You have posted some bids on some jobs and sent out a few proposals to prospective clients, so you’re on your way to success, right? Not necessarily.
Getting an inquiry is one thing. Turning that response into cash in the bank is something else altogether. The way that you handle the initial contact, and develop a subsequent relationship with that prospect, will have a profound impact on whether a lead becomes a client, or a lost opportunity.
In the marketing departments of major corporations, conversion rates – the percentage of inquiries that are actually converted into sales – are accorded a very high priority. And it’s easy to see why. If you’ve already committed yourself to a major marketing campaign, getting a return on that investment depends on getting the best possible conversion rate.
To increase the number of conversions, such companies will invest heavily in testing exploring different approaches to marketing, holding focus groups with prospective customers, and a great deal more. All this costs money, but if it results in the conversion rate increasing significantly, it’s all worthwhile. More sales mean more money in the bank, and a greater profit for a known investment.
For freelancers, maximizing conversion rates is perhaps even more important. After all, you are likely to get only a handful of qualified responses to a particular campaign, so you can’t afford to throw any of them away. You need to convince these potential clients that they did the right thing in contacting you, and that they need your help as soon as possible.
In the last paragraph, I mentioned ‘qualified responses’, and this is an important issue to consider. While you may get a certain number of inquiries, not all of them will be serious prospects. Inevitably, you will encounter some who are just idly curious, or perhaps even researching their own plans for a future career. You may find that the contact is someone junior, and the actual decisions will be made further up the chain.
If it becomes clear that the prospect is not a serious buyer, or has expectations that you cannot meet (such as very low prices, qualifications you don’t have, extremely tight deadlines), then politely decline, and suggest they try elsewhere. Should you discover that you really need to speak to someone higher up the hierarchy, try to arrange a meeting with a more senior person.
OK, so you’ve done all that, and you now have a genuine, qualified prospect interested in doing business with you. They’ve taken the bait, but how do you ensure that they don’t get off the hook before you reel them in? Let’s find out.
Delivering the right impression
We all know the maxim you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Yet the importance of that first contact is perhaps far more important that we realize.
Research shows that we do indeed make up our minds about people within the first minute of meeting them. We make a snap decision, based on their appearance, manner, approach and speech. And once entrenched, those opinions are very difficult to shift. In the online world this is just as important and the wording of your job bid, your resume and your portfolio are the first impression potential clients are going to get of you.
So be sure to start on a positive note in order to ease the whole sales conversion process. Making the right impression begins with the very first time the prospect gets in touch.
The initial contact
Let’s imagine that you’ve bid on a particular job from our VIP job database, and someone replies to your proposal with some followup questions. In today’s world, they are likely to respond initially either by a skype call or by email.
Your office should also be away from the noise of domestic life. However ‘natural’ it may sound to have your children playing in the background, it’s unlikely to impress a prospective client. If you’re wondering whether someone on the other end of the call can hear that TV in the other room, rest assured that they can.
If you can answer the call in your company’s name, so much the better. The prospective client may well be aware that you’re a one-man band, but the fact that you portray a professional image will be very reassuring.
How do you sound on the phone? Probably not as cool and authoritative as you may think.
Try recording a few of your phone conversations and playing them back. You are likely to find that your speech is full of umms, aahs and repetitions of pet phrases. If you can learn to cut these out and speak with confidence, you will make a much better impression.
Once the prospect has made the first move, you need to develop the opportunity by following up in a professional manner. If the client contacts you by email, call them back on the phone – unless they specifically ask you to reply by email. The call allows you to make more of an impact with expressions, discussion and tone of voice.
If you do reply by email, try to overcome the limitations of this form of communication. Handled badly, an email message can come across as being cold and impersonal – but it doesn’t have to be like that. Adopt a friendly approach, using short words and everyday phrasing. Talk about how ‘I can help you’, and be sure to thank the prospect for getting in touch and taking an interest.
If the prospect asks you to send samples in the post or by email, pick your best examples and take some time to create a quality presentation. This person is already half way to becoming a customer, so it’s well worth taking the time and effort to do this well.
And don’t delay. If someone expresses an interest, respond immediately while their level of interest is still high. If you are slow in replying, you may find that your potential customer has lost interest, or taken profitable custom elsewhere.
Meeting the prospect
If you are able to arrange a meeting with your prospective client, you have a great chance to make an impression and persuade the customer to buy your services. While it is possible nowadays to work for clients you have never met, you will always have an advantage if you can build a face-to-face relationship.
The biggest factor in ensuring a successful meeting lies in preparation. Take some time to research the client company, using the Internet and obtaining any relevant brochures, etc. Make sure you know how to find the company, allowing plenty of time for delays and other problems. It’s much better to arrive an hour early, and stop somewhere for a coffee, than to turn up five minutes late – flustered and out of breath.
It’s completely up to you what to wear to these face to face meetings but if in doubt try to be more smart then casual, what’s important is the clients’ perception. Even if you choose fairly casual clothes, it is important to pay attention to details such as cleaning your shoes. The time and attention you spend on yourself will be assumed to reflect the time and attention you invest in your work.
You may be nervous if you’re meeting an important prospect or if you’re new to the business of freelancing. This is perfectly normal, and should not worry you unduly. Just try and speak with confidence, and give the interview your best shot.
The personal touch that gets results.
People do business with people they like
It’s another business maxim, but again it holds a great deal of truth. There are plenty of freelancers to choose from, so why do business with someone they don’t get on with?
That doesn’t mean you have to possess a winning smile or a fantastic sense of humor to get on with people. It means that you need to put some effort into building a business relationship that benefits both parties. To do this, you have to be prepared to ‘give’ something to the client. You need to be friendly, approachable, and understanding.
In fact, you won’t go too far wrong if you follow the Ten Commandments of Human Relations.
1. Speak to people. There is nothing as nice as a cheerful word of greeting.
2. Smile at people. It takes 72 muscles to frown, only fourteen to smile.
3. Call people by name. The sweetest music to anyone’s ears is the sound of his or her own name.
4. Be friendly and helpful. If you want friends, be friendly.
5. Be cordial. Speak and act as if everything you do is a genuine pleasure.
6. Be genuinely interested in people. You can like almost anybody if you try.
7. Be generous with praise, cautious with criticism.
8. Be considerate with the feelings of others. There are usually three sides to a controversy; yours, the other fellow’s and the right one.
9. Be ready to give service. What counts most in life is what we do for others.
10. Add to this a good sense of humor, a big dose of patience and a dash of humility,
and you will be rewarded many-fold.
Making every contact count
Don’t be too surprised if your client doesn’t immediately start writing out a purchase order. Choosing a freelancer can be an important decision that has ramifications beyond the simple cost of your time. The work that you produce will most likely be part of a much larger whole, which could be seriously compromised if you don’t deliver the goods.
So give the prospect time to become comfortable with your style and approach. This might involve more than one meeting, or a number of telephone or email conversations.
To make the most of each of these contact points, think of yourself as a consultant, not as a salesperson. You should be helping the client through ‘consultative selling’ – providing solutions to specific problems, not just selling your wares.
To achieve this, you need to involve the prospect in the discussion. Listen to her as she explains exactly what is required, and aim to gain the best possible understanding. Only then will you be in a position to show how you can resolve these issues and problems with the services that you have to offer.
Closing the sale
Even with the softest and most consultative approach, however, you must persuade the customer to purchase your services at some point. Closing the sale is a phrase that immediately brings to mind tough-negotiating sales reps who won’t leave without the order. Yet closing the sale is a natural part of the business process.
Although you can’t force the customer to purchase (and shouldn’t want to), you can take steps to lead the discussion in the right direction.
Sell the benefits
First of all, remember to focus on the benefits you can offer. We looked at this subject earlier in the book, when we talked about ‘selling the sizzle’ when planning your business. Stressing the benefits is particularly important when you are reaching the point of sale.
People commonly confuse features with benefits, and so lose half the impact of their presentation. If you’re looking to buy – say – a power drill.
What’s important to you? Is it the speed of the drill, the range of bits available, or the power rating? Nope. What’s really important is the ability to drill holes. Speed, power, and so on are just features that enable you to reach this goal.
The same is true when freelancing. The fact that you have great qualifications and lots of experience means nothing in itself. These are just ‘features’ which demonstrate your ability to do the job. So when selling your services, don’t focus on what you have done in the past – concentrate on what you can do for the prospect now.
Even the most enthusiastic prospect will have some objections that you will need to overcome.
People need to be reassured that they are making the right decision, that they have considered every likely difficulty and haven’t overlooked anything important.
The key to handling objections is preparation. Most of the issues prospects will raise are predictable, which means you can work out your response in advance. If your rates are high, for example, you know that the client may raise a price objection. If you’re prepared in advance, you can then handle this by showing how the quality of your work enhances results and minimizes risks.
Do this methodically. Put yourself in the prospects shoes, and think of every possible objection that could be raised against using your services. Then prepare honest but persuasive arguments that show why this is not really an issue.
If you can counter every objection with a reasonable response, you will remove just about every obstacle to the sale. All that remains then is to…
Ask for the order
This is something that many people fail to do, but which is critical in getting the sale. If you leave the buying decision solely in the clients’ hands, you will lose business unnecessarily.
If you have been through the processes we have looked at in this chapter, your prospect should be ready to buy. You have understood the problem, suggested a solution and overcome objections. Now don’t throw away all that hard work by failing to ask for the order.
If you think the client is not yet ready to commit to an entire project, suggest starting on a small piece of work as a ‘test’ piece. This reduces the risk to the client, but sets all the wheels in motion for a long-term relationship. Once you have completed the first project successfully, it is highly likely that the client will continue using you, rather than risk starting the process again with another freelancer.
Don’t give up
With the best will in the world, you are not always going to be successful in achieving a sale in the short term. But if you persevere, there is every reason to expect that success will come in due course.
Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles, was rejected by almost every record company in Britain when trying to secure a record contract for his band of hopeful musicians.
The band was finally signed up by practically the last company he could try, a label that normally sold classical music.
What if he had given up after the first rejection, or the third or even the tenth?
Salesmen are often taught that every ‘no’ is a step on the way towards ‘yes’. If you are prepared to persevere, and a have a service of real value to offer, you can expect many of your new prospects to ultimately become long-term customers.