What "Jack And The Beanstalk" Can Teach You About Pitching Clients

Gain your clients’ trust by offering tangible, incremental change—before showing them the magic you’re capable of.

So you have a really revolutionary idea that might transform your business, or your client’s business. Good for you. Now comes the tricky part: Selling it. It’s not that your idea is bad, or your audience isn’t smart. It’s simply that you have something that they’re not looking for.

That’s a challenge we regularly face at Sense Worldwide, and we take inspiration from one of the great works of management literature: Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack, you will remember, is sent to the market to sell a cow. "Get a good price for it," says his mother, a model One-Minute Manager. Jack is waylaid on the way to market by a radical change consultant, or as they were known in fairy tales, a witch.

The witch does a great selling job on some magic beans. Why have coins, she argues, when you can have the infinite riches at the top of a magic beanstalk? Certainly it’s a step out of the comfort zone of subsistence dairy farming, but fable folk need to think bigger from time to time. Jack buys the witch’s pitch, sells the cow, and skips home triumphantly with the magic beans. His mother demands the coins, doesn’t buy the business transformation spiel, spanks Jack soundly, and sends him to bed without supper.

At Sense Worldwide we spend a lot of time thinking about which ideas are "coins" and which are "magic beans." Magic beans are the potentially sales-doubling, giant-toppling ideas that turn challengers into leaders, and make leaders unassailable. But if you push them as the only solution, you get the corporate equivalent of being spanked and sent to bed without supper: Everybody shakes your hand, says, "That was really interesting," and nobody replies to your emails ever again.

So we always start our pitch with coins. Coins are the things that you can fix, things that the team can build with their current capabilities, validated improvements that will lead to incremental growth. If you start a relationship or a meeting with coins, then everybody gets comfortable. The cow is going to get sold, and nobody is going to bed hungry and sleeping on their front. Once you’ve proved yourself with some incremental change, clients and colleagues become much more relaxed when you show up with a wand and a pointy hat to demonstrate how big you can really think.

Recently, we did some work for a big packaged goods manufacturer. Its product was extremely expensive but much better than anything else on the market because it worked automatically. After some consumer research and design thinking, the magic idea hit us: This wasn’t an expensive packaged good at all. It was a cheap appliance. And in markets where appliances are status symbols of an emerging middle class, a $20 appliance had a lot of appeal, even though a $20 packaged good looked very expensive.

The idea was magic. Maybe a little too magic to be embraced by the sales team of a packaged goods giant. They wouldn’t see the magic. They’d just see the beans. They needed coins first. So we recommended some fixes: Create ads that sold the "automated appliance" benefits of the product. Compare it to the time saved by a vacuum or microwave. Plant the idea in consumers’ heads that it was an appliance.

All of this was achievable, and it boosted sales in test markets. Then came the magic beans: The sales team had to sell the product to a completely alien audience—appliance retailers. By this time, the sales team was ready to listen to us. They were prepared to believe in magic. And it worked: Sales of the company’s first 'appliance’ took off in two developing markets, and now more are following.

McKinsey has long called itself the University of Strategy. We like to think of ourselves as the Hogwarts of Strategy. But it’s not enough to make magic. You have to sell it, too, if you want to live happily ever after.

[Image: Photoroller/Shutterstock]

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  • Jason Mitchell

    Wait, but didn't jack use the giants wife to break into his house, hide there while the giant was home, steal from him and then ultimately kill him when the giant wanted his stuff back.

    I don't know. Sounds like some shady business practices to me.

  • Ikem Charles Apache

    Really nice article..This will be useful to lots of design managers and creative people, whose ideas may seem like the coin, beans metaphor.Thanks Millar

  • Caitlin Potts

    Thanks for a such captivating article with actionable concepts! As a User Experience Practitioner, a fair amount of my daily work requires persuading Project Managers, Programmers, Executives, and Sales and Marketing to embrace user centered methods. The concept of magic beans vs. coins is relevant to more than just products. In order to influence people, you have to be able to not only sell yourself, but to show how your ideas have made a large-scale impact. Getting people to see coins will help you to gain the influence that you need for them to embrace the beans!

  • calebgalaraga

    Let me just say how truly enlightening the coins and beans analogy is for an aggressive young marketer like me. Now I understand why I sometimes frighten people when I propose a plan - we have to convince them slow and take it one small change at a time. Thanks for sharing this, Brian!

  • Asit Jain

    Dear Brian,
    What you have said about "coins" and "magic beans" perfectly makes sense when it comes to creating a visible impact for your clients. During one of my previous engagements for a medical devices manufacturer, we were asked to only look for the magic beans and true to your words after an enthusiastic beginning, it lost the steam  as they could not find the coins immediately. Let me admit one of the recent mistakes where I went to show some magic beans to a prospective client, they were mesmerized, scratched their bald heads but are yet to say "Yes" to our engagement. I think I should have started with some coins and then spill the magic beans for getting the golden goose !

    Asit Jain