Whether proactively reaching out to potential future customers or responding to inbound enquiries, salespeople and business development reps in complex B2B sales environments often find themselves having to make a large number of contact attempts in order to get a single new conversation started.
Of course, good research and preparation (and a strong, relevant, and distinctive value proposition) can help. But the sense of relief in finally uncovering a potential prospect with an apparently promising issue, need or problem after a series of unsuccessful attempts can often cause the salesperson to rush to present their solution.
This temptation - variously described as “the itch to pitch” or “premature elaboration” - might be understandable, but it is completely the wrong thing to do...
In simple transactional sales in response to a clearly defined active current need, this tactic might work, but in any complex sales environment that is likely to involve multiple stakeholders and a lengthy and often complex buying journey this “itch to pitch” is a deeply dysfunctional behaviour.
"Pitch decks" are part of the problem
And yet we still see this approach embedded in sales materials and presentations and in the tactics taught to salespeople in far too many sales organisations. How many sales presentations have you been subjected to (or even given) that start by introducing the company and their products, often in boastful terms?
Even worse, how many of those “pitch decks” (a horrible term) appear to be designed to be delivered in broadcast mode, with hardly a pause for breath and without significant audience interaction from start to finish?
It’s no wonder that prospects that have been subjected to this amateurish behaviour from other vendors are increasingly reticent to engage in a conversation with an unknown salesperson who they suspect may subject them to a similar ordeal.
Ditching the itch to pitch starts with ditching the sales tools and tactics that were designed (often unwittingly) to perpetuate this disreputable and ineffective practice in the first place.
Our prospects don't care about our "solutions"
And wrapping what is otherwise a straightforward product or service in the false flag of a self-proclaimed “solution” isn’t any better. I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it again here: our prospective customers don’t care about our so-called solutions - at least not until they see us as an expert in an issue that they need to fix, avoid, or achieve.
It’s far better to uncover the prospect’s issue and to then continue to develop and explore it until we’ve reached the point where we’ve started to qualify the strength of the issue (and therefore the quality of the opportunity) and established ourselves as a subject matter expert and potential trusted adviser in the eyes of the prospect.
Sticking with their issue(s) - rather than surrendering to the itch to pitch - requires discipline, but the benefits that both we and our potential customer gain from this approach are tremendous. It also requires that we develop ways of dealing with prospects who simply say, “just show me/tell me what you’ve got” (not usually a good sign anyway).
The importance of mutual discovery
The way in which we conduct this all-important early-stage dialogue and discovery has a direct and profound impact on how the rest of our sales campaign is likely to unfold, on how we qualify the opportunity, and on our chances of winning.
We need to go into these initial conversations having thought as much (or more) about what we want to teach the prospective customer as what we want to learn from them. We need to recognise that our prospect is qualifying us just as much as we are qualifying them. And we need to recognise that in many situations our prospect is devoting as much thinking to “do we really need to do anything?” as they are to “are you a credible option?”
We need to be prepared to share our perspectives on the changes that are happening in our prospect’s environment, and to share our experiences of working with other similar organisations to identify, diagnose and address their issues.
Focusing on "why change" before "why us"
We must explore the implications and consequences of any potential issue for our current contact, for their department or function and for the organisation as a whole, and we must start to determine the relative importance of priority of the issue compared to all the other things they need to deal with.
We need to acknowledge that until our potential customer is persuaded of the need for change, they are not particularly concerned about deciding whether they should accomplish that change with us or another alternative option.
That’s why using the value story framework to guide our conversations with our prospective customer is so important. Before we succumb to the “itch to pitch”, we need to qualify the opportunity in both their terms and ours.
A question of contrast
We need to establish the strongest possible contrast between their current situation - and where they will end up if nothing changes - and a better future. We need to reinforce this by amplifying the costs of inaction and contrasting them with the benefits of change.
Both we and the customer need to determine whether the issue(s) and the consequences are clear, and whether action is unlikely. And when we finally get around to presenting our “solution” we’ll be able to do it in the context of a deep understanding of the customer’s specific priorities rather than a generalised pitch.
One final tip: if, at an early stage of the conversation, our prospective customer asks us, “what do you do?”, we must resist the temptation to tell them about our company or our offerings. Instead, we must describe ourselves in terms of what we have helped other organisations like theirs to achieve.
So - have you - and your colleagues - "ditched the itch to pitch?" And are you helping your prospective customers to scratch their issues instead?
About the Author
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, a recognised Sales Futurist, an active member of the Sales Experts Channel, and the driving force behind Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading proponents of outcome-centric selling.
Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob now works as a strategic advisor, mentor, trainer and coach to ambitious B2B sales organisations - teaching them how to differentiate themselves through their provably superior approach to achieving their customer's desired outcomes.