CEOs to Salespeople: How to Answer, “So, What Is It You Do?”

CEOs to Salespeople: How to Answer, “So, What Is It You Do?”

So, you’ve been let loose at a conference or are manning your company’s stand at an exhibition.

You’re looking sharp. Hair recently cut, shoes polished or heels just high enough and your favourite suit or outfit makes you shine with confidence. You look every inch the successful salesperson, head of sales or CEO.

That is until someone walks onto your stand or starts making small talk with you in the line up for the buffet and innocuously asks, “So, what is it that you do?”

What you do is fall apart.

You turn into a bumbling, rambling mess of ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ as you frantically try to remember your ‘elevator pitch’ that you spent so much time on and memorizing. This usually starts with the overused phrase, “I/we help [target market] to…”

At best, you’ll get a “that’s interesting, tell me more”, to which you’ll continue talking about your products, services and solutions; why you’re the best; which customers you work with; and the results they get, etc.

“It was nice to meet you,” says the potential customer as they walk away to catch up to their colleagues or wave to someone else they know in the lunch line as a way of getting away from you.

Shall I bother to cover ‘at worst?’ Nah, I didn’t think so.

How can it be that such a predictable event is still being executed so poorly by people who sell? You know you will be asked this question.

Surely, this is something that even the most inexperienced salespeople should be able to master easily. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And yet, it still manages to trip up even the most experienced of sellers and businesspeople.

My point of view is that this happens for two reasons:

  1. People/potential customers, out of politeness, unwittingly ask a poor-quality input (vs. output) question – “What is it you DO” – that sets a conversation trap.
  2. Salespeople, who have been hard-wired by social conditioning (think school) to answer questions directly, immediately respond with a self-focused (vs. customer-focused) and out of date way of answering this direct question, “I/we help [target market] to…”.

Put simply, the whole situation is dysfunctional and sets neither party up for mutual creation of value. A total and often cringe-worthy waste of time for everyone.

Would you like to change that?

The 3-Part Response

Here is an easy to follow 3-part response to ensure that you:

  1. avoid an uncomfortable experience for both you and your potential customer and
  2. have a rock-solid way of starting the process of mutual exploration and value creation for both of you

Rather than starting your response with the standard, old, same sounding and boring “I/we help [target market] to…” (which jumps immediately to solution), you need to frame your response by positioning the problem(s) that your product, service or solution addresses (my friend and sales expert David Priemer calls this “the cut” – pointing out that you can’t sell a band-aid to someone who doesn’t know they are bleeding). This sounds like the below.

  1. Frame the problem(s): “Well, you know how many companies (pay an absurd amount of money for/struggle to/are frustrated at/are disappointed by X)…”

The next part of your answer will ensure that you stay focused on customer outcomes and impact by leveraging third party proof. This is highly persuasive and rapidly creates credibility.

  1. Third-Party Proof & Outcomes: “ACME, ABC, XYZ companies would tell you that they (significantly reduce the costs of/dramatically improve revenue/boost productivity) by as much as X% to Y% because they (fundamentally change the way they/are able to/strip out redundancies). This is the band‐aid/solution.” Pique curiosity without going into solution pitch.

The third and final part of your response is designed to stop you from being trapped into answering all their questions and get the potential customer opening up and sharing how what you solve might be a challenge in their organization. I like to use a bit of humour when I do this. And that’s just me and my personality. There is hypnotic language in here, too. Feel free to make this your own.

  1. Escaping the conversation trap: None of which amounts to a ‘hill of beans’ unless you’re disappointed with/struggling to/frustrated at (the results of your employee development programs, grow sales at the rate you want and need, the pace of change). Tell me, is this an issue that you face at your company? (Yes, I know it’s not an ‘open’ question. I can immediately ask another prepared question if they answer “no”.) The prepared prevail.

How does that sound and feel to you? Can you see yourself easily and effortlessly coming up with a script that works for you?

The salespeople and executives that I’ve coached who have used this 3-part response will tell you that they find this a hell of a lot more effective and comfortable to say than their old elevator pitches. They like it because it feels less “salesy”, less about them and more focused on the value that others get from working with them.

Have a go at creating your own 3-part response. Send me over what you come up with for a quick review. I’ll respond to the first three that do.

If you or your sales team have been struggling with this issue or other sales issues for more than 30 days, it’s time to get help. Give me a call.

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Matt Conway

CEO & Principle at Matthew Conway
If you're a CEO or Sales Leader reading this and you want to fill your pipeline with quality opportunities, win more deals and reduce sales cycles by as much as 6x, then perhaps it's time for a chat?

If you want to learn more, feel free to email me at or call me on +1 647-402-2096.
Matt Conway
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