What's the best way to close a deal with a client?
August 14, 2012 6:27 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to close a deal with a client?

I work as a freelance developer. I've been lucky that in the past year, I've had one major client that has kept me fed and happy. However, I'm looking to diversify and bring on new clients to grow and avoid putting all my eggs in one basket.

I'm also the typical introverted engineer type. I have no problems meeting new people and talking to them if they lead the conversation, but picking up the phone to make a call (or picking it up sometimes) drives my anxiety sky high.

I've got several very interesting leads in the pipeline, however business seems to move a different pace than writing software: there seems to be a lot of 'hurry up and wait': times of frantic communication back and forth, followed by huge gaps of silence. I'm totally not used to it.

What's your best advice on getting the sale closed? Is there such a thing as too much communication when you're trying to sign a deal?
posted by swizzle_stik to Work & Money (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hurry up and wait is pretty much the default position for potential clients these days. I suggest reading Spin Selling - the best single book you can read to help with the selling process, IMHO.
posted by COD at 6:37 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Hi Swizzle Stick --

I'm following up on our email of a few weeks ago to let you know that if you'd like to kick off Project X this fall, we'll need to talk scheduling soon as I'm currently closing contracts to book my autumn development calendar.

Hope all continues to go well at Swizzle Stick Inc.

posted by DarlingBri at 6:49 PM on August 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

My dad taught me you need to ask your customer for the sale. It is one of the hardest things about selling but very necessary.
posted by shothotbot at 7:37 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, the vendors I deal with have to deal with this. My company allows people like me (at the manager/director level) to hammer out the particulars of software builds and negotiate (up to a point) on the amount of time and money we can work with, then the paperwork has to be approved by Vice Presidents, and legal, and finance, and...and...and...

It's a way of life for people who are making deals, and having a lot of things in the pipeline is probably the best way to allay that anxiety. If someone drags their feet so long that you have to fill in that gap with other work, that's also part of the business.
posted by xingcat at 7:37 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Provide an incentive such as a discount or promotion but only for a set number of days. Also don't rely on email only, contact via telephone and follow up in email with the special pricing given in writing.

Basically, make the offer more favourable based on an order being produced within a given time frame. If they decline then be blunt and ask how you can improve the offer to secure their business.
posted by Under the Sea at 7:40 PM on August 14, 2012

Best answer: I run a small software development company. Our sales cycle is anywhere from 2 weeks to 12 months. In the past few weeks, we've signed four clients whom I was speaking with for over six months.

What's that mean? Well, there are a lot of factors that cause a client to delay. Sometimes, our clients are still raising funds. Sometimes, they're evaluating other options. Sometimes they're busy with their own business and want to put a pin in it.

It's very simple to just stay present: no more than once a week, and for particularly slow clients I'll usually drop it down to every other week, but a simple email as DarlingBri suggests, or a quick call to the exact same effect. "Just checking in, and wanted to see how things are going and if you have any questions."

It's amazing: most of those emails, you'll hear nothing back from. But more than enough times, clients tell me they appreciated them. That they kept me in the front of their mind and reminded them they had a guy for this and that they DO need to get back to thinking about that at some point. It wasn't pressing or urgent or actionable at the time I sent those emails or left those voicemails, but they appreciated the attention and the reminder.

And they're not even high pressure. They're literally, "hey, just seeing how things are going and if you have any questions". Email's always easiest but phone is damn easy too. They'll tell you when they want you to stop, and here's what's funny: that doesn't happen too often. (Assuming you're not calling every hour.) Unless they've gone another direction or they're completely uninterested, they're not going to tell you to stop. So you don't stop until they say stop.

I use Stride for CRM. It's the most dirt-simple tracking system to just remember what's on your plate, what you've won, what you've lost, and write quick notes about each of your leads. You can also set simple reminders. That's it. Too many CRMs are insanely complicated and overwhelming to deal with. Stride is completely minimalist and I love it. MeMail me and I'll kick you an invite.

Depending on how desperate you are, you really don't need to do the discount thing. We do that occasionally to fill gaps (we have four weeks coming up if you want to take them right now, we'll cut your price a bit) but most of the time, it's spinning plates, keeping in check with clients on phone and email, and that's about it. Stay in front of them, but keep it simple.
posted by disillusioned at 10:42 PM on August 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a fellow freelancer I can tell you that Hurry Up! (to help get a proposal/estimate/answer questions) and Wait! (for project approval) is the name of the game. The key is having multiple potential projects in the pipeline.

(Then the problem becomes how to manage simultaneous ongoing projects. But that's another AskMe...)
posted by hapax_legomenon at 12:44 AM on August 15, 2012

Always Be Closing.

With the market I used to work in, discounts didn't do much to move the needle. I just had to get a contract in front of them, and get them to sign it.

"It seems like we're a great fit for each other. Shall I write it up?"
posted by grudgebgon at 4:56 AM on August 15, 2012

business seems to move a different pace than writing software: there seems to be a lot of 'hurry up and wait': times of frantic communication back and forth, followed by huge gaps of silence.

Yeah, this is pretty much universal in my experience.

For me, approaching this sort of thing as a salesman or as a deal that must be closed has never worked well. I'm not a salesman, I'm a designer and developer, so "always be closing" kind of thinking doesn't play to my strengths at all.

This may be different for someone who is a natural salesman, but for me at least I've found that the instant people perceive you as a salesman, they will turn wary and suspicious. If they instead perceive you as someone who can make their job easier, that suspicion evaporates and they will throw money at you, because it is not their money, it is the corporation's money.

(For this reason, the suggestion of short-term discounts is one I would very much avoid. "Buy now! Discount this week only!" makes you sound like an infomercial, and kind of fly-by-night, because the arbitrary time limitation is such an obvious ploy. If anything, a higher rate will tend to make them perceive you as higher quality. People in corporations don't care about money. Corporations are totally irrational when it comes to money. Once they've decided you're worth paying, the amount they pay you is almost irrelevant to them; it's just a line in a budget, and most of the people you will work with aren't even allowed to see that budget. Don't negotiate on price; learn to state your rate with a straight face, and when they ask if there's any wiggle room your answer is no, sorry, that's my rate.)

What has worked for me is basically two strategies:

1) Start small, and propose tangible short-term tasks you can accomplish immediately. Don't try to land the whole deal, just find the simplest possible way to get your name into their accounts payable bureaucracy; once they've written you a check, however small, the path of least resistance is to keep writing you checks. (The biggest hurdle in any new job is getting someone to go through the hassle of finding out who in their company is authorized to write checks to vendors, and what they need to do in order to make that happen.)

Say you're in the middle of one of those flurries of communication about promising new Major Project with corporation X which may or may not ever get around to happening. Instead of trying to land the deal for Major Project, find small, short-term, tangible tasks that you can do for them that will help lay the groundwork for the real Project. The tasks you want to look for are ones that require the people you're talking to to do as little work as possible before you can get started -- if you have to wait for them to provide you with the data or the product feature list or whatever, it'll never happen, because you're making their jobs harder. If you can start with faked-up sample data, or design your own feature list, then you're making their jobs easier.

This can also help spur on the project actually happening. Those months of silence are usually because the corporation is spending the time generating hundreds of pages of documents and bullet lists and feasibility studies and etc, which they never read, because reading that shit is boring. The minute you put together something they can click through and play with, that becomes the focus of the project, and the project becomes that much more likely to happen. I can't count the number of times companies have gone back and retroactively documented a product to match a prototype I built for them as a blue-sky "well, what would it look like if you did it this way" kind of thing.

Do not offer to do those small tasks for free, just to get your foot in the door -- that doesn't get your foot in the door at all. Remember that your main goal is to get yourself to the point where you know who to send your invoices to, and they know what to do with them.

Bill hourly. Always bill hourly. A per-project bid puts an upper boundary on the amount you can bill them; with an hourly rate it's much easier for that week-long feasibility mockup to slide into a medium-term development task to slide into a long-term maintenance gig.

2) Be in it for the long haul. Make sure they remember your name, even if the project never happens. Often as not those months of silence will be followed by another even more frantic flurry of communication, because now the project all needs to get done by yesterday, because all those months have gone by (during which they've apparently done nothing useful about it, but it's not a good idea to mention that.) Or else the project won't happen, but the project managers tend to keep lists of people they like working with, and they tend to bring those lists with them when they switch companies, and to pass those names along to other project managers. I should probably follow disillusioned's suggestion of the periodic check-in emails, but I'm usually not that organized or proactive about it. People come back to me anyway, sometimes literally years later.

Corollaries to this: Reply All, except when talking about money. Use the word "we" instead of "you" when discussing the project. Act like you're already an employee who is already working on the project, and they'll be much more likely to involve you when they actually get started. People cc their boss, they cc that guy over that other department who wanted to be kept in the loop, they cc people who you don't know who the hell they are. If those people ask questions you have an answer to, answer them. If they raise issues you have an opinion on, share your opinion. You have no way from outside of knowing who's got pull, who has influence, what the interdepartmental rivalries are, so don't lock yourself into having a single point of contact until you're certain that that person is the right point of contact for you into the company.

And related to that: being easy to work with is better than being really good at what you do. You can get away with being an asshole rockstar, but you have to be a rockstar to pull it off, and it'll still limit the number of people willing to work with you. I played it that way for years (without realizing that that was what I was doing); lately I just try to be the nice guy who gets the job done hassle-free.
posted by ook at 6:59 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I hate selling too, for the same reasons. Especially in lines where there are a lot of chiefs who need to sign off on things, hurry up and wait is unfortunately the only way to go about it. You can only do so much, and your contact person can only do so much.

Always be closing is annoying, discounts are really annoying (makes it seem like your work isn't worth the price you ask, and that you were perfectly willing to rip the customer off if they had made their decision sooner), overcoming objections is annoying.

The only thing you can really do is anticipate their needs via your proposal, show them how your work will make their lives better, be responsive during the hurry up phase and then just tough it out. Asking for the sale is important, but it doesn't have to be the traditional "what do I need to do to get you in this brand new sportcoat right now?" bologna. Rather, find out through conversation what the milestones are in the customer's buying process, and facilitate their movement through them. "Did my proposal cover everything you need?" "Do you need anything else to help you make your decision? "When is your boss going to review the paperwork?" Etc.

But yeah, you just have to tough out the waiting. If you've done everything YOU can do to sell your service, you just have to have faith/trust/hope that the business will come. I've often been quite surprised to find someone calling me up to do a deal I'd talked about a LONG time ago and then forgot about. I like to think it's because I wasn't "selling" at them, but giving them an option and then letting them make up their own mind.

It might help to set up some kind of checklist system for those potential clients for whom you are in a waiting phase. Something that you can go through once a week to look for things you can follow up on. I find that having things written down in some formal manner alleviates a lot of the "what should I do" anxiety.
posted by gjc at 7:13 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was in sales for years, and it's really very simple.

1. Have a full pipeline so you're never desperate. For some reason desperation really puts buyers off.

2. Don't think of the buyer as someone who is doing you a favor. You are doing each other favors. You have expertise, they need your expertise.

3. You'll need business next quarter too. You've noticed that there's a length to your sales cycle. So assume that the prospects you have now, will close in 3 months. You need to start filling your pipeline for 4 months out, 5 months out, etc. That's how you always have something closing.

4. Ask for the sale. "So, shall we schedule this for September?" It's as simple as that.

5. When following up, be really up front about why you're following up. "Hi Lisa, I wanted to check back with you about the ABC project. Where are you in the process?" Let her tell you. "Great, so when do you think we'll be getting the paperwork back?"

6. Don't be ashamed or shy of selling your services. This is your livelihood. No one will think any less of you.

7. Be a person. People do business with people. Not with companies.

8. One third of the bussiness you'll get because you were always going to get it. One third of the business you won't get because you were never going to get it. One third is up for grabs. Don't take rejection personally.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:24 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

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