Back in 2009, when I started my creative services shop, the thought that I was “in business” made me squirm.
I had finished my MA in English less than a year before and soon learned what the rest of the world already knew: you can’t make a living as a poet. In the program we workshopped stories and poems, but we never discussed how one went about making a living as a writer. One professor, Dr. Michael Keene, did mention his technical writing gigs and how handsomely they paid, but I still got the impression somehow that purists become teachers and write on the side.
Sell-outs, on the other hand, bastardize their gifts in service of almighty mammon. Going into business is like flunking out of Artistic Integrity 101.
Author Robert Kiyosaki shares an anecdote in Chapter 7 of his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad that illustrates perfectly the uncomfortable relationship many writers—and other artists too—have with business in general and sales in particular.
Before a speaking engagement in Singapore, Kiyosaki was doing an interview with a local journalist. At some point he complimented the journalist on her work. She, in turn, confided that she wanted to be a best-selling novelist but her fiction hadn’t gotten much attention.
When Kiyosaki told her to take a class on selling, the journalist bristled. She had an MA in English Literature and did not need to become a salesperson, thank you very much. Kiyosaki pressed his point, saying that he was a best-selling author, not a best-written author. His books made best-seller lists because he’d take the time to learn how to sell, not because of the exceptional quality of his writing.
I can relate to the journalist, and maybe you can too. For me writing has always involved painstaking craftsmanship. By the time I finished a poem, I might have invested thirty minutes or more per word. Why would I stoop? Why would I learn how to sell? The quality of my work should speak for itself.
At my first and last job at a marketing firm right out of grad school, I was tasked with writing billboard headlines for a local sushi restaurant. I was very proud of one headline I wrote: “Sushi Couture.”
The Creative Director later read this gem and asked, “What does ‘couture’ mean?”
After I told him, he said, “Yeah, maybe in New York, but no one in East Tennessee will get that.” Touché. That was one of many early jarring lessons in client work. Buy “client work” I mean getting paid to create something for someone else.
Clients have rejected much of my best writing. Sometimes, they were right, and I knew it. “Sushi Couture” might score points for cleverness, but I doubt it would have sold salmon nigiri or crunchy shrimp rolls. Sales is persuasion, and you cannot persuade effectively without tailoring the message for the particular audience.
Effectiveness aside though, we’ve all had encounters with hucksters looking to make a buck at any cost. Or at the very least, we’ve inherited negative perceptions from popular culture. There is the proverbial snake oil salesman peddling bottles of cod liver oil as miracle elixir. There is the life insurance salesman, working on commission, who asks how your family will survive if you get hit by a bus. There is the used car salesman rolling back odometers to turn a beater into a bargain.
Make your peace with something necessary for survival.
Such caricatures repel us. So we creatives make a (usually) unconscious decision to stay as far away from sales as possible.
The occasional infomercial with its bag of stimulus-response sales tricks validates that decision. We believe we are right to poo-poo selling, along with the people who do it for a living.
I can’t speak of the culture at all marketing agencies, but I know that at the one where I worked an unhappy truce existed between the creatives and the account executives. They were cats and dogs forced to live in the same house. They could only fight when the owners weren’t around. Snark abounded.
As both a copywriter and an account executive, I played Pocahontas there for a little while, trying to explain to creatives how account execs weren’t a bunch of savages. Good luck with that.
Thankfully, I got laid off before too long and could work out my own bias against sales with fear and trembling. That is to say, it is easier to make your peace with something necessary for survival.
Bamboozling someone is one thing. I’m not talking about finding a way to shoe-horn your solution into a would-be client’s business. I’m talking about artful, ethical, beneficial persuasion.
If you know that you can help a client solve a problem or meet a goal, you’d be remiss to not listen well, identify the ideal outcome, and persuade your clients to hire you for your intelligence, creativity, and skills, right?
For me, sales is taking money off the table so that I can serve my clients to the best of my ability.
You see the difference now: I’m not selling you a miracle elixir composed of inactive ingredients. I’m a trained apothecary selling you real medicine.
In business as in medicine, there will always be quacks and real physicians. It’s simply up to us creatives to study and become the latter. In order to thrive in business, we must reclaim an appreciation for the art of sales—that is, persuasion.
Thankfully, the Stimulus-Response school of sales isn’t our only option. We’ll start on the dark side, then we’ll go hang out with the Jedis.
You make your hair all shiny with cheap pomade and go to sales meetings with a sequence of questions and well-honed pitches designed to light a fire underneath your prospect and get him moving toward your objective.
You carry a quiver of bogus questions like, “Would you object if I showed you how buttered popcorn cures cancer?”
You can think of this approach as Pied Piper selling. Dance a little jig, play the right tune with undertones of desire and fear and greed, and you can make people to do anything you want.
Stimulus-Response deserves its reputation as a gimmicky and aggressive sales style. Take, for example, the guy who knocked on my door at 6pm on a Friday night, selling security systems. Within a couple of minutes, he had asked me if I knew how easy it was to kick in my back door. I told him that no, I did not, because I didn’t have friends who went around kicking in doors. I wasn’t privy to that kind of information.
He also shared this profound insight: “Your wife is probably a better shot with the .38, but you’re going to be the one wrestling a 220-pound intruder to the ground.” I asked him to leave soon after but told him I’d call him if I wanted a system. Could I have his business card?
Here was the surprise of the century: He didn’t have any on him.
The sad thing is that we wanted a security system. If the guy had asked more questions, honored my intellect, and offered some sort of discount, then buying from him would have been a no-brainer.
Make no mistake: Stimulus-response can be effective. But at what cost to your integrity and reputation? Do you really want to tell your grandma and your children that you made your fortune by sowing fear into people’s lives?
I don’t. And I’m thankful that SalesManage Solutions taught about a different way of selling.at
I prefer this approach because it focuses on what the customer needs, not on what you have to sell. It’s about them, not you.
You go to a discovery session, not a sales meeting, and you state the purpose of the meeting and explain how you’ll use the time. You ask permission to go over a series of 8-12 questions and explain why you’ll be asking each one.
You develop an understanding of your prospect’s need—the who, what, why, when, where—as quickly as possible so that you don’t waste their time or your own.
You don’t ask, “Do you know what kind of website you want?” You ask open-ended questions, such as “Describe what you want to see happen. Or “Tell me why you’re thinking about a new website.”
You listen. You evaluate the person’s personality. You adapt, and you build rapport. And if you create the right kind of space, you can spark an A-ha! moment.
You might ask, “What do you think your current website is this costing you in terms of missed opportunities?”
The prospect then realizes, perhaps for the first time, that despite getting plenty of organic web traffic, his ugly, broken site is failing to generate any leads. Just three new customers would justify the entire cost of redesign and redevelopment.
You’re not playing a certain tune on your magic pipe to elicit an emotional response and put money in your pocket. You’re bringing clarity, and you’re creating value apart from any product or service you may eventually offer.
Once real needs have been unearthed, your prospect may or may not be in a position to hire you. You may specialize in identity design, but you both now know that she needs to spend her budget not on redesign but on content strategy.
Bringing Clarity & Protecting Relationships
I prefer Value-Focused sales because it’s all about creating value, bringing clarity, and protecting a relationship.
A one-off sale will always have limited value to your business. But you cannot put a price tag on healthy relationships built on mutual trust and respect. Even if you refer a prospect to someone else, you will have won her respect.
Sometimes people give you money. Sometimes they don’t. But always looking for ways to improve other people’s lives will enable you to acquire a more valuable asset: a sterling reputation.
That’s the long-term value of this sales style: People who didn’t hire you will still send you referrals.
Sales is persuasion, and effective sales is about more than getting paid. Effective sales is medicine.
You know you are successful if you leave your prospects better off than before they met you.
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.