One of the most intriguing and fascinating challenges of most sales situations - whether you're selling a $1 million piece of factory equipment or a $5,000 freelance project - is the fact that your prospect typically makes his or her final decision behind closed doors.
In other words, you're not there to make your final case when she's trying to decide whom to go with.
It's not a court hearing where you get to make a polished and rehearsed closing statement. You typically get just one or two chances to present yourself and your services and to make your case. After that, the decision is completely out of your hands.
Essentially what this means is that you have to do a great job presenting yourself and making your "case" while you have that chance. Because once that initial conversation is over, how the prospect will proceed with her decision is beyond your control.
This is especially challenging when the prospect is considering more than one freelancer or service provider. Because the competition is never "even," despite what many of us believe.
In other words, if there are three freelancers competing for one project, each freelancer doesn't have a 33.3% chance of success. In most situations, the ratio is more like 60-20-20. Which means that ONE freelancer has a significant advantage over the others.
Which freelancer is that?
Well ... here's what typically happens in these competitive situations: At one point in the prospect's decision-making process - usually in the very early stages of the search effort - one freelancer will suddenly become the prospect's favorite contender. And once she picks this person, whether she does it consciously or not, it's very difficult to persuade her to go with someone else.
As you can imagine, if you're the prospect's favorite contender, you have an unfair advantage. The other freelancers suddenly become "column fodder." In other words, they're simply there so she can justify her hiring decision to herself or to her boss. She can't do that if she evaluates only one freelancer.
So if you're the favorite contender, you're in great shape. It's going to be very difficult for the other freelancers to knock you off your pedestal. Which is why you want to do everything you can to position yourself as the favorite contender in every competitive situation.
How do you do that?
- Through a series of actions you take before you connect with the prospect
- While you have your first conversation with the prospect
- With your actions after that initial conversation
Let's look at each of those areas in more detail.
Cultivate sources of referrals. First, you need to become very "referable." Because when you come referred from a trusted source, you automatically have a huge advantage over others the prospect may be considering.
Granted, this doesn't happen overnight. But if you're not actively positioning yourself as a trusted resource and colleague, start working on that immediately. This alone can make such a tremendous impact on your business, I simply cannot stress it enough.
Communicate relevant and powerful value statements on your website. These days, prospects are going check out your website before they even call or email you. Not only does that mean you need a website, but your site must communicate relevant value quickly.
The crazy-busy prospects of today have very, very short attention spans. Essentially, you have about 10 seconds or less to capture their attention online (if you're lucky!). Which means that if you don't communicate value in a way that's relevant to her ” or if that message is sloppy and wordy ” you'll run a high risk of losing her quickly.
When I talk about communicating value, I'm talking about having one or more statements on your website "especially on your home page” that clearly communicate the following:
- What you do
- For whom
- Why you're different
- What relevant value you bring to the table
- And/or whom you've worked for that's worth mentioning
For instance, here's a fictitious value statement that incorporates most of these elements:
I help enterprise software companies write white papers and case studies that make it easier for salespeople to close more business. I'm a 12-year software sales veteran, so I bring a unique results perspective to the table. I've worked with companies such as Empirix, Softmax and SmartCAD.
Just as important, your website must position you as a credible professional. It has to make the prospect feel that you have enough expertise and know-how to be worthy of an inquiry. If she doesn't get that feeling from browsing your website, she won't even bother contacting you.
So try to have at least three or four of the following credibility elements sprinkled throughout your site:
- List of clients
- Case studies
- A specialty or niche
- A clear track record
- Years of experience
- Articles, reports or white papers that demonstrate your expertise
Don't have any of these yet? Start creating them today. They're too important to ignore.
If you pass the "pre-conversation" test, the next challenge is doing and saying the right things when the prospect contacts you. Now, everything else being equal, it's better to have an actual phone or Skype conversation with an interested prospect than to try and exchange information by email.
I realize that there are prospects who try to save time by making their initial inquiries by email. But it's difficult to do a good job at this stage if you can't have a real conversation with the prospect. So whenever possible, try to get her on the phone.
Ask only the most important questions at this stage. It's tempting to ask your prospect a million questions in that first call about her organization and the project. But keep in mind that the goal of this first conversation is not to learn everything you can about the prospect, her organization and the project. Your objective is to determine if there's a potential fit here ” if there's a reason for further conversation.
So, ask only the questions you need answered at this point. And be ready to ask them! I have a list of about six questions I ask every prospect who contacts me. Depending on how they answer, I may have other follow-up questions. But I try to limit this initial conversation to 30 minutes or less.
Make a recommendation. If the prospect doesn't already have a very clear project scope, your next job is to help her define one, by making a few general recommendations, based on how she answered your questions. Don't let her drive this process if she's unclear about what she needs. Ask the questions you need answered to help you make smart, well-thought-out recommendations.
For instance, say you're a social media consultant and web copywriter and a prospect contacts you about putting together a social media strategy for the prospect's organization. But when you take a look at their website, you notice that they have serious problems communicating who they are and what they do.
In that case, rather than going along with what the prospect says he wants, he'd be better served if you briefly explained that the best social media strategy in the world won't help him if most of his website visitors abandon the site in less than 10 seconds because they're completely lost.
As a result, you're recommending they look at their website first and make key changes there before trying to drive more traffic through social media.
Remember: YOU are the expert. And while they might have an idea of what they need or want, what they really need is an expert who will guide them down the right path and explain why that's the right path to be on.
Do that well and credibly, and your chances of becoming the yardstick they measure others against goes up dramatically.
Highlight one or two of your key differentiators, based on how the prospect answered your questions.
Here's the deal. When you clearly communicate what makes you different in a way that means something to the prospect, you make it easier for the person to elevate you above the other choices under consideration. And that's key because prospects are so darn busy these days, anything you can do to make their decision easier will give you a huge advantage.
By the way, I've found that these differentiators don't need to be earth shattering. Mention that the type of work they need help with is one of your specialties. Or explain that you've worked with a few companies in their industry or a closely related industry. Or let them know that one of your hobbies is related to the products they sell.
Any of these could work well, depending on the situation. Look for any credible and viable connection you can make to position yourself as a better choice.
Don't sound too eager, even if you're desperate for work. This can be difficult to do if you really want to work with this particular prospect (or if you need work, period!).
However, excitement is a funny thing. There's a certain level of excitement that actually helps you look like a better choice. But after a certain point, excitement can make you look desperate. And desperation is a big turnoff that can cancel many other factors working in your favor. So keep your eagerness in check!
- Whether or not the prospect is considering other freelancers
- What the decision-making process will be like
- When the organization will make a decision
- How many others will be involved in the hiring decision
With this information, you'll be able to suggest a next step that makes sense ” or you can ask the prospect what the next step is without sounding ignorant.
Here's my favorite question to ask before hanging up: "Jack, it was great talking with you. What's our next step here? When should I follow up with you?" Or some variation on that, based on how the conversation went.
This is not only the professional thing to do, but knowing what the next step is (and when it needs to happen) will set the stage for smarter follow-up.
Finally, just be yourself! I see a lot of people drop the ball here. Don't try to be someone you're not. If you're reserved and low key, keep it that way. Be personable, but don't pretend to be hyperenergetic and Type A just because the prospect seems to have a very intense personality.
Remember: Prospects want to buy you, not someone else. Let your personality and authenticity shine through. That will increase the chances of ending up with a client who appreciates you for who you are and how you work.
Send a short follow-up email right after your initial conversation. You don't need to go overboard here. My preferred approach is to send a quick recap email that same day that says something like this:
"Thanks for your interest in my services, Jack. Again, based on what you shared with me, I recommend you consider doing the following ..."
Keep it short and sweet, and remind the prospect of the next step you both agreed to.
Send a credibility booster. Something else you can do when sending this post-call email (and this can be very, very effective) is to include a report, article, special checklist, testimonials document or other item that will boost your credibility and help position you as the favorite contender.
For instance, if you design WordPress sites, you could have a tip sheet, report or article on the 10 things clients should do before hiring a designer to ensure that the design they get is right on target with their needs and preferences. If you're an SEO consultant, you could have a short white paper that explains the top five factors that determine "local search" success.
You get the picture. Just make sure that the piece you send is somehow related to the project or work you've discussed with the prospect.
Post-call follow-up. Finally, you need to follow up with the prospect at the time you both discussed in the initial conversation. If you don't get a response after your first attempt, don't keep trying him again and again. Spread out your follow-up attempts over the course of two or three weeks. And alternate between phone and email.
If your follow-up attempts go nowhere ” or even if you end up not being selected ” don't give up on the prospect completely. If you feel the person is still a good long-term prospect for you, add the prospect to your "lead nurturing" or "to stay in touch with" list and check in a few times a year by sending the person valuable information and doing the kind of smart follow-up I talk about in Secret #6 in our book, The Wealthy Freelancer .
Becoming your prospect's favorite contender is absolutely key to landing more of the opportunities you come across.
It's also essential to building a business where you spend less time quoting and qualifying prospects ... and more time on billable work or on leisure activities.
Have any ideas or strategies that have worked well for you in these scenarios? I'd love to hear them! Please share them in the comments area below.