The “elevator pitch” is a staple of office lore: a go-getter’s well-prepared catchy idea that is ready for any chance meeting with the top boss. Well played, it impresses fast and sends an employee’s career rocketing. Fumbled, the elevator ride is an excruciating 90 seconds.
New elevator systems and technology are making the pitch harder than ever—and upending the delicate rules of elevator etiquette.
Elevators now route employees, sometimes according to rank. They can help corporations keep track of who is in the office and who isn’t. They can be programmed so that a germophobe can simply wave an ID card in front of a reader and be shuttled to the proper floor without actually touching a button. They can redirect an unsuspecting employee to a different floor at the request of the boss.
Behind the changes is an increasingly common dispatch system that the two companies that dominate the industry, Otis Elevator Co. and smaller rival Schindler Elevator Corp. have installed in about 200 mid-to-high-rise buildings around the country. Employees select their floor on a keypad in the lobby and are sent to board a specific elevator. The dispatch systems result in fewer people per car and fewer stops, and can be configured to suit a company’s particular needs.
A dispatch system leaves Rudy Loo, a New York financial industry employee, riding mostly with the people who sit near him, and with no reason to dream up elevator pitches. He can talk to fellow riders any time. “And most people are on their BlackBerry in the elevator anyway,” he says.
In downtown Denver at 1999 Broadway, a 43-story building, a law firm requested that the elevator have the capability to keep its attorneys away from employees of an office of the Internal Revenue Service with which it shares an elevator bank, says Jeff Blain, a Schindler sales manager who worked on the project.
At the 55-story Bank of America Building, at One Bryant Park in New York City, elevators can let bank VIPs ride separately from rank-and-file staff, says Michael Landis, Schindler vice president of marketing. Many of the bank’s senior executives work on the 50th floor and are typically directed to their own elevator anyway, making the technology unnecessary. “But it’s one of the features that they particularly liked and its one of the key features that won us the contract,” Mr. Landis says.
A Bank of America spokesman says the bank isn’t utilizing the feature. “There is an executive floor but there is no executive elevator. The ride up or down can be shared by company leaders and people making deliveries,” says T.J. Crawford, the spokesman.
By the Numbers
- 13 seconds: The average wait time for the elevator in a typical 16-floor building, with a dispatch system.
- 138 seconds: The average wait time for the elevator in a typical 16-floor building, with a conventional system.
- 50 seconds: The average trip time in a dispatch elevator, down from 89 seconds in a standard elevator.
The elevators at the 13-story Curtis Center in downtown Philadelphia, are built so the most senior executives can punch into the computer that they would like to see certain employees upon arrival. When employees swipe their ID cards to call the elevator in the lobby, they can be rerouted to the boss’s floor.
“We are able to group passenger so it’s more like a limousine,” Mr. Landis says.
That doesn’t help social anxiety: In the elevator, is it rude to fix your gaze on your BlackBerry? Will your colleagues smirk if you pitch the boss? Should you ride up extra floors to maximize face time?
Andy Dunn, chief executive of New York-based clothing company Bonobos.com, recently was chatting with a colleague on his office elevator. When he noticed other people were buried in their iPhones, he quieted down. “I felt like ‘Gosh, we’re distracting all these people who are looking at their phones,’ ” he says.
The centralized dispatch systems—which Schindler calls Destination Dispatch and Otis calls Compass Destination Management System—represent the most fundamental upgrade in commercial elevator travel since the late 1950s when automation began to replace manual elevators operated by men in brass-button uniforms. Building managers have been seeking more efficient ways of moving employees to help combat what are known as “underelevatored” buildings or buildings that have seen a sharp increase in the number of occupants. New buildings benefit from the efficiency of a dispatch system because in some cases it lets less space to be dedicated to elevators.
When new systems aren’t available, buildings can also try diversionary tactics to distract people waiting for the elevator. They put mirrors inside elevator cabs and around lobby elevator banks in the hope that people would be distracted by analyzing their appearance. In the past, they also mounted televisions on lobby walls.
In many elevators, the Door Close button works only when switched to a special mode used by firefighters during a rescue. “It’s only there to keep you occupied,” explained Schindler’s Mr. Blain, while walking through its elevator operations at 1095 Avenue of the Americas in midtown Manhattan earlier this week.
For anyone who works in a building with dispatch systems but lives in a building with a conventional set-up, there is potential for embarrassment. “At home, oftentimes I get into the elevator and don’t push a button,” says Jordan Barowitz, a spokesman for the Durst Organization Inc., which co-owns and manages the Bank of America building.
The tech industry—built on the idea that anyone with a good idea can rise—is shy of elevator moments. Many venture capital firms are in low-rise areas such as Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, Calif., and in Manhattan’s Union Square/Flatiron District—neighborhoods short on skyscrapers. Tim Chang, a partner at Norwest Venture Partners in Palo Alto, Calif., says he has never been pitched in an elevator. But he has been pitched in his dentist’s office. And in the restroom. “Awkward,” he says.
Harvard Business School has an “Elevator Pitch Builder” for alumni on its website. Christine Sullivan, the school’s director of alumni, career and professional development, says that in a “new 140-character world where everything is reduced to a sound bite it’s more important than ever to be able to deliver a clear and concise message.”
Next week, at a conference in Atlanta, Black Enterprise, a media company, will present the winner of its Elevator Pitch Competition. Finalists (including the maker of a martini-glass cover that prevents spillage while dancing and a creator of African-American-themed stationery) produced videos of less than two minutes explaining their business vision and why they deserve the $10,000 investment prize.
Not that an elevator is necessarily the best place to give your elevator pitch. Charlie O’Donnell, a principal with a seed stage venture capital fund, First Round Capital, says you never know who you’re riding with and have little time to waste.
So, he advises, “Stay in the lobby in front of the elevator door. That’s your optimal pitch place.”