly ambitious lead times. Teams pull all-nighters to deliver presentations fresh off the printer. The perils are obvious: oversights, slips, presentations that are far too complex, insufficient knowledge of the facts, a less than ideal flow due to a lack of rehearsals… not to mention presenters too tired to catch important vibrations and cues from their audience, unable to react to questions at an appropriate level of flexibly and quick-wittedness. However, most teams are perfectly able to answer key questions from the top of their head without excessive preparation. The truly interesting part of a pitch presentation usually starts as soon as the presenter drifts away from the script plunges into the “sparring” part. The bottom line: Be bold and venture out with less of a written script – but place more emphasis on preparing client discourse. You’ll be surprised at your team’s confidence and poise.
Excessive internal personality cult – too little focus on a functioning, well-coordinated pitch team
There are always those legendary “Rainmakers” of an organization, flown in from across the globe, preceded by stories how their presence made all the difference in past pitches. The reality, however, more often than not is much less convenient – once they have reached their destination, the rainmakers often insist on upending the entire presentation, taking over the pitch with extensive monologues and asking questions that leave both the client and the pitch team clueless. As they are “needed everywhere” they often arrive late and leave early. The effect of this unordered “in and out” atmosphere, their didactics and interaction can be disruptive, ultimately overpowering any positive effect of their expertise and network. Hierarchically, they frequently are no match to the customer level, causing a feeling of uneasiness among client representatives.
Too much monologue, too little dialogue
“How many slides is your presentation?” I ask during one of the prep rounds, eyeing a spiral binding of impressive thickness. “Just 30 – plus the appendix.” I ask: “And how much time do you have?” “An hour, as usual.” ”That’s exactly two minutes per slide, leaving zero time for any interaction with the client. Is that really what you want?” “Oh no, there’s a lot in there we can just go over quickly.” This is how a number of our prep talks for presentations start out. It seems more important that everything is tightly “packed” into the presentation than to focus on a good story, on catching the client’s attention and laying the groundwork for constructive dialogue. And the effect of hastily jumping from slide to slide is heavily underrated. The listener involuntarily will ask: “If it’s not important, then why is it included in the presentation, or are they trying to keep something from us?” The intended flow does not work this way – the story “breaks”. Not to mention the lack of confidence, increasing alongside mounting time pressure, as well as the decreased flexibility and intuition a consultant under this kind of pressure experiences. A dialogue, which is key, is not likely to develop under these circumstances. There is nothing quite as sobering as facing a disengaged client who shows no reaction to anything you are saying.
A lack of courage to freestyle
Most presentations are prepared in strict adherence to customers’ specifications. Too little time is invested into thinking “out of the box”, into offering surprising insights or impulses to the clients. In preparing predictable content, unexpected questions of conflicts that might arise are not sufficiently considered. This is unfortunate, because (critical) inquiries or counterarguments are actually a real “token of love”: Clients who try to enter a dialogue are sending a positive signal. You have succeeded in catching their attention, they like your presentation – even if the opinions stated are controversial. It is crucial to practice the routine handling of these unforeseeable situations – at least as important as fulfilling all points of the briefing.
Based on these cornerstones and in close collaboration with our clients, we create a resilient process to prepare them for any scenario. In the case described above, the positive energy that had spread across the entire team as a result of our efforts was tangible. Everyone was eager and ready to tackle the pitch presentation, and the following pitch was a complete success. Our customer was a clear outsider with very slim chances of winning the pitch in question, but on the very next day, they wrote us a triumphant e-mail: “You’ll never guess what happened – the feedback to our pitch was overwhelming. The client said we completely shattered the competition.”
Julia Weiss works with her executive clients to unleash their full potential in their varying roles, and/or of their work teams and organizations. Thus she enables the executive and his or her team to achieve a sophisticated and sustainable level of performance. Julia is a certified executive and team coach, moderator and speaker with a focus of sales performance and change management. She works as a Partner of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Julia’s experience is based on more than 15 years of work in different senior management settings – as a strategy consultant and as managing director - sales in the media industry.