Imagine you are waiting by a lift and a senior executive of a potential client comes up and enters the lift at the same time. She asks what your business does and presses the button for the fourth floor, giving you at most, twenty seconds to set out your proposition and to hook her interest. That is the essence of the idea that has become known as the ‘elevator pitch’: a succinct statement that both encapsulates the core of your offering and resonates with your audience in a way sufficient to pique their interest.
It is something that we as a business have always found difficult. As a management consultancy we are happy to turn our skills to a wide range of business problems. Much of what we do involves the development of software, but that is a means, not an end. As a small business, we are naturally reluctant to ‘close off’ areas of business, by focusing just on certain areas, which of course is the whole point of the elevator pitch. Nevertheless, we recognise the value of the concept to a professional services business such as Golden Orb and have recently spent some time trying to refine ours, not least because we have never been entirely clear in our own minds about exactly what it is that really defines what we do!
At root, it is a question of what we should focus on: the skills we have, the work we do, or the sorts of problems we address. We should recognise, too, that there is a difference between how we perceive ourselves, what we think our clients benefit from most, and what a potential client needs to hear. To be honest, our clients probably gain most from work that is neither technologically cutting-edge, nor particularly sophisticated mathematically. With the exception of our forecasting models, which can draw on some advanced statistical techniques, our planning tools rarely require the use of anything beyond basic data manipulation and simple arithmetic. That is not to say that this work is trivial. In an increasingly complex real world, with multiple internal and external data sources, dirty data and complicated business rules, the ability to think through the problem and deliver a solution that works reliably end to end delivers real value to our clients. However, clients typically would like to hear something that sounds rather more exciting: phrases such as ‘Big data’, ‘Leading edge’ and ‘Personalisation’ are what tends to pique their interest, even if that is not what they typically need. For us, too, we would probably prefer to emphasise the more advanced levels of our skills – in statistics, management consultancy and software, for example – than those more basic areas where experience has shown that clients actually benefit most.
One big question is whether we should focus on the software that is the outcome of about 90% of our projects. On the one hand, it is nice and clear and clients think they understand what we are talking about – which helps with the selling process. On the other hand, we are far from being an IT company, and if it makes clients pigeonhole us wrongly, it immediately starts the relationship on the wrong footing. Because we are data specialists, we obviously make extensive use of computer technology ourselves, and also frequently develop software for our clients to enable them to use data more effectively in their business. We are skilled in tools such as Oracle, Oracle OLAP, ASP.NET and Python. However, to think of us as a software company is to confuse the means with the ends, and risks delegating primary responsibility for our work to the IT department who are more experienced at dealing with the sort of transactional systems that need to be kept running at all costs. These require very different handling, and a different set of skills to manage, than our work. So, one possible option, which is to say that we build mathematical software, is probably not ideal.
Another question is the extent to which we should narrow down our core statement of what we do. A narrower focus will have the effect of shutting off some areas of business, but is much more specific and tangible for people for whom it is relevant. So, for example, we have built up quite a body of expertise in the field of planning and forecasting – whether building a complete marketing and sales plan, or something more niche like planning trade promotions. One option, therefore, is to say that we are specialists in planning and forecasting – and that is certainly a possibility, as it is a field that is not easy to supply off the shelf since the planning needs of companies are so specific to their business. However, that fails to capture the analytical aspect of our business. A broader approach would be to say that we are specialists in data and analytics as that broadly encompasses all that we do. However, it is not really so clear to the listener and would therefore need to be followed up immediately with something more tangible: what that actually means for the company involved.
Rather than focusing on our skills (mathematical software), or typical deliverables (e.g. planning and forecasting tools), a third approach is to focus on the client and what they might expect to get out of our work. So, we have played around with various formulae around helping companies to take better decisions, or even to see into the future more clearly.
One thing that has become clear is that there is not really one unique ‘elevator pitch’ for the business. The emphasis will depend on who you are talking to, as well as the context, and the wording has to be something that the individual actually speaking is comfortable with. After all, not all elevator pitches are actually delivered one-to-one in a lift. There are grandiose statements that can be said in a large auditorium which I personally would not be comfortable saying directly to the face of a potential client. Therefore, the key is to make sure you are absolutely clear on what it is you offer, why a company should use you rather than a competitor (your USP), and to have a few relevant phrases at your fingertips. In any case, it is identifying our core offering and USP which, to me, is the whole point of this mental exercise. For me, our core offering is something to do with data – helping companies to use it to add value to their business. The reason they should use us has to do with our somewhat unique range of skills and experience. Years in consultancy, including A T Kearney and Oliver Wyman have given us a range of highly advanced analytical tools and techniques. However, those companies do not have the software skills to do what we can do in making those tools and techniques accessible to our clients. The top consultancies typically do not dabble in ‘implementation’, so many consultancy projects end in a thick report, which either sits on a shelf gathering dust, or proves impossible to implement due to unforeseen ‘real world’ considerations. Our difference is that we work out what is needed and then give the client something they can actually use on a day to day basis.
So what should the elevator pitch be? My view changes from day to day as the mood takes me, but my current preferred formula leads with a clear statement of what I see as our core offering and immediately follows it up with how we generally help our clients. If the lift has not yet arrived at its destination, I would follow it up with reasons why they should use us and some short examples of work we have done. See what you think…
“We are specialists in data and analytics. We help companies to operate more efficiently and take better decisions by improving their ability to access and interpret a wide range of data. Our core strength is that we have the full range of skills in-house, including in software, mathematics and business, which allows us to provide an end-to-end solution. Our clients range from SMEs to global corporations and examples of our work include developing tools for planning and forecasting, analysing factory performance data to improve efficiency and helping a bank to monitor the performance of its risk measurement tools.”