How to sell a service

“What is the color of the wind?”

A Zen koan

In his excellent book, Selling Your Services, Robert Bly makes the argument that selling a service is hard because you aren’t selling something tangible that a prospect can see. For instance, if someone goes to buy a car, they can see a car that they like for one reason or another, and they often become very attached to that tangible thing they want. It may be a muscle car, a gas-saving electric car, a big 4x4 pickup truck, or the color of the vehicle. Whatever it is, it’s tangible, something the prospect can see and feel.

Services, on the other hand, are intangible. A prospect can’t walk into your office, see the attributes of your previous successes, and want to buy them because they’re red or blue or fast. Therefore, what you have to do is convert your services into something that is tangible.

Create a portfolio

In general, the way I do this is to create a portfolio of my previous project successes. This includes:

  • Stories of each success, highlighting the gains to the client. A simple Problem/Solution format works very well here: “Customer A came to me with this problem; I designed this solution for them, and it met or exceeded their expectations.”
  • Because I work in the software industry I also create (a) architectural diagrams, and (b) screenshots from applications I’ve created. Architectural diagrams show my ability to think about big problems, and screenshots show my ability to create decent-looking applications.
  • References from former clients. I’m actually horrible with this -- particularly because a few clients can keep me busy for 5-10 years -- but whenever you finish a project and your client is pleased, get a letter of reference from them. Fortunately, these days clients often send you emails saying things like, “You did a great job on my project, I’m very pleased,” and you can just ask a client if you can use that text in your marketing material. I’ve used that technique many times.

Without a portfolio, a meeting with a new prospect involves 100% talking by you to explain what you’ve done, but when you’re working with a portfolio, you talk much, much less, and simply explain the benefits you’ve provided for previous clients, occasionally pointing at some of the nice pictures you’ve put together to highlight the important features of your successes.

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