One of my favorite business books is called Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. The subtitle is “A Field Guide to Modern Marketing.” Of course, it was written in 1997 and so there’s barely even a mention of the Internet. But that doesn’t matter. The brilliance of this book is its thoughtful distinction between selling a product and selling a service.
When we buy a product, we know what we’re getting. We can see it, handle it, and test it out. If the computer we bought doesn’t boot up, we know it’s defective. But how do we know if a service is defective? When you deliver a logo design to a client, they might make some subjective assessments about whether or not they like it, but assuming a basic level of talent, there’s really no way for them to know a truly exceptional brand from a merely decent one.
What Were They Thinking?
I’m sure you’ve been involved in a situation where you pitched some work and lost, then saw the results of the winning designer and couldn’t believe the client went with them over you. As a designer you have heightened discernment about the qualities of type, color, and form, but a client can’t really see it the way you do.
If they can’t perceive the degree of quality they receive from a creative firm, how do you supposed they manage the decision making process in choosing between one designer and another in the first place?
Let’s change perspectives and consider your own ability to hire someone who will provide you with a professional service. Suppose you need a lawyer to help write up a sublease agreement for renting out a part of your space. How do you find and choose a good lawyer? And once you do, and they deliver the contract, how would you know whether or not it’s a good one?
What Clients are Really Buying, and Evaluating
You see, a service is largely invisible. When clients make choices, they’re not assessing your measure of creativity. They’re evaluating something else, even if they themselves don’t realize it. They are evaluating their level of trust.
When we buy services, we do the same thing. That’s why, when it comes time to find a new doctor or lawyer, we ask friends that we trust for a recommendation. Trust can be brokered. This is why most creatives get the bulk of their new business from referral and word of mouth. It’s because, for a non-creative, their ability to ascertain your talent level is the same as your ability to evaluate the legal chops of your attorney. But when someone they trust says that you did a good job for them, that simple projection of trust does half the sale for you.
Learning How to Sell the Invisible
If this is the way getting new business works, how can you use this understanding to change the way you sell? First of all, while you always need to show your work, that presentation is never going to close the deal. What is truly persuasive is their interaction with you, as a human, and whether or not they come away feeling confident about you, in addition to liking your work.
So when you have an opportunity to “sell,” you might want to dial back the “show and tell.” Instead, speak to your processes and how you’ll engage in communication with them. These aspects of your service establish trust. Spend plenty of time listening to them and asking them questions. Ask good questions that demonstrate you’re listening carefully and can establish significant trust.
An Even More Powerful Trust Builder
But there’s something else you can do to improve your selling, based on how important establishing trust is in the process. You can become a subject matter expert in a very specific focus area. This is one of the reasons why narrow positioning is so important. Going deep in one practice area will cultivate highly persuasive insights that you can share in sales conversations. Whenever we encounter specialists, we come away with a deep respect for their understanding of subject matter.
My firm, Cuberis, specializes in web development and web strategy for museums. When I engage in initial conversations with museum professionals, even when there is no referral, the range of questions I ask them about their collection management system, development office CRM, percentage of revenue from earned income versus endowment, memberships, grants, and so forth, conveys that I really know how their museum works and what they need. That familiarity also builds confidence and trust. They’ll never know how well our API integration module is coded, but they will have confidence knowing that we’ve already worked with most of the Collection Management Systems they’re likely to be using, and the benefits and problems between them.
So as you sell, move through the portfolio presentation quickly and then start to engage them personally to build trust. If you establish subject matter expertise by focusing your services, you’ll build even stronger trust through your insights and problem solving experience unique to their situations.
Selling creativity is an invisible art. Building trust is an interpersonal skill. As a creative, you need to learn how to sell by building trust.