Get the "Elevator Pitch" -- or the Shaft

Long and boring presentations alienate prospects every bit as much as short, ill-informed ones. Here are some pitch-perfect tips

By Michelle Nichols

"Whatever happened to the old elevator pitch?" a vice-president recently complained to me. The "elevator pitch" is a short-and-sweet sales presentation tailored for the time it takes to get from the lobby to the potential customer's floor. This particular vice-president has an annual budget of $35 million, so you know he has a lot of salespeople calling on him.

"If I see another sales rep come into my office with a 35-slide PowerPoint presentation for a one-hour meeting, I am going to throw him out," he continued. "That's more than one slide every two minutes." As he noted, there isn't much time for discussion.

"What's worse," he went on, "is when each of those 35 slides is crammed with details listed in small type." At the end of one of those presentations, this is one vice-president who is less likely to sign a purchase order than reach for an aspirin to ease his aching head.

There's enough blame to go around when such a selling scenario unfolds -- the salesperson, his or her sales management, and the marketing department. So let's look at five sales-presentation flaws and consider how to eliminate them:

The presentation is too long. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, "I had to write a long speech because I didn't have time to write a short one." Before you give a sales presentation, keep it as brief and focused as possible by preparing thoroughly. It's better to end with a few minutes to spare than to run over your time limit, or worse yet, get cut off in the middle of your presentation.

I once witnessed a high-energy salesman make a bet with a potential customer that he could give his initial presentation in under five minutes. When the jaded customer took the bait, the salesman took off his big and expensive watch, set the timer, gave it to the customer, and began his presentation. At the end of the five minutes, the salesman asked if the customer wanted him to continue. It was a very effective approach -- and probably qualifies as an elevator pitch.

Don't commit the sin of TMI -- too much information! Sometimes, concerned that their reps aren't knowledgeable enough, marketing departments create presentations covering each detail of every possible aspect of the sale. That's a mistake because all that extra benefits softens the punch of the key benefits being offered.

I like to challenge marketing folks to take every piece they create and chop them in half. Yes, half! Half the words, half the pages, half the details. If you want, you can put many of the details in a supplement and leave it behind for the customer to read later. The vice-president mentioned above said he prefers sales reps who bring just five-or-so slides to an hour's meeting. That leaves the majority of the time for two-way dialogue.

The customer's concerns aren't addressed. During any first meeting, I recommend starting with a series of structured questions to better understand your customer's concerns and key issues. Only after gaining a good grasp of the situation should you begin your presentation.

Here is another piece of advice: Marketing personnel should spend a week in the field, listening and learning as sales reps talk to current and potential customers. This will provide firsthand insights into the sort of information that makes customers' eyes light up -- and what puts them into a snooze.

Salespeople who don't know their stuff. This broad complaint goes beyond a lack of knowledge about the product itself, it also involves an inability to discuss financing, the company as a whole, future products, and a slew of other pertinent issues. Make no mistake, it is the responsibility of the rep and management to ensure that customers aren't forced to witness the spectacle of presenters fudging responses or groping hopelessly for answers.

When it's feasible, actually use the product or service you are selling. When I sold banking equipment, for example, I learned more by using it for a week at a customer's site than I absorbed by simply reading the product literature. It's also a good idea for reps to spend some time with personnel in company departments other than sales, the goal being to better understand how your outfit's various fiefdoms can work in unison to better serve customers.

Ignorance of the competition. Make sure you know about all the alternatives you competitors might be offering. When your customer brings up a rival's offering, be prepared to show why yours is superior or has some compensating benefit in another area. If you're caught flat-footed and surprised, ask the prospect if you can do some research it and promise that you will get right back to them. When it comes to competition, silence isn't golden -- it's fatal.

Homework incomplete. It's vital to be familiar with the background of the company, department, or individual client you are calling on. Today, with the power of the Internet just a click away, there is no excuse for not mastering basic information about any company you call on, large or small.

No matter what you sell, be it paper clips or whiz-bang gizmos, always have three sizes of sales presentations ready to deliver as circumstances demand: regular-sized, super-sized, and the elevator pitch. Why? Well, like the Boy Scouts say, it pays to be prepared. Happy Selling!

Michelle Nichols is a Sales consultant, trainer, and speaker based in Houston, Texas. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at

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