Make a Great Vendor / Agency / Consulting Pitch – Win Big Contracts

Drop of WisdomSome of us have had opportunities to pitch our companies or services to clients. Almost all of us have had opportunities to sit through sales pitches from vendors and consultants. I have had the privilege of attending atleast 75 vendor or consultant presentations. It is amazing how often they turn out to be sad cases of hara kari.

Since very few vendors actually ask for feedback after their presentation, fewer still actually get anything even if they ask, here is my humble feedback on what to do right, or more precisely what not to do, in order to win that next big contract. If you think this is of any value to you I will accept tchotchkes in exchange. : )

[While it might not seem like it by the time you are done reading it, and you are a vendor / agency / consultant, this does come from a place of love – I want to give helpful feedback. While it might seem such experiences are an anomaly, they are not. While this might seem hard, I am sure you’ll agree large $$$ are worth an extra amount of effort.]

# 9 Manage your time efficiently: It probably took you a lot of persuasion to get into the building and make the pitch. Now you probably just have an hour or less to make the pitch. You probably have any where from five to ten client employees in the conference room. Please manage your time efficiently.

I am stunned that vendors have 30 slides and this is how the flow works 80% of the time: first five slides about the company’s greatness covered in the first half hour, then five more in the next twenty mins and then last twenty slides in ten mins.

This leaves no time for any decent understanding of your capabilities and no time for questions.

It shows a tremendous amount of respect for your client’s time and investment for you to cover all you wanted to and leave 20 mins in the end for questions.

# 8 Maximum of 12 slides per hour of time: This is a really hard one to do, even for me if I do a presentation. But I can’t think of a better way to force the evaluation of what your core value proposition is and initiate the kind of conversation you need to win the contract. This recommended number includes your intro slides and client list.

This number also encourages you to figure out what it is that your client really wants or cares about. It mandates a pre-presentation phone call / conversation with your “sponsor” in the client company to understand as much context, hot buttons and concerns as you can so that you can actually produce 12 slides that they care about (if you can pull it off cut a few of those slides and do a real living breathing demo).

I understand that this is a delicate balance because you want to tell them what you want to tell them.

# 7 Your client does not care what you think of yourself: A higher than preferred number of pitches start with the vendor “superstar” person (usually with the highest rank/title) spending the first 10 mins extolling their personal qualifications, organizations they are members of, newspapers they have been interviewed for, conferences they have spoken at and the fact that they have five horses.

No one usually cares. And you are eating into your limited time.

If you are important enough trust me your client has heard of you.

Spend 30 seconds on your background, three mins on your company history and offer to provide more information after the presentation if your client wants. Move on to the benefits you can bring to your client and how you can make the client insanely successful.

# 6 Be honest about your numbers (and in reply to tough questions): Vendor – agency – consulting pitches routinely involve stating how many clients they have, what the growth rate is, what the projected increase in head count is, how much share of market you have etc. This sounds obvious but be honest and transparent about your assumptions and context.

You definitely want to come across in the best light. But it is really lame to say you have 98% market share but not saying that it is market share in clients with only women employees or that your growth rate is 70% year over year but only for just one of your business lines or you have 9,000 customers but not saying only 12 are currently active, etc.

Remember that any half decent client will do many reference checks and they’ll find out and you’ll look bad.

We recently had someone walk in and in reply to our tough question “why did you lose your last three clients” the agency gave an amazingly honest answer and said what they are doing to fix the issue. You bet your bottom we are going to work with this agency.

# 5 Make sure you understand the questions: This is a small tip on numbers or questions in general from your audience. Wait until the question is asked, then make sure you understand it, if you don’t, ask for clarifications, then answer.

Two great benefits: 1) It shows clarity of thought on your end, that you ask for context and want to do a good job of understanding what is being asked. 2) It will make sure you answer the question correctly and you’ll look good.

Because typically the vendor thinks they can anticipate the questions, and they have done the pitch a thousand times they start talking before the question is even finished.

# 4 Don’t be a jerk: Most vendor presenters are sales folks, usually high up in their sales organization. In their little space they know everyone in the industry, have exceeded their sales quotas at every company and are Mr or Ms Slick Wille personified. This gives them a touch of (or usually a full coat of ) arrogance.

Resist the temptation to be a jerk, and if you don’t know if you are a jerk, give immunity to the person with the smallest job title you bring with you and ask him / her, they will tell you.

Vendors / agencies / consultants come in routinely and bad mouth their competitors, their rival methodologies, their rival tools, and their rival folks they don’t get along with etc etc. It is as if they can possibly make themselves look good just because someone / something else is bad or worse.

We had one guy come in recently and bad mouth all other vendors, a consultant we had been working with for months (and whom we liked) and he slammed two industry experts that are well regarded (who we have worked with in the past). All in a span of six minutes.

This vendor person was not stupid, he was really smart. But he left such a bad taste that we will never work with this company if we can help it (not now and not ever in the future in any place that employs me or any one else who was in that room).

Even if you think you are god’s gift to the industry (and it is true), even if you think you are right and everyone else is wrong, apply basic social skills and resist the urge and don’t be a jerk. Assume we, potential clients, know all vendors and people in the industry personally and will take offense.

# 3 Relentlessly focus on your unique value proposition: Logical recommendation after the above. Remember we don’t care about you, we don’t care how much of an expert you are. Throughout your pitch you should constantly and relentlessly focus on how your company, methodology, people, process provide a unique value proposition to us the client. Remember it is all about us.

Use real life examples, tie it to our company and unique business if you can, tell us why you are better than the other guy (without beating up the other guy), tell us how you can make us money, tell us how you can get us more customers and happier customers. Show a demo, give us reports, share industry comparisons, give us references.

At the end of the hour most people in the room will remember one or two things about you (because whether you like it or not you and your competitors have a large overlap in what each of you can do for us). Look at the deck you are pitching, is there one, or at most two, things that help you stand out. What is your unique and special value proposition?

# 2 Assume you are pitching to smart people: An astounding amount of vendors / consultants aim their pitches to the lowest common denominator, worse still they assume they are pitching to babies. This is wrong. Depending on who is listening to you it will appear to be either a waste of time, condescending, silly or that you have not done your homework.

Assuming you are presenting to smart people will ensure that your pitch is high quality, it will show differentiation and it will show tremendous respect for people you are pitching to. It will mean that you will anticipate tough questions and be ready for them (I have to admit a guilty pleasure is to pause a vendor in the middle of a deck, ask a very tough question and watch them get thrown totally off track, if they get back on track, and some do, it usually indicates quality thinking).

A small tip that is very effective here. Get your VP/CEO/Big Person With Title to kick off the meeting, set context and then hand off the presentation to your execution (smart) person. It looks rather silly that for every question that is a bit deep, even simple ones, the VP/CEO looks at the smart person (usually with a much smaller title). Just let them present the detailed slides, you’ll look good  and the presentation will go faster.

# 1 Remember clients don’t buy software / services, they buy relationships: Human beings don’t buy software or, worse, “solutions”. We are social beings, even in professional engagements we “buy” relationships. Sometimes it really does not matter how magnificent your software is (or for that matter how great you are and your accomplishments have been). Come prepared to deal with this.

While we are indeed buying software or service we will be dealing with your company and its people and tech support and email and all things human. Show that you will excel at the social part and be a great relationship for us to have.

This means being nice, this means bringing your employees we would want to work with, this means showing that our engagement will not be a bad first date, this means being charming and sharing real stories about how you have gone the extra step for other clients. If your client “likes” you, chances are that you will end up with a deal.

This of course means that if you get the contract you also have to deliver, but if due to any chances your software or service fails to deliver 100% or later there are bumps, the strong relationship will mean that the engagement will survive.

And as always here is a bonus recommendation…….

# 0 Under promise and over deliver: I worked for a few years at DHL in Saudi Arabia and this was an unofficial motto for us. Always under promise and over deliver, you can never go wrong.

The tendency in a sales pitch is to over promise (the answer to every “can you do this” is “yes”) because you do want to win the contract. But for a long term sustainable engagement you have to have something in the back pocket to wow your client. Promise to deliver the package before nine AM every day but do it at eight thirty AM every day and you have a customer for life.

I would love to hear from all of you as to what you think of this list, especially if you are a vendor. Is this helpful in any way? Do you already do this? Does this even feel real?

I welcome the same level of honesty as I have exhibited above (and if you want to post your comments anonymously that is ok as well for this post, I promise to approve all comments except spam for Viagra). Please share your comments.

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  1. 1


    Slides? Even when I am passionate about the subject matter, slides make me nod off. They can only set the scene and I would recommend no more than 3! After that if it can't be shown working then the vendor shouldn't be there!


  2. 2

    Yet another excellent article Avinash!

    I'd change the order of slides tho. The first couple of minutes of presentation are when people are *focused* on what you are saying. Don't waste them by waffling about your company.

    You're there to pitch something, then pitch something! Tell me how wonderful your company is later. At least you'd be #1 for sheer novelty value. :-)

    I would even go so far as to ignore the company speil. I've yet to hear one that was any different to any other. Same old "insert name here" stuff. Blah blah. Centre of Excellence. Blah Blah. Growing Fast. Blah. International. Blah. Blah. Blah. Boring.

    And speaking from a personal preference. If you're wanting to sell to a technical audience a technical product? Don't leave your techos back at work. Bring them. *Especially* if they wear ripped jeans and a hot pink 'n green shirt. There's nothing more annoying than having a technical presentation where no-one present can answer technical questions. You're wasting my time now. And that costs my organisation money. The immediate unasked question becomes: Why *are* you hiding your techo's away????

    Obviously pitching to different segements means the rules change. Don't assume a one size fits all!
    I write as a very bored with the same old pitches listener. :-)


  3. 3

    Great points, as usual. I've been on all sides of the desk: Agency, Client, Vendor. Currently, I'm a "vendor"

    My reactions:

    Hiring sales people is the most difficult task a ceo has, for the reasons you mentioned. New sales people/managers all want the crutch material which leads to many of these mistakes. Too often, that's what marketing gives them.

    When a lot of these vendors started, it was probably the "ceo" saying, "hey, look what we've built! Help me make it better for you!" And, she was likely focused on you the initial client. Sales people didn't originally live the problem they're selling, so have difficulty embracing it. The rapid growth our current world requires changes all that as they try to scale. And, sales is what drives scale. Training programs, in my humble experiences, do little to help. Marketers are focusing on prospect development while Sales managers (generally) know more about pipeline management than they do relationship development. So you get the chase mentality you've experienced. Best advice, hire relationship people, not software sales people and make them eat the dogfood well before going in front of a prospect.

  4. 4

    Ha – this should be in every agency handbook!

    I think giving the client the credit of having intelligence and valuing their time can be horribly overlooked by agencies of all types, particularly when rolling on a wave of confidence and success.

    Apologies if you already point this out (I have bleary Excel eyes today) but if I was a client being pitched at, I'd really want to know that the people I am meeting are the ones I'll have a relationship with. (You do mention lack of techos, as I say, bleary eyes!)

    In my DM agency days passed, it was very common for the big brass to go in, win pitches, and then turn the vast bulk of the work over to junior teams and freelancers. If a pitch is won on potential for a good relationship (as opposed to showing pretty pictures) then its betraying the client if that relationship is not followed through.

    all the best as always, Vicky

  5. 5


    Nice work, as always.

    I would add that the ability to change the presentation in mid-course is crucial. I have been in many vendor pitches where the vendor cannot be sidetracked to talk about the question at hand. They become locked into the pre-programmed presentation and cannot vary from it without becoming flustered.

    The ability to go on-the-fly, turn off the projector, and actually have a conversation with a potential client is a critical skill to bring to the table. To me, it shows a willingness to solve problems immediately rather than go through "channels."

  6. 6

    A big Amen. I am particularly annoyed when vendors start the pitch with a resume–their business school, consulting experience, etc. Honestly, I only care about what kind of results you're going to bring me–and how soon you're going to get them.

    one other bonus tip: Vendors should try to demonstrate a business case. Make my life easy. Too many sales people are too afraid of excel to walk in and talk real numbers.


  7. 7
    Jacques Warren says

    Gosh! I could write a book about all the things have done wrong during presentations, several of them listed in your excelletn post…

    I have corrected many others in the last 10 years, but it is still very hard for me to… shut up!

    Thanks for the great feedback.

  8. 8

    Well OK, since you asked.

    I have a four slide presentation. One slide about my company, one slide about current customers, one slide about methodology (which I don't particularly enjoy doing but everyone wants to hear), and one slide with a success story. I consider my time well-spent if I never have to give the presentation, although I usually end the hour or two with the comment, "Before we leave, do you guys want to see who we are?" I never start by presenting unless forced too.

    I hate it when people sell at me and I love to buy, so I assume that others feel the same way. (Not always a good MO but probably works well in this situation.) I learned a lot of what I know from one of my customers (appropriately named Achieving Sales Results. Here is their white paper on how to close more sales by asking questions) I am not as good about asking questions as the ASR guys suggest but I am very good about giving free advice and it always seems to work.

    This whole thread gave me some good ideas for my presentation at the Summit. We marketers and salespeople can be real jerks sometimes, no?

    But on that last topic, Avinash, I am still coming to you for advice.


  9. 9

    Robbin: I am glad the post is of some help for your presentation and please let me know if I can help with anything.

    On the "jerk" part my thought is simple (and I don't think any particular group is more of a "jerk" than others):

    1) You can never win by saying someone else is bad, you have to show in a compelling way you are good because you are unique / differentiated etc.

    2) Ever heard of karma? : )

    Thanks so much for sharing your feedback, it does not surprise me one bit that you have a four page deck (I would have expected nothing less from someone of your great caliber.)

  10. 10


    Great posts as always, seems like common sense best practices that everyone should follow, but they end up being forgotten…

  11. 11

    In reference to #8….consider not using slides. As a culture, we've been conditioned to expect slides. Wouldn't it be a great suprise to not use PowerPoint? If you're killing time at work, check out the work of Edward Tufte. His essay on why powerpoint is bad (sample ) uses a clear example of the "dangers" of PowerPoint. Or look at Clive Thompson's article, "PowerPoint Makes You Dumb."

  12. 12

    Great list Avinash! It should be handed to every rep before they make a pitch.

    Actually, you could condense the list down to just one sentence you used: "Remember it is all about us." If more reps realized that it's all about the company you're presenting to, they'd be a lot more successful in their pitches.

    Another tip – don't pitch for any business you're not qualified for or don't have the resources to implement. Just because you're offered to pitch, doesn't mean you should waste your or their time.

  13. 13

    Thank you for such a common sense and honest article.

    I agree with almost everything you've said and can remember some pretty awful experiences of death by powerpoint and jerk behaviour from vendors that bears out what you're saying.

    I think the most important point you make is about people buying people and not solutions. In my experience this is true whatever you're buying or selling

  14. 14

    Wow, the 12 slides per hour thing sounds really challenging. It's funny how we tend to over do things when it's not necessary. Last presentation I gave had at least 40 slides in just 45 minutes… ouch

    I guess it comes down to just highlighting the 5-6 most important points of our service offering and let the talking do the rest.

    Thank again for the great post Avinash. Always a pleasure to read your blogs!

  15. 15

    I really love the way all the points are presented, so crisp and unassuming. I am from the vendor side of the story and the thoughts really resonated well with me :)

    What I would really like to see is more elaborate success stories and principles that makes vendors tick !

    Kudos to the article and Avinash

  16. 16

    Loic: You are right that it is a challenge to cut down the slides.

    My stress though was a lot more on the messages. So presented a few focused messages.

    If it takes 40 slides in 45 mins to do that then that is ok. Mostly though the person has done zero research and proceeds to "slide puke" on the client and that is always a disaster! :)


  17. 17

    Love it.

    I completely suck at both sides of this vendor/buyer equation. I have had little experience with either, but more is coming in waves and I much appreciate the life experience sharing. Many helpful things to consider.

    I will add these 2 things ::

    1) I have a colleague who routinely has to give similar buyer/seller types of preso's, but they are internal… granted that is a different environment entirely… and he has increasingly tried not just to use fewer slides, but also use only slides with pictures. no words or numbers of any kind. just memorable illustrations. no idea if it's been impactful, but I figure among the brains and practitioners on this blog, someone might find the suggestion intriguing.

    2) I have spent far more time in these last few years on the "techo" side of things, consulting, etc, and just listening to the stories coming in from the sales field. It's appalling. They don't know the product, they don't follow up on relationships – they do what's mentioned above – sell a product, hand it off to the inhouse team, and never look back. And they (& the company) are wondering why they're losing market share and clients rapidly. It's absolutely baffling.

    Thanks again, Avinash, as well as all commenters.

  18. 18
    Greg Miliates says

    In the business, all you just need to put in mind; be organize and firm on your decision, but take ideas on both sides.

  19. 19
    Scarlett de Courcier says

    Fantastic post, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    I could not agree more on the honesty thing; people can smell BS a mile off and will automatically put a black mark against your name for it, but so many people seem to forget this as soon as they're trying to make a sale. Which of course is arguably the worst moment to forget anything ;)

  20. 20

    Number 8 is spot on – too many slides and people go into analysis paralysis!

    Focus on your speaking, and use the slides for important notes – The slides don't sell the client – you do!



  1. […]
    5) Be Honest

    This tip is so powerful it’s scary. Too many people promise the world to potential clients. Rise to the top of the heap by telling them the truth and speaking in realistic terms. I’ve had many clients come back to me after months of chasing rainbows and fairy tales to ask for a realistic strategy that fits their marketing strategy. Under promise and over deliver and you’ll do just fine.

  2. […]
    This tip is so powerful it’s scary. Too many people promise the world to potential clients. Rise to the top of the heap by telling them the truth and speaking in realistic terms. I’ve had many clients come back to me after months of chasing rainbows and fairy tales to ask for a realistic strategy that fits their marketing strategy. Under promise and over deliver and you’ll do just fine.

  3. […] 5/ Make a Great Vendor / Agency / Consulting Pitch – Win Big Contracts […]

  4. […]
    Wees eerlijk Dit is zo belangrijk, het is gewoon eng. Vaak wordt er 'de wereld' aan beloften gedaan om die opdracht binnen te slepen. Alles is mogelijk. Verhef je boven de anderen door de waarheid te vertellen en realistische verwachtingen te scheppen. Dat wordt gewaardeerd! Het gezegde luidt niet voor niets: Under promise and over deliver.

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