Six techniques for selling your digital direction

Many digital professionals think of sales as a dirty word. In truth it is a fundamental part of our jobs and we need to start embracing it.

One of the most common complaints I hear from in-house digital teams is that they are not listened to. That management listen more to external consultants than to them. They put this down to the fact that external consultants charge more. But in fact the reasons are more complex. One of the biggest factors is that an external consultant is good at selling his or her ideas.

I also hear external digital professionals complain about losing a job to an inferior competitor. They call the client stupid for making such a bad decision. But the problem doesn’t lie with the client. It lies with the digital professionals ability to sell his or her services.

You see, whether you like it or not, sales is a key factor in your success. Your success in winning work and getting your ideas accepted. This is particularly true in digital. That is because you are often asking your clients and colleagues to do things differently. To stop doing things in the way they have always done and branch out. That is going to take some serious persuasion.

But becoming a good sales person is a skill that needs cultivating like any other. You need to learn it and that means you need to set aside time to read up on the subject. To give you a taster I share six techniques you can use below. I hope you find them useful.

Appeal to the selfish gene

You may care about user needs or clean code but that doesn’t mean anybody else does. I recently had a client say:

There does seem to be too much of an emphasis on users driving the design.

No amount of talking about user needs is going to persuade this client to do the right thing. That is why in most cases you need to frame what you want them to do in terms they care about.

If a boss has targets to meet, talk about how your idea will help them meet those targets. If mobile apps get them excited then show them how your approach will meet the needs of mobile users. Sure your idea might have lots of other benefits, but focus on the ones that will appeal to the clients personal agenda.

Trigger empathy

Of course sometimes you need your client or colleague to care about the user. In this case you need to encourage them to empathise. One technique I often use to achieve this is to show them frustrating user experiences.

We have all had frustrating experiences on websites. This means when we see others having those experiences we cannot help but empathise. Encourage clients and colleagues to attend usability sessions. If they can’t or won’t do that then record the sessions and show them a minute long compilation of the most painful bits.

Using a tool like usertesting.com allows you to create a compelling video of user challenges.
Using a tool like usertesting.com allows you to create a compelling video of user challenges.

You can even use a service like usertesting.com to put something like this together with minimal cost.

Preempt common issues

Often we know what our client and colleague objections will be before they make them. Yet we keep quiet and hope they don’t raise them. This is the worst thing you can do.

First, it looks reactionary if you justify a decision once criticised. It looks like you are making up a justification on the spot, rather than having considered it in advance.

Second, people don’t like to be obvious. If you highlight a problem and say that you have already thought it through they are less likely to raise the issue themselves. To bring it up themselves would feel like stating the obvious.

Finally, once a client or colleague has expressed a position they are less likely to back down. It doesn’t matter how compelling your argument to the contrary they would lose face if they admit you are right. But if you preempt them by raising the issue and outlining your argument, they can back down. They won’t lose face because they haven’t expressed an opinion.

Make people feel valued

The single biggest factor in getting people to approve your idea is to make them feel you value them. They want to feel that you have listened to their opinion and taken it on board.

This means you need to talk to them often and be open in your communication. Avoid doing things behind peoples backs. It may seem like the quick way of getting things done but it will come back to bite you later.

Also be willing to give ground in some areas. Implementing some of your client or colleagues suggestions will go a long way to getting them onboard.

Avoid it becoming personal

As human beings we are not logical. We react based on emotion. If you suggest an idea that takes something away from people they will react as if you are attacking them. It may be the most sensible decision in the world but it will still feel like an attack. Saying no to a client or colleague has the same effect. It feels like you are picking on them in particular.

One technique to avoid this is to create a set of policies and guiding principles. We can apply these policies to all, so avoiding singling anybody out.

Saving a set of guiding principles like the GDS avoids decisions feeling personal.
Saving a set of guiding principles like the GDS avoids decisions feeling personal.

For example lets say a colleague wants his content to appear on the homepage despite the fact that most users do not care about it. You could say no, but that will feel like an attack. Instead have a policy for deciding homepage content based on analytics, business goals and user needs. You will find your colleague much more likely to accept it. This is especially true if you can offer them an alternative.

Suck it and see

The final technique I wanted to share here is what I call the ’suck it and see’ approach. This is where you suggest putting your idea live and then seeing what happens. Explain that this allows you to gather real data that will make the decision. This is particularly useful when you reach a loggerhead with a client or colleague.

This approach is good for two reasons. First using data is a great way of bringing some objectivity to a disagreement. But second it gets your idea implemented. In most cases those objecting will either see that it works, lose interest or have to prove to you that it doesn’t work.

In effect the shoe is on the other foot. Once an idea is live it falls to them to prove that it has failed rather than you having to prove that it will work.

The tip of the iceberg

As you can see, how you sell an idea is as important as the idea itself. It takes a lot of experience and skill to sell an idea. A lot more than we can cover in a blog post. In fact my original list of techniques consisted of more than 20.

The point of this post is not to teach you how to sell but to show the need to learn. If you would like help doing that, feel free to get in touch. Maybe we could arrange a training day.

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