The topic of "selling" rarely gets the attention and respect it deserves — especially among freelancers and solopreneurs. Some freelancers think it’s too hardcore for what they do. Others are scared of coming across as a stereotypical used car salesperson.
But if you can’t persuade prospects to hire you — if you can’t close the deal — no amount of marketing is going to help your business succeed.
How can you move prospects from inquiry to engagement, without being pushy or sales-y? Are there steps you can follow and standard questions you can ask? And how can you do it confidently, with integrity and without putting on a loud suit and promising, “Zero money down, and don’t pay ‘til fall”?
In this training episode, Karen Graves shows us how to sell our products or services without being sales-y. Karen is the founder of Your Sales Fix, and her specialty is turning sales-phobics into sales-aholics. Frustrated by seeing women entrepreneurs fail in their businesses due to a fear of sales and a lack of consistent income, she’s made it her mission to help entrepreneurs sell confidently so their businesses thrive.
What follows is a condensed transcript of my conversation with Karen. If you prefer to listen to the full audio (51 minutes), you can listen to it (or download it) here:
Ed Gandia: Karen, it’s great to have you here.
Karen Graves: Thank you so much for having me.
Ed Gandia: Sometimes there’s confusion over where marketing ends and selling starts. To me, selling starts once you’ve received an inquiry from a prospect and you're now replying to that prospect. Everything that happens from that point until the signed contract involves selling. Would you agree?
Karen Graves: Yes. Marketing allows you to have the conversation. It’s everything you’ve done to lay the track. But the person is now saying, “Okay, tell me more. I might be interested in buying.” Sales is getting them to say “Yes.”
Ed Gandia: What are the most common misconceptions about sales and selling?
Karen Graves: People always think of the worst sales situation they ever experienced. They have that image of the used car salesman. But the truth about sales is it’s not pushy. You don’t have to be sales-y. You don’t have to be slick. Rather, you have to be full of integrity. You have to have confidence. You do have to believe in what you sell.
Sales is a conversation. You’re passionate about something that will work for someone, and you offer it to them. When you do it from a place of conviction, it’s easy for them to say yes. You’re helping somebody get what they want.
Ed Gandia: Many solo professionals have self-confidence issues. I have them, and I’ve been doing this for a while. Sometimes we diminish the value of what we can deliver. How do you deal with confidence issues?
Karen Graves: Confidence is at the core. If you don’t believe it, nobody else will. My first rule of selling is you’ve got to believe. Remember what you’re good at and take ownership of it. People will say, “I’m good at that, but I’m not great at it.” Well, you’ve got to own it.
Conviction is one piece of it. You also have to know who you are and how you operate. We knock ourselves down. We don’t lift ourselves up enough. Think of ten things you do really well. Write them down and then repeat it. Make that part of your everyday practice.
Ed Gandia: This is something I’ve been working on. I’m paying more attention to my shortcomings and strengths. It’s made my life so much easier. I have a better understanding of what I’m really good at, which has boosted my self-confidence. I also realize what I’m weaker at, and I’m finding people to help me in those areas.
Something else I’ve been doing is looking at testimonials and emails I’ve gotten from clients. They really lift me. I think it’s a good practice.
Karen Graves: People worry, “Should I toot my own horn?” “Maybe I should be more humble.” You’ve built a business based on your skills. If you don’t tell other people, how are they going to know?
We need to let people know what we are capable of doing. It can be done very naturally. It doesn’t have to be, “Let me interject how great I am every two seconds.”
We worry so much about what we’re not good at. If we shifted to what we are good at, we would have better quality businesses and we'd surround ourselves with some really smart people.
Ed Gandia: So, you're suggesting that we focus on the projects and services we’re really good at and go after those. If there are other things we’re "so-so" with, look at what you can outsource. Correct?
Karen Graves: That’s the difference between operating at 100% capacity versus 75 to 80% capacity. It also helps people find you. If you know what you’re good at, you’re easier to find.
Basically, successful selling comes down to what I call the "Five Cs of Sales Success. They are your “sales superpowers.” We’ve already talked about conviction. You have to have that belief.
The second C is Clarity. If you’re not clear on what you’re good at, how can anybody else be clear? Be clear on what you should focus on and what your expertise is. Then, be clear on who would want it. If you focus on things you don’t excel at, then you’re sending the message, “I’m a jack of all trades. I’m an expert on anything you pick.” The person gets confused. And the confused mind says “No.” If you say, “I can do that and I can do that and I can do that too,” they’re like, “Okay, but what do you excel at? Because I need an expert.”
If you have conviction and clarity, it allows for a smoother communication, which is the third C of sales success. It allows you to have better conversations, better questions, better sales calls.
The next C is consistency. You need a system. A system that works, as opposed to just seeing what sticks or the strategy du jour. We want to be consistent and seamless so sales doesn’t become, “Oh my gosh, I have a sales call.” It becomes something you’ve planned and strategized.
I had a client and she said, “I was having these getting-to-know-you meetings. And people would get excited about my services, and they wanted to hire me. But I wasn’t prepared.” That was a missed opportunity. If she had been prepared to have a sales conversation she would have been able to smoothly transition from, “We’re getting to know each other” into “Oh, you’re interested in my services? Let me tell you how we can work together.”
Ed Gandia: She’s going to lose momentum.
Karen Graves: Yes. You also risk sending the wrong message – that you’re not professional or tuned into your business. If you’re really passionate and connected, you’re going to find people all the time who say, “I need to know more about what you do. Can we sit down and talk?” You need to be prepared to offer your services in an authentic and comfortable way.
That leads us into the last C, commitment. When you have systems and strategies, you’re committed to your business. It’s not hit-or-miss. It’s not hobby-ish. You position your business, put boundaries on your time, set your schedule, make time for revenue generating activities, and ensure you have clients that are as committed and excited as you are.
If you’re not doing sales, you’re not making revenue. Then there is no business.
Ed Gandia: I like that, the five Cs: Conviction, Clarity, Communication, Consistency, and Commitment. You described that coffee chat. That’s been me several times. I wasn’t expecting to sell anything and then there was a sales opportunity. I wasn’t ready for it. I can see now why I missed those deals, and why that conversation didn’t go any further.
Karen Graves: Not only are you leaving money on the table, but you’re also leaving somebody underserved.
Ed Gandia: I tend to have the best sales conversations when I already have plenty of work lined up. It’s amazing how conviction rises to the surface when I have a six-week backlog. That’s one more reason to continually market your services, so opportunities continually come into your pipeline.
Karen Graves: Exactly. The sales part is easy when you’re pipeline is full. You can be a great salesperson, but if you don’t have prospects to talk to, what good is it?
Ed Gandia: Let’s talk about sales formula and sales process. I know you have a system you follow.
Karen Graves: Let’s imagine you have an interested prospect. They say, “Tell me more about what you do.” By the way, anytime someone says, “Tell me more,” that’s a green light.
At this point, you want to uncover where they are in the buying process. Are they ready to buy today or is this a “someday” type of buy? I use three questions, and sometimes a fourth, to figure out whether or not this person is serious about buying. They help me figure out if they’ve thought through things, and if I’m a good fit.
But, before we get into questions, you want to establish yourself as the driver of the conversation. When I say this, people sometimes say, “Eek, I don’t want to be pushy.”
This is not about being pushy. This is about being an expert. An easy way to do this is to set expectations. I’ll say, “I’m going to ask you a couple of questions. Based on what you say, we’ll determine whether or not my services are a fit for you. If we determine they are, I’ll describe the next steps. If we determine they’re not, I’ll give you some resources as to what you could do next.”
That person is captivated because they want to know more. They think, “Okay, lead me, expert. I’m ready to hear what you have to say.”
Ed Gandia: There’ll be no surprises. You’re telling them, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” You’re taking the edge off.
Karen Graves: They know, at the very least, you’re going to extend an offer. So we’re back to clarity. You have to know up front what you’re offering. Always be prepared with your package or pricing.
At the same time, you’re looking for buying signals. If they’re balking at that point, they’re balking. They’re probably not a good fit. But I’ve never had a person say, “No, I don’t want to continue this conversation.”
So the first question is “What do you need right now?” This is usually when a person will give you some background. You don’t need the whole history, so if you find you’re getting too much information, slow him/her down. Interrupt gently. Ask “May I interrupt you if I’m getting enough information?” Get them to the meat of the matter as quickly as possible.
This question will not only give you an understanding of what’s going on, but it also allows them to talk it through. I’ve had people who need to blurt it out to make sense of it. And it also helps you gauge the sense of urgency.
Sense of urgency is so important because if a person doesn’t feel this is something they need within the next, at least 15-20 days, they’re not going to necessarily buy. If they’re saying, “Our system crashed and we’re losing data by the day and people find can’t us,” there’s a sense of urgency. But if they’re saying, “Well, a year from now, we’d like to have this premiere presence on the web.” Then they might be shopping around.
When you ask, “What do you need right now?” reflect back their response. This takes listening skills. Listening is job one throughout the sales process. If you’re not listening, then you’re going to miss a lot. People give signals all the time. Reflect back what you hear, “Based on what you said, this is what you’re looking for. This is what I’m hearing.” And let them know if they haven’t given you a timeframe. Ask, “What is the timeframe?”
Ed Gandia: That’s key. You don’t want to have a conversation about something they may eventually do or might want to do.
Karen Graves: Exactly. It allows you to start formulating. You’ll ask yourself, “Is this something I even want to do?”
The next question to ask is, “What’s the challenge right now?” “What’s stopping the progress?” “What’s holding you up?” You want to hear if they feel this is within their control or outside their control. And that’s big because sometimes people do the blame game, “Well, this happened to us and then that happened to us.” Ask yourself, “Is this a person I’m going to enjoy working with? What’s their role in all of this?”
Ed Gandia: And maybe find out if they’ve gone through one or two freelancers already. That’s a big red flag.
Karen Graves: Right, you need to ask yourself, was it the freelancer's fault or the prospect? Many times the prospect is the common denominator.
The question about challenges allows you to see what’s going on. And always check back, “Okay, so what you’re saying is…,” “What I heard was…,” or “What you need here is….” Make sure you clarify because sometimes you say it back, and the person says, “No, no, no, that’s not quite what I said.”
The next question to ask is, “What’s your goal?” “What does success look like?” You can include a time parameter to check on urgency. “What would success look like to you in three months?” See if their goals are realistic.
Let’s go back to the example of the web developer. The person has no web presence, and they say, “Three months from now, we want a brand-new, eight-page website with video.” These things would probably take six months or a year. You can tell if this is a person who understands what needs to be done.
You can say gently, “Do you think three months is a bit ambitious?” “No, I think it’s fine.” “Okay, here’s what I’m thinking based on my experience.” You can educate with these types of questions as well.
Ed Gandia: Which positions you as a professional.
Karen Graves: Exactly. And you can take it further, “What do you see in six months?” “What do you see in a year?” Let them know it’s not an overnighter. You want to let them know you’re thinking it through too. You might end up working together. You’re starting to form a partnership.
Ed Gandia: If it’s a project with a well-defined beginning and end, do you need to ask about six months and twelve months?
Karen Graves: If it’s a shorter project, you can ask, “What would you like as an outcome? How it would be sustained six months down the road? Does it have long-term benefits?”
Ed Gandia: Or maybe, “What do you want the results to be?” What happens at the end of two months? And then maybe four or six months?
Karen Graves: You can use any timeframe. And remember you need to listen. You need to see if the results they’re looking for are results you can deliver.
Now tell them what you heard. “If all goes well and we collaborate, what you need is X, Y, Z.” “And your ideal result would be within this timeframe.” Then ask, “Is that accurate?” The person says, “Yes.”
Now you tell them, “Okay, let me tell you why I can help you with this.” Tell them what you do for a living and position yourself as an expert. “Based on what you’ve told me, the results that I’ve had with clients are….” You align your results with what they need. If you’ve built websites in two months, this is a great time to say, “I’ve worked with clients dealing with the same challenges. Here are some of the ways we navigated these challenges….” Show them some solutions. Give them a taste of, “I do this all the time. I’ve overcome barriers by implementing X, Y, Z.”
Ed Gandia: This is the opposite of what most solo professionals do. I’ve had to hire solos many times, and I usually get a sales presentation immediately. They don’t hear you out. They don’t know what your needs are, what you’re concerned about, and what you want the outcome to be. I like your approach because you’re asking and listening. I loved your line, “Based on what you’ve told me.” That reinforces you’ve been taking notes and listening. You’re prescribing something based on their unique situation, not some canned pitch.
Karen Graves: Exactly. And that raises your confidence. You start to realize, “Wow, I can really help this person. I have something valuable to offer them.” When people do the pitch up front, they’re shouting in the dark. You don’t know if you fit. You have no idea. But this way, you can determine whether it’s a fit, whether this is a job you want, whether it would be enjoyable.
But this approach puts you in the driver’s seat. You’re demonstrating your expertise. It’s a much more powerful approach to sales. Most of my clients come to me scared to death of the sales conversation. Now, they love sales. They’re doing talks and selling on stage. It feels natural to them. It’s them being them, and loving the work they do. They’ve changed their mindset.
Ed Gandia: Let’s talk about the follow-up process. Do you ever get into a discussion of fees? Do you ask anything outright in terms of budget to see if they can afford you?
Karen Graves: I’m a big proponent of packages. If you’re sure about your expertise, you should be able to package your offerings so you’re not always customizing.
Every time you walk away from a sales conversation, you’ve lost the likelihood of them saying yes by 67%. So it’s important to say, “For a project like this…” and give a range.
Or you could ask, “Have you considered your budget for a project such as this?” If they say “No,” ask, “Are you the decision maker or are there other people involved in this process?” Again, this will help give you a timeframe. Do other people have to weigh in? Does it have to be signed off by 40 people?
Ed Gandia: You definitely want to know this before you spend time putting a proposal together.
Karen Graves: Exactly. Simply ask, “Have you considered what the investment would be?” It’s a simple, easy question.
Ed Gandia: What if they say, “Not really, we haven’t done this before. I was hoping you would give me an idea.”
Karen Graves: If you have the pricing, then go right into it. “Based on what you’re telling me, I have several packages and this would be the one that would work well for you.” And stand by the price. Or you can give a range. Give a range from your lower-priced package to your higher-priced package. “Something like this could fall between $5,000 and $7,500.”
And whenever you say something about your prices, be silent right after. People start justifying their prices. “I’m charging this amount because of that.” Just say it and be quiet.
Ed Gandia: What happens when you do that?
Karen Graves: You’re going to get objections. And that’s what you want. You want to know what’s getting in the way. They might say, “Well, we hadn’t considered that,” or “I have to talk to my manager.” You’re going to find out what’s going on, and then you can navigate the objections.
People always come back with objections about time, money or decision making. Those are the three most common objections. But they’re never the real ones. They’ll say, “I have to talk to my manager.” So I'll ask, “Well, based on what I shared with you, what do you think your manager will say?” They might respond with, “Well, I don’t know…” Which gives me a chance to say, “It sounds like you have some concerns or need some additional information to help your manager with this buying decision. You could share those with me, or we could sit down with your manager and I could go through this with him or her as well.”
If there’s reluctance to sit down with the manager, this person is not sold. But if there isn’t reluctance, if they’re like, “Okay, let’s set something up with my manager,” that’s a green light.
Even if they have very little authority, and they’re not sure about bringing their manager in, they’re not sold. Their job is to get their manager in. We need to make it easy for them.
Ed Gandia: Another common objection is, “Wow, I didn’t expect it to be that much.”
Karen Graves: So they’re saying they have a budget in mind. “What were you expecting to pay for a project such as this?” This indicates they’re not sold on the value of what they’ll get.
You have to go back to the results they want. “You’re telling me you want a significant web presence. With a significant web presence, you be able to get X number more clients. So this investment will help you get the clientele you want. Am I correct?” Put it in perspective for them. You’ve got to show them why they came to you in the first place. Bring back that sense of urgency.
Ed Gandia: I want to address one last thing. Say everything goes well. You put a proposal together and send it out. Then you don’t hear back. Two questions: First, how soon should you follow-up after you send a proposal? Should you call within the hour and say, “Hey, I sent it. I want to make sure you got it”? Second, when you should follow up to see if they’ve made a decision?
Karen Graves: Remember, you want to position yourself in power. So you start with, “When do you think a decision will be made? May I follow up with you that day?” Lots of times, people say, “Okay, well, I’ll wait to hear from you.” There’s no power in that. And if you follow-up within an hour, it can look a little desperate.
You want to say, “Okay, how long do you think this decision will take? Would it be okay for me to call you back in 48 hours or two days or after you touch base with your manager? Let’s put a date on the calendar.” And then follow up when you say you’re going to. In the meantime, you send an e-mail confirming everything you’ve talked about.
Ed Gandia: So when you follow up, you’re doing it with confidence. You’re saying, “We talked about touching base today. I’m checking in to see if you’ve made that decision.” It’s no longer, “How are things going? Were you able to talk to your manager?”
Karen Graves: They see you’re serious about business. It allows them to step up to the plate, too. Remember, you want people who’re committed.
Ed Gandia: So many sales books and seminars teach you to keep following up because it’s a numbers game. That’s BS. If you can’t get that person to call you back, more follow up isn’t going to help. At that point, you’re working against yourself.
Karen Graves: You start sending the wrong message. “Oh, please, please do business with me.” You can follow up two or three times. Give them 24-48 hours, then 72. I always do two emails and a phone call. If you can’t get them on the phone, chances are they’ve moved on. And you can move on too. You can send them a final note, “Hey, maybe when the stars align, we can do business down the road.” Leave with something nice, but don’t keep calling them. You have other people who need your help.
Ed Gandia: But you were gracious about it. I’ve been on the other side of the table, and when people are gracious about it, they leave a good impression. I might need them again later. If they weren’t gracious about it, chances are I won’t call them.
Karen Graves: I’ve had people who’ve hired me after we hadn’t talked for a year. I left the door open. If you’re nasty, they move on.
Ed Gandia: Earlier you talked about leveraging your experience during a sales conversation. “Okay, based on what you’re telling me, here’s what I would recommend. I’ve worked with several clients doing the same thing.” But what if you don’t have all that experience. What if you’ve only done a couple?
Karen Graves: Right, you don’t have a book of business yet but you know enough to get results. You have to think back to when you were interviewing for a new job. You hadn’t held that position before, but you knew you were capable. You drew on the experiences you did have.
Say you’re a web developer. You built a web page for a friend. You know you can do it, you demonstrated that knowledge. Or maybe you built web pages every day in school. Go with the experience you do have and utilize it.
Ed Gandia: That’s a good point. If you have zero, obviously you have to decline the project.
Karen Graves: Yes, you might not be ready for it.
Ed Gandia: Exactly. But sometimes people err on the other side. They say, “I’ve only done three white papers. I don’t have enough experience.” You’ve written three white papers? It doesn’t matter if it was in a different industry. You have experience.
Karen Graves: I have one client who’s starting three different businesses. She had worked for Google, then Apple, and she was getting ready to venture into a new business. She said, “I don’t think I know anything about running businesses.” I was like, “Wait, you’ve had over thirty years of corporate business experience and an additional ten in your own business! You don’t know anything about running businesses?” We’ve got to remember that all of our life experience counts.
Ed Gandia: Are there any sales books you recommend?
Karen Graves: I love the book The Go-Giver and Go-Givers Sell More by Bob Burg and John David Mann. They come at sales from a service aspect: “I have the skillset, and I’m here to help.”
I also like Jeffrey Gitomer’s books, especially The Little Red Book of Selling. He’s a little hard-edged, but I like his principles. I’m aligned with anyone who’s into authenticity. I also really like The Dale Carnegie Approach to Selling. Dale Carnegie is the guru of sales. His approach is the best by far. So start with Dale Carnegie and then complement with Jeffrey Gitomer and the Go-Giver books.
Ed Gandia: Jill Konrath also has some great stuff. She’s spoken at International Freelancers Day. I really like what she has to say, especially if you work in a profession where you have to talk about value, and you’re selling something your typical prospect hasn’t budgeted for.
Karen Graves: Great recommendation.
Ed Gandia: Karen, where can people find out more about you?
Karen Graves: They can go to my website which is Your Sales Fix. If you enter your name and information, you’ll receive a free download of Five Fears of Sales That Are Keeping You Broke and How To Get Over Them Now. If you’d like to know more about my services or how to get in touch with me, there’s a link to my schedule right on my website. You can make an appointment to talk further about your business.
Ed Gandia: Thanks so much, Karen. I really appreciate you sharing these ideas.
Karen Graves: I appreciate you having me, Ed.