Three years into my freelance web design career I started working at a local running store to make some extra cash on the side.
But it wasn’t just that. I also needed a break from staring at a computer all day and wanted to meet more people than I normally would as a stay-at-home freelancer (in other words…zero people).
That said, I didn’t expect to learn much from a job that paid $10/hr when I was earning more than six times that as a web developer.
I was so wrong.
Lesson 1: Ask and You Shall Receive
Frequently, customers will come into a running store and say something like, “My knees hurt. I need a shoe with a lot of cushion!”
A less-experienced me might answer “ok, I’ll grab a few high-cushion shoes…what size do you usually wear?” But this isn’t enough information to base a solid recommendation on.
In fact, within a few weeks of being hired I started to learn that the more questions I asked the happier my customers were with the shoes I brought out for them (and the more likely they were to buy them).
For example: Asking, “How long have you been wearing those?” often reveals that a customer has simply been running too long in the same shoes, and they don’t need more cushion—just a fresh pair!
Lesson 2: Consider Everything, Trust Nothing
People are notoriously unreliable witnesses, even (sometimes especially) when it comes to understanding or articulating their own needs.
I once worked with a guy who insisted he was a size 9.5 wide. In fact, not only did he measure as a 11 normal width, but the shoes he wore into the store were clearly marked with the larger size.
Whether you’re selling $120 sneakers or a $5,000 website, listening is an important skill, but you should always verify what your customers state as “fact.”
If you don’t catch misinformation early you can complete a whole project on inaccurate specs…and guess who’s going to get the blame?
*Hint: not the customer!
Lesson 3: Sell Before You Sell
The running store I work at has been around for more than 30 years. Most of their business comes from referrals and repeat customers.
As a salesman, this makes my life easy because most of the people who walk through the door are pre-sold—meaning they know what to expect (what our shoes cost, which brands we carry, etc).
Freelancers can also use this concept to their advantage:
Post price lists or ranges on your website. This is the best way to discourage clients with insufficient budgets!
Give existing clients a PDF with info on your services and train them on how to make quality referrals (who your target audience is, etc).
Do one thing or package multiple services simply. I handle web design, development, and copywriting work, but I only offer one final product: custom small business websites.
Lesson 4: Have a Consistent Sales Process
Sales is almost a dirty word in the freelance community. Personally, I still don’t 100% enjoy it—I’d rather be designing or writing code. BUT… selling shoes for hours at a time on a weekly basis has taught me that it can be much more rewarding if I simply incorporate a clear sales process.
My process for selling shoes looks something like this—notice how a few simple questions can narrow 500 shoes down to 20, making the task more manageable (and increasing the probability of success):
Customer walks in and says they want new shoes: 500 Shoes
I ask if they want the same thing or to start fresh: Something similar
I ask what they would change about the shoe: Too wide
We measure, and their current shoes ARE too wide: 20 Shoes
I bring out three options. They like the second one: 5 Shoes
I bring out two more like that. More testing: 3 Shoes
They eliminate shoe 1, then test 2 and 3 some more: 2 Shoes
Shoe 3 wins!
Your process should feel like an “if/else” tree. You start with a blank slate, not knowing what your prospective client wants or needs. Then, you ask a series of questions that narrow the possibilities down—a “sales funnel.”
Each intersection should be planned, like a railroad switch, and you should know what to do or which questions to ask next based on the answer your client gives. This eliminates the fear of uncertainty and makes you more confident in your recommendations!
Lesson 5: Control the Sale
As a freelancer, it can be very easy for a sale (or any project) to “get away from you” when you’re working with an inexperienced or impulsive client.
Similarly, I often have people come into my local running store who just start pulling random shoes off the wall: “I want this, and this, and that too!”
I saved this lesson for last because it’s the most important:
NEVER EVER let your client hijack your sales process.
If you recognize this happening you need to bring things to a dead stop and restart from wherever you left off in your process. For example, to an unruly shoe customer, I’ll often say something like:
“Ok, but before I grab those for you, let’s just double-check your shoe size. I’d also like to get you on the treadmill briefly so we can take a look at your gait and make sure we’re in the right range of shoes.”
When I was starting out (both as a freelancer and a shoe salesman) I didn’t understand why things always seemed to spiral out of control—or why I didn’t seem to be getting any better at sales.
Was I just approaching/attracting bad clients?
That was occasionally true, but mostly I sucked at sales because I didn’t have a consistent process. I was either molding my process to each specific client or letting my clients dictate my process to me.
This is a recipe for disaster, and worse, if you do things differently every time you don’t have a formula to improve upon—and you’ll just keep running into the same problems over and over.
Recapping What I Learned
I think the biggest mistake freelancers (myself included) make is neglecting or avoiding sales, instead of just treating it like their normal work.
While I doubt the word “sales” will ever get me out of bed in the morning, simply having a solid approach makes me hate it a little less every day.
When you know what questions to ask and have a set-in-stone outline of where your sale is headed it takes the pressure off you as an individual and filters clients through your requirements—not the other way around.
p.s. Clients will respect you more for this!
I’d recommend getting a part-time job in sales for any freelancer, whether you’re just starting out or looking to switch things up.