This article was originally published by Forbes.
“I’m not good at business development.”
“Sales and marketing make me uncomfortable.”
“I wish I could just work with clients without having to do the awkward dance of the sales process.”
When I first started my business, I uttered countless variations of these statements. That feeling of being a huckster changed, though, when Michelle Villalobos and Jen Vera taught me the concept of ‘sales as service’ through the Superstar Business Breakthrough Program. Now, I initiate sales calls with a sense of grounded confidence and typically end them feeling energized and excited.
Villalobos and Vera encourage the entrepreneurs they coach to offer free strategy calls to anyone who is interested in the services they’re offering. Here’s a brief overview of how the process works once you’re on the phone.
Begin with small talk and then frame the call.
When I was a pre-teen, my mother and I sat through a terrible, ridiculously long sales pitch for timeshares because the timeshare company was giving away free tickets to Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s eponymous amusement park. I want to be absolutely clear with potential clients up front: this is not going to be an endless sales pitch with a small reward at the end.
While there is a product being offered, the free thing of value isn’t the prize for listening to a tortuous sales monologue. Instead the free thing is the call, and there’s only a conversation about the product at the very end (typically the last five minutes) if the product makes sense for them.
After a bit of small talk about our respective days or how we got connected, I use the following language:
Before we dive in, I’ll share a little about the structure of the strategy call and what I’ve seen makes them most effective.
My primary intention on this call is to deliver as much value to you as possible in the time we have. My secondary intention is for us both to evaluate if we are a good fit to work together. At the end of this call, one of two things can happen. We can decide to work together, or we can decide not to work together.
If for whatever reason, we’re not a good fit, then that’s ok. No pressure; no problem. If we are a good fit, I’ll let you know exactly what working together looks like at end of the call.
How’s that sound?
It all aligns with this exceedingly low-pressure approach. Rather than starting with the assumption that the client should buy what I’m selling, it gives us both agency to decide whether we’re a fit.
Ask open-ended questions and reflect back what you hear.
I’m hosting an upcoming retreat focused on career fulfillment, so my 45-minute strategy calls focus on helping people recognize the places where they’re feeling stuck in their career. I ask a lot of broad questions and reflect back what I hear throughout the call.
Some of the things I find myself saying include:
What makes you want to pursue this career fulfillment retreat?
You mentioned, ______. Would you tell me more about that?
Do you have a sense of what career fulfillment means to you?
Here’s what I’m hearing. How does that sound to you?
How urgent is it for you to [whatever they are striving to do or change]?
What’s the cost of inaction?
Many of these questions are examples of active listening tools. Instead of responding immediately to the potential client with advice, my goal is to deeply listen to what they’re sharing and mirror back to them what I hear. Often, I don’t even provide explicit advice. My support on this call is instead centered on affirming what they’ve shared and perhaps helping shift their perspective.
Offer resources that support the client’s goals, whether yours or others’
There have been several instances in which I’ve suggested an alternative program or a coach as a resource. Pushing myself as a cure-all might boost short term sales, but it would (again) make me feel like a huckster and won’t make for consistently satisfied clients.
For others, when it seems that the retreat that I’m planning will serve their goals, I provide a brief overview, stressing the ways it aligns with what I heard they were looking for, and then I ask, “How does that sound?”
If they say, “That sounds great!” or something equivalent, I tell them about the cost and confirm logistics.
Why it worked for me as a customer
When I was considering her program, Villalobos took me through a strategy call as a potential customer. After I hung up, I said “Damn, she’s good,” out loud, to myself, by myself.
In a prior workshop about her business model, Villalobos had shared an overview of the strategy call model, so I knew exactly how the call would be structured before we talked.
Despite having seen behind the curtain, I derived tremendous value from our conversation. I felt like she was fully present with me, understood exactly what I was looking to achieve, and had the expertise and insights to help me get there. Furthermore, it was clear she was skilled and invested in providing individualized support – both on the call and in the future.
Why it works for me as an entrepreneur
Prior to formally implementing this approach, I would sometimes receive great feedback from business development or scoping calls. I would delight when a prospective client said, “I feel like I should pay you for this call,” or “Wow, I already feel better after this conversation.”
While those moments felt fantastic, my reaction to sales calls was inconsistent. Some conversations left me depleted and full of self-doubt, while others felt like a massive confidence boost.
By using the ‘sales as service’ approach, I’ve developed far more consistency in my calls. Every call doesn’t result in a new client, but that’s not the goal. Instead, I see a strategy call as a service unto itself.
The clear framework offered me a tool to get into a fantastic mindset – one in which I actually look forward to the calls. It’s a process that has made sales both more effective and enjoyable.