How to build a sales pitch that wins
Sales pitches don't have to suck.

Very few startups take advantage of an excellent narrative to help them sell. Sales meetings seem more like an overview of features than a compelling set of reasons to buy, leaving potential customers confused rather than excited. And is there anything more frustrating than losing deals to competitors with clearly inferior products?

How do you build a narrative that communicates how your product is different and better than anything else on the market? April Dunford is the foremost authority on product positioning and the best-selling author of Obviously Awesome, which many founders consider the industry bible on product positioning. Her latest book, Sales Pitch, takes the lesson learned from working with hundreds of companies to share a better way to pitch and sell your product. 

Watch the full session or dive into our key takeaways below.

Selling is hard, but so is buying

Selling can be tough in the startup world. Many startup founders know how to build products but struggle with sales. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things you have to get good at. A product that nobody buys is a flop. 

Let’s flip the perspective and think about it from the customer’s side. 

April suggests something a bit bold: “Buying is hard.”

Sure, buying certain things can be enjoyable, but let’s be honest–some purchases, like insurance, aren’t a fun or easy decision to make. That’s the case for a lot of B2B purchases.

April shared a non-tech-related example to illustrate her point: buying a toilet. A seemingly simple task at face value–purchasing a new toilet for her old house in Toronto–she was overwhelmed by the sheer number of options. 

When she entered the store, she was met with countless toilets that all looked the same, but they weren’t the same, as each came with its own features and price tag. Confused by all the toilet jargon, April realised she didn’t know enough about toilets to make an informed decision. So she went home and started Googling her options, which only added to her confusion, as she discovered a plethora of technical details she never knew existed. 

Feeling frustrated and pressed for time, April considered abandoning buying a new toilet altogether. The thought of sticking with her old one, despite its flaws, seems more appealing than navigating the overwhelming world of toilet shopping. After weeks of indecision and exhaustive research, she walked away empty-handed. 

The B2B buying process

How hard is it to buy your product? Before prospects buy, they need to figure out what matters so they can make a short list. A great sales pitch makes it easy for your customer to distinguish the attributes and differentiators of your product. A bad sales pitch leaves the prospect stressed, confused and indifferent. 

Let’s look at an example. 

A VP of Finance wakes up one morning and says, “We’re stuck in the middle of an audit and my accounting software sucks.” Does she go looking for accounting software to buy? No, she’s busy. She goes into the office and asks her Financial Controller, Joey, to future out what accounting software they should buy.

Joey knows nothing about accounting software; he doesn’t use it and has never had to purchase it before. He doesn’t know what state-of-the-art accounting software is, who the vendors are, or what his criteria should be. He looks it up and finds 9 million different solutions. He goes to G2 Crowd, and there’s a top-right quadrant with 30 vendors in there, all of whom look the same. They all list features he knows nothing about. He’s stressed.  

Joey goes to one company’s website and signs up for a demo. The sales rep gets very excited, and Joey steps into a product walkthrough, a wind tunnel of features. But he doesn’t know if these features are important, valuable or suitable for this company. 

Making a bad decision is high stakes. Joey may look stupid in front of his boss. He might end up being the guy who picked the terrible accounting software. Maybe they buy the software and flunk their audit. His promotion could be at risk, or worse, he gets fired.

What’s the easiest, lowest-risk decision a buyer like Joey can make in this situation? It’s simply to say to his boss, “Now’s not a good time. We’re in the middle of the audit and we’ve got lots of stuff on our plate. It’s not that we love the thing we’re using, but now’s not a good time to switch, so let’s delay it.” And he’s hoping that next time, they pick somebody else to make that decision.

“You might not think this happens very often, but it happens all the time. It’s our fiercest competition in B2B tech,” says April.

“The research on this is terrifying. 40-60% of B2B purchase processes end in no decision. They looked at all their options and couldn’t figure out how to confidently make a decision that wouldn’t get them in trouble.” 

From pushy salesperson to helpful guide

If the easiest and lowest risk decision is to do nothing, how can we overcome this?

Going back to April’s experience trying to buy a toilet, she had settled on keeping her old one because she was too busy to decide. But then her building contractor informed her they’d gotten rid of the old toilet—it was time to go back to the toilet store. 

At the store, she meets a salesman named Lou. Lou guides her through the toilet-buying decision-making process by focusing on three main factors: quality, aesthetics and space. He explains the difference between high and low-quality toilets, aesthetic preferences and space-saving options, and they whittle it down to a shortlist based on what’s important to April. He’s forthcoming about the fact that he works for the Toto brand but assures her that any of the toilets on her shortlist will be fine.

Was Lou being a pushy salesperson trying to get April to buy a specific toilet? No, he wasn’t. He was acting less like a salesperson and more like a guide.

“What he was doing was teaching me how to take the world of toilets and divide it up according to the things that are important to me so I could make my own decision with a high degree of confidence,” explains April. 

When April suggests taking Lou’s approach to selling toilets and applying that to software sales, she gets pushback from companies for two reasons:

  • We can’t talk about the competition. 
  • No-one’s going to believe us because we’re biased.

The research says they’re wrong about point #2. In an extensive research survey, B2B software purchasers were asked: What do you want in a sales meeting? The top two things they wanted were:

  1. Perspectives on the market. Not you, the whole market. 
  2. Help me navigate alternatives. The question they’re asking isn’t “Why should we pick you?” it’s “Why should we pick you over the alternatives?”. 

Pitch perfect

Good positioning is essential if you’re going to build a better sales story that gives customers a perspective on the market and helps them choose you over the alternatives. 

If you’ve read any of April’s stuff on how to do positioning, you’ll know there are five components to it:

  1. Competitive alternatives (i.e. who is our competition?)
  2. Distinct attributes (i.e., what capabilities are different from the competition?)
  3. Differentiated value (i.e., what value can we deliver to customers that no one else can?)
  4. Best-fit customers (i.e. what is our definition of best-fit customer?)
  5. Market category (i.e. what market do we intend to win?) 

The problem is that most positioning doesn’t survive the jump to sales. The default is to show them the product and leave the prospect to decide whether it is different and better than the other options.  

April proposes a better alternative: “What we actually need to do is translate positioning into a sales pitch.”

There are two pieces to April’s sales pitch structure: the setup and the follow-through. 

The setup is where you talk about the market and position yourself amongst the other alternatives. It includes:

  • Your insight into the market (i.e., how do you look at the market differently from your competitors).
  • The pros and cons of the alternative ways of solving the problem. 
  • Getting alignment with the customer on what a perfect solution would look like.

The follow-through is all about your differentiated value. Assuming you're aligned with your customers on what a perfect solution looks like, this is where you switch gears to discuss how your solution delivers on it. 

Let’s use Help Scout, a company April has worked with, as an example of how to pull together your sales pitch.

  1. Insight into the market: Help Scout’s insight is that customer support in e-commerce businesses is a significant driver of growth, not just a cost centre. It’s one of the few places e-commerce businesses get live interaction with their customers. They understand that providing exceptional customer experience can increase loyalty and repeat purchases. This insight sets Help Scout apart from competitors who may view customer support as purely a cost to minimise. 
  2. Pros and cons of alternative solutions: Help Scout identifies two main alternatives in the market: shared inboxes and traditional help desk software. Shared inboxes are easy to start with but lack advanced features for scaling customer support operations. On the other hand, traditional help desk software offers advanced features but may be complex to use and is primarily designed to reduce support costs rather than prioritise customer experience. 
  3. Alignment with the customer: Help Scout aligns with the customer’s desire for a solution that is as easy to use as a shared inbox, provides advanced features to support growth without the need for migration and prioritises delivering an outstanding customer experience.

    To drive alignment, you may say something like, “So, in a perfect world, we’d want a solution that was 1) as easy to use as a shared inbox and 2) has all the advanced features so we’d never have to grow out of it, and it was designed from the ground up to deliver an amazing customer experience because we know that’s important for driving growth.” This is the moment where if the customer is with you and they say, “Yeah, right, we want that,” you switch gears and start pitching Help Scout. 
  4. Follow-through with differentiated value: Now, all you have to do is show them how you deliver on everything you’ve discussed. In a demo, HelpScout demonstrates its differentiated value by showcasing its platform’s ease of use, comprehensive feature set and customer-centric design. Rather than just listing features, Help Scout’s pitch emphasises how its solution uniquely meets the customer’s needs and preferences.

“This pitch is designed from the ground up to answer the question: Why pick us over the alternatives you have?” explains April. “Did I bash the competition when I did that? No, I didn’t even say the name of my competition. I put them in buckets and I contrasted how we approach the problem to the way other vendors might approach the problem.”

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