Don’t Be Afraid of the S-Word

Seven years ago, I co-founded a web design and development agency. The basic notion was: we’ll do amazing work, and people will simply contract us.  They’ll come out of the blue, or find us through the magical powers of the Internet… or something. The reality was distressingly different. We picked up some business here and there, but were incredibly frustrated when we lost potential deals. Perhaps even more alarmingly, when we won deals, they sucked: the projects were time-consuming, unprofitable, and uninspiring to our designers.
In February of 2007, we lost a project that I thought was in the bag. Frustrated, I called the client to ask what went wrong:  “Well, it goes without saying that your portfolio is quite impressive. However, your offer was expensive for us.  Do you think we’re rolling in cash? Also, we expected you to follow up, and when you didn’t, we assumed our deal wasn’t that important to you.”
I was stunned, and I didn’t have a quick rebuttal.  He was… well, he was right.We expected you to follow up, and when you didn’t, we assumed our deal wasn’t that important to you.  I decided to call one of my best friends for advice. He ran a few small businesses and did so quite successfully. “Well, Uzi,” he said, not too sympathetically. “You obviously have to start managing your sales process.”  
Huh? Not the S-word. I’m a designer – my work speaks for itself. I don’t need to be an obnoxious salesperson, too.
“I hate to use clichés, but we’re all salespeople at the end of the day.”
After some soul-searching I had to admit that the guy had a point. I decided that if I wanted to work on compelling, challenging projects and grow my business, I’d better look into our sales immediately.
So we rolled up our sleeves and created a simple sales process. The results? We won more of the deals that we wanted. We stopped wasting energy on deals that sucked. We were informed. We knew how our prospects found us, why they chose us or why they didn’t, and we clearly identified our best customers. Two years later, our revenues were solid enough to enable us to sell our firm.

I meet a lot of designers every week. Unsurprisingly, most of them don’t think about their sales process. The truth is that if you want to sustain your business, or (and excuse me for mentioning this unpopular idea) grow it, you must manage your sales properly. It’s that simple.

An Intro to the Super-Simple Sales Process

Fortunately, managing sales is actually much less daunting than it might sound. My company uses a very simple seven-bucket sales process. It goes like this:
1. Track and categorize new business leads. If you receive an email or a phone call from a prospective customer, you want to record the discussed project/deal in this stage. Try to understand where the leads came from. Tracking that will help you understand which marketing channels work best for you.  Did they see your website?  Hear you speak at a conference?  Learn about you from a colleague or friend?
2. Determine the quality of the lead. All leads are not created equal. Upon receiving the lead, try to assess if this lead is qualified. More specifically:

  • Do they have the budget to work with you? You can gently ask this in the first call or even mention your usual rates for such projects and evaluate your prospect’s response.
  • Are they of the right size? If you’re used to working with startups on two-month projects, working with Fortune 500 companies on two-year projects might be unrealistic and unwise.
  • Is the prospect serious about this project? Assess whether or not they are ready to pull the trigger. Is there budget allocated for the project? Is there a timeline for kicking off the project?
  • Are you passionate about this project? If you have many potential leads in your pipeline, you may decide it’s not worth pursuing a project that seems too boring or not challenging enough.
Remember that client who said that we were “pretty expensive” for them? A qualifying question in the first phone call could have saved us many hours of working on this deal. If you decide that the deal is unqualified, you just save it under another bucket: the unqualified deals bucket. On the other hand, if it’s qualified, move it forward in the process to the qualified stage.
3. Gather the requirements for the project. This will usually involve securing documents from the customer and/or meeting them face-to-face to gather the requirements. The purpose is to confirm that you want to do the project, and to gather enough information to write a quote.
4. Prepare the quote. If a deal arrives at this stage, you want to win it. Particularly, if you are juggling a number of quotes, it’s wise to set reminders so you don’t miss any deadline. Failure to submit a quote on time signals to your potential clients that you are not professional and unable to handle even a straight-forward follow-up.
5. Close the deal. Nothing can guarantee that you will actually win a deal but two crucial best practices can definitely increase your chances:
  • Confirm receipt of the quote, and respond to any concerns. Call your prospect to check that she received your proposal, and to see if she has any questions. You don’t want to lose the deal because of a simple misunderstanding about your approach or pricing.
  • Follow up again, and demonstrate your expertise. Set a reminder for yourself to follow up with her within a couple of days.  When you make that next call (or email), try to pepper the conversation with a few comments that demonstrate your knowledge and generosity.   
6. Celebrate.  Congratulations! You’ve won the deal! Keeping track of all the deals you close will help you understand what kind of deals you typically win and will help you improve your qualifying process. Also, try to understand where those deals originated. If 80% came from your portfolio website on Behance, then you should keep growing and improving it as it is a major source of business.
7. Or, analyze and regroup. Lost the deal? Ugh, bummer. But, this is a great opportunity for you to learn why this happened. Try to understand and keep note of the reason for every deal you lose. Losing too many deals because you are expensive? Maybe you should consider lowering your prices or, better yet, seek a different type of customer who can afford your high-quality work.
How much can following this process improve your sales? 10% improvement? 500% improvement? I’ve seen both. It depends on how effective you are, how good your work is, and how much you care about making the sales happen.
As my friend said, we are all selling at the end of the day. So, stop being afraid of the S-word. By finding a way to balance your creative role with giving sales the proper attention, you can improve the projects you’re working on and grow your business. No kidding.

This guest post comes from Uzi Shmilovici, the founder of PipeJump, a CRM for small businesses, and Future Simple, a company focused on creating simple and intuitive online software.
More insights on: Money, Self-Marketing
load comments (23)
  • Uzi Shmilovici

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for you comment.
    You raised some very interesting questions and I think that it can be a subject for a whole new article. However, I’ll try to describe the basic steps you need to take in order to be marketing more effectively.

    1. Define – understand who your customers are. The more granular you’ll be at doing that – the better it is. How much money are they making? How many employees do they have? Are they located somewhere specific? These people are your target customers.

    2. Locate – now that you have their characteristics – talk with a couple of them to find out where do they hang out. Yes – the means picking the phone and interviewing them. When you find those locations – websites they visit, magazines they read, conferences they go to, etc. These are your channels.

    3. Experiment – you would have to spend some cash to get exposure in the channels. Banner Ads in websites, marketing materials for conferences – etc. The most important thing here is to track the source of those become your customers.

    4. Optimize – keep using the channels that work and stop using those that don’t. Have a certain price you are willing to pay for acquiring a customer. So if your profit per customer is $1000 – you will be willing to pay any number under that to have them on board. Let’s say you spent $2000 on a certain channel and got 4 customers – that’s $500 per customer – very profitable for you which means that you have to keep using this channel.

    5. Rinse and repeat – marketing is always about optimizing and tweaking. Your target customer might change, your most effective channels might change.

    Hope that helps!

  • Trey

    Excellent and concise post. Some of these are elements I’ve thought about but not as clearly and cleanly as you enumerated here.


  • Melissa Mercier

    His really got to me. I don’t like to admit it, but I think I look at sales like that. After all, I’m an artist… I must revise my strategy a little.

  • Burak Ozdelice

    This post made me feel bad(really bad) first and after that write down your very concentrated sentence about being salesman to my notepad. Thank you for this post. This is really what we need as a small business or freelancers.

  • Haider Ali

    Great post.. very much appreciated

  • Louise Gains

    Thank you for making this knowledge available, I am getting an idea of mine of the ground now, – Nearly Nice World – and this article has given me the confidence to do those follow up call without feeling in some way guilty as if I was pestering. ( I am British – and “showing off” in beaten out of us at a very early stage )
    Also some of your other postings and video promoted me to contact a PR company to get expert help to launch my idea. I realized that I needed to team up with qualified and informed people who knew how business worked.
    Creative beings are so wrapped up in being just that – there isn’t very much time left to retrain in a totally different field.
    So thank you again.

  • Mohammad

    This was great help. Thank you for sharing.

  • Natasha Maria Fernandez-Founta

    I really found this article helpful. You’re right: too often, designers have that mentality that the work is supposed to sell itself. It’s hard for us to fathom that we might have to work a little harder at actually *selling* ourselves, not to mention seeking out leads. I will definitely bookmark this to share with my team!

  • Brisbane Web Design

    HA! I am on the same boat. It is quite difficult to find affordable ways to market. I provide quality work, so why won’t potential clients find me out of the blue?

    Is there any specific marketing avenue you take that is successful?

  • Asenhtsan

    Interesting. Thanks!

  • Armando Ello

    good read! i retweeted it ;)

  • studio sevin

    Really excellent post. Although, I was wondering if you could expand on:

    “…try to pepper the conversation with a few comments that demonstrate your knowledge and generosity.”

    How can you show generosity?

  • Adam

    this is spot on! excellent post

  • Pete Devlin

    I didnt enjoy your article at all to be honest. You mentioned coming up with your plan but fail to give any actual examples of your advice based on a real world example.

    It gets right under my skin when others pamper to poor writing like this becuase I could have just made it all up on generalist knowledge.

    Please re-write an instead show us how it worked in a real world example.

  • eastwitching

    Totally agree and it is fun to get focussed for your work – you have to get people to know about you and do it ina methodical organised way – its graet – I read the Success Principles by Jack Canfield and it has helped . Alison

  • asrai

    I completely agree with you! This is something that even designers with the best intentions can easily miss if they’re not prepared for it. It’s nice to see the learning.g process you went through here, I’m sure it well help others in the future!

  • Nur Nachman Eytan

    Great Article.Everyone should learn to sell, including Creative makers.

    These are my lessons:

  • jessica kemp

    profit is not a dirty word ;-)

  • thesis

    very useful tips i suppose… need to think that through. thanks for sharing!

  • orion g

    this is very useful information not only for designers but for all self employed people of the arts. One question that comes to mind is, what tools/programs were you using to keep track of some of this information? and thank you!

  • Brad Roderick

    Two great points in the article. 1) Anybody that wants or needs to influence the thoughts and actions of others needs to recognize the importance of selling. 2) Sales can, and should be, a process.

  • appointment setting

    I rad lots of good sales article which always encourage me. This is one of the best article on sales. In my first month of sales job I think sales is not easy for me. But after some time I learn how to work in sales.

  • Scott Thomas

    nice lesson and great post

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