Welcome to the first installment of WhatTheyThink’s “Creative Corner,” a weekly feature/column targeted toward graphic designers (print, Web, and beyond) and other creative professionals. In this space each week, I’ll be presenting business tips, hardware and software reviews, sales and marketing strategies, emerging technologies, and graphic communications and media trends.

A Bright Future in Sales

Many of us who are creative professionals don’t often—if ever—think of ourselves as being in sales.  I was listening to a talk a couple of months ago and the speaker was talking about salesmanship.  Her opening line was, “How many people here are in sales?” I neglected to raise my hand, of course, as did a lot of people in the crowd.  She quickly added, “Anyone who owns or runs a business is in sales, whether they realize it or not.”

That got me thinking, which is always a dangerous thing.

Those of us who run creative businesses are in sales, although it would likely take bamboo shoots under the fingernails to get us to admit that. However, unless we are fortunate enough to have a steady, regular clientele, or a phone that constantly rings with people looking for design work, we often have to do some of our own selling. That usually takes the form of networking and in some cases actual cold calling, but the process is the same. And the more you learn about how actual, bona fide salespeople go about selling, the more it becomes clear that we all have to do pretty much the same things.

As many of us know firsthand, being able to effectively sell our services is becoming increasingly more important. As with just about any industry these days, there has never been more competition—especially from our own potential clients. In many cases, we have to sell not only ourselves as graphic designers, but the very idea of professional graphic design in general. Anyone can throw a JPEG into a Word document, change a few fonts, make text red, and call it graphic design. But is it really? And, let’s face it, isn’t using Comic Sans just a cry for help?

Which brings me to a workshop I attended last week in Saratoga Springs called “A Proven Method to Increase Sales,” presented by Howard Litwak of Clifton Park, NY’s Measurable Results (www.howardlitwak.com), and Terrie Gifford of Schaghticoke, NY’s The Inside Edge (www.terriegifford.com). Both are sales coaches and facilitators who help companies develop and hone their sales prowess. The goal of the workshop was to understand the buying and selling process and while my first reaction was, “You know, I’m not selling cars or vacuum cleaners or Fuller brushes. Is this relevant to me?” the more I groked what Litwak and Gifford were talking about, the more relevance to graphic design professionals it seemed to have.

First of all, one of the themes of the workshop was that selling is not about making people buy, but helping people buy, and has three objectives:

  • discuss/discover the potential customer’s needs and wants
  • create a sense of urgency
  • impart confidence in the seller’s ability to meet those needs and wants

Seems obvious, sure. In our specific case, that involves understanding a potential client’s graphic communications needs. How do they choose to communicate with their own present and potential customer base? Is their present strategy working for them, or can you as the creative professional help them reach even more potential customers and, more importantly, turn them into paying customers? What are the ways by which you can effect this? By understanding current marketing and media trends? Understanding the communication process? Knowing the effectiveness of aesthetic design principles and effective copywriting? Or all of the above?

If you’re getting the sense that a very large part of being a graphic designer is to actually be a sales and marketing consultant for your own clients, you’re on the right track.

Buying vs. Selling

Buying and selling are two sides of the same coin, and many of the same dynamics are at play in both processes. Litwak identifies five “tiers” or levels involved in the buying process. That is, these are the criteria that a prospective buyer uses—often (but I would argue not always) in this order—to decide whether or not to buy what someone is selling.

Figure 1: The Buying Process (courtesy Measurable Results)

You. The first criterion is, of course, the seller him- or herself. They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression and, barring the invention of a time machine, that’s true. The initial impression that a prospective client has of you as a representative of your business will likely define the rest of the relationship—or even if a relationship develops at all. That first impression can range from your physical appearance and general bearing if you are networking face-to-face, to your telephone personality if you are cold calling or are being cold called by a client, to the design of your Web site—to whatever other marketing and promotional materials serve as the point of entry for prospective customers to come into contact with your business. If you are selling Web design services, you’d better make sure your own Web site is up to snuff.

Your Company. The second criterion is an extension of the first, and can be thought of as the second impression. What is a prospective customer likely to think of your company once s/he delves below the surface? Do you have effective testimonials from past (and hopefully satisfied) customers? Do you have a well-designed and organized portfolio of past work? Is word of mouth working for you or against you? Do you need to get Cousin Nunzio to “take care” of anyone bad-mouthing you?

Your Product or Service. I would argue that this criterion could in many cases come first, especially if people are specifically looking for graphic design services before they specifically encounter you. But in a traditional selling context, once the prospect sizes up you as the representative of your company, and then your company in general, it’s time for them to evaluate the extent to which they need what it is you do. Do they have a need to revamp whatever marketing communications materials they have? Do they need to design or redesign their Web site? Do they need to devise a whole new graphic communication strategy? Is there any other project in the works they need help with? A potential newsletter launch? A catalog? An e-mail campaign?

Price. The bottom line is: what’s it gonna cost? However, the real concern is not so much a number, but whether that number reflects value. Are you worth what you charge? (The answer to that should always be yes.)

Timing. Finally, is the time right for the sale to be made? Is the prospect in a position to buy? Is there an immediate need? Do they have a publication that needs to go out by a certain time? Is there a major trade event in their industry or an annual sales conference for which that they need to have marketing materials prepared? Are they at the right time in their fiscal year to make any budget outlays for graphic design services, be they major or minor?

That’s the buying process, and the criteria the buyer uses to decide to pull the trigger on a business relationship. What about the selling process? What does the seller have to do to ensure that the buyer is satisfied with each of his/her own criteria?

Figure 2: The Selling Process (courtesy Measurable Results)

The selling process defines the basic timeline of the business relationship, starting with...

Make a Positive Introduction. Again, this is that first impression, and you want to make a favorable one, in whatever way the prospect chooses to interact with you and/or your company.

Gain Favorable Attention. That is, chemistry; rapport. How are you getting along with a prospect? Not only are you talking, but are you listening? Do you instill a sense of trust in the prospect? Without coming right out and bluntly saying it, do you give the prospective customer the impression that you and your company can deliver effective solutions to their problems? Or do you convey the sense that, “Oh, it’s all a big crapshoot and no one has any real idea if anything is ever going to work at all?” It’s about having and conveying a positive attitude.

Discover Wants and Needs. Probably the most important part of the selling process is “active listening.” People like to be listened to; be sure to ask questions. Conveying a desire to understand the customer’s problems and concerns goes a long way toward instilling the trust that is needed for them to believe that you have the solution to their problems, and can meet their wants and needs.

Present Solutions. Okay, you know the customer’s problems. What can you do about them? How can your expertise as a graphic communications professional help them? According to Litwak, an effective coda to this conversation is to ask, “If I could show you a way to handle [insert problem here], how would you want to proceed?” That is, “are we taking this relationship to the next step?” Or, essentially, “your place or mine?”

Overcome Objections and Gain Commitment. No, no, no, this is not where Cousin Nunzio comes back into the picture. Yes, you want to make them an offer they can’t refuse, but not like that. Instead, this is where, if you have fulfilled all the previous criteria and steps in the selling process, the complementary buying process criteria have also been met, and the customer feels comfortable trusting you and your company to do what you promised to do. In sales parlance, this is referred to as “closing.” This is where contracts are signed, purchase orders are filled out, or whatever logistics are involved in proceeding with the project are worked out. This could be a drawn out period that involves producing roughs or comps, or submitting bids or proposals. Or it could be as simple as a handshake, depending on the customer.

Execute and Follow Up. This is perhaps the most important step, as this is where you actually complete the job you were hired to complete. The advice here is “undersell and overdeliver.” After all, unless the client is one of “those” (and, let’s face it, we’ve all had some difficult clients), you want to foster a long-term relationship. Some time after a job is delivered and completed, follow up with them. How did a particular project do? If it was some kind of direct mail (print or e-mail) campaign, was it successful? What kind of response did it yield? What worked, and what could be done differently in the future? It never hurts to help reaffirm your customer’s trust in your company, and showing that you care how a particular project fared goes a long way toward demonstrating that.

Moving Forward

We’re all in sales, whether we want to admit it or not. Understanding how and why people buy products and services can help us grow our businesses. The selling process should be integrated with a variety of other marketing and media strategies—which will be the subject of future Creative Corner features.