A Proud Storytelling Moment: Know Your Elevator Pitches

– By @AndyThurai

This story originally featured on Innovation Insights @ Wired magazine.

The year was 2002. Right after 9/11 everyone was hurting, especially the telco sector got almost wiped out – Nortel, Lucent, Alcatel, Avaya, Worldcom, MCI, and the list goes on. Some of them got completely wiped out, and some of them resurfaced years later. Anyway, the story is not about them.

I was working for Nortel at that time. I got laid off sometime in 2002, along with our entire division, when the impact hit the company. Sitting at home, living off severance and my wife’s salary/benefits, the opportunities were very hard to come by. Even the ones far and few between were crowded with lines of people wearing suits like in that movie Dick & Jane.

Dick&JaneSo when a friend of mine wanted me to help him out I was all over it. He was in the business of selling home security systems for the largest home security company nationwide. He was one of their leading dealers, with multiple offices around the country, and given my selling/story telling skills, he was wondering if I could help his sales guys. The home security systems were selling like hot cakes, especially given the down turn in the economy; there were many break ins, so people were looking to protect themselves. Yet they couldn’t upsell devices such as smoke/CO detectors or flood monitors, which would bring in pure profits for them.

The problem was that every home was fitted with cheap smoke detectors from home supply stores and there was no need for high priced, monitored smoke detectors. He wanted me to help his team to sell at least one smoke detector per sale, or more.

I visited a few customer sales calls with his sales guys. The problem became very clear quickly. Much like in the technology world, they were trying to sell mostly by functions and futures and got into a rabbit hole of price comparison with cheap smoke detectors from home supply stores. This means with every customer, even after their willingness to buy the home security system, they were wasting their time in trying to demonstrate their smoke detector’s “cadilac”ness.

Dinner_Smoke_Alarm_SignEssentially, they were pitching to the C level buying executive (the home owners), who is willing and ready to buy, in technology terms instead of business or value terms. The following were the lines I heard to my amusement: (Variations of these for CO and flooding sensors too.)

  1. Most advanced fire & smoke detector on the market.
  2. Detect fire/smoke before your other local, cheap hardware store detectors can find it.
  3. We are watching your house 24×7. We have six monitoring centers so if one of our monitoring centers goes down we will back it up with another.
  4. We will notify the fire dept. immediately so valuable minutes are not lost in mad scramble while saving your valuables.
  5. Fires start in your home for the simplest of reasons – old house wires shorting, candles, malfunctioning appliances, etc.
  6. The US Fire Administration recommends that you install one outside each bedroom, kitchen, laundry room, garage,….(this was actually the worst by giving them a sticker shock of high priced smoke detectors with a hope of selling many devices in one home).
  7. While the cheap smoke detectors can sense the fast burning fire, they don’t catch the smoldering fire, which takes a long time to catch. We use both photoelectric and ionization sensors so we can sense both fast flames as well slow, smoldering fires.

Listening to these pitches, I still didn’t quite get why I should be buying. Now this is not just applicable to smoke detector sales, but classic enterprise selling 101. Selling to the guy with the checkbook is different than selling to the guy with a credit card (more on that in a later article). But, ultimately, if I am a C level, I neither have the time nor the inclination to listen to your functions and features pitch. If you are pitching something to me, in 1 min or less you need to articulate what value it is going to add for me as opposed to how great your solution is. This is where most enterprise sales pitches fail – Having context based, bite sized (aka. elevator pitches) messages. You can’t just use a one size fits all elevator pitch for everyone, every time. Even at the C level, the CEO needs are different from CMO needs or from CIO/CTO needs. It also changes with time and their company direction. As long as you understand walking into the situation ,armed with an answer to their inevitable question of “So What?”, you have their ears – every time. Having done this over many years, they not only listen to me, but use me as an advisor to ask my opinions before they make some decisions. It is an enviable position to be in.

Now back to the story. After spending a few days on thinking this and asking my friend, “Who is your target audience?” and “What would be their compelling need to buy this?”, the story started to emerge. It is mostly either parents with very young kids, parents who leave kids at home with a nanny/ babysitter while at work, or pet owners who leave their pets behind to go to work/vacation or on long trips. There are also some secondary buyers such as the paranoid kind. So we came up with a couple of versions of stories for different buyer personas.

As with any executive sales pitch, you need to keep in mind the following golden rules:

  1. Your pitch needs to be as short as possible. Generally it should NOT exceed a few minutes for the executive level. Our pitch was about 2 minutes, including all the melodramatic pauses.
  2. Your pitch needs to be very efficient. State the problem, state how the current solution is totally wrong, state how yours is miles ahead in solving the same issue yet very simple.
  3. Your pitch needs to state that by continuing the current solution, the issue will get worse over time.
  4. Your pitch needs to be as visual as possible. Don’t use 30 slides. A visual cue is good enough.
  5. Your pitch needs to avoid all tech jargons and buzz words that are not known to general public (or to the C level executive).
  6. Finally, don’t show the bad of other solutions but try to show the good that can come out of your solution.

With the pet owners or the young mothers (approving executive) watching, the sales rep stands up next to an installed smoke alarm, lights a cigarette lighter and holds it next to it (we figured out the right distance so not to activate it by proximity heat and generally no smoke comes out of the lighter to set the alarm off). This flame will be on and next to the smoke detector the whole time during the pitch (which generally lasts for 2 minutes) without tripping the alarm.

Here is the actual pitch. (In the interest of blog length, just use your imagination for other variations such as having a pet, paranoia kind, you are a deep sleeper, etc.)

“You are out at a fancy dinner. Your infant, (using the baby’s name here with a pause is very effective), is with a baby sitter who is on the phone the whole time. A slow, smoldering fire starts in the basement. Your store brand, such as this, didn’t catch the fire. Your unmonitored detector was running out of battery for a while, so it’s weak to detect fires. The fire is fast growing now and spreading a lot of smoke and CO, which is turning your house smoke filled, and the air is unbreathable with near zero visibility. (Pause here for dramatic effect and watch the horror in their faces.)

Lucky you have the XXX smoke alarm, which detected the initial slow smoldering fire, the CO spread, the fast spreading fire, and the smoke, and alerted our 24×7 monitoring center about all of the above. We called your fire dept. for you. The fire trucks showed up at your home before your cheap store brand even activated.

When you get home, your kids are safe from fire and CO, your home is safe, and as a bonus your insurance company will be telling you that not only your insurance will not go up for this, but it will go down by 20% because you are protected by XXX.” (Yes, home insurance companies give a discount up to 20% as these sensors prevent damages and burglary.)

To our surprise, the smoke & CO detector sales spiked up. About 50% of the deals involved both sensors, and 80-90% involved at least one type of sensor. To their elation, multiple sensors were sold in a deal, driving their pure profits up.

Now, are you telling your enterprise customer the value you are adding to their business, and to their customers, or are you hair splitting the design difference between a photoelectric and ionization feature that you have implemented in your solution?

Hope it is the former!



About Andy Thurai
My website is www.theFieldCTO.com

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