Even you probably don’t want to meet an insurance agent at a social function.
You’re at a chamber of commerce event, chatting with someone and you ask what they do. Then, there it is: “I help families keep their family business in their families.”
You know what’s going on and you are probably imagining what it’s like for someone not familiar with life insurance. At the end of a bunch of questions, it finally dawns on that person, “Oh, you’re a life insurance agent” and suddenly that person realizes how late it is getting and they really should be getting home.
It’s the dreaded elevator pitch and it has stunk up more elevators than burritos have.
Do you remember when you used that practiced value/benefit statement line and saw the blood drain out of the other person’s face?
You probably do and that insight is an example of what sales trainer Michel Neray says can save your opening line from becoming a smelly old elevator pitch. It is the provocative question.
Neray has helped more than 1,000 clients, and many thousands more who have attended his talks, understand how to open conversations and how to tell stories. Neray is also the co-author of the book The Great Crossover: Personal Confidence In The Age Of The Microchip.
In this conversation with Publisher Paul Feldman, Neray explains how to find the right provocative questions.
FELDMAN: You say that elevator pitches don’t work and they’ll never work. Why is that?
NERAY: Elevator pitches drive me crazy because it was one of those things that maybe was a good idea 40 or 50 years ago, but no longer works today.
People can smell an elevator pitch a mile away. It tries to be all things to all people. It’s a standard phrase that you would use over and over again regardless of who’s stuck in the elevator with you. And an elevator pitch basically communicates sales pitch.
But we do need something that we could use to quickly communicate what we do and how we do it and what makes us different and why you should listen to us or give us a call or accept our business card.
The problem with elevator pitches is that they are one size fits all. As a result, you have no choice but to construct a phrase that is very high-level and very generalized, which is exactly the opposite of unique and differentiated.
So in order to explain the next point, I would have to explain another concept that I’ve developed. It’s a very, very simple concept that’s incredibly powerful in explaining what we should say and what people are interested in. I categorize my audiences, my listeners, my prospects, basically into two categories.
Category one is the people who are not familiar with your industry — they’re not educated buyers. And category two are the educated buyers.
This is an exercise that I use at the beginning of almost all of my workshops.
Imagine that you are being called in by a prospect.
You’re sitting at the prospect’s desk, and the prospect says, “Why should I buy from you?” You list all of the reasons why.
Most of the time when I do this exercise, people will list all of the high-level reasons for their industry, for the category. For example, in the case of insurance, how insurance could help you.
In a workshop setting, I get people to list all of these things on the left-hand column and then I ask them, “Now let’s repeat this experiment. And we’re going to do it again, except in this case we’re going to do a little twist. The twist is as follows. You’re going to go into the person’s office, but in this case it’s 11:59. It’s just before lunch and they’ve already seen five people with your exact same title or role or business card that morning. Now look at your list and ask yourself if the five people before you would’ve said similar things.”
And at this point in the workshop I usually see people put their elbows on their desks and their hands on their foreheads, because they realize they’ve been using the same arguments as everybody else in working with customers.
I’m not saying those are not important. That column on the left, I call them category challenges. These are things that, if you don’t do these things, you have no right calling yourself an insurance broker or whatever it is that you do in your industry.
Now you’d better do those things. That’s why you’re in the field. But everybody in the industry should do that. And if you’re talking to somebody who is unfamiliar with your industry, then that’s exactly where you want to start.
However, if you’re speaking to somebody who is what I call an educated buyer — and if they’ve called you in, they’re probably an educated buyer — then they know all that stuff.
So back to your question of why I hate elevator pitches and why they drive me crazy is because most elevator pitches are focused on the left-hand column, the category challenges.
But to do that one-size-fits-all, you’re trying to shove 30 to 50 words down somebody’s throat in as little time as possible. It’s no wonder they get their back up. It’s no wonder that they can’t even focus on what you’re saying.
They’re just thinking in the back of their minds, “Sales pitch, sales pitch, they’re just giving me a sales pitch. That’s an elevator pitch. I know what that is.
I’m not even listening to what they’re saying.”
FELDMAN: I was in a bar and this guy introduced himself. I asked him what he did, and he said to me, “I help small business owners save money on taxes.” Well, as soon as he said that, I knew he was an insurance agent.
NERAY: Yes. And all of the financial services companies have shot themselves in the foot over the past 50 years. Because they’ve known they’ve had this challenge of how do we get people interested in what we do? And that’s a genuine challenge.
The way they’ve tried to solve or overcome that challenge is by training their people to do all these techniques that we’ve now come to realize are just not truthful. What was going on in the back of your mind, Paul, when this person said this?
FELDMAN: Well …
NERAY: “They’re not being straight with me,” right?
NERAY: Funny enough, the insurance broker that I deal with says, “When people ask me what I do, I say that I sell insurance. And it’s amazing how many times the response I get is, ‘Oh, yeah, I need that. Let’s talk.’”
FELDMAN: But there’s also the opposite where they’ve heard, “I already have all my insurance taken care of.”
NERAY: Yes, that’s true. And that goes back to one size does not fit all.
We need something short. Let’s agree with that. We need something short to quickly establish a potential fit, create rapport and do all that stuff.
The way that I teach people to do it is, “Do not be drawn into a response.” You don’t have to say what you do. Instead, you can ask a question.
And it’s really hard to do, because when somebody asks a question, it’s a natural response to answer. So we need something to answer. But what I teach people to do is to replace the elevator pitch with what I call a provocative question.
Everything we’ve been talking about is interrelated — whether it’s storytelling, elevator pitches or skepticism or sales telepathy.
The definition of a provocative question is, what question can I ask that the response allows me to say, “Well, that’s what I do”?
FELDMAN: How do you find the question that will lead to that statement?
NERAY: This requires you to have done the work ahead of time in the sales telepathy process. That is to understand what it is that you do that’s different, that’s unique and why you do it.
I’ll give you two examples. One example is my own. I talked to you about how I realized I had this gift of helping other people discover their unique differentiation, but I was not even aware of it. [Refer to “How Stories Are Better Than Sex” in the November issue.]
I also understand that for most people, their differentiation is obscure for them. It’s hard for them to even know what it is, at that specific level. I also know that the challenge surfaces in places like networking events. Also in places like in sales calls, where they’re often uncomfortable or unsure of the best way to describe what it is that they do. They’ve learned the elevator pitch, but they know it doesn’t work.
So I have a series of questions. And I would love advisors to have a library of key questions.
After people ask, “What do you do?” I say, “Let me ask you a question. When you go to a networking event, how comfortable and confident are you in the way you describe what it is that you do?”
And that engages the listener’s mind. That’s an NLP [neuro-linguistic programming] thing. We are hard-wired to answer questions. It makes people think.
So, in their minds they go back to the last time they were at a networking event and they say, “You know what? I probably spoke for too long. I probably didn’t make my value clear.”
And I will say, “That’s what I do. I actually work with people to help them clarify and home in on their unique point of difference and their greatest value and articulate it in a way that’s compelling so that when you’re asked in a situation such as a networking event or a sales call, you know exactly how to position yourself more confidently and more clearly.” Then I’ll get the response, “Oh, yeah, wow, I sure can use that.” Or not. Sometimes I’ll get, “Oh, yeah, I’m totally confident with the way that I respond to that question,” and I say, “Well, what is it? I’d love to hear it, because maybe I could learn.”
Then nine times out of 10, I dig a little deeper and they’re really not confident. They give me an elevator pitch and I say, “Oh, yeah, that’s an elevator pitch. How often does that work?” They say, “Well, it works sometimes.”
That still allows me to say, “That’s what I do. I help people clarify and hone in on their greatest value and their unique differentiation, so that when they’re in situations like this, they have something to say. But I have to tell you, it’s not an elevator pitch. It’s an alternative to an elevator pitch. Let me explain to you why I believe elevator pitches don’t work.” Now we’re in a conversation.
I’m not selling them. I’m not pushing anything on them. It’s an interactive, two-way thing. It’s not, how many words can I get down their throats in 30 seconds? It’s a conversation where they can ask me questions based on what they are interested in that’s related to what I do. That’s far more powerful than an elevator pitch.