Want new clients? Don’t sell!

I once went to a business talk in which the speaker, a successful salesperson, said that selling is ‘just a conversation’.

Admittedly, that is a bit simplistic, coming as it did from someone who is skilled in sales psychology, who understands the process of drawing a client through that conversation, overcoming objections, towards the close.

However, there is something in this. Having been on the receiving end of some pretty hard selling, I can tell you that as a potential buyer it was precisely the pitch – the inability to hear me, the lack of interest, the repeated attempts to push me something I didn’t want, in fact, the general arrogance of it all – which has seen me turning on my heels and walking out the door on more than one occasion.

No sale! This approach just doesn’t work. People don’t like it, and they definitely don’t respond to it.

Remember Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s stark indictment of a week in the life of four estate agents, all of whom will be fired unless they close a big property deal? It’s bare knuckle business, shot through with abject desperation.

The frankly frightening mantra, cited by the company hatchet man brought in to ‘motivate’ the team, is: ‘ABC: Always Be Closing.’

Talk about pressure!

The art of not selling to get clients often begins with the art of networking, and I wrote about this at the end of last year.

Following on, here are more some things to think about.

Listen and learn
When we meet potential clients for the first time, what’s the last thing that should come out? Our elevator pitch.

Instead, it’s helpful to show interest: ask questions, find out about them.

What are their needs?
Who do they like to work with?
What are their biggest challenges?

Ask questions, show interest

Interacting naturally, exchanging experiences, establishing common ground and evolving the conversation does two things.

It forges a connection, and it builds trust.

It also helps your prospect relax – they can simply interact with you, rather than feeling like a target for new business.

Much of the art of successful selling is actually about listening and asking questions, rather than talking. Activate empathy rather than assertion!

Hold fire
Another thing you can do, when a potential client approaches you, is to stop yourself from firing off a quote. Why? Because you need to find out who they are first.

Do they lead on price, not service? Are they a tyre-kicker? Are they only interested in the bottom line?

If you’re serious about working with them – and, presumably, if they’re serious about working with you – you both need to know more.

When you reach a certain level of service provision, it’s as much about the fit between you both, and whether you will be able to work together successfully, as it is about cost.

This is particularly important to us as creatives, because people come to us specifically for what we’re able to offer, as well as how we offer it. We need to know that the client is clear about our work and methods, and that we’re on the same page as them too.

Talk to me
I make a point of calling prospects who approach me. I invest in the conversation, really taking the time to hear them, find out where they’re coming from, learning about their needs.

Call prospects and listen

Many editors and people in the creative industries are phone-phobic, preferring to do everything over email.

This is fine if you really don’t like this way of managing your professional communications, but it’s worth bearing in mind that protecting your time – and yourself – in this way can mean missing out on crucial information.

Actually talking to your prospect gives you a feel for their personality. Often, this can reveal more than the lines on an email, as people tend to open up and talk more freely over the phone or in a meeting.

The advantage for you is that sensitive listening coupled with emotional intelligence enables you to adjust your approach and gauge a suitable working rapport. It can help you assess what they might be like to deal with: they could be genuinely great, or perhaps red warning flags might be flying.

It also gives you an opportunity to clarify anything, explain more about your service, answer any questions they may have and, if necessary, allay any concerns.

If you do need to proceed with caution – or not at all – now is the time to find out, rather than later down the line. The last thing anyone wants from a new business relationship is to be burned.

Invest in relationship-building
These days, written communication dominates the business landscape – but there is no substitute for actually hearing someone’s voice to glean an idea of what they’re like.

Create a connection

Moreover, talking to your prospect establishes a relationship. Taking the trouble to give them a half-hour of your time makes you stand out from the several contacts they’re likely to have approached for their project.

You’re creating a rapport, now it’s just a case of building on it.

If they disappear before giving you a chance to give them a price, or an opportunity to take the discussion further, then you know where you stand and can move on.

The advantage of investing time in all these preliminaries is attracting good projects, and avoiding wasting time on those which aren’t. You maintain a quality portfolio of clients, your work becomes more interesting and better paid, and you collaborate with people who actually recognise and respect your worth.

Turn it around
If you’re feeling despondent about your business, the rates you’re getting or the clients you’re working with – and let’s face it, what’s happening in the creative industries right now around bidding and fees isn’t exactly helping us – think about what you can do to reframe your offer.

Don’t be one of the many scrabbling up the greasy pole for jobs. Raise your game. Be bespoke. Lead on quality rather than price.

Build your reputation. Be the go-to person for your niche, and truly understand your own value.

The sooner you recognise your own worth, stop selling and start conversations, the sooner you’ll attract clients who are just as special – and wonderful to work with – as you.

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