Make That Sale … Without the Sleaze!

What do you think of when you hear the word "salesperson?" For most, the images are not pleasant: polyester, used car lots, tacky, scripted closing techniques, and misleading statements.

From the IT professional’s point of view, selling is even more unpleasant. Sell an IT product (be it software or Web development services), and you must deal with:

  • Prospects who avoid talking to you, even though you know your service offering is excellent
  • The frustration of chasing prospects for what seems like forever, yet never getting a straight answer
  • Constant bargaining over price
  • Fear that you’ve overlooked the one critical point that, if only you knew what it was, would have the prospect clamoring to sign the engagement letter
  • Feeling lousy about your business because of the frustrations involved in selling

The truth is that selling is easy and natural. Best of all, you can be yourself when you speak to clients, and you can close all the deals you want without any of the traditional sales gimmicks and scripts. In fact, the more authentic and honest you are, the more clients and projects you’ll attract. Selling can become a natural, easy process — as we’ll see through the course of this article.

The key to success is to understand that "selling" is no more than a series of conversations: a way to assess whether it makes sense for you and the prospect to work together, and if it does, to move towards an engagement.

This article focuses on the skills you need to sell more effectively and naturally. First, we’ll look at a set of principles that will help you sell. I’ll then explain the key method I’ve found to measure and improve my own selling effectiveness — a method that will work just as well for you.

Make Sales — and Maintain Your Dignity — in 9 Steps

Following are 9 principles that top Web professionals follow to close all the business they need – without the indignity of traditional sales techniques.

Principle #1: Rely on Trust-Based Marketing

Marketing gets prospects interested and brings them to your door. Selling is the set of conversations you have with prospects to assess, fit and structure an engagement. As I mentioned in a prior article, A Revolutionary Marketing Strategy …Trust Me, you’ll attract plenty of prospects if you market your services on the basis of establishing trust and credibility within your target market.

When you provide valuable information, such as articles and seminars, or take the time to educate your prospects (for example, about how they can create a powerful Web presence), their perception of you improves automatically. Your target customers will begin to perceive you to be an expert and a strategic advisor — not just another salesperson or vendor. And they will come to you for advice.

Suddenly, everything changes. You don’t have to chase prospects, and you don’t have to rely on tacky sales gimmicks and scripts to close business.

Principle #2: Don’t Sell, Talk.

If you follow the first principle, chances are good that the prospect already knows about your capabilities, trusts you, and believes that you can help solve their problem.

Therefore, you can forget about selling. All you have to do is be yourself, and work collaboratively with the prospect to find out whether it makes sense for you to work together – whether there’s a fit between the client’s needs and your offerings. If it does make sense, fantastic! If it doesn’t, shake hands, ask him or her to call if anything changes, and ask who else they know that might benefit from your solutions.

Principle #3: You Don’t Need This Job.

I learned this principle from David Sandler’s book, You Can’t Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar. If you need to win an engagement, you probably won’t. You’ll be too tense, too desperate, and the potential client will notice. I’ve managed teams of business development professionals before, and know from experience that the person who needs to close the deal the most usually get the worst results.

Go in with the philosophy that you want the job, not that you need it.

Principle #4: Be Authentic.

Being authentic means expressing your concerns and issues openly. It also means setting realistic expectations about what you can and can’t do for the potential client.

For instance, when budget issues come up, you might say: "Sue, I appreciate that you only have $1,500 to spend on this project. We can get some results for that price, but we can’t achieve everything you want us to. What part of this project is most important to you?"

Principle #5: Ask Open-Ended Questions.

During a meeting with a prospect, many Web designers launch into a pitch about their capabilities, clients, and view of the world. Meanwhile, the client is thinking, "When’s he going to ask about my needs?"

Questions are much more powerful than answers. That’s why top business development professionals make it a point to ask lots of open-ended questions. They listen closely to what the potential client has to say. That way, they can understand the potential client’s needs and criteria, determine whether there’s a fit between the client’s business and their own, and identify the best strategy by which to win the engagement.

It takes skill and discipline to focus on asking questions when you meet with prospects. Try it!

Principle #6: Show Empathy.

Empathize with potential clients by stepping into their shoes. Nothing is more powerful than being able to reflect back a prospect’s frustration with a problem. For instance, "I know exactly how that must feel. I had the same problem when I…" Or, "That must be frustrating…"

Similarly, instead of saying, "Here’s what you should do," say, "If I were in your shoes, I would…"

On a related subject, make sure that you show the potential client that their problems and concerns are valid. Some IT professionals have a knack for making people feel stupid — obviously this is not a great way to win an engagement. By showing empathy, you show the prospect that you’re on their side, and they appreciate that.

Principle #7: Make it About Them.

Treat these conversations as a way to begin serving the prospective client. In other words, make this process about them first, and you second. Yes, you can and should push back if certain terms of the engagement won’t work for you. At the same time, be sure to show the potential client that you’re willing to be flexible and creative to make the engagement work for them.

At this stage in your conversations, the potential client is assessing what it will be like to work with you in the longer term. By showing them up-front that you’re committed to serving their needs and generating the results they want, you increase the chances that they’ll hire you.

Principle #8: Drive Appropriately Towards a Decision.

Some IT professionals push too hard to close. Others don’t push at all.

The top IT sales people drive appropriately towards a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision from the prospect. They show the prospect why it makes sense to move forward, and what it will cost if they don’t. Then, they ask the prospect to make a decision.

However, they never use tacky techniques or push too hard for the prospect to sign a contract.

Principle #9: Assume the Best.

The top IT professionals I know assume the best of each sale. Even when others give up, they still assume that they can make something happen to create an engagement. They stay in touch with the potential client, suggest new solutions, and maintain a can-do attitude.

These people are not crazy. They don’t pursue engagements that don’t make sense. They don’t stalk. But they do keep trying until they get a definite ‘yes’ or a definite ‘no.’

The Engagement-Win Ratio

The above principles are part of a comprehensive, proven system to get all the clients and projects you need — without the indignity of selling. The system is based on a foundation of marketing by building trust and establishing credibility. Once you put the principles in place, you’ll never have to "sell" — in the traditional sense — again.

However, you should always measure and work to improve your selling effectiveness. The way to do this is to keep a close eye on your engagement-win ratio. This ratio is an extremely important metric. The top IT professionals calculate and track it.

Your engagement-win ratio is the number of projects you win, divided by the number of projects you pursue. So, if you need to pursue 20 projects to win 12, your engagement win ratio is 12/20, or 60%. The metric elegantly measures your selling effectiveness and efficiency.

So, what’s your ratio? When you improve your engagement-win ratio, you make more money with less effort. You spend more time serving clients and working on projects that are a good fit. And you feel better about your marketing and sales efforts.

Take a moment to look back at the jobs you’ve won over the last year, and calculate your engagement-win ratio. The best ratios are around 80-90%. You should lose some engagements — if you win them all, you aren’t aiming high enough. But if you win fewer than 4 out of 5 of the projects you pursue, you have an opportunity to improve your ratio.

There are two ways to increase your engagement-win ratio:

  1. Win more projects that you pursue (increase the numerator). There is an art and science to winning projects. Top performers in IT sales understand how to develop a compelling strategy to win projects that they pursue, whether they’re sole source or competitive contracts.
  2. Pursue fewer projects that you’re unlikely to win anyway (decrease the denominator). Many IT professionals chase the wrong projects, investing time and money in losing battles.

Here’s an example. I used to work with a principal at a consulting firm who constantly wrote 500-page proposals, and spent countless hours pursuing projects with firms that were never going to hire him in the first place. He spent more money and time chasing lost causes than any other principal in the firm.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and look at five ways to win more projects, and five ways to pursue fewer projects you won’t win. We’ll start with the latter.

Decrease the Denominator: 5 Key Sales Questions

To decrease the denominator of your engagement-win ratio, you need to spend less time pursuing projects that you aren’t going to win.

Before you invest a significant amount of time to win a project, it is essential that you have conversations with your prospect to answer five critical questions. If the answer to any of these questions is "no," stop pursuing the project. In fact, I never provide references, a proposal, or "free" consulting, until I’ve had the client answer these questions to my satisfaction.

Question #1: Is there a Compelling Problem or Opportunity?

People buy professional services only when they have a compelling problem or opportunity. They need to feel enough pain to take action and spend money now.

To answer Question #1, you need to work with your prospect to assess what their issue will cost them if they don’t take action. Costs include:

  • Business issues (e.g. the chance to make more money)
  • Personal issues (e.g. the opportunity to win a promotion)
  • Emotional issues (e.g. the chance to eliminate hassles and frustration; or to feel the thrill of victory)

If your prospect doesn’t agree that his or her situation is costly, painful, and urgent, then you’re done. If they don’t feel a clear need to create a new Website, or upgrade their existing one, move on (politely) to other prospects that do.

Similarly, if the prospect tells you they have a compelling problem, but:

  • hasn’t done anything about it for years
  • doesn’t spend time with you to discuss it
  • doesn’t act as if the problem is urgent

…then, it isn’t.

Spend a little time with the prospect to understand why their behavior doesn’t match their words, and, if nothing changes, politely move on.

Question #2: Is the Prospect Able to Take Action to Solve the Problem?

If your prospect lacks the budget, authority, will, or management support to take action, or if they will not commit to a deadline to make a decision, there is no need to pursue the engagement. You will not win it.

Many IT professionals feel gratified if any representative of a potential client organization agrees to talk to them. This is too bad — they waste lots of time talking with people who can’t sign checks. Make sure that your prospects have decision-making authority, a budget, and a timeline, or ask them to introduce you to people who do.

In other words, start at the top, or with people who can and will get you to the top quickly.

Question #3: Can your Solution Compete?

If your solution can’t match or beat any competitive solutions, or fails to solve the prospect’s problem, you shouldn’t pursue the opportunity.

You should understand clearly the results your prospect wants to achieve, and their criteria for choosing a Web design or development professional. Then, make sure your solution solves their problem, and will get them the results they expect. At the same time, understand how you stack up against the competition on the prospect’s key criteria for selection — and be sure you’re competitive.

Question #4: Can you win the Political/Relationship Battle?

To win any engagement, you need to have strong relationships with the key decision makers (or enough of them to tilt the balance in your favor).

Many IT professionals focus only on developing and pitching a solution, then, say they can’t understand why their superior, lower-priced solution didn’t win. The answer is simple: they failed to develop strong enough relationships with key people. They lost the political battle.

In other words, it’s not enough to have the best solution. Your prospect also needs to like and trust you enough to hire you over anybody else.

Before pursuing any engagement, I need to satisfy myself that I know who the decision makers are, and can forge a business relationship with them such that they support me over anybody else.

This step is crucial. It’s essential that you’re able to assess the quality of your relationship with prospects honestly, and that you know how to improve these relationships in order to tip the balance in your favor.

Question #5: Do you want to win the Engagement?

Why pursue an engagement that you don’t want to win? Make sure that you have a list of criteria that every project you pursue has to meet, including:

  • minimum short and long-term revenue and profit potential
  • minimum potential for referrals
  • potential visibility within your market
  • likelihood of "pushing the envelope" and allowing you to develop new capabilities
  • generating the positioning you desire within your target market
  • lack of significant risks

Even if economic times are tight, it’s better to turn down projects that don’t meet your criteria. Pursuing projects that pay the bills, but don’t meet your criteria involves a huge opportunity cost. I know at least one Fortune 1000 IT consulting firm that hurt its reputation badly by taking "body shop" projects in order to meet its revenue targets. As a result, major clients perceived them to be more of a staff augmentation firm than a strategic IT partner. Five years later, they still have not fully recovered from this change in reputation.

Do You Really Want This Job?

Take a few minutes to assess how thoroughly you answered the above questions before you pursue an engagement. How often do you fall into the denial trap, and go after projects that you really don’t have a chance of winning? How much time and effort do you waste on projects that you lose?

The top IT professionals are like cheetahs: they move quickly towards an opportunity (their prey). However, as soon as it becomes likely that they won’t catch their prey, they stop running, rest, and build up their energy for the next chase.

Increase the Numerator: 5 Ways to Win More Engagements

Now, we know how to decrease the denominator in order to improve your engagement-win ratio. Now let’s focus on how to increase the numerator, by winning more projects that you pursue.

Once you’ve determined that it makes sense to pursue a project, you need to do five things to win it:

1. Show that your solution meets your prospect’s criteria better than any other.

Most IT professionals pitch their solution to the prospect. It’s much more effective to work with prospects to develop a solution that meets their needs and expectations. That way, instead of trying to read the prospect’s mind, you find out what he or she is actually thinking.

Start by suggesting how you might work with the prospect, and the results you can achieve based on similar work you’ve done before. Then, ask the prospect whether that type of solution would meet their needs. Work collaboratively with prospects to develop a solution that works for them. That way, you gain buy-in and commitment during the process.

At the same time, ask them their key criteria for choosing an IT consultant. What results will they expect in order to be delighted? How often, and in what form, do they like progress updates? What have past Web designers or consultants done that they have liked and disliked?

Also, be sure to provide more than business results alone. Your prospects want more than business results. They want to feel better, either by avoiding pain or experiencing pleasure. They want to look good in front of others, experience fewer hassles, and feel more secure. These benefits all need to be part of your solution — and may end up being the most powerful part.

If you’re competing against others (including the prospect company’s internal staff), have frank discussions with the prospect about how you can win, based on their criteria. It may be that you can’t compete directly with competitors, and need to offer a niche solution. Perhaps you need to be bold and offer a much broader scope than any competitors are offering. Discuss what the decision makers want to see with your client.

2. Win the political/relationship battle.

You’ll rarely win an engagement with a good solution. You also need to have solid business relationships with enough of the decision makers to tilt the balance in your favor.

IT consultants and sales professionals forget this rule time and time again. They tend to assume that prospects are like machines, buying for logical reasons. On the contrary, people buy for emotional reasons as much as — sometimes more than — logical ones.

To put it another way, prospects hire you because they trust you. That means they know you, believe you can get results for them with little or no risk, and like you enough to want to work with you.

The starting point of any strong relationship is value. To win an engagement, you need to show that you can create personal and business value for key decision makers. Beyond that, it’s important to show that you’re committed to your prospect’s success — that you can speak their language, fit in with their culture, and do what it takes to help them succeed.

Both little and big things help to build the relationship. Making a strong first impression, dressing right, making eye contact, following up meetings with letters and calls, researching the prospect and their business, and asking good, open-ended questions – all these activities will help establish your relationship.

3. Handle the inevitable "objections."

I can’t stand sales courses that talk about objections as if they are something that requires technique to solve.

Your prospect is about to make a major investment that they would prefer not to have to make. They will naturally be skeptical, wary, and (even if they don’t say so) scared. Of course, they will have dozens of questions. Many will seem like challenges. They may even repeat their questions and challenges a few times.

You should go out of your way to patiently answer any questions your prospect has. Encourage questions and challenges, and give honest, authentic responses. Sometimes, your prospect just needs you to repeat what you have said previously. Other times, he or she wants reassurance that they’re making a sound decision.

Whatever you do, do not make your prospect feel stupid. And never grow frustrated with them, or start an argument (which, believe it or not, is something that more arrogant IT professionals have a tendency to do). You would ask the same questions if you were in their shoes – use each question as an opportunity to reassure them that you’re the right person for the job.

4. Develop marketing messages to win.

In your proposal, and conversations with your prospect, develop a consistent set of messages to win the engagement.

Your messages should include:

  • The prospect’s problem or compelling need, and what it’s costing them
  • Your solution (including scope, timelines, support, and guarantees)
  • The benefits/value of your solution, and how it will help the prospect personally to succeed
  • Why your solution is unique and better than the competition
  • Proof that it will succeed, in the form of references, testimonials, and case studies

5. Drive appropriately to a decision.

Some IT professionals pester prospects for a decision. Others aren’t assertive enough. You want the prospect to make a decision. A ‘no’ is better than no decision, because it allows you to shake hands and move on to other opportunities.

How can you help your client make a decision?

  • Ask them what they want to do next, and keep quiet while they tell you.
  • Identify in dollar terms what not making a decision is costing them (e.g. lost profits, lost sales, lost productivity, continued inefficiencies, etc.).
  • Invite them to make a decision, without forcing the issue. For instance, say, "I hope you can see that it makes sense to move forward. What do you think?"
  • If the prospect delays, call them on it. Say, "It seems that you don’t want to move forward, or that this issue isn’t a priority any longer. Is this assumption accurate? I’d rather that you tell me you don’t want to move forward now, than we continue to spend time discussing the potential project."
Conclusion

Trust and credibility are critical. It’s important that you’re authentic in your discussions with potential clients — this will allow you to listen to their needs and create a solution that works. It will also allow you to walk away from potentially unprofitable or unsuitable work, and to identify in advance projects that you’re unlikely to win.

If you follow these principles and strategies, you will win many more projects, with much less effort and frustration. At the same time, selling will become more natural for you, a series of conversations instead of a set of tacky scripts and gimmicks.

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