When most people think of sales, they think about walking into a potential client's office, or calling them up on the phone, and pitching them to convince them that their services are the best. The thought is unpleasant and has prevented many talented freelancers from getting great clients.
But the good news is that winning clients does not have to look like that. In fact, approached properly, it doesn't really have to feel like selling. It's more of a diagnostic approach, like going to a doctor to find out the cause of your symptoms.
Blair Enns, founder of Win Without Pitching, a sales training company for creative entrepreneurs, and author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, shares the philosophies behind the idea of winning clients without pitching and how to actually approach closing deals without feeling like your a sleesy salesperson.
Blair shares with us:
Blair is the CEO of Win Without Pitching, a sales, training, and coaching program for creative entrepreneurs.
Win Without Pitching started as a solo consulting practice in 2001 when Blair moved to a small mountain village in British Columbia, 9 hours out of Vancouver. The move and the strat of the new business were connected.
When Blair stumbled upon this tiny village, he fell in love with this outdoorsy lifestyle and idyllic land and waterscape. But how could he live in this beautiful place, the place he was meant to live, and still make a living? With 2 young children and a wife?
It was either buy the fly fishing shop, though he wasn't very good at retail, or start some sort of business. The local economy was based strongly on resources extraction, logging and mining, but it wasn't very reliable, so he didn't want to tie a business to the local economy. A consulting practice made sense because he came from the advertising and design world.
“In the beginning, it was a lifestyle business, when the kids were young. And then, jumping ahead a little bit, as the kids grew and the business grew, I had to face facts that the term lifestyle business started to take on new meaning. I started to see that by “lifestyle business” the business was ruining my life.”
A solo consulting practice can only scale up so much. Blair made the switch 4 years ago from consulting to training.
The Training Program:
The program is ongoing, with a minimum of a one year commitment to start. First, Blair helps people focus on positioning, then expertise to back up positioning, then lead generation process in place, marketing, sales training, IP development, etc. Blair makes sure that all the foundational stuff is in place to make sales successful.
“At the core, what makes us different is our approach to sales for the creative professional.”
How to Win Without Pitching:
“The pitch is this scenario of the formalized selection process, formalized on the client side, in which you are lined up against your peers in an apples to apples comparison, and you are asked or it is implied that it is in your best interest to give away your thinking for free to essentially solve the client's problem as proof of your ability to solve the problem.”
The pitch is not inherently evil, but it is the symptom of an underlying problem in the sales process.
The problem is spending an hour or so in a meeting room, in front of a bunch of people, “talking about me, me, me.”
“You can present to somebody or you can be present to them, but you cannot be or do both.”
In a sale, two people come together to see if there is a fit between need and expertise and see if it is worth taking the next step, working together. There needs to be honesty, transparency, two way conversation, give-and-take, trying on each other, etc. You can't get that with a “pitch,” with one person standing at the front of the room presenting from a powerpoint presentation.
Two Steps to Winning Without Pitching:
- Gain power in the buy-sell relationship.
- Leverage that power to change how your services are bought and sold.
A lot of the services today are sold from a point of weakness, giving the client all the power. To solve this, specialize.
“Creative businesses are built on poor or weak fundamental business strategy. What the rest of the business world calls fundamental business strategy, we call positioning in the marketing and creative space.”
Most creative firms are poorly positioned. Why? Because “being creative” means having a super power to see around corners. Your strength is solving problems that you and others haven't solved before or to solve it differently. You are driven by variety.
“That need for variety is directly at odds with your business's need to focus. And you need to focus.”
You need to focus so you can see the patterns. Intelligence is pattern matching. The way to benefit from pattern matching is to look at the same thing over and over again. That means, to achieve expertise, you need to narrow your focus.
“Narrow your focus to a smaller set of problems so that you can begin to see the patterns and you can stare at this smaller set longer than others and you can see patterns that others don't see. That's when you build expertise. That's what your business requires of you, but it is not in the nature of the creative personality to stare at the same set of problems. They want to go off in search of these other problems.”
Blair's advice is to resist the urge to search for new problems and instead focus on going deeper into a narrower spectrum of problems. That's how you will start to gain power because you build a meaningfully differentiated firm. You don't have to give your thinking away for free.
Having Power in Sales
You want to be the one who says, “here is the next step, here is what we need to do next.” You want to fill the void in the sales process.
“It is really vital that you demonstrate an initiative to lead in the sale before you are hired and the client lets you lead to a certain extent. That is a sign of how different you are seen to be. That is a sign of how much power or control you have in the relationship.”
To do your best work for the client, you need to be able to lead the engagement, so you need to start the relationship with the client in a place of power. Not maliciously, of course, but so you are effective.
You don't want to be the polite, compliant, rule-follower during the sale and then try to take control of the project and lead the engagement instead of them dictating and you doing the work. It is very difficult to reverse power roles after you are hired. Instead, you will end up with resentment that the client is telling you what to do and how to do it, while in your head, you know that there is a better way, but you can't implement it because the client has the power, not you. The best way to have a good outcome with the project is for you to lead with your expertise.
The sale is an example of how the engagement is going to work. So you have to demonstrate during the sales process that you can and will be taking charge of the project.
Don't be needy in the sale. It will repel the best clients, the clients that want to hire and expert that they can trust and respect. You want to be trusted and respected, so don't be needy.
Passion: The Good and The Bad
The other mistake is to lean too much on passion during the sale. Most solo-creatives are super passionate about what they do, which is great, but you shouldn't lean on it too much during the sale because it can turn the client away.
“Passion is like horniness. If that's you, fantastic. I'm sure you have a rich inner life. But just because that's you, it doesn't mean it's ok for you to keep putting it out there. Ok, your passionate, great but quit telling me how passionate you are. You're just making me a little bit uncomfortable.”
Passion is actually important in the sales process, to a point. Early in the client's decision making process to bring about some sort of change or improvement, the client is still trying things on. That's when passion can help inspire them to commit to taking action (solve the problem and hire someone) and that someone could be you.
But once the client makes the decision to solve the problem, the brain chemistry changes. They got the serotonin kick and feeling of elation from deciding to solve the problem. But that peaks after 4 hours, then the doubt or “buyer's remorse” kicks in.
The more you get the client excited with you passion early on, the higher the serotonin peak, but also the bigger the buyer's remorse. But you can't solve buyer's remorse with more passion. You will just freak the client out.
Before, they were overweighing the benefits of change. Now, they are overweighing all the things that could go wrong, the costs. At this point, your job in the sales process is to calm the client down and reassure the client. “Don't worry, we've done this before.” “We're specialized in this area.” “We have a defined methodology. Let me walk you through how we do it.” “Here's some case studies of how we did it before.”
At this point, if you lean on passion or enthusiasm, you are making them nervous instead of calming them down.
The Sales Process
The arc of the sale involves four conversations.
1. Probative Conversation:
In this conversation, you prove your expertise to the client. You go from vendor to expert in the client's eyes. You want the client to think: “This is the person I want to work with. These are the experts.”
This conversation happens without you being present. It happens through your agents of thought leadership (articles, podcasts, speeches, books, videos, etc.) or your agents of refer (i.e. your referrals).
The goal of this conversation is to get “The Flip,” the change in the prospect's mind from you being another face in the sea of vendors to being the must-talk-to expert. It can happen in subsequent conversations, but it is best if it happens before you even meet.
2. Qualifying Conversation:
This is the conversation that most people think of as the sales meeting.
The objective of the qualifying conversation is to vet the lead, determine if an opportunity exists, and what the appropriate next steps are.
“A lead is a clue to a possible sale not yet qualified.”
A clue can be demographic or behavioural. For example, someone can be clicking through your website and reading your articles – that's a behavioural clue. If that someone is a vice president of marketing in a company in your target market and in your demographic trading area – that's a demographic clue. Clues tell you if you have a lead.
To qualify, you vet the lead against standard sales criteria. You want to determine if there is an opportunity.
“An opportunity is an unapproved project.”
You can qualify the client using a variety of frameworks, such as the BANT framework (Budget, Authority, Needs and Wants, Timeframe). High level: Start with “Need” questions, then decision maker questions or “Authority” questions, then “Timeframe” questions, and finally “Budget” questions.
If there is a need, there is an opportunity. If there is a need and a timeframe, then it is a late-stage opportunity. If there is a need, a timeframe, and a budget, it is an even later-stage opportunity, the prospect is close to buying. Authority helps you figure out who else is involved.
The goal is to uncover the need or the client's desired future state and see how far along the client is to making a decision.
Now we talk about pricing, based on the value that you will or might deliver to the clients. It's not based on resources or materials such as hours and it is not based on deliverables. So it is not something like a logo design is $100/hour or a finished logo is $10,000.
- Instead, you come at the conversation by starting with the desired future state for the client.
- Then, you want to determine the metrics so you know when you meet the goals.
- Then, you determine how much the client values the future state.
- Now you give pricing guidance and price based on the value with a range of options of 15% to 5% of the value, or the amount of first year revenue gains or cost reductions.
A very simple example: the desired future state for the client is to be twice as big. You will measure this by looking at sales metrics, from $1 million in revenue to $2 million in revenue with $200,000 increase per year. Therefore, the value of achieving the goal is $1 million. Therefore, you can price your services at $150,000-$50,000 (start with higher number) as a fair price for helping the client achieve $1,000,000.
You can't start by saying that you will charge $50,000-$150,000 without establishing the value that the client gets. Won't work.
It takes practice to get this right.
The hardest part is step three, when you are asking the client what it is worth to them. Either economically, increasing sales or decreasing costs, or emotionally. So people will tell you that they need to meet or exceed a sales goal, or to find a way to cut costs, or that they don't have time to manage a relationship with a design firm or they need to kill a project so they get promoted. If you start to put a price on the emotional contributions to value, it feels icky. You can't do that overtly.
Then, step 4. When you ask “What is this worth to you?”, you are opening up negotiations. If the client says, “It's worth $100/hr, I guess,” keep digging. Most big consulting organizations will price by taking the first year of revenue gains or cost reductions, which would be $200,000 in our example. You say:
“I'm not saying we're going to charge you $200,000, but I am interested in an engagement where we are paid for the value we create.”
The client will often counter with contingency pricing: “I'll pay you $150,000 after you deliver that $200,000 in value.”
The client wants to buy the desired future state, discounted for certainty. But you can't provide 100% certainty, even though that's what the client wants. You need to determine how much risk the client is willing to take and therefore the proportionate “discount” that you are wiling to give.
It gets a bit murky here. It is easier to quantify cost reductions compared to creating new value, which is less certain.
Also, to be successful, you need to be talking to an executive, someone who is charged with creating future value for the company. Managers are not the people to talk to – their goal is to meet quarterly objectives, not to solve the problems.
It also means that you need to be selling something strategic and valuable, but you need to address this way before the sales process.
4. Closing Conversation or Transition Conversation:
If the previous conversations have gone well, it should be a seamless transition from the sale to the engagement by presenting some options to the client and facilitating their decision.
Most vital is that all of the decision makers, the authority, are present. You cannot close if they aren't all there!
Get together with the decision makers and give them the unpaid proposal that does not exceed 1 page in length. On that page, there are 3 maybe 4 options within the range of the price guidance that you talked about in the last presentation. It is really important to include options for a bunch of psychological reasons, which we didn't get into here.
Normally, there is a gap in time between the value conversation and the closing conversation if you are value pricing because you need to go away and think about matching solutions to cost. On the high side, what would you do that would still be profitable? On the low side, what can you do that is no risk to us and all the risk on the client, but meet their low budget request?
Then ask the client which option they like and transition into getting it done. See Blair's new book coming out soon: Pricing Creativity.
- The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns
- Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour by Blair Enns (Coming Soon)
- The Business of Expertise by David C Baker
Find Blair online: