The Prequel: Selling and Qualifying Clients in the Hollywood Model / by Matthew Cook

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I wrote up a blog post about the process I use for selling and qualifying clients as part of the teams I work with, but when it topped out around 3000 words I knew I needed to split it up. Over the next three weeks I’ll be posting three installments on this topic. Let’s dig in!

I’ve been refining how I approach and talk to clients over the past few years. As a producer on a two-man team I jump in at the beginning of new business conversations and I’m a big part of selling and qualifying.

The business model I work in is the Hollywood Model. I partner with a team lead to sell a project, find the best way to complete it, and then make it all come to fruition. Project to project a lot changes: we rarely build the same team, we fabricate a process from a common bag of elements, and we may have to learn a new tool or programming language to deliver the best results. As producer at Arbitrary I’ve been helping run sales and qualification for 13 months. And for the past three years up to this summer, I did the same with SuperFriendly.

Digging in with these companies and the different clients they attract has given me a lot of insight on steps and tactics. I’ve hopped on Hangouts to talk about responsive redesigns, di-electric mirrors, and custom CMS builds to name a few potentials. It can be crazy trying to get in front of the learning curve, let alone guide a conversation and communicate enough value to convince a client that they should hire us. What I want to talk through is the process that I’ve been working with to do just that!

I should cover a few things before we get too deep. First, it’s not completely correct to call this a sales process. Selling in this model is highly Driven by Reputation, Referrals, and Attraction, so this won’t work for everyone. For this to work you need a solid base of experience, and the portfolio and conversation skills to support it. You also need a strong network of friends in the industry who pass around work and regard you as a top-notch practitioner. If you don’t have this, there’s still a lot you can take away, but you’ll have a harder time finding clients to actually run this on, and you’ll have to do a little more convincing about your capability.

Second, this process is Designed for a Two Man (or Woman!) Team. It fits the way I work with my clients, but it can be adapted. I almost never follow every step exactly as listed, but all of the potential touch-points are here. As with most processes, things are rarely cut and dry. Sometimes knowing what buttons not to push is just as important as knowing the ones that we should push. I’ll frame everything by how Jamie Kosoy and I handle conversations with Arbitrary clients. 

Third, this process is Designed to Qualify Clients (as the title states), not just sell them. If you’re attempting to sign every potential that comes your way, this will seem very convoluted. In my experience, the process works great when we’re signing about 15%-20% of the projects that come our way. That means while walking through the steps, we should expect (or even shoot for) 80%-85% of our potential projects to fall through. So we keep a lookout for red flags, and we must be actively discerning if each client is best for us.

Fourth and finally, this process is Pushes to “No”. Optimally we are turning away very few potentials. Rather, potentials decide we’re not the best fit for them. This is important for two reasons: the drivers I talked about earlier (reputation, referrals, and attraction), and the fact that if we’re priced right, some people will find us too expensive.

If we tell a client no after they’ve been referred by a friend, we burn both the potential client and the person who referred them. Our friend may feel like we made him or her look bad, and the potential client feels like we were a bad referral. If we actively turn down a client who’s been keeping tabs on us, they may feel slighted because they’re a long-time fan of our work. When we turn them down, we possibly lose part of our following and someone who may have pointed others our way in the future. If we are able to guide the conversation so that the client feels like everyone is realizing we’re not best for each other, everyone wins.

On price, we should be looking for most clients to feel like we’re just right, or maybe a tad high. Their perception of value and how much we cost should match what we want them to pay, and how valuable we think we actually are (for more on how valuable you are, read this). This means the clients who undervalue our work will walk away if we’re priced correctly, and we’ll be left with those who have the correct appreciation for us and what we do.

So here’s where I’ve landed. This process that I’ll walk through over the coming weeks is my work in progress. A lot of it was built hand-in-hand with Jamie Kosoy and Dan Mall, and a lot of it is heavily centered on re-framing a traditional sales conversation. Next week I’ll walk through steps 1-6, and the following week I’ll wrap up with steps 7-12 and some observations I’m still noodling on. 

More soon.