How to secure the sales appointments that matter

Top entrepreneurs give advice on how to pitch successfully

Liz Jackson, founder and MD of B2B telemarketing firm Great Guns Marketing, gives her tips on getting through to decision makers

Securing high quality sales appointments is critical in driving the success of customer acquisition programmes and profitability. But for me, like many other business owners, the hardest job is getting through to the decision makers. The targets are often out of the office, don't answer phone calls or respond to emails. So, how do you secure meetings with the people that matter most?

One of my most successful campaigns was for a leading accountancy firm that asked us to arrange sales appointments with the tax directors, financial directors, CEOs and managing directors of companies ranging from FTSE 350 businesses to privately owned organisations. Needless to say, some of these individuals were not the easiest people to reach, and the client had struggled to make any headway previously. We picked up the phone and started calling about companies – around 80 a day, and we were able to speak to decision makers in about 10% of those companies, with one in four of those agreeing to a meeting. We probably called an average of about 15 times, over a period of months, before we got to speak to the target person in an organisation.

Each of these calls was an opportunity in itself in which we focused on building a great relationship with the PAs and on cleaning our data. By talking to an influencer – the PA or someone else who has knowledge in the organisation – we could find out, for example, which accountancy firm the business was working with, how long they had been with them, whether they used them for their audit work or other projects, information on those projects, confirmation of email addresses, and lots more. PAs are brilliant sources of information. How you come across on the phone to them and any other influencers is absolutely as important as how you present yourself to the decision maker. Building a rapport with the individuals you first come across lays the foundations to success, and they get 20 or 30 calls a day so it's important to stand out from the crowd and be unique.

With this campaign, we also made sure it was highly targeted. It is essential to identify the target market decision makers and profile the prospects against your  ‘perfect customer' – essentially identifying the right person with responsibility to purchase the services. There is no point in setting up a sales appointment with someone who doesn't have the ability to sell your product or services to the decision maker who holds budget. Similarly, successful sales and marketing lead generation requires an accurate database. With B2B data decaying at 30% a year on average, letting your database degrade means you are wasting at least a third of your annual sales and marketing budget by targeting out-of-date contacts. Cleansing and building a database should be something that companies get into a routine of doing regularly.

There's no real shortcut, as targeting top-level decision makers in business will always be time consuming. But I've found that by persistence, concentrating on your relationship with the influencers, and keeping an up-to-date target list, you can make the process as efficient and successful as possible.

You're past the stage of cold calling potential customers but chances are your business still relies on the art of successful pitching – whether to customers, investors or peers. GB spoke to some successful entrepreneurs, no strangers to selling and being sold to, to find out about sales pitches: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Jonathan Quinn Owner and managing director at World First

What do you dislike most in a pitch?

People who don't cut to the chase quickly enough – every second that passes, I'm losing interest. If people can't sell it in a sentence or two or can't tell you pertinent information such as the price straight away, it's very off-putting. I've had people say they don't want to tell me the price over the phone and would rather come and see me. If people ask for it to be succinct you have to be able to deliver.

People who lie to get past the gatekeepers. Once every two weeks I get someone within the company saying there's someone on the phone who says they've spoken to me before. When I work out I haven't, all my trust has been lost and the chances of me progressing the call are negligible.

One thing that immediately turns me off is when people are obsequious and over-polite – you can tell straight away that it's a salesperson. Don't fawn too much.

What makes you more likely to buy?

When people tell me what they do and why it would be good for me, rather than launching into the spiel. Some people have an inherent knack, a likeability, which ends up being the key thing that determines whether you buy from them or not.

Top tips:

In terms of cold-calling, we roughly match accent to area. If you've got an Irish person selling to people in Ireland, you definitely get better responses.

Dan Somers Managing partner of Boundary Capital, a private angel investment group and the founder and former CEO of video conferencing/telecoms company VC-Net

What is the best pitch you've heard?

One of the best phone pitches I have received was from a charity. The guy knew a lot about me (but not too much!). He had clearly done his homework. He had an affable manner and although there was the sound of call centre in the background, it was an interesting and humorous conversation. He knew a lot about his subject – where the funds were going and where they would be reported. It was not a charity I had been passionate about but he made it relevant to me.

And the worst?

Someone kept phoning me trying to sell me financial products. He acted deviously to get around screening to get through to me. He even managed to get my mobile number. I felt like I was being stalked. From a business investment point of view, I am frequently engaged in conversations with entrepreneurs who have spent a great deal of time concocting business plans with very little grounding in fact or reason. A couple of obvious questions unpick their whole plan. I have built this into our screening process and I try to deal with them as quickly and politely as possible.

Stacey-lea Golding Founder and investments director at Premier Cru Fine Wine Investments at Premier Cru

What is the best pitch you've heard:

I get pitched to on a regular basis and used to do cold calling myself. It's hard, and getting it right is a real skill. The best pitch I've ever had was from the person who handles our PR – he's still with us six years later. He had taken the time to look at our literature, listened to what we said, picked up on our most salient points and told us what he would be able to do. Rather than telling us his ideas, he pitched our sell to us. What it showed me was that he understood what we were selling.

Top tip:

The very worst thing you can do is to sound bored. If you're not interested, why should your prospect be? Listen, and ask questions. When people answer questions they become engaged.

Jennifer Irvine Founder of The Pure Package

What have you learnt about pitching from doing it yourself?

The importance of pitching to the right level. Keep an eye on your audience and adjust what you're saying in response to them. The best plan is a flexible plan and you can test how it's going by making it interactive. I did an event at the British Library recently which was really hard because the lights were such that I couldn't see the audience's faces. I made a joke about the lights and when they laughed I knew they were listening. Even a simple ‘can you hear me?' can be useful. You have to be able to assess your audience in the first minute.

What impresses you in a pitch?

The truth is that it's the basic things that count. In probably 50% of pitches I see, they've ruined it from the very first moment.

I get pitched to by public relations firms quite often as we used to change our PR firm every six months. The ones who impress me are those who make the effort to be smart, who have researched the company, are good at time keeping – the simple things. If they arrive late, how are the going to represent me?

What do you dislike most in a pitch?

Sometimes I find the person who is pitching to me will pre-judge me, or make inappropriate comments that aren't relevant. I've had people say ‘I'll use nice language because you're a woman'. That is irrelevant and gets everything off on the wrong foot.

Top tip:

You're able to speak from the heart when you're cool and collected and feeling confident. Put on your nice shoes, make sure you're feeling your best. That will stop you feeling nervous and then you're less likely to stick rigidly to a script.


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