Regardless of what you think you sell, what are your clients buying? Sell what people are buying.
If you’d asked me five or six years ago, I would have told you that I sold copywriting, marketing strategy, and project management.
I had killed my margins on several projects that required more time for meetings, communication, and hand-holding than for doing the actual writing or strategy work. When I finally started assigning a price to project management and adding it to proposals, I felt like I deserved a Nobel Prize. Client were paying me to respond to their emails. Genius!
You’ll have to be patient with that version of Austin. I had a natural knack for sales and strategy, but very little practical business experience. I wanted to be a part-time college English professor and a full-time poet, and had never taken a single business class or read a business book.
That being said, I still see businesses and brands make the same mistakes I made as a green, twenty-something copywriter. They sell their process, not the outcomes; their features, not the benefits; their expertise, not the results they have produced for clients.
No one cares about dentition.
In fact, really smart people make this mistake. One client comes to mind. This brilliant prosthodontist had been top of his class in undergrad, dentistry school, and his post-doc training in prosthodontics.
When we started working on his web content, I’d send him a new draft, and he kept on sprinkling in the word “dentition.” I finally had to have it out with him and tell him that he needed to connect with his would-be patients, not with his colleagues. He fought me at first, but I eventually won.
The prosthodontist called me a year after we concluded the project and thanked me. He does 30-50 speaking engagements per year, and told me that without fail another prosthodontist at every event will come up and say, “How did you do it? How did you manage to convey the value of what we do on your website?”
Rule of thumb: if you’re using words your customers have to look up in the dictionary, then hire a writer to make your content more accessible.
I think many of us have a penchant for dentition: we don’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of our peers, so we use technical jargon and industry slang to prove we know our stuff.
The only problem is that we leave our clients and customers behind. No one cares about “dentition.” They care about being confident in their smiles. They care about being able to eat a caramel apple or corn on the cob. They care about being able to chew for an entire meal without acute pain from a broken tooth.
Don’t sell me dentition. Sell me a transformation.
Don’t sell coffee. Sell good memories in a pretty place. Sell productivity for a fraction of the price of an office. Sell old friends having a long, catch-up conversation.
Almost like a Business Therapist
But I’m not really talking about diction here, I’m talking about sales. What matters most to your customers?
Chances are, if I ask you that question, you’ll get it wrong. Figuring this stuff out for people is my business, and I still get it wrong for myself!
I was in Oklahoma last September doing a two-day onsite with one of my clients. They own four mobile app portfolios, and all the executives flew in to get face time and do strategic planning.
I brought in my consultant friend Daniel Allen to facilitate, and he took us through an excellent exercise: “Name one way each team member adds to the company. Name one way he detracts.”
Though I am a consultant, I have acted as an interim COO, and the other executives included me in the exercise. Two of them said the same thing: “Austin brings clarity. He has a sense of how things work in the world. He is a great listener, and a sounding board, almost like a business therapist.”
Appreciate the Irony
What did I think I was selling? My problem-solving ability. Or expertise in operations, process improvement, product development, culture, and strategy. Maybe an understanding of lean startup methodology combined with deep experience in the creative services industry.
Whatever I thought, they were buying clarity.
The CEO later explained that he would come to me with challenges he thought were big, complicated, hairy.
I’d ask questions to carefully peel back the layers until he was saw the core problem clearly. Every problem is an opportunity, so we would typically finish those conversations by discussing next steps. We would, in effect, design a solution and then follow up on Slack and Trello to begin implementing it.
I did this because it seemed necessary. The CEO called me and wanted to process this or that. So process we would.
But it took probably a dozen people over six months remarking that I am exceptionally gifted at helping people get clarity, set direction, and pursue growth aggressively.
(I hope you appreciate the irony: the clarity consultant needs other people to see that he should sell clarity. Ha!)
Now I’m in the process of retuning how I communicate about what I do.
Sell what people are buying.
Don’t sell what you have. Sell what people are buying.
Maybe you sell websites. If you started thinking about the website as a shopping bag, what is inside the bag? What are customers really getting? Inbound marketing and new leads? Huge e-commerce capabilities and increased sales?
Maybe you sell words. What are customers really buying? Strong branding and positioning? A winsome brand personality and voice? Thought leadership via consistent content marketing?
Maybe you sell graphic design. Okay, you get it.
Take some time right now to gain insight into the value you create. Bringing that value to the front and center in your messaging, at meetings, and online will not only attract better clients willing to pay handsomely for your help but also make you whistle while you work.
Here are some ideas for capturing new concepts and language:
- If you could only sell one thing, and had to create 10x as much value for your clients as you currently do, what would you be selling? Pretty colors and shapes? I doubt it.
- Go back and read any client testimonials you have. What did they say was most memorable or valuable?
- Ask some past or current clients: “What was it like working with me?”
- Ask a new referral: “Who recommended me? What did that person say?”
- Ask friends, family, and peers: “What do you think I’m best at?”
- Pore over the websites of five people who provide similar services in non-competitive markets. Glean any insights about branding, positioning, and sales.
- What metaphors and analogies help to communicate the value of what you do? For example, the prosthodontist I mentioned earlier is in the personal transformation business.
- Make a list of thought leaders in your field or specialization. Look at their websites, blogs, and flagship content. How do they describe their work? How do they sell their services? Creatives who level up have figured out how to de-commodotize their skills and offerings and sell based on the outcomes they achieve and value they create, not based on price.
Describe yourself in non-business-y terms.
You may learn that you’re not a writer at all. You’re a translator, janitor, and window cleaner.
You’re not a designer at all. You’re a stylist, makeup artist, and visual psychologist.
You’re not a videographer at all. You’re a historian, fundraising specialist, and chameleon who can blend in anywhere.
Regardless of what you sell, what did your clients buy? What do your prospects want?
People will always tell you how and what they want you to sell to them. You just have to shut up and listen.
I personally am the worst at selling aggressively. It makes me feel like I got slimed on a Nickelodeon game show from the early 1990s. However, if you need clarity around what your clients are buying, then please get in touch. You can book a clarity session with me here.
Let’s ensure that you sell what people are buying.
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.
Also published on Medium.