The strongest aspect of the roundtables Econsultancy runs around the world is that marketers drive the conversation. If they want to jump from emerging trends to what annoys them about digital marketing sales pitches, we’re happy to sit back and learn something.

That’s just what happened at one of our South by Southwest roundtables, co-hosted by Rapp and Adometry. What emerged was the start of this list of dos and don’ts that we hope will help save time and sanity on both sides of the table.

In this post, client-side marketers share their unvarnished advice on how digital marketing sales people should improve their pitches.

The conversation got rolling with old fashioned anger at a new trend, the passive aggressive email from sales people. [Ok, 'new' might be overstating it as we’ve all received and/or sent an email that crossed the line from assertive to pushy, but the practice seems to be getting more popular.)

As one brand marketer described it…

I get these cold emails pitching something and suggesting a time to talk. A week later I get a second email that’s “following up on our meeting time.” They use language that implies I’ve been rude for not having responded and they never quit.

Another attendee picked it up from there.

Yes, this is happening all the time. As if I’m going to feel bad about not replying and my guilt will lead to good things? I recently got an email from a sales person who has been contacting me repeatedly, where he said “This will be my last email.” I cc’d several other executives and replied “Thank you.”

These stories of failure led us to ask more pointed questions about sales pitches in the age of digital proliferation; what can sales people do (or avoid doing) to gain attention and trust?

#1. Don't speak...

It’s a chestnut of epic proportions, but the number one reason a pitch goes bad is that we talk when we should be listening.

It’s the fundamental rule of every sales training, but in practice most people simply launch into their spiel or their deck. Just watch the body language of the 'targets' as you plod through the company history, share some logos of companies that don’t know that they’re customers and just possibly touch on the unique selling proposition.

This is the noble story of you and your product. The people listening could not care less. They care about themselves. We all do. There are no selfless acts, at least in business. If you want to sell someone, you have to know their story and where it’s leading. The quality is empathy, and it appears in every study of what makes for a top sales person.

Think about the position of a brand marketer these days. They’re beset by new requirements, channels, technologies and shifting behavior patterns from their customers.

Change is exciting, but so is throwing yourself off a cliff in one of those squirrel suits.

Even at big, well-funded marketing departments, there are only a few 'top priorities' at any given time. These are the projects that are going to get noticed at the end of the quarter, and they’re where careers are being made.

Find out what those initiatives are and figure out how you can help…the company and the person sitting across the desk from you.

#2. Of course you should listen, but...

The worst way to waste precious meeting time is to ask questions you should already know the answer to. It’s the digital era, so I shouldn’t have to explain my role, or the different revenue lines of the company, or how we started in the UK, etc.

There is enormous value to asking for explicit information from prospects, but before you can do that effectively, you need to do your research.

Before sending the first email, you should know at least this much:

  • How does this company make their money? What are their revenue lines and how are those changing? Is there a hot part of the company, a new direction?
  • What are they afraid of? Are they worried about a key competitor who is tearing up the sector? Are there digital upstarts eating their lunch? Are consumers themselves the main threat to growth?
  • What sort of marketing defines this company? Are they aggressive with new tech and channels or do they like to see how trends play out?
  • Who is the person you’re meeting with…really? Have they moved around a lot or changes roles frequently? That could mean they’ll take a risk with you if you can help them see a career benefit. If not, they may be more efficiency minded.

The goal is not necessarily to predict the prospect’s every motivation, but to be fully grounded. To be able to contextualize and make use of whatever information they share.

Not long ago I met with a sales person who began our call by saying “Let me tell you what I think I know about Econsultancy and you can tell me where I’m wrong.” She then correctly spelled out the basics and even shared an insight or two based on her own experience of having worked for an international company.

This was very powerful, because it created a dynamic of comfortably exchanging information and established that she had done her homework.

It was the foundation for building trust and worth ten unique features.

#3. Stop. Just stop...

Opportunity cost is one of those basic theories of economics that we all know and most of us ignore. In sales and marketing we are much more likely to pay lip service to “the right message to the right person, etc.” than to actually adhere to the principle.

Instead, we carpet bomb lists of organizations and titles with any shred of relevance to our customer profile (or maybe not even a shred).

But the spray and pray method doesn’t work very well. We know this from countless studies of personal and mass marketing. Worse, it wastes time, the one resource that’s absolutely not going to increase.

With practice, sales people get to know what companies are a bad fit, and marketing should be helping. They should identify the characteristics of solid leads – not just lead scoring but real predictive assistance.

As one CRM sales executive shared with me:

We know with almost 100% certainty that if the current CMO or CIO brought in a solution in the last 40 months, we simply don’t have a shot. It doesn’t matter if their current system is a bust, they can’t admit it.

Knowing when not to bother extends to individual executives as well. Sometimes our natural inclination to get the most senior person possible to hear the pitch makes the sale less likely.

For example, CMOs and their ilk are interested in solutions to big problems or opportunities for significant growth. Most marketing technologies simply don’t qualify; they address a niche within a niche.

They’re useful, but not necessary. If that’s the case, you’re better off with the person who is knee deep in the niche, not their boss’s boss.

The opportunity cost for unnecessary pitches is particularly high for sales people at companies that are moving toward a more inbound approach.

Many industries are increasingly using content to attract leads and define them, and this naturally affects the sales process. We tend to interact with leads further 'down the funnel' and our communication is expected to follow the form of the content marketing that brought them in.

Impersonal emails looking for a few minutes of time are even less likely to work in an inbound world. There’s an expectation of a value exchange.

Crafting an email that anticipates a prospect’s needs and connects them with a piece of content is time consuming, even if marketing is doing its job and producing great stuff to work with.

We kid because we care

Marketers like to joke about sales people and vice versa, but the two should be partners at every level. There’s no harder job than selling, especially to skeptical, overworked prospects who hear about ten new "solutions" every day to problems they're not entirely convinced apply to them.

Some of those same pressures are changing sales too. The shift from push to pull has forced many sales "hunters" to become more consultative. In a long process that involves an array of buyers, marketing is in a position to help sales achieve its goals. That's good news, for some sales people anyway. 

According to the brands at our roundtable, the sales people that recognize and take advantage of this shift will find their calls answered.

Stefan Tornquist

Published 19 March, 2014 by Stefan Tornquist @ Econsultancy

Stefan is Vice President of Research (US) for Econsultancy. You can follow him @SKTornquist and connect via LinkedIn.

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Comments (6)

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Great piece with a lot to seriously consider - thanks very much.

One thing about 'listening': I do go into a lot of meetings ready to listen to the clients goals, objectives and plans and many, many times they don't have any!

I often lose out to those who have a slick 'credentials' presentation which makes almost every one of the mistakes you outline. The reason they win and I don't, is that for the client which is vague, unprepared, have totally contradictory objectives, or just don't have any ideas, all they want is the warm feeling of a slick presentation.

You would be surprised at the number of presentations where I start with a general approach of 'I'm here to find out more about you, not talk about us', where there then follows awkward silences followed by 'can you show us some of your work'.

When I read a lot of these extremelly useful and sage articles, I am often left to think if only clients raised their game as much as the agency things would be a lot more mutually beneficial.

over 4 years ago


Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

Hi Mark

Some people mistake the listening approach, for 'I let the client do all the work, ie at the meeting they do all the talking to explain everything, then 40 minutes in, I turn that back as a slaes pitch to them' !

We are all too busy, so feel like we don't want to have to explain everything to someone - they should come into the meeting already knowing about us - Google /LinkedIn etc have changed the world!: (because 10 years ago, we could not have expected external folk to know our situation well.)

The article in section 2 spells out the kind of research needed on the prospective client, before making contact.

So, before the meeting, you take that research, and then create some possible motives, and solutions against them, which you can then float, and see which ones the prospect is indeed motivated by.

So it's not listening defined as 'let the client do all the talking', so much as do research -> present to them (2 minutes only!): ie mention their situation, and dangle a motive you therefore think they have, and a solution/plan for that motive: and then go fully into listening mode to hear what they agree/disagree.

That ensures that even clients fumbling in the dark, are being helped by you, you're becoming their trusted advisor -you understynd them better than they understand themselves!

And those that are more aware of what they want, will feel you understand them better, because you came into the meeting and showed you already understood their perspective.

over 4 years ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, Founder and Author at Fresh Relevance

LOL. Good Piece.

Also, if your sales pitch is all about the "R" part of ROI, and you have no details of the full "I", then you might want to qualify out anyone with a technology background.

I don't care what Gartner quadrant you're in, if you can't provide a route map for onboarding your product and an estimate of the cost.

over 4 years ago


Tim Tiernan

I agree completely Pete. The number of phone-calls, emails and face-to-face meetings I have sat through where at the end I get the old 'I'll try and get some commercials over to you by the end of the week' line could fill a book!

I understand that in some respects there are reasons why you might not know the exact amount that a full on-boarding will cost, but you do know what your rate-card says for the 12 month license (if you can't tell, I'm thinking of someone specific).

For companies with and increasingly wide spectrum of technology partners there is only so much money to go around, if you can't tell me to the nearest 10k what something is likely to cost me then why would I waste my time listening to your pitch?

over 4 years ago

Stefan Tornquist

Stefan Tornquist, Vice President, Research (US) at EconsultancyStaff


Thanks for your comment. No doubt that clients aren't going to be as discerning and prepared as you are, but that's to be expected I think. In most cases, the solution we're offering them is just a tiny part of the mosaic, and possibly one they don't understand or value.

To @Deri's point, that's why the research matters up front - to figure out what they might care about and connect your presentation to it.

The one word that captures most digital marketers, most marketers really, is "overloaded." I've run out of ways to describe how much change has occurred and how quickly, and every turn means a new set of technologies, channels and consumer behaviors. The overload isn't just having too many jobs to do but also too many ideas to juggle, too many sources to read, too many pieces of advice from jerks like me telling them how it "should" work ; )

That state of mind is why I think most have a default preference for *not* doing something, not exploring or testing, etc. That's why you see so many of the most successful pitches or USPs being around notions of simplicity, time savings, ease of use, etc.

With that in mind, as @Pete and @Tim say, you've got to present some idea of price - there's no better excuse to write someone off than not knowing the pricing.

For myself, I love it when a salesperson is bold and up front with pricing - after all it's one side of the scale...and most prospects are going to be tense and doubtful until they understand it.

Thanks again for all your input!

over 4 years ago


Ian Hucklesby

Nicely put Stefan.

These points are not new but I think it is timely to revisit them.

I particularly liked your "Spray and Pray" comment. Far too many Sales and Marketers think that Activity = Sales. Of course, new business doesn't come without hard graft but all sweat and no strategy leads to a very inefficient sales process and often far too little attention is paid to agency-side cost of sale in our industry.

I do agree with Mark's point that a client can be seduced by slick creds, but I think this is becoming less so as the levels of experience and expertise are now more balanced between client and agency-side. Something that we probably couldn't have said 5 years ago.

My steer to my teams is "always understand your audience". Do as much research around the individuals you are pitching to as you do around the business. Knowing what makes them tick and their POV's is just as important as understanding the intricacies of the business.

over 4 years ago

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