Generous Selling

I regularly talk to new coaches to share my experience, because I believe that the world benefits from more people with a coaching mindset, and as a way to pay it forward for the coaches that advised me when I transitioned into coaching. These new coaches often ask me about my sales process, and since I’ve had the same conversation several times recently, it’s time to write it up and share it here.

The fundamental principle of a successful business is offering a product or service that solves a problem that is painful enough that customers will pay you to solve it. In this conception, selling is not about getting the customer to buy something they don’t want or need, but about finding customers who have the problem you are solving, and convincing them that your offering will alleviate the pain they feel around that problem.

With that in mind, I don’t sell coaching in the traditional sense of doing cold outreach to potential customers, trying to convince them that they need coaching, and then trying to convince them to pay me to coach them. That sounds exhausting, as I would constantly be working uphill to convince them to adopt a solution when they aren’t even convinced they have a problem.

I got my sales and marketing strategy from Dan Ostlund, a friend who did digital marketing consulting. Soon after I started my coaching business, I asked him whether I should focus on Google or Facebook ads. He told me neither, and to instead figure out where my ideal customers were, and spend time there listening and learning about what problems they are facing. Once I better understood their problems, he recommended helping out in those forums by sharing my insights and perspective. Don’t sell my services, don’t pitch myself, just be a helpful human.

Just be helpful has been my strategy ever since. I share my insights on LinkedIn because that’s where leaders go to recruit, and where frustrated people go to look for new career possibilities. I hang out on the Rands Leadership Slack to watch leaders discuss the challenges they are facing, and share my perspective where appropriate. I regularly take calls with people facing career dilemmas to share my perspective with no strings attached. I believe in karma, that I will receive back what I put out into the world, and that my actions could have unanticipated and unknowable positive consequences.

This may seem at odds with my background in strategy and analytics, which is all about understanding causation, and trying to forecast what will happen. The Internet has trained a whole generation to believe everything is a quantifiable funnel, where you try to maximize conversion rates at each step of the funnel.

But the interactions where I try to be helpful are not like that; I can’t predict which ones will convert, or how often, especially since I sometimes hear from people years later. Being helpful is more like planting seeds – some of them will germinate and some won’t. I can’t know in advance which conversations will bear fruit, so I treat all of them as vital and important.

In that way, it is similar to brand advertising. Brands build awareness by casting a wide net, and sharing a vivid image of what they represent, so that when a person is ready to buy (or when their advertising induces them to want to buy), their product comes to mind.

Similarly, I try to authentically share how I can help in all of my interactions. Rather than talking about my coaching, I share the problems that my clients are facing, and ideas for addressing those problems. Remember, a successful business is built on solving customer problems, so my sharing shows that I understand their pain, and that I can help them. Even if they are not looking for a coach now, they may remember later that I understood their world, and come back for coaching at that point.

As part of that, I try to stay top of mind. As Derek Sivers describes in Keep In Touch, “when I look back at the random opportunities that came my way, they often came from someone who I had just spoken with a day or two before.” It’s not enough to tell somebody once about what you offer; you have to be somebody they think of when they are ready to do something. That’s why posting regularly on LinkedIn is a key part of my strategy; when somebody starts thinking they are ready for a change, they might see a post and say “Hey, I should talk to Eric, since he seems to understand the problems I face”. This is similar to the brand marketing principle that it takes 7 touch points with a potential customer before they internalize your message.

Another part of my strategy is to make it easier for others to help me. When I started my coaching business, friends wanted to help me, and asked who I wanted to coach so they could send people my way. I said “anybody”. That wasn’t helpful. Over that first year, I learned which people I could help the most, and how to describe the problems they were facing. My phrase is now “high performers that are stuck”, as it describes that frustration where somebody who’s been exceeding expectations their whole life is now not advancing and doesn’t know why. This is also specific enough that others can remember it when they meet somebody who fits that pattern, and hopefully direct them my way.

This specificity creates a nice feedback loop, where I help clients address their challenges, and share my learnings in various forums about what helped, which helps me get new clients facing similar challenges. I also increase my confidence with each client, as I am not just generalizing from my own experience, but bringing the learnings from dozens of clients to bear on a new client’s challenges. It took a couple years of experimentation and iteration to refine my target customer and how I can help them, but that investment was worth it to build that feedback loop flywheel.

Putting this content out into the world also makes it very clear who I am and how I see the world, so by the time anybody is talking to me, they have pre-qualified themselves as potential customers. I don’t have to convince them or “sell” them, because they have already looked at what I have shared, and decided to come talk to me specifically, not a generic coach.

This means that I don’t have to spend any time during the intro chat talking about me, because they already know who I am. I can go straight into creating value for them, discussing the issues that have them considering coaching. My goal in those intro chats is to offer so much value that they say “Wow, if that’s what how much he can help when he just met me, imagine how much difference he could make if we work together!” If they decide not to hire me, then I know I didn’t offer enough value in that first chat, and I strive to do better with the next person.

To sum up, my strategy does not involve any selling to people who don’t want what I have:

  • I hang out where my potential customers spend time, so I can better understand the problems they are facing.
  • I try to be helpful by posting content and suggestions regularly, sharing how I have helped other clients address those problems, and showing I understand the pain they are feeling.
  • When somebody is ready to consider coaching, I am then top of mind. They already have a sense of how I think and how I can help, so I don’t have to talk about me. Instead, I go straight into helping them address their specific challenges, and if I show enough value in that initial conversation, they will likely sign on as a client.

As I told one new coach, you are not selling coaching. You are selling people an end to their pain. So focus on understanding their pain and how you can help alleviate it, not your coaching and not converting them into a client. If you can help with their pain, then you will get a client.

And this means I can relentlessly and authentically focus on helping people. If they aren’t feeling enough pain to start coaching, I don’t want to push them into signing up, because they aren’t ready to make the necessary changes to shift their situation, and therefore won’t get value from my coaching. In the meantime, they can take advantage of my free content, and maybe someday they will come back to me if or when they feel the need for more targeted and specific help.

A couple concrete tips to end this post:

  • When you are just starting out with a new business offering, identify a number of people who you think might benefit from your product or service, then go on a listening tour to do market research. What are their problems? What is top of mind? What pain are they facing? I’d suggest talking to at least 10 people, because until you understand the problem and the emotional pain they are feeling, you can’t effectively sell them anything. I’m inspired here by somebody (maybe YC or Lean Startup?) that says entrepreneurs should talk to 50 potential customers to understand their pain before starting to build any products – it’s low-cost and offers you insight before you build anything and end up with sunk costs that will deter you from changing later.
  • After you have happy customers, ask them for a recommendation or testimonial on how they benefited from your offering. This question prompts the customer to reflect on what was helpful about working with you, and what changed for them as a result. They then have that language available if somebody else asks about their experience, which can create referrals. I do this with LinkedIn recommendations because that lets potential clients see real authenticated people vouching for my services and what it’s like to work with me (and ideally they say “oh, he’s helped somebody like me!”).

So that’s my approach to selling. I’m not a rock star salesman that can convert any lead into a paying client. But this approach lets me focus on helping people and offering value, and that feels more authentic and aligned with the person I choose to be, while also creating enough clients for me to survive as a business. I’d love any comments or feedback you have.

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