The Art of the Intangible Pitch

Jackie Loewe and Amar Rajpurkar discuss teaching MPM students how to win business when what they’re selling can’t be experienced in person.

When it comes to buying a house, the walk-throughs are a key part of the process.You want to make sure the layout and flow of the house makes sense for you, that the bedrooms provide enough space, and that there are no hidden structural risks or electrical concerns.  

But what if you are looking to design a new bridge and are considering an engineering firm for the job? How can you walk through a project that doesn't exist? 

Jackie Loewe and Amar Rajpurkar discuss this question and provide answers in Business Development in the Built Environment, a course offered in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Project Management (MPM) program. The class begins by examining the differences between selling a tangible product like a house and an intangible product like a firm’s services.  

Amar Rajpurkar“When we're in consulting, we sell or buy brain power. We're buying that knowledge that's inside someone's head,” said Rajpurkar, who has been teaching this course with Loewe for the past five years. “Do we trust it? Has somebody else trusted it? Is it blind faith by how they speak to us? That is the distinction that we're trying to make between consulting intangible services vs. tangible services.”  

Pitching an intangible service is infinitely more nuanced, the teaching duo said, so their class delves into all the subtleties that help build a foundation of trust between the firm and the potential client. It is crucial for firms to understand what their potential client is looking for so that they can directly speak to those needs — be it in a formal presentation or in response to a request for a proposal. 

The ability to empathize is key to earning trust from a potential client, and the class focuses heavily on teaching students how to build that rapport with their potential clients.  

The course culminates with a live exercise where a panel of senior-level industry experts visits the class and hears pitches from teams of students trying to win a project.  

Jackie Loewe“This is their chance to actually meet real people who are acting as clients and selecting firms to do their projects,” Loewe said. “Then they get a chance to interact with the executives in their true roles. It's a real highlight.”  

It’s one thing for students to discuss relationship building and empathy in theory; it’s something completely different to put those lessons into practice in front of actual industry leaders.  

It’s a topic that Loewe and Rajpurkar know well. Loewe is the founding partner of Sheridan Park Consulting, a firm she has run since 2010. Rajpurkar has been the vice president and Mid-Central area manager for Parsons Corporation for nearly six years. Both have been deep in the trenches of important pitch meetings.  

The final exercise produces some amazing results, the teachers said. The lessons they've imparted in class have also led to some long-term relationships. Both instructors have encountered former students, now well advanced in their professional lives, as they travel professionally across the country.  

Loewe and Rajpurkar both believe students enjoy the course because of the tandem's complementary experiences. Loewe's current professional experience focuses on coaching and consulting, while Rajpurkar remains firmly entrenched in a design firm.  

The result is a course that remains current and exceedingly relevant.  

“The beauty for our students is that you have two 30-year-plus veterans that live and breathe this every day,” Rajpurkar said. “We bring that into the classroom. It's not about theoretical knowledge that I’m going to ask you to repeat. It is very interactive, it's very involved, and it's very real.” 

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