Editorial: The art of the sale

Feb 13, 2013

This article first appeared in The Zweig Letter (ISSN 1068-1310) Issue # 995 Originally published 2/18/2013 Sometimes it’s more about gut, patience, clarity and follow-up than just following recipes. You can talk all you want about the science of selling (and believe me, there is a body of knowledge on the subject), but when it comes down to it there’s no getting around the fact that it is also equal parts art. Let’s preface this discussion by stating that I don’t think just anyone can sell A/E or environmental services. By “sell,” I am not referring to what is commonly called “bird-dogging” in our business – where you find and qualify a prospect that you then turn over to someone else to close. I am talking about closing the deal – getting the client to “sign on the line that is dotted!” (to quote an Alex Baldwin line from the 1992 film, “Glengarry Glen Ross”). Closing the deal takes more skill and is definitely harder to do. Here are my thoughts: 1) You have to be talking to the right person in the first place. No amount of science on selling is going to help you if you aren’t selling to the decision-maker. Don’t waste time with the wrong person(s). 2) Enter as high up in the organization as you can. I have always believed and still do that if you can sell to the founder/CEO/top administrator in the agency/etc., then they will force the decision down through their ranks. Maybe “force” isn’t a good word – let’s say “sell” you down through their ranks instead. Either way, it’s always harder clawing up than it is falling down. 3) Selling is always easier and fees will be higher if they call you versus vice-versa. This is fundamental to the “art.” The relationship is different all the way through when they came to you looking for help versus you going to them looking for work. That’s why I have always been such a fan of brand-building and positioning activities so no “seller” ever has to make a cold call. Instead, they react to opportunities, define client needs, and close. 4) Use a pre-close test to gauge any potential resistance. This is asking questions such as, “When would you like us to start working on this project?” or making a statement such as, “Our fees will probably be around $50K give or take $5K” to see how the client responds. 5) Sometimes it is best to start with a small sale first that can lead to a larger sale later. It’s kind of like when a restaurant gives you a little taste of wine in an attempt to sell you a whole bottle. There’s nothing like easing the client into working with you. A paid two-day design charette may be the way to get the whole job. Or doing a $3,000 audit of some sort may be a good door-opener. Or even just a paid one-day consultation might clear the path for a larger sale later. 6) Minimize mid-sale surprises. This means you have to be careful quoting any kind of prices or schedule too early in the process unless you are absolutely certain you can live with that. By the same token, if you don’t get some idea of what the client’s budget and schedule are and what it is going to cost them/how long it will take out there early enough there could be a disconnect. It’s all in the art of the sale process. 7) The “close” is so much easier if the proper expectations have been set very early on. When you are dealing with the right people, have been forthright, expectations are clear, and trust is high, closing will be a formality and easy to secure. The best sellers don’t lose it at the end. 8) Gauge post-sale satisfaction early on to minimize chances of cognitive dissonance setting in. Make a call or visit early in the project to see how the client is feeling about their decision to work with you. Deal with any problems then versus later. Mark Zweig is the chairman and CEO of ZweigWhite. Contact him with questions or comments at mzweig@zweigwhite.com.

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