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133 / From Positioning to Sales Pitch: How to Make the Buying Process Easier, with April Dunford

Hosted by Paul Gebel & Sean Flaherty




April Dunford

Ambient Strategy

April Dunford is the world’s foremost authority on product positioning. As a consultant to fast-growing technology companies, April helps make complex products easy to understand and love. April is also the author of the bestselling book on positioning, Obviously Awesome, and her newly launched book, Sales Pitch.

As the saying goes, not to decide is to decide. And, as April Dunford explains in this episode of Product Momentum, ‘not to decide’ — that is, the customer’s own inability to make a decision — swipes 40-60% of the average B2B salesperson’s revenue pipeline. (source: The JOLT Effect, by Matthew Dixon). B2B selling is hard, but the purchase side of the transaction is no walk in the park either. Call it what you want: dissonance, doubt, second-guessing. The anxiety that comes with the customer’s desire to avoid making a mistake can be paralyzing.

Recording Live at NYPC

Recording live from the New York Product Conference, April Dunford (author of Sales Pitch and Obviously Awesome) explains further: it’s not that buyers have determined that status quo is the better option. It’s that buyers simply can’t get to the level of confidence they need to pull the trigger.

How can product managers and salespeople work together to make the buying process less ominous?

From Positioning to Sales Pitch

“I think we need to approach it with the idea of ‘how can we be helpful to prospects,’ to help them make [these tough] decisions,” April says. “But at the same time, our mission is to sell stuff, right? So we need to communicate: ‘Why pick us over the other guys? What’s the value that we can deliver that no one else can?’ If we’re going to do that, we need a structure.”

Crafting a Compelling Story

April explains that the structure begins with understanding your positioning and then building a pitch that reflects that positioning. From that framework, “product and sales can work together to build a pitch that meets the needs of the Sales team in terms of doing discovery, handling objections, and crafting a compelling story that accurately reflects our product.” Perhaps as importantly, it also helps the buyer make a difficult choice and feel confident about it.

Learn more about how this structure works when you catch the entire podcast episode with April Dunford.

Want to hear more from April? Check out our earlier episode, How To Get the Positioning Right.

Paul Gebel [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our communities way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at it, along with my co-host Sean Flaherty and our amazing production team and occasional guest host. We record and release a conversation with a product, thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Sean Flaherty [00:00:43] Happy to be here today with you, Paul.

Paul Gebel [00:00:45] I am so excited! This space is amazing! New York Product Conference is hopping!

Sean Flaherty [00:00:49] Belsito, MacAvinchey: they put on an incredible show here at New York Product Conference.

Paul Gebel [00:00:53] And we kick off the first of our live podcasts with none other than April Dunford.  Amazing treat.

Sean Flaherty [00:00:58] Yeah, yeah, it was great conversation. We’re going to learn about product positioning and putting together the best product demos and sales pitches on the planet.

Paul Gebel [00:01:06] Absolutely makes it very easy to understand. Gives you a rubric to base your conversations around collaborating with sales. Sales is not the enemy. Tons of nuggets in here that you can take away, really make practical in your product conversations. Help your customers be a guide. It’s great stuff. Let’s get after it. Let’s get after it.

Paul Gebel [00:01:25] Oh hey welcome everybody to the Product Momentum podcast. We’re recording live here from the New York Product Conference. Very excited to be here with April Dunford just getting her off stage and wanted to get some deeper questions out of the content of sales pitch, following on the shoulders of Obviously Awesome, and talking about how positioning works in product managers language and how that communicates into working with sales. So before we jump in, maybe for those who haven’t read your book yet or heard you speak, can you share a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are with strategy and what’s what’s new in your world?

April Dunford [00:02:01] Sure. So I spent the first 25 years of my career as a repeat vice president of marketing at a series of successful, venture-backed startups. I think I did seven in total. Six of those were acquired. So through acquisition, I did a bunch of senior executive roles at a bunch of big companies like IBM. About eight-ish years ago, I made the switch to consulting, and now what I do is very narrow like, so I only work on positioning work. I only work with tech companies, tech companies that have a sales team. So they have something that’s fairly complicated that they’re selling. And we do two things. We do positioning, and then we take that positioning, and we translate it into a sales pitch. So this is what I focus on as a consultant today. My talk was on the sales pitch. So often I do talks on the positioning stuff. But I only know one thing and that’s it. That’s me.

Paul Gebel [00:02:49] Do it very well.

Sean Flaherty [00:02:50]  I was really surprised by the statistic in your talk – about 40 to 60% in B2B sales, especially in software product sales, result in no decision being made at all.

April Dunford [00:03:01] Results in no decision. So that’s that comes from Matt Dixon’s work. And I pull it out of this book called The Jolt Effect, which you can read is a great book. But what they looked at was B2B purchase processes. And so in there, what they looked at was, you know, when did a purchase process get started? So they defined that as we got a team together, we decided we’re going to go buy something. We’ve decided the thing we’re doing right now is no good. We’re going to go buy something. We get the team together. We had all the way through this purchase process, and for a good proportion of those, they get all the way to the very end, like they’ve even gotten as far as choosing a vendor, and then they drop out. Right. And so that research looked at “what’s happening there. Like why do they drop out?”. And the interesting thing is in the majority of cases, it’s not that they decided that the status quo was better. In fact, they’ve gone all the way down and done all this effort. But the reason they drop out and become ‘no decision’ is that they can’t make a decision that they feel confident about. So they’re worried. What if we made the wrong choice? What if the project isn’t successful? You know, what if this has a bad … something bad happens and the company comes back and it looks bad on me? Right. And so they just drop out at the end and say, you know what? Now’s not a good time. We’ll kick the can down the road. Maybe we’ll decide next year. And so I think understanding that is really critical to understanding, well, how do we help customers make a confident decision. Like  what is involved in that. So a lot of my work around taking positioning and translating into a sales pitch is helping salespeople act as a guide so that they can teach the customer more about the whole market, right? So they can feel confident about the choices that they do eventually make.

Paul Gebel [00:04:46] I want to kind of jump to the end of your conversation. And we’ve, you know, heard you. And in your book, you do a really good job of relating to toilet talk. It’s shameless plug to go read that if you haven’t heard this story yet, but you articulate this quality and space and esthetic and and you break the features down. But it kind of begs the question, how do we get to that information and in your story.  You do this really great job of relating is there’s this guide who’s able to adapt on the fly and has this position set and knows what the response is going to be. But you need to know in your bones what that position is before you can become that guide. Yeah. So am I putting too much weight on that. Really getting to understand that or is there?

April Dunford [00:05:32] Well, here’s the thing. Like, we as vendors know a lot about the space. Yeah, like we know tons about the space. Buyers coming in generally have never purchased a product like yours before, so they know nothing about the space. Maybe they’re a user of a system right now, but they don’t know, like who the vendors are, what to think about how the vendors split into categories. So things that we think are all this. Obvious. Like why would you buy SAP if you weren’t a large enterprise? Yeah. Things like that. Right. Your buyers don’t know. And they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t necessarily want to but but you know B2B purchase process again they don’t want to look stupid. They don’t want to go to their boss and say we picked the first one we bumped into. The boss is going to ask questions. Why did you pick this one? Why not these other ones? So what we can do is provide a map of the market. Yeah. And say, look, some vendors take this approach to solving the problem and that’s good for this, bad for that. All the vendors take this approach. Good for this, bad for that, other vendors this and that. We think we as a company believe, and we built our product based on this belief that a vendor like you needs these things. Can we agree on that? And when I say vendor, I’m sorry. Customer. The customer like you would agree. Right. And so I don’t think it’s actually that hard to teach our sales team how to paint a picture of the market at that level. And by the way, that’s not coming in and bashing the competitors. Like in general, you’re actually taking the competitors and putting them in a bucket. Based on their approach to the problem. So I’m not saying SAP sucks because of blah blah blah. I’m saying, look, legacy enterprise vendors take this approach. Good for this, bad for this new upstart companies take this approach, good for this, bad for this. We have taken a different approach, and we think that it, you know, solves these problems and these problems. And that’s what companies like you need.

Paul Gebel [00:07:31] Yeah. And one of the things that stood out to me in the in the talk that you’re sharing, and I think it really focuses on one, one word having having a rubric and what I well, when we were chatting before we started hitting record, you’re talking about how most people in this sort of uncanny valley between blasting people with features and becoming a guide, there’s this there’s a step that some people think you need to listen and then create a custom pitch deck on the fly.

April Dunford [00:07:56] This drives me crazy.

Paul Gebel [00:07:57]  Can you talk about that for a second?

April Dunford [00:07:58]  I don’t know where this came from, but it added literally drives me crazy. So here’s the way this works. In sales, we have qualification and we have discovery, right? Qualification is generally a light qualification. Like does this customer have a problem we can solve. Are they big enough that they could actually afford our stuff? You know, you probably got 5 or 6 things that an inside sales rep would qualify on. Like are you in our space where, you know, tick, tick, tick. But I don’t know anything about their situation yet. I don’t know what their requirements are. I don’t know if they got regulatory stuff, some things I can guess at, other things I can’t. I don’t necessarily know what they’re using now and who else they’re looking at. I don’t know any of these things, but there is this idea which is bonkers that a rep is going to come in, do these discovery questions, and then custom build on the fly, a whole sales pitch around that. This never happens in sales. Like this doesn’t happen. So the the key to a first substantive sales call is I have to do discovery. There’s no way around it. I have to do discovery. So I want to know who else they’re looking at. I want to know what’s driving the purchase. I want to know their timelines. I want to know budgets. I want to know key requirements. I don’t need to understand who the other stakeholders are, but… I also want to teach them something about my stuff. And if I’m really smart. What I would do is teach them at a macro level. Here’s why we think you should pick us instead of the other folks. At a macro level, I should teach them that. So that’s actually what’s happening in these sales calls. It’s just happening completely disjointed. We’re doing a whole bunch of discovery calls. We’re pretending that we’re customizing this whole thing, but we’re not. It’s the same pitch for everyone

Sean Flaherty [00:09:45] Because I know the customer. We’ve done the homework.

April Dunford [00:09:47] Yeah. So, you know, a lot of companies get into this mode, like. Like we’re selling custom software and we’re not selling custom software. It’s a package. It does what it does. Yeah. Like, we’re not building you a whole new custom thing. So what I should be able to do is say, look like, you know, you know, here’s what the market looks like. Here’s where we fit. These are the things we think we’re amazing at and why we think we’re good a good fit for a customer like you. If we want to get down into the nitty gritty of all your little requirements and all the little things that we can do, we’re going to do that in a second call right after we’ve done discovery, then we can really customize something. Yeah, because we can prep we can do it. All I’m trying to do is get to the second call. I’m just trying not to get disqualified on the first call. If all I do is ask questions and pretend I’m a therapist, like, Yeah, I think a customer should disqualify you if you waste their time.

Sean Flaherty [00:10:39] Like, you know, you opened your talk with this, this kind of controversial statement. Like, we know selling is hard, but it’s really not the problem. The problem is buying is hard, right? And our job, especially of a complex product in a complex ecosystem, is to really understand the market and articulate it in a way so that it makes the buying process easier because of your message and exactly what it sounds like for your book.

April Dunford [00:11:02] I think we underestimate how hard it is to buy, like we think a lot of companies think like, I don’t want to sell, I don’t want to sell. Like we’re just going to let the customer make up their own mind or it’s, I’m going to I’m going to inundate them with 9000 questions, and then I’m going to pretend that we have built a custom thing just for that. Right? Which of course we have not. Right. Yeah. So what the what we really need to do is we are deep, deep experts in the market. We know all about how our stuff is different than the competitor’s stuff. We know all about the competitor strengths and weaknesses. We eat sleep breathe this for decades. We’ve got a customer who has never thought about any of this stuff before, is trying to figure this out by just looking at websites and looking at review sites and looking read what the industry analysts have to say. Why are we not sharing that information? Why are we not coming in? And we have to do this in a way that is as much as we can unbiased, but we should be able to come in and say, we built what we built this way for a reason. Let me explain exactly why. It’s amazing to me that we don’t do that. We know this right? And this is hugely helpful to buyers, but it’s almost like we’re trying to say, look, we’re hiding that. Yeah, we’re just going to give you the facts, Jack. I’m going to show you all the features. You make up your mind. You do all the work.

Paul Gebel [00:12:21]  And it triggers the reptile brain response. People. People know that they’re not getting a complete story, or they’re getting a sort of a skewed response. And I think these conversations are simple, but they’re not easy. It’s distilling it down to the most essential components and building a rubric. So they’re part of the rubric.

April Dunford [00:12:40] That’s right. That’s right.

Paul Gebel [00:12:41]  So I’m curious, you know we just have a couple of minutes left. We want to let you get back to just enjoying the the conference. But what can we do to make this practical for for product managers who are trying to trying to make it trying to collaborate with sales. Sales is not the enemy. The customer is not stupid. We need to create an environment where we can have these conversations. But there’s this dance, this little two step that we have to go through to get to know each other a little bit. This discovery process, how do we make this a little bit easier, so that we can take some of the tension out of these conversations and just help each other out? And sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is I want to buy. And that’s okay. But how do we get from where we are in many of these conversations to being professionals at this?

April Dunford [00:13:25] Well, so here’s the first thing. 99% of the sales pitches I have seen are just a product walkthrough. Yeah, they’re just a feature walkthrough. That’s it. It’s just we’re just barf out the features. So I’m going to show you as many things as I can in this hour until I run out of time. And that’s it. And I think if we approach it with the idea of how can we be helpful to prospects, help them make decisions. But at the same time, our mission is to sell stuff, right? So I need to communicate. Why pick us over the other guys? What’s the value? that I can deliver that no one else can. If we’re going to do that, we need a structure like that and the structure can’t be: There’s 29 drop down menus and I’m clicking on every single one. Like that’s not a structure. So the work that I’ve been doing is coming up with a sales pitch structure that if you understand your positioning, you can construct this sales pitch to reflect your positioning. But it also gives salespeople a natural way to do this. Have a discovery conversation a natural way to handle objections. A natural way to do all this stuff that a salesperson needs to do. So if we have a structure and we understand our positioning, I think product and sales can sit down and work together to build this pitch that meets the needs of the sales team in terms of doing discovery, handling objections, doing all the stuff we want to do is an accurate reflection of our product, but also really helps a customer that’s struggling with, you know, how do I put all these different solutions into different buckets and make a choice and make a choice I’m feeling confident about. So yeah, my work has been focused on what does that structure look like? Like can I give you like there’s eight piece parts to a good sales pitch. It looks like this. This is how it maps to your positioning. So now sales and product have something they can work on together. Like they can’t just get together and there’s no structure and say, hey, let’s build a different sales pitch, right? Nobody knows what that structure should look like. So in my opinion, if we have the structure, that’s the thing we can collaborate with sales on.

Sean Flaherty [00:15:32] Yeah. Well, I kind of have three top takeaways from this discussion and from watching you. Oh there’s a lot more but three going to really powerful ones, at least for me. I think that we could refine out of this. One is you know, buying is hard. And part of our job is to do the homework to understand how people how we can make it easier for them to buy. Like, that’s a right. That’s a critical role of a product leader. There is structure you can put to it. The structure is basically a two part thing, like really helping the customer to understand the complexity of the market. And yeah, and to kind of remove that complexity, which requires doing the homework. And then how do I take what we do uniquely and powerfully and make it really about the about you, about the customer that we’re, that we’re actually trying to sell the product to. And then the third one is really, you can’t do any of this if you don’t really if you don’t really do the homework and understand who it is you’re serving and what problems you can solve uniquely and specifically for them to go to a granular degree. And when you do those three things you kind of have, it’s easier to put your sales demos together.

April Dunford [00:16:36] It sound so easy when you say it like that.

Sean Flaherty [00:16:38] You made it easier.

Paul Gebel [00:16:40] April, thanks so much for taking the time with us. For folks who are interested in learning more, where can they find you? Where can they read? What can they do to learn more about the things that you’re talking about?

April Dunford [00:16:49] Yeah, sure. So I’m at You can find my stuff there. The books are a good place to start. So I got one book on positioning, another one on how to take that positioning translate translated to and sales pitch. And then I got a podcast, I got a newsletter, all that stuff. But you can go to and find out about all of that.

Paul Gebel [00:17:07] Awesome. I highly recommend it. You make it so easy to want to learn more about this. Really appreciate the time you took, thanks for taking it.

April Dunford [00:17:13] Thanks. Yeah, thanks for having me. All right.

Paul Gebel [00:17:17] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening. We really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.


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