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For many graphic designers, “sales” is a four-letter word. Okay, it’s five, but you get the idea. It gives them the heebie-jeebies and they often feel as though they need to take a shower after a sales-e encounter. That’s if the encounter ever takes place. Designers are notorious for avoiding sales like the plague. It conjures up visions of the stereotypical, checkered jacket with plaid pants, cigar-smoking car salesman. Nonetheless, sales is a necessary function, just like designing, marketing, money management, operations and such.

used-car-salesman.jpgImage courtesy of iStockPhoto

A wise sage once said, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.” The quote is attributed to several business leaders including Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, Peter Drucker and Arthur “Red” Motley, former publisher of Parade Magazine. Who said it doesn’t matter that much. They are wise and very true words. Without sales, at some level, there isn’t a project. Without a project, a designer is like soup without the sandwich.

Plus, many think of sales as the front-end, pitch it, get the gig and close the deal thing. It’s the job of some suit and hardly a task for the black turtleneck for lunch bunch. But, the reality is that selling takes place all through the project. You’ve got to sell your design solution to an art and/or creative director if you work at a firm. You’ve certainly got to sell your solution to the client. You might find you need to sell the printer on why your project needs to be done in two days.

Removing the Fear Factor

For many designers I’ve met through the years, fear was probably the biggest stumbling block when it came to sales. They felt intimidated by their client or boss. They feared saying or doing the wrong thing. The list goes on and on. So, let’s lose the fear.

Here’s an eye-opener. You’ve been selling all your life, but you probably just didn’t realize it. Consider this. When you were a wee little thing and just had to have a certain toy for your birthday, convincing mom and dad to buy it was a sales job. Or, how about the last time you talked your significant other into going out for Chinese rather than Italian? Yup. Sales. For that matter, convincing your significant other that you were a better choice than the other guy or gal was also selling. So, relax in the idea that you have the skills and experience. You just might have to modify some thinking.

Sales boils down to nothing more than a conversation. It’s a dialogue between you and a prospect where you learn about their business, their challenges and discuss how you two can solve the prospect’s problem-at-hand. That’s not so scary, is it?

The problem lies in how one approaches sales. As a matter of fact, let’s not even think of it as sales. A better idea is to think of it as simply helping your prospect buy. Convincing a prospect to buy something they neither need nor want is a waste of their time and yours. That’s where the qualifying process comes in. Qualifying is determining if a prospect needs your services, whether they can pay for them and if they are a good fit for your design business.

Once you have a qualified prospect who’s a perfect fit for you, it’s important to begin to build a relationship with them. That relationship should be authentic. It goes a long way toward building trust. It shouldn’t be a hard sell, trying to convince them of this and that. That’s a sure way to shoot yourself in the foot not too far down the road.

Building Relationships and Solving Problems

If you’ve had anything to do with sales, you likely know there are several sales models out there. What I’ve been writing about so far is usually called traditional sales. That’s were you convince the client to buy your stuff. It’s the hard sell. It’s also fairly ineffective for the type of work we do.

A better type of sales process (and it is a process) is called consultative selling. It goes by other names such as relationship selling, solution selling and the likes. Whatever you want to call it, it centers on a simple idea – providing a sensible, useful solution to a client’s problem and becoming a valued resource for them along the way.

Sales starts with correctly identifying the right people to engage. They start out as suspects. This ominous moniker just means they broadly fit your criteria and may be someone who will buy from you. If you have a niche (and you should), every company within it might be suspects. Or, you may have some criteria to narrow down the group such as company size or location.

Once you’ve identified your suspects, the next step is to qualify them as viable prospects for your sales efforts. Prospects are the short list that meet various requirements for you to do business with them. Some qualifying questions are:

• Do they buy what you’re selling?
• Can they pay for it?
• Is there a reasonable budget for the project?
• Does the timeline work with your current workload?
• Is your contact the final decision-maker?
• Is there a good personality fit?
• Do things feel right in your gut?

Taking on whatever rings the phone or inbox is a bad idea. When you correctly qualify a prospect as being a good fit, you’ll spend a lot less time writing proposals and estimates that are off-target and unlikely to win the business.

To our plaid-clad peddler, everybody’s a prospect and if they talk enough they’ll close more sales. They use a manipulative and adversarial form of sales where the salesperson talks down to the prospect trying to create a need where one may not exist. People may love to buy, but they hate to be sold.

Consultative sales is the opposite. It’s a client-centered sales method that focuses on true needs. It tends to listen more than it talks, builds trust and creates understanding. It’s adaptable to the prospect’s specific needs and helps to position you as a partner rather than a vendor.

Consultative selling was born as a result of market changes. As competition increased, along with prospects having better access to information, a shift from product/service-centered selling to prospect-centered selling became necessary. In consultative selling, the salesperson learns about prospect’s needs long before talking product or service. Products, services and knowledge are then transformed into a tailored solution based on the prospect’s authentic needs. Needs are identified through a combination of research, preparation and asking questions.

The process begins with research to gain insight into the prospect’s business environment. This is usually expanded with a series of personal meetings, or even emails, where probing, open-ended questions are asked. Open-ended questions are the kind that can’t be answered with a simple, “yes” or “no.” From the information, a solution is developed and usually presented in the form of a proposal. Also, as you build the relationship, you provide helpful information, resources and such to demonstrate your expertise and also your value. You might consider solving some small problem for the prospect, as well. For example, perhaps you solved a similar problem for another client. You can adapt that solution for the new prospect and be the hero.

When done correctly, the consultative sales model doesn’t feel like sales at all. It’s building a relationship and learning about the prospect. When proposal time rolls around, the one who practices consultative selling will be much better positioned than competitors who didn’t take the time to really learn about and truly understand the prospect, their business and challenges.