If you want to succeed as a creative professional, you need to learn to sell.
If you’re a freelancer, you need to sell to clients.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to sell to customers.
If you’re an employee, you need to sell to the interview panel, to your boss, to your colleagues. And to your company’s clients or customers.
If you’re an artist of any kind, you need to persuade people to look at your art, to come to your show, to publish your work, to review it. To tell their friends about it. And of course, to buy it.
If you have a website, you need to persuade people to visit it, to link to it. You need to sell your free newsletter or blog subscription. (Yep, even when it’s free, you still need to sell it!)
If you’re doing anything remotely original, you need to sell your ideas. Because if you’re coming up with fresh ideas, then by definition others won’t have thought of them already. So you’ll have to overcome ‘not invented here’ syndrome.
I’m sorry if this isn’t welcome news. I was horrified when I realised it applied to me. But I wouldn’t do you any favours by sugar-coating the facts.
Many creatives worry about selling. Apart from fact that it’s scary, they worry about selling out. They don’t want to do anything that would corrupt their creativity.
This next bit is really, really important:
When you are actually creating something, especially a piece of art, you need to be 100% focused on the thing itself, making it the best you possibly can. If you’re putting the paint on canvas, or improvising on your guitar, thinking “This could make me a lot of money…” then your work will suffer. Do this too often and it will corrupt your creativity. If you ever get cynical and start banging stuff out, even though your heart isn’t in it, then you will have sold out.
But once you’ve done the work, with the best of intentions, to the best of your ability, it’s not going to sell itself. If you want to earn a living, someone needs to put your artwork (or your products, or your talents) in front of people who are prepared to pay for it. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a kindly agent or manager who will do this for you. Otherwise, that ‘someone’ is going to have to be you.
OK that’s the bad news. The good news is that it is possible to learn to sell – products, services, ideas, art – without selling your soul in the process.
The trick to selling your work while maintaining your artistic integrity is to separate out ‘you-the-Artist’ from ‘you-the-Salesperson’. Or as I prefer to call it, the Advocate.
So when you’re working on a new piece, you’re immersed in being the Artist. And when it’s finished and it’s time to take it to market, you step into the Advocate’s shoes and start thinking of ways to introduce it to potential buyers. Here are a few tips to get you started on that…
1. Solve a meaningful problem
This is the most important thing – and the one that’s left out of most books and courses on selling. Most sales instructors start with the assumption that you have a product or service to sell, and your problem is persuading people to buy it. But what if your product is a commodity, or has flaws, or just doesn’t excite you? Maybe you can fake it for a while, but deep down, you know you can do a lot better.
A few years ago I was selling management training courses to large corporations. The courses were really good. And our clients were really pleased with the job we did. To begin with, it was an exciting challenge for me, learning to generate leads and close high-ticket deals. But the odd thing was, the better I got at it, the harder it was to motivate myself. At a certain point, I hit a brick wall and stopped.
I realised that my heart just wasn’t in any more. We were a great little management consultancy, but I realised the world is full of great management consultancies. I wanted to do something different, more creative, and more original. Something that had never been done before. So against everyone’s advice, I resigned my partnership and started my own business, focused on the creative industries and called (again, against everyone’s advice) Wishful Thinking.
Since I made that decision, I’ve never had to worry about motivating myself. When I get up in the morning, I can’t wait to get started on my work. The reason? My job is to inspire, support and teach creative people to follow their dreams and create amazing things. That’s the purpose behind every blog post I write, every lesson in the 21st Century Creative, every podcast episode I record, every product I create, every book I write, and every coaching session I deliver.
And guess what? It makes it a hell of a lot easier to sell when I’m aligned with this purpose. I begin the process by asking: “What do my audience need? What challenges are they facing? How can I help them with that?”
So when it comes to writing the sales page, or talking to a prospective client in person, all I have to do is go back to my original thinking and explain it to them:
- This is the problem you’re facing.
- This is what I made to help you with it.
- Here’s how it works.
- This is why I think it will make your life easier.
So before you start worrying about products and services, benefits and features, offers and objections, stop and ask yourself: “Why am I doing this? Who am I here to help? What problem can I solve for them?”
And if you’re an artist or entertainer, and you’re thinking “Well, my stuff doesn’t have any practical purpose, I’m not here to solve problems”…
Life is hard. It’s often unfair. We don’t get to do all the things we want to do. We have to do things we don’t want to do. People hurt us. We’re all going to die. And in spite of all of that, you have the gift of bringing laughter, inspiration or a touch of magic into their lives.
I’d say you solve a pretty big problem. Never forget that.
2. Look and listen
If you’re a business owner, you need to get to know the people who are your market, so that your product or service will meet their needs and desires. If you want a job, you need to learn about the company and people you want to hire you.
If you’re an artist, it may be a bit different. You may well start with your own vision, an inkling of something that you want to express. But at some point, unless you’re going to keep all your work for yourself, you need to consider who you want to present it to, and how you’re going to reach them.
And when it comes to closing the sale, looking and listening are absolutely critical. Remember the game of hunt-the-thimble from Lesson 1? In a sales meeting, you’re playing it the other way round – instead of noticing your own feelings, you need to be paying very close attention to the other person’s body language. The tone of their voices, their level of animation, their postures, gestures and general demeanour will all be telling you exactly how warm or cold you are, and how close you are to finding the thimble (i.e. closing the deal). Ignore them at your peril!
It’s a similar story online. You can create ample opportunities to get to know your potential customers, interacting with them via your blog, social networks, your newsletter, forums and so on. Pay attention to the hard numbers (sales, signups to your newsletter, visitors, page views etc) as well as the ‘fuzzy feedback’ of what people say to and about you.
3. Ask questions
My first corporate sales meeting was a disaster. I had managed to land a meeting with the director of a large telecoms company, to talk about a new e-learning programme we had created. I spent ages preparing to the meeting, rehearsing my presentation. When the meeting came, I talked the director through the website, explaining how it worked and what the learners would get out of it. She listened politely, ask questions to clarify her understanding, and when I had finished she asked me a completely unexpected question:
Do you have any questions for me?
I was floored by this. I sat there open-mouthed for a few seconds, then rather shamefacedly told the truth:
Fortunately for me, the director was polite and professional to a fault. She thanked me for my time and my brochure, and said she would give the programme careful consideration. But obviously, I didn’t make the sale. I failed the first test of a salesman: think about the customer’s needs, not your product’s features.
So if you’re reading this wondering whether you’ll ever be able to learn how to sell, rest assured you couldn’t be any worse than I was when I started!
It was a turning point for me when I realised I could take the same approach to sales meetings as I do to coaching sessions:
- focus on the other person
- ask lots of questions
- look and listen to understand the problem
- don’t offer solutions until you’ve done this
Do this well enough and the client will tell you exactly what she needs, so it’s often a short step to propose a particular product or solution as being the best fit.
A few months after my initial debacle, I had a strong signal that my new approach was working much better. In the middle of a sales meeting, after I’d spent 45 minutes doing nothing but asking questions and taking notes, the manager I was talking to paused, took his glasses off and stared at me:
You know, I get the impression you’re really trying to help me, not like most of the sales people I see.
This time I was surprised in a good way. I was trying to help him! But I was so involved in learning about his situation that I’d forgotten there was another way to do it. Oh, and I got the deal that time.
4. Benefits, not features
This is another critical point to understand. Especially if you made the thing you are selling:
Feature = something your product or service has, or something it does.
Benefit = something your product or service does for the customer.
“The 21st Century Creative is a course delivered in 25 weekly lessons, including articles, worksheets and resources.” (features)
“The 21st Century Creative will help you create your best work and reap the rewards.” (benefits)
“The dial on this amplifier goes all the way up to 11.” (feature)
“This amplifier makes you feel like a guitar legend.” (benefit)
Features and benefits are easily confused, especially by technicians and creatives. We get so close to what we are making, that we have a tendency to give everyone the details of every feature, whereas most sales hinge on a clear and obvious benefit. If you get this wrong, it doesn’t matter how ‘creative’ your marketing materials are, you’re in trouble.
Features and benefits aren’t rocket science. You won’t go far wrong if you keep a couple of questions in mind, whenever you’re preparing a sales presentation or writing the copy for your sales page:
What’s in it for them?
Why should they care?
And this one, which Garr Reynolds is fond of:
5. Price yourself into the market
Another big mistake to avoid is losing your nerve by setting the price too low. Trying to be nice and include everybody in the same offer is a recipe for disaster.
For one thing, we’ve all been conditioned to associate value with price. Stella Artois knew exactly what they were doing when they described their lager as ‘reassuringly expensive’. So if you price too low, people naturally assume your offering isn’t very good.
Another problem with low prices is that bargain hunters can be hard work. They shop around, compare prices, haggle, complain and ask for refunds if they are not totally and utterly satisfied. (I’m not talking about people in genuine financial distress, I’m talking about the professional bargain-hunters.) Be particularly wary of offering services at low price, as you can get sucked into endless customer support and watch your profits evaporate.
Paradoxically, people used to paying a premium price can often be easier to deal with. Yes, they expect excellence and you’d better be prepared to deliver it. But by paying a higher price, they are also demonstrating respect for you, in your business and your expertise.
You might also want to think about having a range of price points, for customers with different budgets, and offering different levels of engagement with you.
Whatever level you set your prices, you will exclude some people. Set them too low, and you exclude the people who assume you can’t be very good. Set them too high, and you exclude the people who can’t or won’t pay that much. But you also include the ones who like paying for excellence.
So stop worrying about pricing yourself out of the market, and focus on pricing yourself into the market you want.
6. Every sale is political
Six words nobody wants to hear:
What did you buy that for?
None of us likes to feel like a fool – the kind of mug who would exchange the family cow for a handful of magic beans. If you’ve ever come home from town and found yourself having to justify a purchase to your partner, you’ll know what I mean. Parting with money is an emotional decision, so you need to do everything you can to make your customers feel happy they bought from you.
Even for relatively low-ticket personal items, people often need the reassurance of social proof before they open their wallets. The classic example is the two restaurants, one of them busy, the other one empty. Faced with the choice, most people are going to stand in line on the principle that ‘all these people must know something we don’t’.
And if you are selling high-priced products or services to the representative of an organisation, you need to be very aware of the political situation surrounding the sale.
It’s not enough for your offering to be good value and high quality, even if it solves a major problem. The sale will not go ahead unless the purchaser ends up looking good for bringing you into the organisation. The higher the risk of failure, or the more complex the office politics, the more hoops you will have to jump through before you close the deal. So do everything you can to earn your contact’s trust, and show that you will not let them down. Then work together to sell the idea to their colleagues.
7. Make an offer
As I said last week’s lesson on marketing, you need to make an offer. You can have all the rest right, but if you don’t ask the other person to take action that leads directly to a sale, you are leaving money on the table. The more clear, obvious and simple you make the offer, the greater your chances of success.
- Click here
- Buy now
- Add to shopping cart
- That’s $57 please.
- OK, if you’d just like to sign here…
- How would you like to pay?
These are a special case. If you’re selling a complex, expensive products or services, you probably won’t close the deal on a first meeting. So you need to ask for what Neil Rackham calls an ‘advance’, i.e. a clear ‘next step’ that will move the sales process forward.
- So if I put this in writing, what date would be good for you to meet and review the proposal?
- So you’ll talk to your colleagues on Wednesday – how about I ring you Thursday to get their feedback?
- If I can put a presentation together incorporating what we’ve agreed today, when will your boss be available to hear it?
Image by Hugh MacLeod
The following episodes of The 21st Century Creative Podcast touch on the themes of today’s lesson:
Written by me, unless otherwise indicated
You Are in Sales by Chris Brogan
How to Become a Rainmaker: The Rules for Getting and Keeping Customers and Clients by Jeffrey J. Fox. A great little book that will get you into the right mindset to sell.
Selling to Organisations
The 3 Keys to Successful Selling – the first in an excellent series on sales psychology by Peter Shallard.
The Copywriter’s Handbook, Third Edition: A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Copy That Sells by Bob Bly. My favourite book on copywriting. I’ve got the first edition, written in the 80s, so some of the stuff about newspaper ads and direct marketing letters sounds a little dated, but Bly’s basic principles are still applicable to online copywriting. But I gather he’s updated it for the digital age. And there’s something about his tone and style that makes the book a good read.
Tune in next week …
…When we’ll look at how to negotiate a deal that’s in everyone’s best interests.
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