by Stephen Van Vreede

I was having a discussion recently with a colleague of mine in which the word “pitch” was used in reference to candidates in the job search process. This colleague quickly bristled and said, “I don’t advise my clients to pitch anything.”

To which I quickly reminded her that she most certainly does. After all, she prepares the so-called “elevator pitch.”

She then bristled again and said, “Well, that’s different.”

When I asked her to explain, she went on to tell me that one was the “off-putting,” basically “disgusting” art of “pitching” a sale, while the other was the crafting of a statement that encompasses the candidate’s “value proposition.”

I guess in her mind she isn’t teaching her clients how to sell; instead she’s teaching them how to…sell but pretend they aren’t…?

(A pitch is a pitch is a pitch is a pitch.)

I know many people probably share my colleague’s sentiment about the idea of a “sales pitch.” Within the career services industry, in general, the idea of a sales pitch is met with disdain but the concept of an elevator pitch is lauded as good practice. (Go figure.)

And I do get it. We can all think of the stereotypical slimy salespeople who will say anything to get us to buy…who try to whip us into some emotional state where we are tricked into making a bad decision. And we rightly bristle at the idea that any of our clients would take that approach in their job search.

But as someone who has an MBA in marketing and a strong education in sales, I’m more than a little concerned that by playing games with semantics, we (career strategists and candidates alike) are in danger of leading candidates down the wrong road.

In my mind, knowing how to “sell” is one of the most secure and marketable skills you can develop regardless of what role, industry, private/public sector career you have. There is a lot of truth to the saying that “all of life is sales.”

The problem is that most people have been taught that selling is bad. That it’s manipulation.

But that is NOT what good selling is.

Good selling starts from a basic premise: That you have a good or service (product) that will make someone else’s life better in some way (it solves a problem). Marketing introduces that product to the specific market who will benefit from it the most (building the recognizable “brand”). Then sales backs up the brand by “demonstrating” the product to individual prospects interested in how this product will make their lives better and solve a problem they have.

Now, here’s where the “pitch” comes in. It isn’t a trick like a fast ball; it’s a reinforcement (a “connecting of the dots,” if you will). The prospect has already identified that he or she has a problem that needs solving, and the marketing has attracted him or her to this brand as a possibility of solving it. Now the prospect just wants to know 1) whether he or she can trust your product and your brand and 2) whether what you are saying really will solve his or her problem. The job of sales, then, is to convince (create trust/belief) and then persuade (encourage action). Nine times out of ten without the sales “pitch,” the prospect will do nothing even if he or she is interested. (As humans, we like to be convinced and persuaded as we don’t want to make a foolish decision.)

In the end, contrary to popular opinion, the transaction that occurs is not a “win-win” (company-buyer). It’s a “win-bigger win” in which the company makes a short-term profit (because let’s face it, the company needs a lot of sales to profit long term) and the buyer gets a long-term resolution of his or her problem.

In good selling, the buyer is always the bigger winner.

(In fact, it has to be that way for businesses to prosper. Big, sustainable businesses must have that to survive. If not, they will become irrelevant to the market. The problem, of course, is that they often lose sight of it, for various reasons, and when profits start to slip as a result, they react by becoming more selfish, eventually creating that slimy sales environment we all know and hate and usually cheapening the product to “save” on expenses.

And by the way, nonprofits and other public sector agencies pretty much operate on the same premises. They all have a target market they serve, staff who needs to make a living, grant funders they need to convince and persuade, boards of directors and other stakeholders who look to “profit” in some way even if that way seems more “humanitarian”. It’s all a matter of practicing good selling. In fact, in many ways, the public sector/nonprofit arena has to do a lot more “selling” than the private sector does.)

So getting back to the “elevator pitch” and the job search process, in general, what else is it if it isn’t a form of good selling?

Wouldn’t you rather learn how to do good “selling” than just good “bragging” or, worse, “selling but pretending you’re not selling?”

I’ve met a lot of good braggers and none of them are good at sales/marketing. Why? Because they practice poor selling techniques, expecting to trick the other party into thinking they are better than they are, expecting to win bigger than the other party does. I’ve also met a lot of others who don’t want to seem like their “selling” so they don’t. They don’t pitch any substance, and they don’t make the sale. (They make the mistake of thinking the product will just sell itself.)

Listen. When you go out with your “pitch” in job search mode, the potential employer should make out better from hiring you (that is really what a “value proposition” is). After all, you are performing a “service” and that service does make the “world a better place” (at least the world inside that company), doesn’t it?

(I should hope so! Otherwise, your service is irrelevant.)

Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t stand to profit. You expect a good wage (price) for your hard-earned effort so that at least during the short term (as long as you work there), you can make a living, maybe even a good one. You also expect other things like respect and certain benefits. In the end, though, while you are there, you help solve problems that build in long-term sustainability (that’s your legacy) for the company (or at least should be if the company is being managed properly), making the company and all the people it serves (customers, staff, communities) bigger winners.

So the next time you bristle at the idea of selling, particularly as it relates to you, the job seeker, be careful of clouding your judgment so that you miss out on what good selling “pitches” do. Otherwise, you’ll spend so much time trying not to “sell” with your “elevator pitch” that your potential employer(s) will be left wondering just exactly what it is you can do for them and whether they can trust what you say.