Business Development · Investor pitch

How do you end a pitch/meeting that has gone bad?

Larissa Lielacher Data Scientist / Co-CEO at Flock Data Analytics

September 24th, 2015

As an entrepreneur this might have happened to you before. You pitch your services, your present or have a meeting, and the whole thing just totally goes in the wrong direction.

One of the following scenarios happens:
- The client/investor simply isn't feeling it. They just don't believe in your concept.
- They start to lecture you on how you should build your product and belittling you.
- They are overly critical or deeply negative.

Essentially, I'd like to say "this is a waste of both our time", get up and leave, but that isn't socially acceptable behaviour. Plus, I don't want to be abrasive or rude, as some of the people I meet were intros/recommendations from people that are very important to me.

Usually, I end up staying out of politeness later and feel drained, sad and mad at myself for having wasted time.

Do any of you have a remedy for this? What do you do when that happens to you? Do you have any tips for ending such bad meetings on polite and good terms?

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

September 24th, 2015

Ha! This just happened to me last week by someone who didn't let their complete lack of domain knowledge get in the way of aggressive criticism. It was mostly off-base and generic... and wrong. After counting 10, several times, I was able to turn the meeting at the end (with #4 below). 

1. Get into a road rage pissing match. You can never win these. Not advised.
2. Tail between the legs and cut meeting short. Again, not advised. You spent hours prepping for and getting to/from the meeting. Don't waste that time.
3. Regardless of their tone, treat them as if they're a Generous Skeptic (google that). Ask questions. Drill down on topics. Engage them. If you show that you value their opinion and maybe even find bits to agree with, their attitude changes rapidly. Even if you're seething, say "This is awesome feedback. We're still just getting started and are trying a number of ideas out." You're probably not going to change their mind but I guarantee you that there is some valuable advice buried in all their griping.
4. Probably the only way to change their mind is traction or social proof. Look, an investor who looks at a zillion deals needs a system. They need short-hand to filter out deals... they just don't have the time to dig into your business unless it fits their parameters. HOWEVER, most investors lack conviction when confronted by evidence that conflicts with their perspective. Calmly deliver any points of traction - even if you just have some bullshit metrics - and see what happens.

But don't end the meeting early. This is good practice for you.

Michael Barnathan Adaptable, efficient, and motivated

September 24th, 2015

Just because the feedback's unpleasant doesn't mean it's wrong. If they're negative / overly suggestive, flip the meeting around and listen to how they would go about repairing things. Write the feedback down, take it with you, and see if they have a point.

You'll make them much more positive towards you if they see that you're listening, and you may even find that they become champions of your product or business once the issues they bring up are addressed. Close with "Thanks for the feedback. We'll see if we can fix some of these issues. Is it alright if we keep you in the loop as we fix things?"

Trish McDermott Co-Founder and Media Trainer at Panic Media Training

September 24th, 2015

I've been there too.  The worst-case scenario is when the investor "doesn't feel it."  There isn't much to work with there, but a good question is:

I see we haven't captured your interest.  Where did we lose you?

Sometimes you aren't pitching to your customer.  I've had this experience pitching dating sites that focus on women (women bring men) to a room full of married men.  In these situations I might lightly suggest (humor works) that they ask their wives or sisters for some feedback.

Often in these situations listening is as important as presenting.  You might want someone on your pitch team to be the official listener, including listening between the lines. 

Overly critical and negative?  One thing I learned from telling the Match online dating story back in 1995 is that your most vocal critics can be a gift.  They are never alone and depending on how wide spread their negative beliefs about your product will be, understanding and accommodating their objections might fast track your growth.  

It's all part of the process.  I wish I had kept track of the many people in 1995 who told us we were crazy--that no one would EVER put their photo on an online dating profile.

Frederic Moreau Agile Business Transformer

September 24th, 2015

Hi Larissa,

Every entrepreneur is experiencing this at some stage. 
What is key is to reflect on your key learnings so that you don't repeat them. Write them down, and share it with someone, or you can even write a post about it. Learnings are the best remedy I know of.

All the best.

Bob Smith Consulting to Boards, CEO's and Key Management Teams, Strategic Investor and Fast Growth Companies

September 24th, 2015

All these answers have great merit. Criticism can be really good even when it is no fun to hear.

1. Remember that the criticism is NOT about you.

2. Be an Observer. Be a little detached as an observer and capture their words and be willing to ask them what they mean with certain words or ideas.

3. Be aware that sometimes people will criticize because they are telling you what they need from you in order to support your idea. Now and then, you will find someone who criticizes to show everyone that they are the smartest person in the room. (Again it isn't about you).

4. Look for patterns in the criticism. One critique may be an anomaly, several will form a pattern.

5. Be willing to tell them how to best give you feedback.  When people want to help, they enjoy knowing how to be really helpful.

Make meaning that advances your purpose. Meaning making is everything.

Good luck. It isn't easy, but you asked a great question.

Tom Wilde General Manager at Cxense

September 25th, 2015

Pitching is like selling, so when a pitch of any kind goes south, one technique I have used is the aggressive takeaway.  Begin to say something along the lines of "well it looks like we are not a fit for what you are looking for".  At these moments I have even closed my laptop and stopped running my slides.  I then follow it up with "what kind of solution/investment/product/service/deal is the right fit for what you are looking for?"  Just turn it into a conversation.  A few things ususally happen.  By doing the takeaway, they may actually begin to turn the conversation and point ut some things they do like about your pitch.  They also will give you more clues as to what they are looking for and you may be able to modify your pitch on the fly.  Doesn't always work.  Sometimes you just catch people at a bad time.  Funny story though.  I was once pitching an investor 1:1 in a fundraising process and the investor kept nodding off.  So awkward-I was sure I had blown it but they actually ended up investing.  

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

September 24th, 2015

Great responses. In all honesty, I've never left a meeting early even though I wanted too.

If something goes that direction, turn it around. "So, your saying if I did (put thier words here), you'd put money in to make it happen?" Find out. If it's not a right fit, move on and it's no big deal. If it's just one thing they need to feel comfortable to invest, then find out and get the investment if you want it from them.

If they are being truly rude and not just giving passionate feedback, that's different. If they seem like they are threatening you or making you feel like their act or tone is unethical the only thing you can do is ignore them. Also, find out if they are just weird or have social issues. Most of us do.

These are busy people, you'll hear don't take it personally (as above) but that is nearly impossible unless you have no empathy or emotional intelligence. It is personal and it does matter. You want to be successful, put that spin on it. How can what that person said be applied to make us and me successful?Take notes, talk to advisors and then only take a small % of what they said and learn from it. Find out if it's the same issue over and over.

Personal side note:

I've heard "just put it on Kickstarter" so many times I could vomit right on the person. It's an idea we have in mind, but it's one that takes time and MONEY to do well with fashion item. So I ask, "would you put in money to support our campaign and make sure it's successful?" If they say... well, huh.... Then I know it's just an excuse not to commit and ask if they know someone who will. If they say yes, then we have a winner!

And one time, a guy kept touching my arm when I was pitching him and inviting me on his boat with friends. I couldn't tell if it was a nervous tick and he was a slime bucket or just socially challenged. After paying attention, I realized he's a goofball with ADD and not the right investor. He is harmless and I stayed calm and I am glad. Now, when I see him at events I say hello.

Robert Clegg

September 24th, 2015

A helpful exercise is to ask what mistake here was your fault: 

Did you thoroughly research the potential client for product fit? Were you prepared to make that connection to their current portfolio or related companies?

In hindsight could you go read their blog and see the clues that they would not have been a fit? Is the person who referred you reliable, engaged, and knowledgeable about your business? Why did you take their referral?

How might this help you before you even schedule a meeting? If you did all that, what aren't you seeing?

Glenn Donovan Vice President of Sales (fractional)

September 24th, 2015

First things first - emotions are the enemy of good decision making, particularly negative emotions. As an entrepreneur (and really any successful business person) when you notice yourself getting annoyed or fearful or frustrated or angry you should recognize that the problem lies with you, not them, and calm yourself down. Even if this means asking for a quick bathroom break and splashing some water on your face and centering yourself. You will not make good decisions or a good impression from a negative emotional state.

As for whether to leave or not, don't put so much value on being polite or not - this isn't a formal dinner, it's a business meeting. If it isn't worth your time, you can say that in a professional way. I also think this is a very valuable technique for turning a meeting that is going down the tubes around. Say something like this, "With respect, it seems to me that you really don't have any interest in investing. And while I appreciate your advice, I already have some great advisors. If you think this isn't worth your time, let's just wrap up and get on to something more productive for both of us." And shut up. If the person is a jerk and is just beating on you because they get off on it, they will  often revert to being super nice and change their tone quickly. The key here is to be selfish. If the advice/criticism is nonsense, what value is there for you to listen any further? You actually reduce your perceived value by sitting there and taking it - sometimes demonstrating that you take yourself seriously enough to not be batted around like that will increase your perceived value with an investor. Regardless, if you get the sensethe vc isn't going to invest, then find out right away and move on. 

But what may be true is that you are getting good advice and are too arrogant or closed minded to hear it. If that is the case, then like someone said above, take the earnest approach and take notes. Your annoyance at hearing valid feedback is about your ego or fears and if you ever want to be a success, you will have to learn to stop being that way - it's immature.

Last, be clear about what you are doing in these meetings. The VC isn't going to be your consigliere or your key to success - you are selling them stock in your company. Period. If they don't want to buy, fair enough. Now if you are looking for advice or criticism, make that clear up front. If you are pitching an incubator of other environment that provides a lot of structure, then yes, their advice matters. You should think about what you are after, if you need the structure and help then seek VCs structured in that way. But just an investor? If you don't know how to run a business, find a co-founder who does - a VC is not the answer to knowing nothing about business. 

Example: One of my clients is ready for a largeish seed round, he's self-funded till now and has a product and real customers. We are going to raise about 1.5 million to get to the next phase of our development. I've invited an angel investor to meet with us (out of my network, a friend) to come critique everything about the idea, the pitch etc. Fyi, he may decide to invest but the point is feedback and criticism. His feedback counts and is someone I take seriously, versus many VCs who I don't. So, in that meeting, I'm listening to anything he has to say. 

Not all feedback is equal or worth listening to. Decide who you are going to seek feedback from and who you don't want to get it from and deal with them accordingly. Some random VC you've gotten to do an initial phone pitch with? If it's not going anwhere, bail. A VC who has invested in companies just like yours and the person you are pitching worked in the industry you are addressing with your product? Listen like your life depends on it. 

In other words, I suggest you think much more deeply about all of this before your next pitch...

Rob G

September 24th, 2015

Objection handling is a skill you need to master. There are some books that cover this topic - Strategic Selling (by Miller and Heyman i think) comes to mind. I'm sure it has a section of objection handling. The process is the same regardless of audience - investor, prospect, business partner (biz dev), or prospective employee. You are a developer / data scientist. If i had to bet, when you are pitching to prospects or potential business partners or potential employees (not necessarily investors) you are probably pitching to other IT people, am i right? It makes sense because it's what you are comfortable with. I would suggest changing your target audience, but that's a whole separate discussion. Engineers/developers like to challenge presenters - it's just their nature (i'm a recovering engineer). It's often part of their process to see if you 'know your stuff'. They often want to be sure that you know they are the smartest one in the room. You have more in common with them than differences so try to find your commonalities and connect at some level. This goes to point #1 below - do you homework BEFORE you walk in the room.
1. Most importantly:do you homework BEFORE you walk in the room. This goes to your question about "remedies".  Know your audience. That means knowing their business, their culture, their products, etc. This means knowing who the individuals are and their roles in the company and their role in this meeting - is this a product evaluation meeting, an implementation meeting, an investor meeting, etc. Will their boss be in the room? Often people want to show off for the boss and they will challenge you simply to show the boss that they know their stuff. If there is any chance they can interpret you or your product as threatening their job or turf or expertise then you need to be prepared to address that - best done so ahead of time. One way is to have a discussion about this with a manager in the group and just ask "do you think anyone will be concerned about how our product might affect their job and if so who, how, why?" etc. Always best if you can build a response that shows how your product will actually HELP them as an individual - more freedom, more responsibility, less time spent on menial tasks, safety, job security, new skills, higher pay, etc. This is a long topic, but it all comes down to understanding the process of how people and businesses decide to purchase and doing a lot of homework up front.
2. When an objection comes up: be SURE you understand the objection. Nothing worse than getting your hackles up and arguing over something YOU misinterpreted. If you are not crystal clear on what they are saying or objecting too then by all means ASK QUESTIONS until you are sure you really understand their issue. Even if you think you understand the objection, take the time to process their words the repeat the objection back to them in your own words to be sure you are both on the same page. If they have a good point, tell them so. If they are wrong don't tell them so. There are very few instances where challenging someone in real time in the room in front of others is OK, and it's always risky. Attempt it do so only if you KNOW you can win and always do so politely. The other 99% of the time there are better options. One of the most effective is to try to address the issue off-line with the person 1 on 1 - "you bring up a good point. We think we have a good solution to that, but it's a rather involved discussion. Can i get 20 minutes of your time with a white board and my laptop to unpack this issue?" After you've done enough pitches you will have ready answers to most objections. You will get to the point where you can spot objections laid by competitors. An important part of your up-front homework process is uncovering possible objections so that you have time to process them and come up with appropriate responses OR to put them to bed before the pitch. Again, long topic. happy to address in more detail offline.
3. find/build a "champion" prior to the meeting/pitch: champions are people in the audience who want you to win. They are often in a position to help you address objections, find workarounds in advance or handle the objection for you in the meeting. Definitely worth your effort to try to build this relationship before the pitch.
4. Punt: as you can see by far the best answer to this issue is to do your homework to be sure this is the right prospect to be pitching in the first place and if so then doing more homework to uncover objections and detractors ahead of the meeting. You noted that some of the people you pitch to are referrals - leverage that referral the best you can so you know the land mines before you walk in the door. If you choose not to do your homework or for some reason you can't gather the necessary intelligence prior to the meeting then:
5: Fall on your sword: never blame them. something along the lines of "I'm getting the impression that this may not be the best fit. We clearly didn't do our homework to understand your needs. we sincerely appreciate your time. ...".
6. Leverage the feedback: "you bring up some very interesting points. clearly you know this topic well. Do you have some time tomorrow/next week... to go into more details? That would be most helpful."
7. DO YOUR HOMEWORK: yes, it's that important. You will have pitches where the objections are simply misplaced. If you know their business well enough and you understand their position in the company and the decision process well enough you will find occasions where the following approach works well. Sometimes a prospect does something one way because they can't do it the right way or have never considered doing it a better way. Sometimes it's OK to tell them that they are the only ones and they could be at a competitive disadvantage. So, for example: "OK, i think i understand your objection - you mean this, correct?. OK i also understand your business and your boss told me that you currently do it this way, is that correct? OK, My understanding is that the reason you do it this way is because of this limitation and this limitation, is that correct? OK. I'm not here to tell you that you are doing this wrong, but these 10 competitors of yours do it differently (or "do it this way..." as long as you don't compromise their trust). They are able to do it differently because of our product and it gives them these advantages .....". If you have a champion in the room they will be smiling. Sorry for the long post. let me know if i can help.