How to be a top-notch salesman, grow your design business, and still be likeable

If you are at all like me, you probably started in the design profession because you had a passion for art, design and technology. You enjoyed doing the work, being a problem solver and creating beautifully functional things.

You probably liked helping people as well. You got great satisfaction from seeing clients pleased with what you’ve produced. But, you soon realized that there is more to being in the design business than what you thought.

What I realized, rather quickly, is that we are not solely in the design business. We are in the business of selling.

We are in sales.

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That’s it.

Now, you may be saying, “Well we still have to design, you know…do the work.”, and that’s true. But hear me out here…

The main function of your business is sales

You sell prospects on the benefits of working with you, you sell your design work to your clients, you sell your ideas and strategies, you sell yourself on the value you bring, you sell old clients new services, and the list goes on.

Your business depends on this more than anything else. Without sales you don’t have a business!

It’s really that simple.

I really didn’t want to sell—at first

Now, let me tell you, I’m no expert salesman, but I’ve learned to embrace sales as a core function of my business.

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I was very apposed to the idea of ‘selling’ at the beginning of my freelance career. It sounded really cheesy, and just plain…not my style. It was very difficult for me to come around to the idea that I HAD to start selling.

What changed my mind was my first slump.

In the first little while of my business, things were humming along. My network of friends and associates gave me a good stream of business. I had it pretty good in the beginning.

The problem was that I had it too good.

I literally felt like the work would just keep coming! Boy, did I need a dose of reality! Then my first dry spell happened.

It was rough.

I almost had a panic attack. I questioned everything. I wondered if this career was really right for me.

I’m not normally that much of a drama queen, but it was tough. I had a family to support.

Luckily, I was smart enough to have a savings buffer of a few months, so we weren’t crushed finically (another good tip). What I realized in that time is this, you have to sell, all the time—it is essential.

I really had to banish my fears and misconceptions of selling.

You don’t have to be a stereotype

Selling doesn’t have to be a pushy, in-your-face type of activity. In most cases, that is a technique for failure. Selling is simply finding people who could benefit from your services and convincing them that you can help them and better their lives.

That’s a much better way to look at selling. After I got that, it made the idea of integrating selling into my business life much easier.

Here’s the deal. You probably love helping people’s businesses and organizations succeed, and you love doing design. Now, to do more of that, you must sell. You can’t help many people if you don’t sell to them.

The fact is, you’re in sales already!

You convince others to your way of thinking all the time. When you want to go to a certain movie, you try and convince the others in your group as to why that movie would be the right choice.

That’s sales!

It took me a long time to figure that simple truth out. Once I did, however, it gave me a lot more control over my business.

Here’s an example

The other day a really great client of mine sent me an email for a small job. It was a small advertisement design for a mailer. I knew that a lady in their office had expressed interest in blogging for the company, so I asked if now would be a good time to get the blog up and running?

He agreed that it would be a good idea to set that up. Now, that small job turned into a larger job just with a little suggestion. I wasn’t pushy or rude. I didn’t try and guilt them and make them feel that if they didn’t go with a custom blog that they would lose business. I simply suggested it, and mentioned some benefits. That’s all.

When I started out, I wouldn’t have even suggested the idea for fear of being to aggressive. I’m certainly glad I changed my mind!

Start taking sales seriously

Things don’t always go well, even when you sell to your current clients. Rejection happens. People seem like they are interested and then they simply lose interest and fall off the face of the earth.

Many times you do have the power to turn it around, but don’t get discouraged if you can’t.

Keep pushing and selling your ideas, and your business. Read those books on sales and personal development that maybe you thought were corny before.

There is a ton of wisdom out there to help you better yourself in this area. Most of all, keep a positive attitude. You’ll be able to do more of what you love and make a good living doing it.

Now, to you!

Have you ever had a fear of selling? How do you overcome it? Share stories, tips and advice in the comments on this post!

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  1. I hate sales. My first job out of Uni was as a recruitment consultant – largely a cold calling job. I hated it so much I left, making sure my next job didn’t involved sales and I was happy in the role. I’m now a freelance graphic designer and the realisation that sales was back in my life was a chilling one. But then I spoke to a colleague from my last job and she was surprised to find I didn’t think it had involved sales. Turns out that I’d made the company thousands of pounds but because it was a not-for-profit requiring ‘sponsors’, it hadn’t felt like being a salesperson.

    Turns out that when you have a great product you believe in that people actually want, sales don’t feel like sales! Thankfully, this philosophy has translated to my freelance business.

  2. The counter person at McDonald’s up sells all day long. “Would you like fries with that?” You have already sold the client, now add value to your service and product.

    I believe all design students who are serious about this business should work a job in sales of some sort. A sales job that is not selling design services of any sort will help them see the interaction of the end users. I was in sales for over 10 years before getting into design and would always have the urge to redesign ugly or poorly laid out presentation materials, brochures, literature, etc.

    You also get to see how the customer reacts to the products and the process and learn how to influence directly. How can you create something to influence and present when you have never met the audience in the actual setting where it takes place? Besides, even in an agency setting you will always be selling to internal customers like coworkers, managers, upper management, etc. and not just to external clients.

    I cringe when I hear designers say “I’m not in sales and I dont’ want to sell. Design is not about selling!”. If that is your stance, you may be the most creative and talented person in the world, but you’re going to starve.

  3. In business we have good and dry periods. Sometimes instead of panicking, it might help to use that period to as a form of introspective, use the time to learn new methods to polish up your sales charm, do that long awaited bookkeeping, plan your business for another 5 years etc. All is not wasted, sales is a skill and that skill only gets better with confidence.

  4. Great post, it’s always such a fine line. I have recently started being more proactive in my sales – giving my clients helpful marketing plans, nothing pushy, just a few products and services they may find helpful over the coming months. A lot of them then plan their finances and budget around my plan. I’ll be trying my arm at networking next!

  5. Thanks for sharing your insight Joseph on this very relevant topic for designers. Selling is what we as designers need to do everyday. That is why our clients hire us in the first place, because we sell them on our services and expertise. Now I’ll admit that I am still learning how to improve my skill in this area, but I think that every freelancer learns as they progress. The key is to accept that rejection, despite your best efforts, is still going to happen and to remain focused on new opportunities when it does. As you mentioned, a positive attitude is key.

    1. Chris,

      That is spot on. Rejection is just part of the job. The best thing to remember is that it happens to everyone—even the best. Also remember that the law of averages is on your side!

  6. I am learning this all to well lately. I am a good salesman I just dont do it. And I am in that slump right now!

    1. I hear ya, Lenny. The key is to keep marketing/selling when you are busy. Easier said than done!

  7. Joesph: Your link to your blog “web design studio” is giving me a 404 error

    Great article. You gave an example of how you were able to upsell with a current customer. Any examples on how you find NEW customers?

    1. Michael, The link should be getting fixed here shortly. You can find my blog here.

      Glad you liked the article! Finding new clients is one of the biggest challenges that we all face. I go about it a few ways:

      1. Networking—by far the most effective for me as people tend to trust you more when they can have a conversation face to face.
      SEO—I work very hard to get good rankings in the search engines for local markets. This has served me well and been worth the effort. However, you do get a lot more “tire-kickers” this way.
      3. Cold Emailing—This is a new strategy that I have just started using. I don’t try and sell my services right away in the email. I simply try and “sell” my free report in exchange for email addresses. So far it has worked pretty good. My list has grown because of it, which is good.

      By far, networking is the best. Getting out there and talking face to face with people is the most effective way to create a relationship and make a sale.

      Hope that helps, Michael!

      1. Thanks Joe. Yeah, networking also is my best source of new clients. I cannot remember the number of new clients who told me that they were using my services simply because they had gotten to know me.

        I to have started cold emailing. I ask for the name of the person responsible for what I am selling. Results are promising.

        One thing that is showing great promise is nurturing my existing clients for repeat orders and referrals. I started a monthly shipping expense rebate program where one order each month gets their shipping expenses back as a store credit. I also reward my referrers with a percent of the referrals order as a store credit. What I have found is people are more motivated to place another order if they have store credits available to use. They don’t want to “waste” them.

        Thanks for the great article…

  8. I’ve had to overcome this problem, too. I’ve always been a fairly humble individual; I always felt like the slimy used car salesman when I prepared to “sell” something.

    So I totally changed my outlook.

    Now I’m the educator. My clients value my expertise in the design business, so I guide them, often imparting my experience of what works and what hasn’t for other clients (anonymously, of course). And when potential clients come to me asking for A, I might recommend A + B, or just B, or B + C – I look at the problem they want solved and recommend the best solution, even if it isn’t what they initially asked for.

    Using this philosophy, I actually enjoy selling a little bit. When potentials realize that I’m helping them decide on the best solution rather than pushing design projects on them, they often become loyal, happy clients!

    1. April,

      That’s a great approach! Educating clients on the benefits of certain services and illustrating how it worked/didn’t work for other clients is very effective. That approach takes the pressure off, positions you as a consultant (not just a technician) and shows that you care about giving the client only what will benefit them (not just adding features/services to increase the bottom line).

      Thanks for sharing.


      1. Thanks, Joe!

        It certainly has helped separate me from the crowd, so-to-speak. I like to help others (in all aspects of my life), so turning selling into helping others has made it much more bearable, and even fun at times!

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