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Social Selling: Selling Design Without Cold Calling

There’s not one agency owner, sales manager or business development executive I know who would turn down the opportunity of selling design without cold calling. For many of us, the sales process gives us the ick. It’s a dirty word! I’ll also go out on a limb here and say that many salespeople are getting lazy. They’ve had it too easy for too long. I can say this without fear of retribution because I’m a salesperson.

But sales are the lifeblood of any business and picking up the phone and dialling a number is often the most effective way to get a sale. I credit the success of my agency due to a robust sales process and the hunger to grow our agency. Yet, today more than ever, selling design is hard and I promise that it’s only getting harder.

If you read nothing more and take no further action, my challenge to you is to pick up the phone today and speak to a client. It doesn’t matter who, but the intent must be to gain a sale. Do it, no matter how hard or unprepared you are. Do it as if your business depended on it. 

As you’d imagine, I speak to a lot of agency owners. Many of their businesses have grown on their reputation for delivering great design projects, through word-of-mouth recommendations and of course referrals. I know 7 figure agency owners who don’t have a sales team. I know agencies where sales are failing and the sales team are not covering the cost of their seat.

But the purpose of this article is not to persuade you to dial 100 times a day or get your team to do the same. That’s another article. Instead, I’m here to explain why selling without sales calls is now commonplace in our industry and I’ll show you how to perfect this process. But first let’s look at a bit of context.

We have just come through the longest bull market in history. Generally speaking (COVID aside), many industries have grown year on year since 2009. Rising tides lift all ships and many established agencies have grown alongside their clients by continuing to deliver a quality service. 

But this year there have been significant headwinds in the markets and many industries that are the lifeblood of design agencies are tightening their budgets as their markets slow down.

And everywhere you look there seems to be a new agency opening up. I get it, when I started my business, I was confident people shrugged it off as “someone’s nephew with a copy of Photoshop”. Years later we were competing against and winning clients from these same people. 

More competition and headwinds in the market mean that as agency owners, more now than ever before we must become a sales-first agency.

And probably not in the way you think.

Sales and selling has evolved and continues to change rapidly. Where once cold-calling was the primary way to sell, this morphed into a digital landscape and social selling is equally as important.

The good news is that this process of selling design without sales calls will not only help you land more of your ideal clients without picking up the phone, but it will also help your sales team significantly more when they do.

And that is important to note. In no way am I suggesting that you get your team to stop picking up the phone or going to client meetings. I’d argue that now more than ever building relationships is key and this should be a core focus. But it’s not the only way

Social Selling – Farming versus Hunting

When I think about the activities of sales, they fall into 2 categories. Hunting and Farming. Some of my focus should be actively hunting for new leads and closing sales. At other times, my attention is on activities that nurture leads, build relationships and have conversations versus pitching.

This is social selling and it’s a lead generation strategy designed to help salespeople directly interact with prospects through social platforms. It isn’t advertising and it’s not marketing. Social selling is about building 1:1 connections with potential customers or prospects.

Many people do this already. I do it myself and many of you reading this article will be people I engage with online. I do this because it works and it’s the core tenet of social selling. 

KLT – Know, Like & Trust

Social selling is not an endless stream of pitch-slapping prospects the minute they accept your LinkedIn connection. It’s about building awareness and attracting the visibility of your potential customers. 

Think about a networking event. If you ran up to every contact and shoved a business card in their face, pitching your business immediately, how would they react in real life?

People buy from people and more often than not, they buy from people they like or at very least know they can work with. On a cold call, this is hard to determine, but when you share similar likes or values through the social media content you see, it’s easy to align yourself with a salesperson or indeed not.

When we consider sales, no matter how you sell, one of the largest contributing factors to achieving the sale is our clients understanding that we can complete their project and that it will contribute to the desired results of their organisation. Social selling allows us to share our experience, provide examples of real-world outcomes and explain how our process positively impacts the clients we work with. 

The Two Builders

We we launched our design agency I told a version of the following tale to our Head of Design. Truthfully, I probably fluffed its full meaning, but the idea and plan were in place from there on.

In the tale of “The Two Builders”, two companies are building similar structures. One builder works in plain sight, showcasing their progress and methods openly, while the other works behind closed doors, keeping their process hidden.

Over time, the builder who displays their work gains the trust and admiration of the community. Their transparency fosters trust and credibility, attracting more clients and opportunities. Meanwhile, the secretive builder struggles to gain traction in the market due to the lack of visibility and transparency.

This story often serves as an allegory for businesses or individuals emphasising the importance of transparency, openness, and showcasing their work to build trust and credibility in their field. It underscores how transparency can lead to faster growth and a stronger foothold in the market compared to those who operate in secrecy.

When we launched our studio, most agencies were secretive about their clients and rarely showcased their work for fear of the client being poached. Taking an opposite approach, the focus was to put clients front and centre, showing pride in the work, the partnership with the client and the experience gained in very specific industries.

Being a Sales Farmer

Selling design is often a slow process and just like farming, social selling can take even longer. I had leads come to me after seeing a campaign years before. They weren’t in a buying cycle then. But when they were, I was ready.

On the other side of social selling, I see creators every day nailing the delivery of their pitch with little to no substance behind their content. This can work fast, but does it last?

If one person in the team does it, that’ll be enough to help them with selling, but to massively succeed, all members of your studio must be working collectively for the same purpose. 

  • Grow your network
  • Create relevant content 
  • Publish frequently

We build trust and awareness by showcasing our individual and collective experience. By actively building our network of community members online, we can sell without selling, overcoming objections and looking for opportunities with each piece of content created.

Social selling process

If I were starting as a new salesperson or a founder of an agency that is actively selling for the first time in their career, this is the process I’d follow over the next 12 weeks.

Expected outcome

Before you start any sales task, we would want to understand the expected outcome of the activities. And in this first sprint, I would hope for a couple of good leads by the end of it. Much like compound interest benefits you financially, every activity you engage in as a social seller compounds over time. The volume of leads grows exponentially with every 12 weeks.

Choose your social channel

Some designers flourish on TikTok, others on Instagram. I prefer Linkedin. More of the decision-makers I want to connect with are there. Or better said, they are there in a business capacity.

Make a list of your top 10 clients. Then find 10 complimentary or similar companies just like each one of them on LinkedIn. Some of you are unable to work with direct competitors due to contracts and that’s fine. Work in similar industries where the businesses will have similar models. Production, Sport, Manufacturing, Culture, FMCG. Think big and we’ve easily 100 or more prospects to farm already. The chances are this will be infinitely more. Social media eh… a wonderful thing.

Find the right contacts and start adding them, just a few a day. Absolutely NO PITCHING in their DMs.

If you haven’t already done so, start adding your clients there too. Often they are the biggest advocates for your business.

Case Studies

Each week I’d take a client project that had a unique or different business challenges. The chances are your prospective clients are having the same problem.

Telling stories is a great way to convey the message. Customer A has this problem, we addressed it with Method B. Use all the skills at your disposal to create engaging content. Videos – Yes. Carousels, static images or animation – Also yes.

Create a structure and a process for each case study and replicate this each week, refining those pieces with little or no engagement. You won’t get the right mix straight away, but that’s fine. You will get there quickly.

Engagement

Now this is something everyone struggles with. It’s easy to put your content into the market and speak with authority on those projects. 

But the purpose of social media is to be social. It’s not a one-way dump of your case studies, but rather you need to foster your community. Replying to the posts you see and leaving a comment sounds easy, but many of us would rather doom-scroll to eternity than leave a single comment. I do this myself.

Because of this, I set a rule in the loosest of terms. Every time I open a social media app, I must leave a comment on someone else’s post. It sounds forced and it is. But I make sure to only leave a post where a positive contribution is made. I don’t comment for the sake of doing so.

The most important thing when it comes to selling, whether or not that’s on the phone, in person or through the process of social selling is that you start. Days become weeks and then months and years, if you put the effort in consistently, you will see results compound and snowball over time.

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