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The Secret to Sales Success is not to Sell Anything

After my post about selling your services I posted a few questions on Brazen Careerist to find out how other entrepreneurs and freelancers felt about this issue. The responses I got were great, but one important point stood out. Kim LaSalle said: “I’ve never ‘sold’ anything. Honestly. I recommend strategies or tactics based on client objectives. I don’t believe in selling someone something they don’t need.”

She raises an excellent point. In truth, selling your services isn’t about convincing a client to buy. It’s about offering them an opportunity to grow their business…with your help. If you’re offering something with true value to the client, then it’s their job to be receptive to ways they can better serve their clients–and your job is to help them do exactly that.

This mind-shift, a slight change of focus, suddenly made the idea of a sales call a lot less scary. Because suddenly it wasn’t a “sales call.” It was a phone call to find out if there was anything I could do to help a fellow business owner. And who doesn’t like to get a phone call from someone offering to help them achieve their goals?

If YOU don’t view your services as legitimately helpful, how can you expect potential clients to view them that way? Think about the services you offer and decide for yourself: Is this a legitimately helpful service I’m providing?If not, perhaps you should rethink your business plan.

By no means does “helping others” mean you shouldn’t charge for your services–after all, if the work you’re doing is valuable, they will see a return on it. You’re helping them make money, and you should receive a portion of that return (i.e. the amount that you charge for your work). Kim (who currently owns a marketing and public relations company) evaluates this when it comes to billing, and operates on a value-based billing system (charges based on returns).

Doing so allows her to balance her workload with different clients at different rates. While I’m not sure how this could be structured for a writer the majority of the time, it is already being used in some sections of the industry (think websites that pay based on page views or corporate clients who pay for direct mailing pieces), and perhaps we can consider how it would work in other ways; clients may be more comfortable investing in a service if they know that should the service not perform as promised they can get their money back.

Back to the Book: Sales

Alright, I paused on the marketing chapter for the last several weeks, but while I still haven’t talked about everything that chapter includes, we’re going to temporarily move on–because, like many parts of a business, marketing should be continuous–and come back to marketing techniques on a semi-regular basis (ie. when I feel like it).

Instead, this week we’re going to turn our attention to what is potentially one of the most important aspects of freelancing. We’re going to talk about Selling. That’s right, it gets a capital “S”–because it’s a big deal. Chapter 8 in Parker’s book is all about Selling Your Services (that’s actually the chapter title). One of the sentences on the first page sets you up for everything else you need to know about the topic: “As a salesperson, it’s your job to identify these people [prospects] and find out what they need and how you can help them.”

In many ways, sales is the opposite of marketing: marketing is all about trying to get the customer to know who and what you are, and convincing them to come to you. Sales is about going to them. In the marketing class I took as part of my Masters in Publishing degree, our professor described it as push and pull: marketing is pushing out info in order to pull in customers, while sales is about pulling in customers so you can push sales.

For many freelancers (including me) think selling yourself is a little terrifying. I can talk about it in theory until my tongue dries up and falls out of my mouth; I know what probably amounts to most of the “big tips” (make it about what you can do for them, not what they can do for you; always show yourself in your most positive light, etc.). And as I’ve discussed before, dealing with rejection is about realizing it for what it is: a less than perfect fit (or, as Parker puts it in this chapter–”Must rejection is no more than that–the prospect doesn’t need your services at this time.”)

So what can you to do rid yourself of the salesman jitters? The answer is two words that both batman and the boy scouts live by: BE PREPARED.

The first step of preparing yourself is creating a prospect list. Initially, your prospect list can look very similar to the list of contacts you made when working on market research. Then, perfect your elevator pitch–come up with a few benefits that you plan to offer to all your clients (both real benefits that your clients will see and benefits that set you apart from your competition). Remember that each person on your list is a person and if they can actually benefit from the services you are offering (and you can convince them of this) than they will WANT to hear what you have to say.

Once you have your list of clients and you’ve figured out roughly what you want to tell them, you need to actually try and make contact, while remembering what I’ve already said about rejection–they aren’t rejecting YOU, they are saying they don’t need your particular services at this time. If the prospect listens politely than tells you they aren’t currently looking for a writer, get their permission to check back in with them in a few months–promise not to be a bother (ie. Would it be alright for me to call you again toward the end of the year and see if anything has changed?) and get their OK to call again at that later date. If they say yes, GREAT, if not, well, cross them off your list.

One final note on something Parker said that I hadn’t realized. She writes, “Sales authorities will tell you that without a referral or previous contact, it can take five to ten sales approaches (such as a mailing, emailing, or phone call) to get a face-to-face meeting with a buyer, even when that buyer has a potential need for what you’re selling.” And that’s not even to make the sale–that’s just to get the meeting.

Part I: Q&A With Tom Albrighton

This is Part I of a two-part Q&A with Tom Albrighton, founder and principal consultant at ABC Copywriting. After you’ve finished reading, check out Part II for Tom’s tips to succeeding as a freelancer. For more about Tom see below or check out his blog.

Jargon Writer: When/How did you first become a freelancer?

Tom Albrighton: The small publishing company where I worked took a new direction, and my post was made redundant. So I decided to try my hand at freelance copywriting. That was in 2005.

JW: What kind of freelancing do you do and within that field, what do you specialize in?

Tom: I call myself a copywriter, but there are lots of different specializations within copywriting. My own strengths are business-to-business copywriting, website and SEO writing, editing academic papers and long-copy work. I don’t do very much business-to-consumer or direct marketing copywriting.

JW: What is unique about freelancing in this field?

Tom: Well, one interesting thing is that it’s a professional occupation that’s open to anyone. Although there are skills required, anyone can set themselves up as a freelance writer and start serving clients. Most people already have a phone and a computer, which is all the equipment you need.

JW: What about the idea of freelancing drew you?

Tom: When I worked in publishing, I’d commissioned quite a few freelance editors and designers and regarded their lifestyles with some envy. But I never believed I would be able to make a freelance life work for me, until I actually tried it. Now, I’m not sure I could do without the freedom to control my schedule, or the variety in terms of clients and projects.

JW: How long have you been working freelance and either: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome? or What has your greatest success been thus fair?

Tom: I’ve been freelancing for just over five years now.

It might sound strange, but I think the biggest obstacle I’ve overcome is having the nerve to position myself as a copywriter. When I started out, I thought of my skills in terms of the jobs I’d had – none of which were really anything to do with commercial copywriting. It took me a while to realize that if you say you can do it, and people believe you can do it, than you can do it!

In terms of projects and clients, my success has been slow and steady rather than sudden and spectacular. But an important breakthrough for me was developing the most recent iteration of my website. It’s taken me a while, but I now have an online presence I’m really happy with, that ranks well on search engines (at present anyway).

JW: What changes have taken place in the industry since you first began freelancing?

Tom: Copywriting web copy primarily aimed at search engine optimization (SEO) has become much more important, with the rise of specialist SEO copywriters and also ‘content mills,’ where clients can buy text ‘by the word’ to try and make their sites appeal to search engines. Most copywriters see themselves as providing a service rather than a commodity, so that’s been a bit depressing for some of them. We’ve had to re-emphasize the value offered by a professional copywriter – in truth, it’s much more about the talking and the thinking than the words on the page. Anyone can turn out some words – the trick is finding the right ones!

Tom Albrighton has over fifteen years’ experience in writing, editing and project management, including work for Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, London Business School and Dorling Kindersley.

Tom is founder and principal consultant at ABC Copywriting, which provides writing and editing services to businesses, organizations and academic institutions in the UK and around the world. He writes regularly on copywriting issues for the ABC Copywriting blog, which is read and commented by many leading copywriters.

Work Life Balance

Despite the best intentions, some times life intrudes. Whether it’s illness, a personal crisis or a death in the family, occasionally things happen that take you away from your work. This is one of the areas where freelancing and a day job differ significantly.

If you freelance, it means you don’t have anyone to answer to (except your clients) for days off. If you move assignments around so that you can still finish them by deadline, you can take off almost at a moment’s notice. On the flip side, however, it means that if you take a chunk of time off, there is no one to run things in your absence. No one else at the office who can try to make ends meet while you’re gone.

Being able to take a break when I need it is one of the perks–but it’s also one of the disadvantages. The guy I’ve dated on and off for the last six years recently joined the navy. Granted, it’s a great contract–they are going to train him to be a nuclear engineer and pay him a salary that broaches on ridiculous. Although he won’t leave until December, we’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out what this change will mean for us.

During college, he went way upstate (Rochester) for college, and then did co-ops in Virginia and Tennessee, so it’s not like we haven’t dealt with being long distance before. But we’ve been dating for almost six years and his contract will be for the next six years. It’s one of those turning points in a relationship.

Unfortunately, while I’ve been dealing with that, I haven’t been dedicating as much time and effort to freelancing as I was before that particular issue arose. I’ve still been working on it–but not as much as I should have been. There are lots of articles out there about the struggle freelancers have convincing their significant others, their parents and their friends to respect working at home as a real business with real hours. But it’s not just important for those around us to respect the time our businesses require–we have to respect the time it takes too.

Fortunately, I’m still only freelancing part-time, and my full-time job pays my bills. Money earned freelancing goes backing into freelancing (buying business cards, getting my website set up, etc.); unfortunately, this is still an area where I need to improve. So here are the steps I’m going to take to better focus on achieving my long-term freelancing goals:

1. Break the big steps into small steps. After looking at my long term goals I’m going to try and figure out how I can work toward them on in little ways. I’m going to give myself a small goal to achieve everyday–whether it’s writing a query letter draft or finishing up an assignment–and do it. That means, starting tonight, I’ll be updating my Goals page on a much more regular basis (I haven’t updated it in a while….).

2. Consequences and rewards. It seems basic, but if I don’t achieve the goals I want to achieve by the end of the week, my weekend is forfeit, until those things are done. In essence, I’ll ground myself the way parents do to teenagers who don’t clean their rooms. And, if I accomplish everything I set out to do in a given week (or when I finish a particularly dreaded job), I’ll reward myself in some small way–something in the $10-15 range.

3. I’ll give myself time off. No one can work 24/7 everyday. Until now, my goal has been to blog everyday and everyday work on freelance stuff and 5 days a week work 8 hour days at the day job…. which means things like laundry and cleaning my house fall behind and I end up stressed out with a short temper. I’m going to start taking one day during the work week (M-F) and one weekend day (sat or sun) where I don’t touch work and where I don’t blog.

Why Now Is the Time to Pitch Your Ideas

Despite the economic fall to the bottom of the proverbial pit and the awful impact that has had on magazines, now is actually a great time to get into freelancing. As a recent piece in MediaWeek discussed, the lack of ad pages means that publishers are changing their production schedules so they can offer advertisers last-minute deals.

The way the process normally works, ad sales folks sell ads for a particular issue then someone in either the editorial department or the production department creates a map of what the issue will look like; it shows where ads will be placed and where articles will go, incorporating both the ads that have already been sold and a certain number of “holes” or places for sales people to continue to sell ads. Typically, magazine companies do all this several months ahead of “real time.” (For example, it’s April and at my office we are finishing up our June issue. We work about 2 months ahead of “real time.”)

According to the MediaWeek Story, this lead time is getting much much shorter, in an effort to provide advertisers with chances to get ads in later and later (which allows them to see how their previous ads have done, but it also allows them to see where their balance sheet is, closer to production time–which is important as some key markets are finally beginning to turn around).

During those two months of lead time, after ads come in, while sales people sell remnant ads, editorial staff works on the articles that will accompany  those ads. Frequently (at least at our magazine) when Sales folks push back their deadlines, this means more of a crunch for the editorial staff. Unfortunately, the printing and binding process can’t be pushed up much–so instead, magazines mail slightly later and the time the editorial team has to put together the rest of the magazine is shortened.

While the regular articles that are included every month probably aren’t affected much, if the sales team sells an extra two pages into the magazine (above and beyond what was mapped) editorial now has to scramble to match those pages with content. Which is where freelancers come in.

Freelancers who pitch timely pieces, or who happen to send an email at the right time may just get lucky. Editors need an article–you pitch a piece that sounds fantastic and promise to turn it around quickly, and they may decide to give you a chance, even if, under normal circumstances they wouldn’t take that chance. The trick is to do what so many freelancers before me have recommended–research a topic, instead of a specific article. Then pitch a few different articles based on that research, but with different slants, to different magazines. This way you’ve already done most, if not all, of your research for a given article and can turn the piece around quickly. And you can write several articles using the same basic research, saving you time and getting you more buck for that same work.

Evaluating Your Competition

One of the biggest parts of starting a company is evaluating your competition. An entire section of your business plan should/will be devoted to this, and it’s one of the things you should probably do fairly early in the game. This is because evaluating your competition can lead you to opportunities you didn’t know existed. It can also help you figure out how to differentiate your company from their in your marketing materials–as well as where you market to find customers.

I’ve mentioned before that your website, when done well, can be a major tool in promoting your business–it creates a place for clients to find more about you and, sometimes, even a place for clients who have never heard of you but are looking for the services you offer to find you.

My website is one of the primary tools I am creating as a freelancer. I want it to be a place that I can refer potential clients to, where they can find information about me, samples of my work, informational articles that will help them decide if they need my services and that will help them promote their business, ways for them to contact me and a list of the services I offer (with aprox. pricing info.).

Right now I’m taking a class about creating a website, and one of the assignments for week one was to look at and evaluate three competitors’ websites.

I found looking at my competitors’ sites very enlightening. Despite the number of web savvy writers out there, there appear not to be very many in my area. I started by using and searching for writers in Astoria, NY. Most of the search results either didn’t link to a website or were not actually people who are doing what I want to do. That tells me that either most people don’t look for writers via the Yellow Pages and therefore writers don’t bother to be listed there OR that it’s an opportunity for me to be listed in a common place potential clients may look where my competition, for the most part, isn’t. So I found two sites to evaluate through Yellow Pages.

Then I Googled Freelance Writer. The initial return was mostly resources FOR freelancer writers, not freelance writing services. So I tried again – this time I added my location (Astoria, NY) to the search query. This returned a number of freelance writers. The first search result that came up was in Brooklyn. Since Google searched via proximity, this shows that there is a lack of people doing what I want to be doing in my area (at least a lack of them online). This didn’t match my expectation at all. I thought with my proximity to NYC that I would have a lot of local competition. Which means I expected to find a lot of companies online doing what I do. I did not.

In all honesty, that’s probably because a lot of writers rely heavily on referrals. But, it means that any potential clients that don’t have a writer within their network and turn to the internet have a small pool to choose from. So, there is a real opportunity there to differentiate myself via my website and find clients online. Without doing some research on my competition, I never would have seen this opportunity, which for me emphasizes how important my website will be. As a result, I’ll spend a lot of time and effort on my site.

Off the Edge

As a beginning writer, I think one of the hardest things to do is to put yourself out there. For me, my fear of failure is a lot worse than the disappointment I actually feel when I don’t get a job.

So, I wanted to talk about about walking off that ledge.

If you don’t take chances, you never get anywhere. It’s cliche, but “You miss 100% of  the shots you don’t take.” Its true you’re not going to get the job you don’t apply for; you’re not going to gain a client you can’t get up the gusto to contact. Remember this. Post of over your computer or across the top of your screen if need be. There are some tricks that I’ve found that help with this.

1. Be prepared. This means do your research. If there is a company that you’re applying with, read over their website before writing them an email. Mention things that you found discussed on their site. Chances are they put a lot of work into that site, so referencing it will show your level of interest. Google them; this will let you know of any recent company news. If you have the name of a particular person at the company, you may even want to Goggle his or her name. Perhaps they just got married or had a baby and announced it in the paper; this will come up and you’ll stand out by offering a congratulations (just be careful not to come off as a stalker).

2. Proofread your email. Especially if you’re applying for a writing or editing job. Most hiring editors or assignment editors assume you spend time on your query–it should be carefully written, since it will serve as the first example of your work that person may be reading. Having typos or obvious mistakes makes you look sloppy–why should they hire a sloppy writer?

3. Don’t promise more than you can deliver. When pitching, whether it be an article, a job application or an attempt to gain a new client, be sure that you don’t promise to turn the work around on a ridiculous deadline, or promise to do something you can’t actually do (like interview the president). While being able to do these things may get you the job, if you promise and don’t deliver that will be the last job you do for that client.

4. Follow-up. Don’t be annoying, but be persistent. As an editor, I sometimes need a week or more to get back to someone; especially if they contact me while I’m on deadline. This isn’t personal, nor is it a reflection of your work. It is, however, a reflection of how busy that person is. Respect that person’s time when you contact them–don’t include a 3 page long email with your life story. The best query letters are three paragraphs. Be short, sweet and memorable.

5. If you don’t get a job or assignment, don’t sweat it. Find somewhere else to pitch or apply almost immediately, so you don’t fall into a rut. Instead, identify one way you can improve your pitch (even if it’s just changing around a few words) and try it somewhere else (targeted for that publication or job). And reward yourself (with something SMALL – like a half-hour break) when you send off that next pitch. You didn’t let a failure get you down, and you’re already chasing another assignment.

It’s The Little Things

I’m always amazed by the small business owners who have made it eight or ten years without even the most basic of marketing. It always makes me wonder how much better they’d be doing if they’d invested the time or a minimal amount of effort in taking a few basic steps to make sure everyone knew what they were about.

For example, a friend’s father does home maintenance and construction–is motto is that when the professionals mess it up, he can fix it. He installs bathrooms and floors, works on roofs, does some masonry outside… he’s a jack-of-all-trades handyman. Until this year he didn’t have business cards. He isn’t listed in any phone books. I don’t think he has an email address, let alone a website. He has successfully worked purely on referrals probably for over a decade–which in my mind means he has to be damn good at what he does. Can you imagine how much more business he would have done had he taken the time to do those few extra things?

My roommate is a little bit less severe of an example, but she has a small fashion line that she sells on Etsy. The girl is damn good at what she does – she really took the time to learn her trade, and prides herself on getting the details right (the seams no one will ever see, the way patterns in the fabric line up). But she’s also going to school to be a teacher, and the majority of the people she knows (beyond her close friends) probably didn’t know her website address and probably couldn’t have picked her work out of a line-up.Unlike my friend’s father, she had business cards and is great at networking, so had a serious bunch of people who she could call on to do photo shoots – but she’s had some trouble finding a reliable website person and those photo shoots take quite a while before they go up online. And before we moved in together, she didn’t even include her website in her email signature. So no one had a way to see her latest and greatest work.

It’s important to let the people in your life know what you’re up to. In yesterday’s post I mentioned a friend had recommended me for work – that’s because she knew what I’ve been doing lately. One of the bloggers I follow recently recommended friends for an assignment (and makes a great case for why and how to make sure you keep people up-to-date on your life HERE)–which shows it really is bigger than a once-in-a-while thing. So how can you let people know what you’re doing?

Tailor your email signature. Include a relevant job title and a link to your blog/website/twitter feed … whereever you talk about your work. And if you aren’t talking about your work in any of these channels, you should be. The more enthusiastic you are about what you do, the more likely you are to come to mind when someone has an appropriate project for you. You can even update your signature each time you get a new piece published and say “See what I’ve done recently…” and link to it.

Have business cards on you at all times, hand them out frequently, and always hand them out in pairs. Give each person you give your card to, two cards–one for them and one so they can pass your name along.  Make sure your card (and your website, and your twitter bio..etc) share what kind of work you’re doing in a way that is clear, but without saying “I’m looking to do xyz.” There are a ton of great places to get cards printed for little to nothing, so you really don’t have an excuse (while this site is about pet siting, it includes a great list of cheap places online to get cards printed).

Talk about what you do. If I asked 5 of your closest friends to recommend someone who does what you do, would they all give me your name? If you don’t know, then we have a problem. When someone asks “How are you?” or “What have you been up to lately?” don’t just say “good” and “not much.” Instead, use it as an opportunity to mention a project you’ve been working on, or a new client that you’re excited to have taken on. While you shouldn’t blab on and on about it, you should at least mention your work. Say one or two sentences (“I’m really good actually–I just got this great new assignment and I’m going to be writing an article on animal-testing-free makeup for Cosmo. What about you?” or “I’ve been doing a lot lately–my freelancing has really taken off and just yesterday I gained a client–he writes graphic novels in the horror genre. What about you?”) Not only does this promote you, but it makes you a heck of a lot more interesting.

Link Round up:

How What You Don’t Know Can Help Your Freelance Business – Ever turned a lack of knowledge into an opportunity? That’s what this piece is all about. As new freelancers, there is no way we’re going to know everything there is to know about freelancing in our industry. Well, when you find something you don’t know if you can do, you can give up and go home or you can accept it for the challenge that it is. (NOTE: I do not advocate lying to clients about your experience – pointing them to similar projects you’ve done and telling them you think you can handle this new assignment is fine – butdon’t promise something you can’t deliver. It will lose you a client and gain you a bad reputation.)

Copywriting Jargon Got you Confused? Here’s Help. – In the last piece it was all about showing what you don’t know can help you, but in this piece it’s about testing your knowledge. Coming out of school with a Masters in Publishing definitely helped here, and even when I didn’t know the actual answer I had a pretty good idea and could figure it out – but this is a great way to see if you know as much as you think you do (and if you find you don’t … maybe check back in with recommendation number one).

How to Register a Start-Up – Some of my earliest posts were about researching the process of registering a small business; all the issues and not fun parts of doing said registering. This piece from the NY Times argues why becoming legally official is important.

Company Taglines – I LOVE THIS POST. One of the things I have been thinking about a lot lately is a tag line for my writing business – since I’ll primarily be selling to businesses, I consider myself in the Business-to-Business (B2B) market; Tom addresses how hard it is to come up with a B2B tag line and gives some solid suggestions for coming up with your own catch phrase. Mine? I think it’s going to be “Putting Your Passion Into Words.” (though I’ve gone back and forth on that first word…ex. translating? turning?)

Feel free to add your own links in the comments – and if you check out the piece on Copywriting Jargon, let me know how you did!

On Networking & Newsletters

When I was working on my Masters in Publishing at Pace University I made a handful of good friends. Among them is Diana, who happened to do her thesis on a topic similar to mine and who I talked to on Facebook while pulling almost-all-nighters several nights in a row trying to finish that same thesis. I’ve posted before – many many times – about the importance of networking and collaborating with both other freelancers and, specifically, with other writers.

Well, completely out of the blue today I receive a Linked In message from Diana–she found a writing opportunity she thinks I should follow up on and has personally recommended me to the woman I need to email in order to apply. I haven’t talked to Diana in a few months – I graduated in December and I’ve been pretty swamped since then, but she knows the goals I am pursuing and when she saw an opportunity for a freelance writer she passed it along.

This is exactly the chain of events you want to set up for potential clients. You want them to know what you do and who you are, so that when they have an opportunity to hire someone who does what you do, they call you.

Which is why I’ve decided when I launch my company’s website, I’ll also be launching a newsletter. That’s right, not another blog, a newsletter. I’ll probably make archives available on the site (though I’ll have to figure out how to make them easy to navigate – I hate archives where you can’t find anything) and I’ll need to learn how to set up and send out a newsletter, but I’ve decided this is a good decision for a number of reasons.

In today’s marketplace, selling yourself is all about proving what you can provide to your customers and information is a big part of that. As a writer, providing clients with well written content that also positions yourself (or myself) as an expert on the types of services you want to provide for them is a great way to prove your qualified. Now, that can be done a number of ways: a free ebook, a blog, informative articles on your site or with a newsletter. So, why did I choose a newsletter?

A monthly newsletter will allow me to stay in touch on a regular basis while providing real value but without the drain on my time and energies that it would take to creating and maintain a second blog. I may, at some point, do an ebook but since readers are only likely to download a book once, I feel that newsletters (which arrive in their inbox on a regular basis) are a better first choice. Furthermore, it will allow me to build up leads – companies interested in learning more about the types of things I do (ex. write press releases) and give me contact info for those leads. One or two articles once a month should be just enough to prove my expertise and keep me in mind for when they have a project (at least that’s my hope).

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