If you’re new to the freelancing world, you may be learning the difficult but important lesson that selling your expertise is not easy. If you want to close the deals with prospective clients, you need to follow a strategic sales process. This is where the sales pipeline comes in.
The pipeline shows in detail how leads (that is, the people you’d like to become your clients) should be nurtured through various stages from initial connection to conversion. Your success — or lack thereof — depends on how well each pipeline stage is planned and executed.
You will need to clearly define the actions to be taken in each stage of the pipeline, and then follow them in the correct order. In this article, I’ll give you an overview of the seven stages of an effective sales pipeline.
1. Create a New Opportunity
This is where you identify a new lead and record their contact information. A great way to gather this information is to invite people to fill out a form on your website in exchange for a consultation or other relevant freebie.
An easy way to manage the leads you gather in this way is by inputting information into a spreadsheet. However, this is time-consuming, and you risk missing a follow-up and potentially missing out on a client. This is where a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool comes in handy.
In addition to capturing the details of the 3% of people who are ready to buy, try to capture the details of people who fit your ideal demographic but are not yet prepared to purchase. There are a variety of ways to do this online; one of the most common is to get people onto your email list by offering a relevant content upgrade that would interest your target demographic.
If you’re serious about growing your sales pipeline, I highly recommend automating this first stage. With a good CRM tool or email marketing platform, you can create email drip sequences that help you manage that connection.
2. Connect With Your Lead
Many freelancers say that this is the difficult stage of the sales pipeline. Now that you’ve got your lead’s contact information, it’s time to develop a relationship. Some leads stay for a long time at this stage, perhaps because they are very busy or difficult to engage. Others pass through this stage quickly.
Start by contacting your lead using the information you gathered in the first stage. From there, you can trigger an automated series of events depending on the results of the conversation.
An automated email sequence from a drip campaign might look something like this:
- Introduction about who you are and what you offer
- Theory about how what you do can benefit the lead
- Case study that provides proof of the quality of your service
- Initial pitch for a consultation
That’s a simplified email drip sequence. But an email sequence by itself won’t be enough to convert your lead into a sale. Explore other methods for connecting with your audience. For example, webinars are a great way to establish a bond with your leads. And valuable content like white papers or guides can help establish your authority in your niche.
3. Engage Your Lead
Depending on what you are offering, that second stage of the sales pipeline might take days, weeks, or even years. At some point, some of your leads will turn into prospects that are interested in your products or services. They will arrange a consultation with you or take some action that pushes them down your sales pipeline.
When they take this action, you will get to know your lead’s concerns and needs, and whether they are a strong candidate for your product or service. Then you can classify them into one of these three categories:
- Qualified lead
- Qualified lead who is not ready to buy
- Lead who is not qualified
According to Spark Reaction, a qualified lead is one that is highly engaged and considering purchasing your product or service. There are a variety of factors that will lead you to determine if a lead is qualified, but the two most important factors are:
- Do they have enough money to afford your service?
- Do they want to hire you?
A lead that is qualified but not ready to buy is one that seems interested but has a lower level of engagement than the qualified lead. They may even express that they are interested but, perhaps due to budgetary concerns, can't sign a contract.
Statistics suggest that these people may account for up to 50% of your total leads:
This does not mean, however, that you should stop nurturing them! They are not ready to make a purchase now, but if you build a relationship then they will think of you when the time comes for them to buy. Equally, if your lead is not qualified (that is, not interested in making a purchase now or in the future), don't invest time in them. Return them to stage two of your sales pipeline.
4. Make a Proposal
Only your qualified leads will make it to this stage. Once you’ve determined that your lead is qualified, it’s time to make that pitch or proposal.
You may have some standard prices for your products and services. Ideally, however, you should build a bespoke proposal based upon the prospect’s individual needs. When building a quotation, consider the following:
- Your day rates or minimum contract rates
- Costs of any materials you will need
- Any additional work you may have to do for the project, such as research
- How long you estimate the project will take. You can monitor how this aligns with what you deliver using time clock software
- If you have a portfolio of previous work or testimonials from happy clients, strategically add them to your proposal
The key is to offer competitive rates without short-changing yourself. You deserve to get paid what you’re worth.
Some leads will move through this stage quickly if they’re interested in purchasing your services. Others, however, will take longer to respond. Make sure to maximize communication at this stage.
5. Move Prospect Closer to Deal
Exactly how this stage of the pipeline looks will be different for each prospective client. It might involve scheduling a meeting, sending a product sample, or offering a free demo. Whatever route you take, the idea is to move the lead closer to the end of the pipeline.
Your lead may wish to clarify things from your proposal, add or remove specific elements, or ask other follow-up questions. Regular meetings or video calls are a good idea at this stage.
If your potential client says yes, you’re well on your way to closing the deal. If they still need to think about it, give them time and space to make a decision, but make sure you set a date for another meeting or a follow-up call.
6. Close the Deal (or Don't)
You're almost there!
If the potential client says yes, both of you should sign a contract that details the important information, including the scope of your work, the price, when payment is due, and the duration of the project. Once both parties sign the contract, the deal is done.
If they reject your pitch, try to find out if there is a compromise to be made or a way to alter your proposal to be more closely aligned with their needs. While you should never compromise on your non-negotiables or vastly undersell yourself, meeting your potential client halfway might be the deciding factor.
A willingness to compromise can help you seal the deal. It may also make your new client more likely to put in a good word for you with their friends and associates.
7. Win (or Lose)
Congratulations, you’ve successfully closed the deal! At this point, you should schedule an onboarding meeting. This shows your new client that you’re serious about your work and that you don’t waste time. In other words, your services are worth every penny they are going to spend.
If you did not manage to close a deal with the prospective client, don’t lose hope. Continue to nurture the relationship by keeping in touch with them. Sending the occasional email is a good way to do this, but be careful not to send too many, or you’ll become annoying. If you developed a good rapport, you can also consider connecting with them on LinkedIn and occasionally interacting with their posts.
The key is to make yourself visible without being pushy or overbearing. You never know when another opportunity might come along. Who knows — that no might turn into a yes at a later date.
Successful Freelancers are Good Salespeople
There are two things that I want you to understand after reading this article. The first is that your success in freelancing depends, to a large extent, upon how well you can sell your services. And the second is that your ability to sell depends upon a robust understanding of the sales process.
It’s not enough to be fantastic at what you do. You might be the best web developer, writer, or graphic designer in the world. But if you cannot convince the right people that they need your services enough to pay you for them, you do not have a business.
In order to successfully nurture leads into clients, you need to understand every phase of the sales cycle. You must clearly define the actions you’re going to take at each stage of the pipeline, and follow through on those actions.
This sales pipeline has been tried and tested. Follow it strategically and consistently, and you may end up with more new clients than you know what to do with.