Continuing my series demystifying consulting, (which premiered here) I’m going to share what I know about closing sales leads.
As previously stated, I am not any kind of sales guru or webinar purveyor. I’m just a guy who has experience finding fun freelancing work.
If you want to read the classics on sales, I honestly can’t help you - I have no idea what they are, but Amazon probably does. (Caution: Sales books are also selling you a book in addition to advice, so be careful)
If you haven’t already, check out my original article on how to generate sales leads here.
Okay now I have leads
Great, so you have a lead! Wait, what is a “lead” again?
It’s just a person who has showed some interest in working with you as a consultant. No one has made any promises, and sentences end with phrases like “Let’s see if we can figure this out”.
Everyone is hopeful and excited (probably). What you do next is critical: You have a meeting to discuss the project.
You should meet in person if possible. Remember your goal is to build trust, the foundation of any good business relationship.
If you can’t do in-person, videochat to ensure they see you are a human with a face and feelings.
The Sales Meeting
This meeting is a weird one but it doesn’t have to be. Essentially you’re trying to say “Hey, I’d like for you to pay me to do stuff. I’m good at what I do.” and the other party is saying “Hey, I have no idea who you are, please prove to me you are good at your job and that you can help me solve my problem.”
So these are your goals and those should be plainly stated to everyone RIGHT AT THE START OF THE MEETING. Something like:
“Hey thanks for taking this meeting, I appreciate your time. How’s this agenda sound: 1) I get to know you and your problem/project 2) You get to know me and what I’m good at 3) We decide together if there is a fit between the two?”
The important message you are conveying here is “I have no idea if it’s a good idea to work together. We should discuss it and see if that is the case.”
This totally flips people out. When you are in the Sales Meeting™, most people expect you to stretch the truth and be aggressive in pushing your case because that’s what most people do.
If you start with some practical honesty, you’ll immediately garner some trust. Your discussion will go a lot better when your lead realizes you’re not a greasy weirdo but just some person looking to find work.
One tip here: You should get them to talk about their project first. You are probably good at lots of stuff and if you go through all of it, frankly, it will be boring and probably irrelevant.
If you get to hear the project first, then you can tailor what you share about your abilities/experience.
If they insist and say “no you first”, just tell them you want to tailor the discussion and not waste their time. If there’s one thing people love, it’s people not wasting their time.
Have a pitch of some sort
When you talk about yourself and your work, be prepared to show what you’ve done and talk about who you worked with.
If you’ve signed NDAs, you should have cleared some anonymized versions of the work with your previous client before this meeting.
You should also highlight how you solve problems of this type and talk about questions that usually come up when dealing with this kind of work.
You can do this via a portfolio, or manifesto, or blog.
This part of you describing your work should be prepared, but not rehearsed.
You should practice it 10-15 times on friends before taking it out on the road for best results.
Also, as you repeat this pitch, it will evolve and improve over time. Pay attention to what people respond to and talk more about those things.
Last note, it should be short, say ~5 minutes. If there’s one thing people love, it’s people not wasting their time.
Figure out if there is a fit (AKA “turn down almost all of your leads”)
Okay, now you’ve heard what they need done and you have said something about yourself.
At this point, you should probably turn down the work.
In my experience, you should expect to politely decline about 90% of your leads.
Generally, you shouldn’t have to persuade people. If the sales process feels like a natural fit so will the project’s build phase.
What? Aren’t you trying to sell work?
Yes, you are, but odds are, it’s not a good fit for one of the below-discussed reasons.
But more importantly, the worse of a fit the project is for you, the worse it will go and the lower chance of referrals which means your reputation and business are sinking.
If you take high-quality good-fit projects, they will beget more of the same. If you take crappy death-marches, you’ll get more of those.
Okay why is it potentially not a good fit?
- You don’t know how to do what they want
- What they want done is probably the wrong way to go about it
If it’s the former, you should say something like “I don’t know how to do that, sorry,” and leave. If you know someone else who can do the work, you should offer an introduction and thank them for making you a pourover coffee which took 15 minutes.
If you don’t know how to do it but feel like you could wing it say that, but then offer a significant discount, like 50% off for the first few weeks.
If they’re going about things all wrong, there are two flavors:
1) This is a terrible project for anyone, anywhere
You need to cautiously figure out a way to share this without being a know-it-all. Something like
Look, clearly you are a sharp lady and know the world of high finance well, but building a mobile app to run hair salons without any experience might be troublesome. As I’ve seen it in my work, some domain expertise is important to success in software businesses.
Be sure to explain yourself but also note that you could be totally wrong. Then, be nice, compliment their carpet, and leave quickly.
2) This is a reasonable project but some specifics are off
Maybe you feel like there’s a better way to do this? You should share that and say why, ideally sharing some experience where you did things your way and it turned out amazingly.
This is the best case situation. You are an expert and will probably do a much better job than they expected and everyone will be happy.
At this point, you should close the meeting and say “hey this sounds like it might be a fit” should we find some more time to go through this in detail?“
The second meeting will be about project specifics and pricing.
Negotiating a Contract
Again, other smarter people than me have written more on the subject, but here’s what has worked well for me:
- Only work on time and materials - never fixed bid.
- Set a daily or weekly rate, not an hourly one - it keeps clients from nitpicking how you spend your time.
- Agree to invoice once a week and send them Friday evening when you wrap up for the day. Be very detailed in accounting for your time in the invoice. I like FreshBooks for invoicing but there are lots of good/simple/free choices.
- Make the contract week-to-week with an option to stop with 2 weeks notice. It allows the project to keep going or stop as needed.
- Keep proposals and contracts generic. Don’t specify a ton of low level requirements to be implemented during the project, because they will change.
- Don’t sign NDA’s if possible. No idea is that amazing, it’s execution that matters. Also, the client won’t tell you anything without an NDA, you should pass.
- Don’t respond to RFPs. It takes forever and is usually a sign the client has overscoped the project.
- Don’t take equity. You are not a seasoned investor. Save your cash and put it in an index fund.
Again, without belaboring the point, be yourself and don’t force any agreements or partnerships. The more natural the sales process feels, the more likely you will have a good outcome, good referrals, and booming business.
Please be sure to invite me out on your boat for a ride.