The 6 Surprising Characteristics of Successful Pitches [New Research]

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Aja Frost
Aja Frost


What are the differences between a sales call that leads to a closed deal and one that leads to an unresponsive prospect?

You might chalk up failure to a number of things -- the prospect wasn’t interested in the value prop, they were looking for a cheaper solution, your product didn’t offer all the features they needed, and so on.

But a new article in Harvard Business Review suggests your attitude may be the culprit.

Lakshmi Balachandra, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College and negotiation and pitching expert, spent 10 years studying meetings between venture capital (VC) investors and entrepreneurs. The takeaways will improve your sales pitches.

Focus Your Delivery

Most founders think the contents of their sales pitch is the biggest determining factor of the investment. In other words, making investors believe in the mission and product will lead to funding.

However, Balachandra says investors are actually judging entrepreneurs on their personality. By the time they get to an in-person meeting, the VC has already reviewed the founder’s pitch.

Calls between salespeople and prospects work the same way. Most buyers won’t agree to speak with you unless they see your solution or expertise as relevant to their situation. To build on this foundation and actually win the deal, you must create the right impression.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should put 100% of your energy toward your delivery. If buyers don’t fully understand the value of your offering, they won’t make good customers. Connect your product’s features to their pain points, encourage questions and feedback, and reinforce your points with customer stories.

Dial Down Your Enthusiasm

According to common wisdom, you should be energetic and passionate about your product. If you don’t believe in what you’re selling, how will the buyer?

Yet when Balachandra analyzed 185 pitches, she discovered people prefer calm demeanors over “passionate” ones. Follow-up research revealed calmness comes across as leadership strength.

With that in mind, don’t be too enthusiastic on sales calls. Act cool, collected, and self-assured. Your prospects will instinctively give more weight to your argument.

Trust Is Crucial

We’ve always stressed the importance of credibility, but it turns out winning your prospect’s trust might be even more significant than we knew.

Balachandra discovered investors would rather work with a trustworthy founder than a competent one. Believing the entrepreneur is honest and straightforward decreased their sense of risk -- and unlike specific skills, it’s nearly impossible to “teach” character.

What does that mean for salespeople? First, never claim to know something you don’t. It’s better to admit your ignorance than risk being caught in a lie. The buyer may even trust you more because you’re clearly honest.

Second, use case studies and testimonials to reinforce your credibility. Broad claims like, “Our tool will make you more efficient” aren’t very believable, but specific, data-backed ones like “Our tool allows Dataguard’s average salesperson to give five more demos per week than before” are.

Other Quick Tips

There are three more takeaways from Balachandra’s research that you can implement immediately to start closing more business.

Add some humor. Laughing makes entrepreneurs likelier to get funding. During your sales call, demo, or presentation, crack a joke or two. It will make you look more confident and help you build rapport with your audience.

Highlight mutual connections. Founders who mentioned friends they have in common with the VCs were more successful. If you don’t have any shared contacts, bring up mutual customers or the other companies in their space using you. Your goal is to enhance your authority with names or businesses they’ll recognize.

Avoid being overly emotional or expressive. When founders were too warm, expressive, or emotional, their chances of success went down. With this in mind, try to be assertive and relatively neutral.

Pitching to VCs and pitching to prospects are very similar. To win their money, you need to earn their trust. And to earn their trust, you need to demonstrate confidence, credibility, and preparedness.

What do you think -- is this research helpful from a sales rep’s perspective? Let us know in the comments.

Topics: Sales Pitch

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