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Ditch the Pitch

To close a 401(k) deal, engage the client in your presentation.

By E. Thomas Foster Jr., Esq.

Ask most people how they’d describe a good salesperson, and they’re likely to respond: “a good talker.”

Talking, however, is probably the least important of all the attributes of sales success. Addressing the unique concerns of an individual or a specific group cannot and will not happen if you go into the close armed with all of the reasons why your company’s 401(k) plan is designed to fit all the buyer’s needs. It will not happen if you expect them to listen to a monologue that is all about you. It will not happen if you fail to respect their schedules and if you exceed the time they’ve been kind enough to give you.

It can happen
It can and will happen, however, if you revert to one of the fundamentals of Sales School 101: Your potential client wants to know: “What’s in it for me?” To answer that question, you must ask what’s important to him, listen closely and respond in a way that removes any obstacles or objections. To get started, heed some simple advice:

  • Bring your presentation or PowerPoint slides that address all the benefits and advantages of your company’s plan. Just don’t open with the presentation.
  • Bring a flip chart and several markers, and make sure the room is organized in a useful way. Position the flip chart prominently in front of your audience.
  • Make the necessary introductions and then surprise your audience by shifting the focus on them.
Make the necessary introductions, then surprise your audience by shifting the focus on them.

A different start
Rather than launching into your sales pitch, begin with something like this:

“Tom, Dave and Mary, thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me today. I have reviewed your request for proposal and have a good general sense of what you’re looking for in a 401(k) plan and program provider.

“However, what I would like to know from each of you is, given your different roles in the organization, what is your idea of the perfect plan? What is the most important thing you want to accomplish in choosing a program provider?”

Once their shock wears off, spend a moment or two with each person. Using your flip chart, write down their concerns: service, cost, flexibility, statements, etc. This creates a working document that everyone in the room will refer to as a list of the meeting’s key objectives.

If your audience doesn’t immediately open up, you may want to draw on the RFP to create leading questions. For example, you can say: “Mary, I understand that employee education is a top priority, but the workers on the third shift often miss the enrollment meetings. Is that correct? OK, so let’s put ‘education for all employees’ on the board.”

You also may want to review what you’ve heard them say. “Thank you, Tom, Dave and Mary, for your feedback. Just to recap: In addition to the objectives outlined in the RFP, the most important issues for us to address today are service, cost, flexibility …”

Ready to go
Now you may begin your presentation. It is not very important that the flow of your slides mirrors the list on your flip chart. It is important that you address their concerns thoroughly, confidently and in a manner that demonstrates what’s in it for each of them. Cross off each item on the list after you and your audience are satisfied. Be sure to illustrate how every feature of the plan you’re selling is a benefit that addresses their needs.

Once your presentation is complete, immediately draw their attention back to their list of objectives. Ask them if there are other questions that should be answered. If there are, answer them. It’s at this point that a piece of psychology is often introduced into the sales equation: The psychology of the closer.

Although you may have removed all obstacles and objections to the close during your presentation, all your efforts will be in vain if you get tangled up in the fear of immediate rejection and neglect to ask for the business. If you hear “no” or something like it, don’t panic. Ask why, address the concern and ask for the business again.

In some cases, the audience before you may not be authorized to make a decision. Don’t get complacent if that happens. Confirm that all of their concerns have been addressed and there are no lingering obstacles to their recommending your company to be their 401(k) program provider. Once you’ve received that confirmation, you can walk away feeling good that you’ve done your job.

It’s not over, though. Follow up promptly, restate how you will address their concerns, ask for the business and anticipate a “yes.”

E. Thomas Foster Jr., Esq., is Hartford Life’s 401(k) national key account manager. He has 27 years of experience working with defined contribution retirement plans. Contact him at

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