Stop “pitching” when you sell. It’s so one-way.

Instead of the sales pitch, think about the sales conversation.

Most successful selling isn’t about convincing. It’s about diagnosing. If you are pitching, it is only a coincidence if the pitch you toss at your customer lands in the right place. Unlike a sales pitch, a good sales conversation helps you diagnose your customer’s interests, needs and opportunities. And, it helps you identify the “spices” that make this customer unique.

Another danger of the sales pitch: People don’t like to listen to monologues. If you pitch, they will only hear some of what you say. If you manage to create true, genuine dialogue, they will be engaged in every word.

When you prepare for an interaction in which you have to sell something, stop thinking about what you want to say and start thinking about the kind of conversation you want to have. You can’t script a sales conversation, of course, or it really wouldn’t be a conversation. But you can think about how you will create a fluid dialogue, about how you will get the customer talking and revealing, and about how you will be 100% engaged for every moment of this conversation. You can have your toolbox of ideas and comments ready, at your side, but prepare yourself to have the patience to pull these ideas and comments out only at the appropriate time, bringing them into the conversation when the conversation arrives at the right place.

Sales conversations are much different than sales pitches. They are also more effective. Can you add to this list of differences between a sales pitch and a sales conversation?

The Sales Pitch The Sales Conversation
You deliver it You and your customer engage in it
You script it You and your customer create it
It is prescriptive It is diagnostic
It is one-way It is two-way
You sell to your customer You help your customer buy
You guess about what you should say Your customer shows you what to say
You receive feedback after you talk You receive feedback throughout
You sell You build a relationship
You talk about what you are selling You talk about your customer
It’s a coincidence if you say what your customer wants to hear You are very likely to say what your customer wants to hear
You plan what you want to say ahead of time You determine what to say as the conversation unfolds
You are reading sheet music You and your customer are playing jazz together

To illustrate the effectiveness of sales conversations, following are two scenarios contrasting the sales pitch with the sales conversation:

The Scene: A wedding planner meets with a bride and her mother. The bride is getting married next year and is thinking about hiring a wedding planner.

Scenario #1: The Sales Pitch

The wedding planner sits down with the bride and mother and launches into a description of her services, gushing about how a wedding is, “a girl’s special day,” and that she can help make the bride’s wedding a dream come true. She shows them glossy brochures with pictures of weddings she has planned, emphasizing how each of her brides feel so special on her wedding day.

The bride interrupts, saying, “Actually, my fiancé is very excited about our wedding and wants to be involved in the planning. He couldn’t make today’s meeting because he is getting a root canal.”

“Well, that’s great! It’s good to let the boys think they are in charge.” replies the planner with a wink. Then, she asks, “What venue have you chosen?” (The planner knows this is an easy way to assess the budget of a wedding because brides always choose the venue first.)

The bride hasn’t thought of the venue yet, and the planner doesn’t quite know where to go from there. The bride is left with the distinct impression this planner does not share the couple’s vision for the wedding.

Scenario #2: The Sales Conversation

The wedding planner sits down with the bride and her mother and requests, “Please, tell me about your wedding.”

The bride launches into a description of colors, design (she mentions her fiancé is a fashion designer) and cakes; emphasizes needing to accommodate out of town family and also admits to confusion about where to have the wedding. “We just don’t know how to get started choosing a venue. It’s so overwhelming.” she sighs. Her mother chimes in that her elderly mother will need special assistance and that they don’t want anything outdoors.

From the onslaught of information, the planner identifies the venue selection as the most important source of stress for the bride. She assures them she will limit the selections based on their preferences and budget and can handle the negotiation with the venue management. She also starts a conversation about the groom and learns he will be designing the wedding party’s attire.

The bride and her mother leave this meeting feeling reassured the wedding planner understands them and are confident the wedding will be stress-free if they hire her.

An effective sales conversation is a relationship-building encounter.(For more on encounters, see the sidebar) Your customer moves closer to a purchase not because you have convinced him of your superior features and benefits, but because you have helped him think “We” when he thinks of you.

We all have things to sell. Ideas, projects, products, services, solutions, ourselves… the ability to sell influences the career of each person reading this newsletter, no matter what title is written on your business card. If you ditch the pitch, and substitute it with dialogue, your ability to persuade people will increase — immediately.

Take Notice

The next few times you are in a situation where someone is selling you something, notice whether they are pitching or conversing. How do you react to each of these types of selling? Are you more likely to buy from a sales pitch or a sales conversation?

How do you compare?

What about you? Are you a sales pitcher or a sales dialoguer? Do you deliver messages to your customers, or engage in conversations with your customers?

Try this

Ditch the pitch!

Over the next week, as you prepare for selling interactions (you all will have opportunities to sell something in the next week), prepare yourself to have a sales conversation and to avoid creating a sales pitch.

In preparation, focus not on what you will say to your customer, but what kind of conversation you will have with your customer.  Once the interaction starts, focus not on delivering your message, but on creating a genuine conversation.  In your mind refer to “The Conversationometer,” a mental tool I use to monitor how well a conversation is going:

Download the full-size Conversationometer (Adobe PDF)

Are you creating true dialogue, or is one of you monologuing too much?  Are you both listening to the other, and responding appropriately?   How fluid is the conversation.

If you see things going astray, steer back on course.

Remember, the key to selling isn’t “selling.”  It’s conversation.


  • Andy Thorp
    Aug 25, 2009 - 04:58 am

    Couldn’t agree more Steve, great piece. The ability to ask great questions and listen well is so crucial to success in sales, but I think the way you do it is equally important. If it’s done clumsily it sounds like an interrogation, but if done conversationally it sounds natural and makes your prospect warm to you.

    Can I give you a quick story about engagement and conversation? My local paper reported an incident at Manchester Airport. A lady was stopped by customs officers for a routine search. She had some golf clubs and the officer started chatting to her, asking her what handicap was. The lady looked bemused, examining her arms and legs as if to say, “I’m perfectly able-bodied thank you.” The officer got suspicious, and further questions revealed a total lack of golfing knowledge and a hidden cache of drugs!

    • Amanda Cullen
      Aug 25, 2009 - 07:40 am

      Great story, Andy!

      Also, a very important point about not sounding like an interrogator.

      • Steve Yastrow
        Aug 25, 2009 - 09:37 am

        Thanks Andy – You’re so right about the interrogation vs. conversation point. Sales conversations should sound as normal as a non-business discussion. If you go through a list of interrogatory questions, it’s really just a stiff script and won’t engage the customer. On the other hand, if you’re looking for drug smugglers …

  • Amanda Cullen
    Aug 25, 2009 - 07:39 am

    After shopping last week for new living room furniture, I can definitely be a staunch advocate for everyone to “Ditch the pitch.” My husband and I found ourselves sneaking into furniture stores, trying to remain undetected so we could sit on couches without harassment. Once the well-meaning salespeople found us, it was a barrage of feature dumps and advice that we mostly didn’t care about. That led to conversations like the following:

    “Oh so your couch has 8-way hand-tied springs, does it? Oh it’s a very popular model, eh? It’s imported from Spain (alternately, made right here in the USA)? You strongly suggest we get a neutral color and ‘spice it up’ with ‘exciting’ pillows?

    “Could you just leave me alone so I can lay on this couch and pretend I’m watching TV? Neutrals are for the faint-of-heart. Also, I hate couch pillows. They’re always in the way.”

    Great timing on this newsletter, Steve. It truly resonated with me, and I’m even more dedicated to developing great relationships with my clients.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Aug 25, 2009 - 09:39 am

      20 years ago when I was in the vacation business we hired a sales trainer. So much of the training we’d given our people was on product knowledge, e.g. hotel amenities, beaches in Hawaii, airline rules. The trainer said that product knowledge was dangerous. At first I didn’t get it, but then I understood. Your couch examples show why …

  • Paul Hanson
    Aug 25, 2009 - 07:48 am

    The great thing about this approach is that it frees people who are not sales to become sales!

    I have spent quite a lot of time around management and life coaches – this is often a 1 person show. The constant refrain I hear is I can’t do the selling side. The image is of used car saleman.

    My response is what do you do as a coach? – create rapport, ask probing questions, get below the superficial, really understand the other person’s motivation and desires, employ masterclass level listening skills, connect with people at so many different levels, move the engagement from problems to action. etc. etc. In summary expert sales methods!

    Probably the only piece left, which can be a bit of gulp, is closing the deal.

    • Steve Yastrow
      Aug 25, 2009 - 09:31 am

      Paul – I couldn’t agree more. When people say “I can’t sell” it’s because they are thinking of a salesperson as a certain archetype. They can sell, if they think of selling as relationship-building.

  • David Greusel
    Aug 25, 2009 - 09:07 am

    Great essay today! You nailed it. I have been pitching (so to speak) “Ditch the Pitch” to architects for years in my presentation skills seminar. Your analysis of why pitches don’t work is right on! Great job!

    • Steve Yastrow
      Aug 25, 2009 - 09:33 am

      Great to hear from you David. I think this is especially true in professional services, such as with architects. It’s easy to start pitching when you have lots of technical information and expertise, but that can lead to a huge understanding/connection gap with clients. Lawyers and doctors fall into this trap all the time. Conversation ensures that you and the client are understanding issues in the same way.

  • leonghw
    Aug 25, 2009 - 22:43 pm

    great post Steve,
    the scenario really hit home your point.
    the conversationo-meter is a nice touch.


    • Steve Yastrow
      Aug 25, 2009 - 23:24 pm

      Thanks, Leong. Have you experienced scenarios like this lately?

  • Andy Thorp
    Aug 26, 2009 - 07:02 am

    Big response on this topic Steve, touched a nerve I think!

    Have you heard the story about the rather self-centered actor? He’d read through the script but was puzzled by something. “What shall I do during the gaps?” he asked the director. “What gaps?” came the reply. “I mean the bits between when I’m speaking!”

  • Steve Yastrow
    Aug 26, 2009 - 17:00 pm

    Andy … a similar story … years ago, my boss and I left a meeting with a sales guy with an airline, and my boss said, “He’s the kind of salesman who thinks his job is done once he’s finished talking.”

  • Fred H Schlegel
    Aug 28, 2009 - 07:40 am

    I was discussing this with our team the other day as part of the need to put price on the table much quicker in the conversation. Even though the organization has variable pricing based on job traits the desire to know ballpark pricing is interfering with the conversation prior to a quote. The fear, as a high added value supplier, is that this may pull price only shoppers out of our sales funnel. Funny thing is, we suddenly realized that might not be a bad thing…

  • PaulH
    Aug 28, 2009 - 14:43 pm

    Price is an interesting subject. As a customer it infuriates me when suppliers won’t tell you this straight away. Especially if you are not even sure what the ball park figure is. You can waste a lot of everyones time on pitches that won’t go anywhere.

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