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April Dunford: Sales Pitch; How to Craft a Story to Stand Out and Win

Sales Pitch Basic

Do You Sell or Do You Help Customers Buy?

In marketing, we make a distinction between “considered” and “unconsidered” purchases. Typically, an unconsidered purchase is easier to make than a considered purchase. An unconsidered purchase is something you buy without much planning or forethought.

Considered purchases take more time and effort because there are potentially negative consequences if you make a poor choice.

Most technology purchased by businesses, from accounting software to project management tools, are highly considered purchases.

As sellers, we are often so preoccupied with how difficult it is to sell a product that we completely lose sight of how buyers are feeling during the purchase process.

“Customers, it turns out, are much less worried about missing out than they are about messing up.” Matthew Dixon & Ted McKenna

I believe that for any considered purchase, we can create a pitch, in the form of a story or narrative, that teaches customers how to buy. Not only that, but I also believe that we can create a narrative that helps our best-fit customers easily understand why they should choose us and feel very confident in making that decision.

As a vendor, we often don’t stop to think about the process a buyer goes through to purchase our product.

The easiest, safest purchase decision is often no decision.

In their 2022 book, The JOLT Effect: How High Performers Overcome Customer Indecision, Matthew Dixon and Ted McKenna reveal that between 40 and 60 percent of purchase processes end in no decision.

Customers can’t figure out how they should evaluate and buy solutions, so they simply don’t buy anything. Not making a purchase at all is an incredibly attractive option for a buyer who is worried about making a poor choice.

Fear is the granddaddy of B2B emotions. Fear of failure. Fear of the repercussions of making a poor decision. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of getting fired. In a sales situation, invoking feelings like trust and confidence can go a long way toward helping buyers overcome their fear.

What Do Customers Want from Vendors?

Many of the technology start-ups I work with assume that helping customers buy isn’t really their job as vendors. Their job is to sell their product. They assume that customers can and will do their own research, figure out their purchase criteria, make a shortlist, evaluate the options, and choose a product to purchase. They believe the vendor’s job is to understand customers’ problems and show how their solution solves them.

The key characteristics of a world-class sales experience all related to the sales rep’s ability to help customers figure out how to make an informed purchase.

The person leading a B2B purchase process is tasked with making a well-informed, low-risk, defensible purchase decision. Vendors tend to assume the question the prospect wants them to answer is, “Why pick you?” Instead, the question the customer really wants the vendor to answer is, “Why pick you over all the alternatives?”

Buyers Are Experts in Pain, Vendors Are Experts in Solutions. Understanding the solution space in which you operate is your business.

Sales Pitch Principles Theory

Sales Pitch Principles

What needs to happen before and during a first sales call with a prospect. These key elements are qualification, discovery, product demonstrations, and differentiated value.

The process of qualification is making sure your prospect is a potential good fit for your offering. For most companies selling to businesses, qualification happens before the buyer gets to a first true sales meeting.

Discovery usually happens in a first sales call. Done well, discovery is a conversation during which the buyer teaches the seller about their pain, problems, and situation, but the seller is also teaching the buyer about their point of view on problems and solutions in the space.

A successful discovery conversation aligns buyers and sellers on the true nature of the problem, what to consider when evaluating solutions, and the value a perfect solution should deliver.

Many, but not all, companies do a product demonstration in a first call with a customer.

There are various structures for product demos. The most used one I’ve seen is a “product walkthrough.” This is simply a guided tour of the key functionality of the product.

Value, and more importantly differentiated value, is at the core of great sales and marketing.

For many features of B2B products, you cannot assume that customers can make the leap from features to why the features matter. Value is the answer to the question, “So what?”

In a B2B sales situation, beyond simply the value you can deliver, you win deals based on your differentiated value — the value you can deliver that no other alternative can. Exposing your differentiated value, and helping a prospect understand why it is important for them, is the key to winning business. “Why pick us over the alternatives?”

A good sales pitch addresses the alternatives and helps customers understand how to categorize them, and what their strengths and weaknesses are for different types of buyers.

Four Common Approaches to Storytelling in a Sales Pitch

Smart businesses tell a wide range of stories for different audiences and to sell different things.

  • Many companies have an “employer” story designed to help prospective employees decide if they should join the company.
  • If a company is raising money, they will use an investor pitch to help investors understand why they are a good investment.
  • And then there is the sales pitch that sells a product or service.

Most sales and marketing teams use one of four distinct approaches to craft a narrative or pitch:

  • The product walkthrough.
  • The problem/solution pitch.
  • The vision narrative.
  • The hero’s journey.

The Product Walkthrough. This style of narrative works best when the buyer is highly educated or the solution they are using now is very similar to what you sell. What’s the Downside? It is focused on features, not value. “Identify stories that pique buyers’ curiosity and move them to action.” Jill Konrath. You spend too much time on capabilities that are not differentiating. Most product walkthroughs try to show everything they can do without highlighting what is differentiated. The product walkthrough is all about your solution and leaves no room to discuss the market.

The Problem/Solution Pitch. In these pitches, you describe “the problem” the customer has and then position your product as “the solution” to that problem, before following up with a demo that shows how you deliver the solution. This style of narrative works best when the buyer is highly educated and can translate the features they are shown into business value. What’s the Downside? Your competitors define the problem the same way you do. It is focused on features, not your differentiated value.

The Vision Narrative. The vision narrative is less about the current state of the product and more about its future state and the company’s strategy to get there. The vision narrative works best when pitching investors. What’s the Downside? It ignores competitors beyond the status quo. The vision narrative gives buyers yet another reason to delay a decision. It isn’t centered on differentiated value.

The Hero’s Journey. The hero’s journey starts with a hero who goes on an adventure or quest, learns a lesson, uses that knowledge to achieve victory, and then returns home transformed. The hero (the customer) has a problem and meets a guide (you!), who gives the hero a plan and calls them to action. This action ends in success and helps the hero avoid failure. The hero’s journey is used when the primary goal is to entertain and engage your customer through a story. What’s the Downside? “The plan” is focused on execution, not on how to decide what action to take. The concept of alternatives is missing.

The Road to a Better Sales Pitch Structure

Our positioning defined how our product was special and different from anything else in the market, but our sales pitch rarely reflected that positioning.

The Sales Pitch Structure

The goal of a great sales pitch is to help customers understand all their choices, the trade-offs between each, and when to pick your solution.

That means a great sales pitch should:

  • Help prospects understand the entire market, including other common alternatives beyond your product and the pros and cons of those alternatives mapped to their particular situation.
  • Accommodate the salesperson’s need to do in-depth discovery.
  • Help prospects clearly understand your differentiated value versus other alternatives and why the unique value only you can deliver is critically important.
  • Accommodate a product demonstration (should you choose to do one) as a natural part of the narrative flow of the pitch.
  • Include a clear call to action for what the prospect should do next.

I’ve broken the sales pitch structure into two distinct phases: the setup and the follow-through. The setup consists of three distinct components: Insight, Alternatives, and The Perfect World.

  • Insight: The insight frames the conversation by starting with what your experience has taught you about the customer’s situation, problems, and the solutions in the market.
  • Alternatives: In this step, you discuss what alternative solutions exist in the market today, and the pros and cons of those alternatives for various customers.
  • The Perfect World: This step outlines the characteristics of a perfect solution for your target customers.

The follow-through is focused primarily on exposing the value only your product can deliver to the prospect. This section has five distinct components.

  • The Introduction: You introduce the company and the product.
  • Differentiated Value: In this step, you cover the value that only your product can deliver for a specific customer and the features that enable that value.
  • Proof: Now you need to show how you can deliver the value you say you can.
  • Objections (optional): This is an optional step in the sales pitch where you explicitly handle common objection you believe are critical to address before the end of the meeting.
  • The Ask: You finish the meeting by recommending a next step for the prospect.

Sales Pitch Practical

A Great Sales Pitch Starts with Solid Positioning

The Five Components of Positioning:

  • Competitive Alternatives: These are the alternative ways of solving the problem in the minds of customers.
  • Unique Capabilities: These are the capabilities of your offering that the alternatives do not have.
  • Differentiated Value: This is the value your product enables for customers.
  • Best-Fit Customers: This is the definition of a target account that is a good fit for your product.
  • Market Category: The market category is the answer to the question, “What is it?”

Let me show you how to capture your positioning so that it can be used as a starting point for the sales pitch. What Are You Positioning and Pitching? If you are a single-product company, then the focus of the sales pitch will be your product. If your company has multiple products, then the focus of the pitch will depend on your sales process and what you usually try to sell first to a new account.

Preparing Your Positioning before Building a Sales Pitch

Who Is Your Audience? When you are creating your positioning and building a sales pitch, you need to consider who you are aiming it at. The key is to figure out who is your champion. You will encounter people in the following roles at some point in the purchase process:

  • The Economic Buyer.
  • The Champion.
  • End Users.
  • IT Department.
  • Legal and Purchasing.

In the early stages of a purchase process, the champion matters much more than any other person. It’s the champion who is doing the research to determine what the requirements are and making a shortlist. Once the champion has decided to consider your product as a potential solution, then a key part of your job is to understand the potential objections of all the other stakeholders and to arm the champion with the information to handle those objections.

Determining and Documenting the Positioning Components. These will be the key inputs to your sales pitch.

Competitive Alternatives. There are two main types of competitive alternatives: status quo and direct.

Once you have listed your true competitive alternatives, you can create a list of capabilities you have that the competitors don’t. The most critical component of your positioning is the value that only your product provides. Your interpretation of your unique value is deeply informed by what you know about the good customers you already have, including their business situation, the job they want to get done with your product, and their business priorities.

“Which customers care a lot about that value?” This step is where you list the characteristics of a target account that make them a good fit for what you do.

You can think of the market category as the context you position your product in. The job of the market category is to serve as a starting point for prospects who don’t know too much about your product.

Each component of positioning maps to the components of the sales pitch. Some have a direct relationship; some are a combination of several components taken together.

  • Insight: This step in the sales pitch comes from a combination of your differentiated value and your best-fit customers.
  • Alternatives: This step maps directly to the competitive alternatives you have captured in your positioning.
  • The Perfect World: The Perfect World step maps to your differentiated value.
  • The Introduction: Here, you introduce the product using the market category from your positioning.
  • Differentiated Value: This maps directly to the differentiated value and unique capabilities from your positioning.
  • Proof: This is the proof that you can deliver on the value you say you can.
  • Objections and The Ask: These two steps do not come from your positioning, but rather from your own sales experience and process.

Creating The Sales Pitch

Constructing the Sales Pitch Storyboard

I find it helpful to outline the overall structure for the pitch and then fill in the main points under each step as a way of storyboarding out the overall narrative.

You want to start a sales conversation in a way that sets up your differentiated value right from the start. The best way to do that is to start with the market insight that makes your differentiated value important to customers.

I believe that every successful company has a unique point of view on the market — they just aren’t always great at articulating it.

Step 1: Insight

It isn’t hard to craft your company’s unique insight once you have a method for doing it.

One way of thinking about your unique market insight is to ask this question: “What do your best-fit prospects need to know to understand why your unique value is important to them?”

Your unique insight into the market is what leads you to build a product that is different and better than the alternatives.

Once you have framed the discussion around your insight, your next move is to paint a picture of the entire market and the alternative approaches a company may choose to take.

Step 2: Alternatives

Think of your competition as “approaches to the problem” rather than individual companies.

In a good sales pitch, you are contrasting the different approaches to the problem, rather than trying to compare individual products.

The buyer is working through a purchase process to:

  • Clarify the problem. Why do we need a new solution? What does success look like?
  • Build a list of solution requirements. What is important for us in a solution? What isn’t important? What is possible and what isn’t with the current technology on the market?
  • Explore multiple vendors. Who should be on the shortlist and how do I evaluate these vendors?

This step in the positioning narrative is all about helping customers make sense of their alternatives and the trade-offs associated with each.

The key here is to understand what a customer sees as an alternative to your solution, not what you would necessarily consider a direct competitor.

When you sell to businesses, you are often competing with solutions that companies adopted because they were free and well known, and because they did a good enough job for the time being.

Besides the status quo alternative, you also need to understand what other solutions are landing on a buyer’s shortlist.

Companies that orient their marketing and sales stories too closely around a future vision of the market are only giving buyers more reasons to do what they are most inclined to do — delay making any purchase at all.

Your goal at this step in the sales pitch is to help the buyer make sense of their options. To do that, you need to group all the alternatives in the market into different “approaches” to solving the problem. We don’t compete with companies or products. We compete with approaches.

I generally prefer not to name competitors unless we are almost guaranteed that the prospect has already looked at them as a potential solution.

When you group these competitors, it’s important to do so according to your point of view on how they should be categorized.

This is your opportunity to educate your prospects about where you believe your competitors really land in the market after you strip away all the marketing buzzwords and subterfuge.

At this step, it is critical to present your case as objectively as possible. Your role is to be an informed guide — one who has the customer’s best interests at heart.

Discovery is a conversation, not a lecture.

Once you have categorized the alternative approaches, you need to outline the pros and cons of each alternative for different types of customers.

The Alternatives step is where you want to do discovery with the client.

A common mistake inexperienced sellers make in discovery is asking questions about the customer’s pain and problems with the expectation that prospects already know exactly what they are looking for.

Instead, you want to use this step in the narrative to have a back-and-forth discovery conversation in which you are learning about the customer’s situation, but you are also teaching the customer about the market.

Once you have discussed the trade-offs associated with your alternatives, it’s time to move on to “The Perfect World.” In this step, you will make sure the prospect is aligned with your point of view on the characteristics of a perfect solution for a buyer like them.

Step 3: The Perfect World

You can think of this step as the conclusion to the discussion you just had about the alternative solutions a prospect might choose.

Perfect solution would provide prospects with the important upsides of each alternative while avoiding the major drawbacks. If you have done this well, the list of characteristics of the perfect solution will map to your differentiated value.

The goal of this step is to ensure the prospect understands and agrees with your point of view on what is and isn’t important for a buyer like them. The customer doesn’t agree, which generally means they have disqualified themselves. The customer has agreed that their purchase criteria should look like the above list. They have chosen the value only you can deliver. Now all that is left to do is show them how your solution delivers it. The deal is yours to lose from this point forward.

Overall, reps should move through the first three steps of the sales pitch — Insight, Alternatives, and The Perfect World — fairly quickly.

From this point forward, you will switch from talking about the market context to talking about your company and the solution you can deliver.

Step 4: The Introduction

The structure of your introduction in the pitch will depend on your specific sales strategy.

In this introduction, a diagram is a common tool that either illustrates the component pieces of your solution or shows how your solution might fit into the prospect’s existing technology stack.

The family diagram: For multi-product companies, the product family diagram is a clear and easy way to describe all the products in the family and how they fit together. The platform diagram: For companies that sell a platform, a diagram can be a concise way to show prospects the range of functionality that is included as part of the platform. The “marketecture” diagram: For certain types of products, particularly those with technical buyers or infrastructure products (such as data, security, monitoring, and networking), it’s often important to illustrate how your solutions fit in with everything else the buyer already has.

Orient the prospect quickly around what you are and what you do, but then move on.

Step 5: Differentiated Value

In this step, you will clearly describe the value only you can deliver and dive into the features that enable that value.

If you have done your job well in previous steps, you have already helped the buyer understand why this value is important. Now, your main goal is to demonstrate how you deliver that value to your prospect.

Many companies I have worked with start the Differentiated Value step with a slide that introduces the value themes. Then they move to a detailed demo that walks through the key features that support each theme, and then move back to the slide to reiterate the themes before moving to the next step.

The key here is that the demo is organized to reinforce your differentiated value and make that real for prospects by showing them how you deliver it.

One of the most common mistakes I see start-ups make at this step is including capabilities that are important to customers but don’t exactly deliver value.

Step 6: Proof

Buyers have learned that just because the company says it can do something does not make it so. So, if you are going to make a claim of value, you will need to back it up with some proof.

You saying something about your own product isn’t proof, but a customer saying it is.

Here is a list of some ways you can prove that a value point is true:

  • Customer case studies.
  • Third-party verification.
  • Certification — for example, you have SOC 2 compliance for security.
  • Statistics that are validated by your customers.
  • Customer quotes.
  • Quotes or reviews from industry analysts.
  • Industry research or survey results from third parties.
  • Awards.

“Facts tell, but stories sell.” Bryan Eisenberg

Step 7: Objections

You may notice that there are common objections that are crucial to address in the first meeting, whether or not the customer has raised them.

This step is optional. If you find there are common unspoken objections you need to handle, this is when you would do that, but if not, you can skip this step.

Anticipating and handling unspoken objections is often a critical component of a first sales call.

Step 8: The Ask

It isn’t unusual to see inexperienced sales folks get to the end of a sales meeting and leave it up to the prospect entirely to decide what the next step should be.

“The Ask” will depend on what you believe is the best next step in your purchase process.

Not every buyer should or will move past a first sales call. The goal in the first call should not be to get every customer closer to making a purchase. Instead, your goal is to get every good-fit buyer past this stage. Quickly getting misaligned prospects out of your sales process is good for everyone.

Translating the Storyboard into a Sales Pitch

You have a storyboard for your sales pitch. Next, you need to turn the storyboard into a pitch your reps can use.

  • First and foremost, a standardized first-call deck ensures that you are consistently positioning your offerings in the best way you can.
  • Second, a standardized deck makes it much easier to onboard new reps.
  • Third, it’s impossible to measure and learn what’s working and what isn’t if every rep is having a different conversation in the first call.

The script can take the form of a word-by-word story or simply be a series of bullet points and suggestions.

There is also a tendency for sales reps to drift off message over time. The mature sales organizations I have worked with will periodically “recertify” reps on the pitch by having them pitch to the sales executive to ensure that the story remains consistent.

  • Step 1, Insight: The Insight step is generally done with a slide (or multiple slides).
  • Step 2, Alternatives: The competitive pros and cons can be done in a wide variety of ways.
  • Step 3, The Perfect World: This step can be done easily with or without a slide.
  • Step 4, The Introduction: The Introduction is generally done with a slide.
  • Step 5, Differentiated Value: Differentiated Value is often done with a demo, but it doesn’t need to be.
  • Step 6, Proof: The Proof step is often a case study, a logo slide, and potentially some “sparklers,” like awards or accolades, and is usually done with slides.
  • Step 7, Objections: How you present the optional Objections step will depend on the message you need to communicate.
  • Step 8, The Ask: The Ask can be a slide or scripted discussion.

The Sales Pitch Live

Testing and Launching the Sales Pitch

Getting the sales team to adopt a new sales pitch is often much harder than you think it is going to be.

My recommendation is to start with one salesperson, preferably someone the rest of the team looks up to and respects.

After every call, the team should sit down and compare notes on what they felt did and did not work in the meeting.

  • Where was the prospect getting lost?
  • Where was the prospect getting excited?
  • Were there questions asked that might indicate there was something confusing in the pitch?

Would call a new pitch validated when these two criteria are met:

  • The rep feels the pitch no longer needs further refinement or iterations.
  • The rep has made a decision to use the new pitch because it is clearly better than the old one.

If the pitch fails, there are usually two root causes: either the sales team wasn’t involved enough in the creation of the pitch, or the pitch doesn’t work because the positioning is weak.

Some companies will try to use a common industry trend as insight at the start of their sales pitch, rather than the company’s unique insight into the market.

The key to Step 1, Insight, is to go beyond these surface-level observations and get down to the insight that makes your solution uniquely valuable.

Experienced sales reps will naturally see Step2, Alternatives, as a place to do discovery. Less-experienced reps may fall into a trap of talking at a prospect, rather than taking the time to ask questions to make sure their characterization of the market is resonating with the prospect and that they are getting what they need to fully understand the prospect’s situation.

One of the most common mistakes companies make with this format is spending too much time on the setup phase.

I’ve seen companies do the setup in as little as ninety seconds, but others that need up to ten minutes.

Your positioning is the fundamental input to the sales pitch. Weak positioning leads to a weak insight statement and will result in an ineffective story about how you are differentiated from the alternatives.

If you are using a case study, it should reflect a similar industry or show a similar use case, such as moving from the same status quo solution.

It’s your job to make sure that the ask is straightforward and doesn’t cause the prospect to second-guess whether they should accept your recommendation for how to move ahead.

Using Your Sales Pitch Story beyond Sales Calls

Many companies have a short video on their home page that tells the story of who they are and the value they deliver.

A buyer’s guide is a great way to walk prospects though what you believe a knowledgeable buyer should consider.

The important point here is that if you are telling a story through the product itself, it is essential to understand what story you are telling and to whom.

Final Thoughts

  • Buying is hard.
  • “Do nothing” is the most fearsome competitor you have.
  • A great sales pitch starts with your company’s unique insight into the market.
  • Help customers understand their options and they will be better informed to make decisions confidently.
  • Differentiated value is the star of the show.
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