Are You a Pitcher or a Catcher?

By Heather Baldwin

Here’s a question for all you baseball fans out there: Who controls a baseball game – the pitcher or the catcher? Those who don’t know the game usually think it’s the pitcher. He looks like he’s controlling the game by setting the pace and deciding the type of pitches thrown. But those who know baseball know it’s the catcher who controls the game, making the critical decisions that guide the pitcher’s behavior and the game’s tempo, explains Tom Blake, CEO of Optimé International ( and co-author of Championship Selling: A Blueprint for Winning with Today’s Customers (Wiley, 2005). What does this have to do with sales presentations? Everything, say Blake and his co-authors, Tom Hodson and Tony Enrico, who also serve as executive officers of Optimé International. If you want your presentation to be successful, you have to play catch.

Pitchers are focused on what they are doing. They serve up one offering after another; when one pitch doesn’t work, another one is tried. Catching, on the other hand, is about focusing outward. "A catcher is focused not on himself but on everyone else," say the authors. "For this reason he absorbs more valuable information than any other player on the diamond. He is constantly receiving, observing and absorbing – all the while guiding the game." Think of it like this: Pitching is telling; catching is learning. Most salespeople are pitchers; the most successful salespeople are catchers. They have learned to suppress the innate urge to pitch.

By way of example, Blake tells the story of Juan, an experienced principal with a leading consulting firm who was preparing to see a senior vice president of sales for a potential major account. Juan meticulously prepared his presentation and, having spent so much time crafting all the details of that presentation, was anxious to get into his pitch when the big day came. Less than a minute into the presentation, however, the SVP cut Juan off, saying: Our company is a global industry leader. We deal with more than 125 consulting agencies around the world. I’d like to know what makes you the best.

Juan’s mouth went dry. His eyes went to the arsenal of material in his briefcase -testimonials, case studies, brochures and other support documents. He was reaching for them, preparing to rapid-fire it all at the SVP to show him how great Juan’s company was, when he stopped himself just in time and switched from pitching to catching. Instead of telling, he asked: What criteria do you use to decide the best?

The SVP, pleased to demonstrate his knowledge and authority, talked for half an hour, then looked Juan in the eye and asked: Can you do this or not? Juan’s entire presentation now boiled down to two words: Of course. Excellent, replied the SVP. When can you start?

"If you suppress the instinct to pitch, you can ask questions of the customer," say the authors. "If you ask those questions, you can uncover crucial customer information." When the customer says your product isn’t a good fit or the price is too high, suppress the instinct to regurgitate what you’ve already said or to say the same thing a different way. Play catch by replying: I understand. Perhaps you could clarify for me your specific needs. Or: Perhaps you could point out to me where you see a specific gap between our value proposition and your current objectives. By encouraging customers to pitch, you gain valuable insights into their goals. Play ball!