“I’m not sure. Something with computers?”
This was the answer my mother routinely gave others (and I suspect still does) when asked what my new company did, having left my role as a research scientist in early 2000, at the height of the dot.com boom, to join my first tech start-up. Being from a different generation, I thought my mother’s sentiment was simply rooted in a lack of context and understanding. But 17 years of tech sales and 4 start-ups later, I’ve come to realize that her confusion wasn’t all that misguided. As it turns out, despite your awesome sales and marketing machine, most customers have no idea what you or your company does. What’s even more shocking is that your company may not either.
While articulating what you do may seem like the most basic and bulletproof part of your sales playbook, it’s deceptively one of the most difficult and inconsistent.
This past fall I attended the CEB Sales and Marketing Summit and met a sales enablement leader from one of the world’s largest biotech companies. He joyfully recounted a prospecting call he received from a sales rep early one morning. “I like to get into the office early” he said, “get some work done before things get too busy. I know some sales reps also like to make early morning calls to catch people like me at their desk. One morning I decided to answer one of those calls. ‘Ok, you got me! You have 2 minutes…give me your best pitch!’” he joked to the rep. He then described how, for the next 2 minutes, the sales professional on the other end couldn’t have tripped over himself more to force out the worst pitch he had ever heard.
Concerned your organization might be facing a similar issue? You can triage the extent of the problem by considering this escalating series of tests.
Test #1: New User Impression
Your team has no problem articulating your pitch with clarity and simplicity, but can an average prospect figure out what you do in one minute or less using only the information available on your website (i.e. online copy, videos, explainer tools, etc.)? Steve Krugg, author of the best-selling book, Don’t Make Me Think correctly asserts, “If visitors can’t identify what it is you do within seconds, they won’t stick around”. That why, back at start-up #3, we used a service called usertesting.com to get unbiased assessments of our solution from new users. With minimal guidance, we were able to observe the user’s interaction and real-time commentary on our website. The feedback very extremely enlightening (if not alarming at times) but definitely helped highlight our blind spots and align our online presence to our value proposition.
The good news is if you can pass tests #2 and 3 but aren’t sure about this one, you’re in an ok spot.
Test #2: Sales Rep Spot Check
Pull a random sales rep off the phone and ask them to explain what your company does in 15 seconds or less. This experiment typically has three outcomes:
1) They nail it! Not only is the pitch awesome but it’s generally consistent across each rep.
2) Meh. Most reps manage to cobble together an ok pitch, but the impact is highly variable across your team
3) Trainwreck. After 2 minutes of incoherent babble, you wonder why you let these people talk to customers.
Ideally, you want outcome #1 but somewhere between #1 and 2 is workable. If you didn’t nail test #1 and aren’t quite sure how you’d do on this one, you better hope you’re on target for test #3!
Test #3: Executive Team Spot Check
Same as experiment #2 but with members of your executive team. Can your financial, technical, support, or operations leaders explain what you do? What about (no joke) your sales and marketing leaders? While we’d all like to think that the people steering the ship have the clarity and consistency of message we expect of everyone else, this isn’t always the case. Unfortunately, if you didn’t nail this one, it’s highly unlikely you hit #1 or 2 out of the park either. After all, if your senior leaders can’t clearly articulate your value proposition, how can you expect anyone to?
If you feel you need work in this area, don’t worry. Here are a few messaging tips to set you on the right track:
- Get Back to Basics: perhaps your team is challenged to articulate your pitch because it’s old, complicated, or inconsistent with your current solution or market values. Instead of jumping to refine it, start by revisiting your brand, your mission, and your core beliefs. Then use them to guide you to a simple, compelling, and customer-centric value proposition that’s easy to explain. Test market your message with both new and existing customers to align the problem they’re looking to solve with the value they feel you can deliver to ensure it hits the mark!
- Document it: writing your pitch down will leave no ambiguity as to the specific words and phrasing that should accompany its delivery. Once you’ve done that, I recommend having your best sales rep, marketing person, or executive create either an audio or video recording of themselves delivering the pitch. Creating a gold standard to demonstrate what excellence looks like is critical to driving the consistency you’re after.
- Certify and drive accountability for knowing it: if your goal is to get to a point where you can pull any sales rep off the phone and have them articulate your message with clarity, consistency, and conviction, do just that! In addition to certifying your team on your messaging through formal enablement programs, drive accountability and promote regular practice by randomly selecting a few team members to rattle off their pitch during the first 5 minutes out of your group meetings. Letting your team know you’ll be using this approach in advance will help promote an ongoing sense of accountability and they’ll appreciate you helping them get better!
With all the hurdles, roadblocks, and distractions the modern sales and marketing organization encounters, explaining what you do should be the easiest part of the sales process! The key to ensuring your organization is able to consistently deliver a message that both resonates and is easily articulated is to understand where you need the most help and leverage the training and accountability tactics needed to make it stick.