How to think about what you're selling

Nov 7, 2018

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

"What do you do for a living?"

For many years, my answer to that question was that "I am a developer." Later, this evolved into "I am a solution architect" and "I am an application development strategist."

On a side note, I must–very shamefully–admit that these little title upgrades made the ancient, primitive, status-hungry part of my brain very happy. Whenever I received or gave myself a promotion, the needle on my status-o-meter went up, and I felt special. And in another dark corner of my mind, my inner child fantasized about how clients now would beat a path to my door for sure.

Anyway. While all the titles I've had were perfectly accurate, I can't really say that any of them got me any new clients.

Nor were they a great catalyst for further conversation at parties. At best, they resulted in the follow-up question "Oh, so you're in IT?" Often captioned with "That's so boring."

And I don't blame these people for judging me:

Most job titles and skillsets can sound pretty dry if you just lay them out plainly.
One guy that knew this well already is Dave, an anesthetic specialist doctor whom I met on a mountaineering trip to Chamonix. He introduced himself with "Hi, I'm Dave. I put people to sleep." To which I, to my surprise, found myself saying, "oh, so you're a hitman?"

We bonded immediately, and even though I haven't seen him in 17 years, this little wordplay made me remember that situation as if it happened yesterday.

It's all about outcomes

As freelancers and entrepreneurs, we should continuously be selling and marketing ourselves. Consider the feast/famine cycle; no lucky streak lasts forever.

And what is the essence of selling?

It's all about creating a connection with another human being.
Which, in turn, implies that:

Every encounter with another person is an opportunity to invest in a potential, future sale.

However–people, in general, don't care much about your CV or your job title at this stage in the process.

Instead, they tend to be more interested in what you can actually bring to the table. Either for themselves or for someone else they would like to help.
In other words: focus on conveying what outcome you can contribute to.
Sure, things like skill set, CV and title matter. But they are just qualifiers to get you through the door–your figurative entry ticket to the party.

But here's the catch:

To even be considered to be qualified, you must first make a lasting positive impression on the potential client.

How do we make a lasting impression on someone?

Some people try, just like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, to impress you to death with their achievements.

Others, like Dave, make a joke.

Perception is, of course, individual, but in my book, EQ trumps IQ at this stage. And a good joke definitely trumps tooting your own horn, especially if you have enough confidence to make jokes on your behalf.

I don't have enough of a comedian in me to pull off witty word game stunts, but there are other ways.

Care genuinely about your craft

Consider the story about the English medieval stone cutters:

A traveler arrives at a work site in a village and asks one of the workers, "May I ask what you are doing?"

The worker raised an eyebrow and kept chipping away at the rock. "I'm cutting stones to feed my family."

The traveler moved on to another worker and asked the same question.

The worker put down his tools, stood up proudly and looked the traveler in the eye. With a warm smile he said:

"I am building a cathedral. The stone I am working on here will go near the front door where people will enter for shelter and kinship. I will probably not see the final product, but I know my work is part of something very important."

That level of commitment is always memorable, regardless of what the person does for a living.

Keep in mind, though, that this can't be faked–it's gotta be the real deal.

Focus on business outcomes, not your abilities

In terms of enticing interest from a listener and potential client, it is far more compelling to talk about outcomes and contributions rather than the skills and tools used to get there.

Instead of saying describing myself as a JavaScript developer, I could say that I am contributing to the online payment solution for one of Sweden's largest train operators, making life easier for thousands of train commuters.

When I talk about Lancelog, my time tracking and invoicing solution, I like to emphasize the insights you get from tracking time and expenses over an extended period of time; or how much time an invoicing tool can save you.

I could go about describing all the features in detail–or tell people about the architecture of the application–and nobody would care.

People rarely care about the abilities and inner workings of the thing you are selling.

They want to know what's in it for them.

If you can't make a connection between your abilities and a desired outcome, it will be very hard to get noticed.

Uncover the emotion behind the need

While the products and services we provide should cater to specific, tangible outcomes, there is always an additional dimension to every purchase that we can use to our advantage.

Behind every business decision is a human being.

And–at the deepest level–we are all driven by emotions.

Roughly simplified, there are only two kinds of motivation: approach vs. avoidance.
If you can peel of enough layers of logic and reasoning to get to the core emotions of the buyer, you have an advantage over your competitors.

That said–keep in mind that there is an important ethical difference between manipulating a buyer using emotions, vs. understanding the buyer's ultimate motivations for making a purchase.

People will buy on emotion, but justify their decision intellectually.

Above all else, be honest and authentic

I would go so far as to say that every time we interact with someone else, we are positioning ourselves for a potential future sale.

A word of caution, though: I'm not saying that you should be pitching relentlessly to everybody you meet. In the game of making lasting impressions, you don't want to be that guy that tries too hard.

Believe in what you do, focus on outcomes over abilities, and be the catalyst for positive feelings.

Fredrik consults as a solution architect, development strategist and agile coach in his own company Infolyzer. He is also the architect and lead developer behind the time tracking and invoicing solution Lancelog.