Although I’m a sales advisor, I sometimes feel like I don’t really know all that much about selling. (There – I said it.) What I’m certain I do know, perhaps better than anyone, is the idiosyncrasies of the creative mind and the peculiarities of creative businesses that make selling difficult. People in the creative professions do some crazy shit that passes for selling, or perhaps that helps them to avoid it altogether. (If you doubt this, just ask your new CFO or your friends who run other types of businesses what they think of your firm’s approach to selling.) At the same time, creativity brings some significant advantages.
I subscribe to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of creativity: creativity is the ability to see, not the ability to write or draw. Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-mee-hi), the noted psychologist and author who studies creativity and happiness, refers to these latter two skills as personal creativity. True creativity is expressed as the ability to bring a novel perspective to bear on a problem or issue.
The idiosyncrasies of the creative mind, regardless of whether that mind resides in the creative department, account services, business development or in the skull of the firm’s CEO, have interesting effects on how we in the creative professions sell. Some are positive and some are negative. Let’s look at three of each.
Creativity as Friend: Novel Solutions
Thinking outside the box is the obvious strength of a creative mind. The creative salesperson is able to think about the client’s problem differently, seeing novel solutions or perhaps even reframing the problem entirely. If he can get the client to also think about the problem differently then he likely has the inside track on the deal. He and the client are now working to solve a different problem than are the other salespeople pursuing the engagement.
The research underpinning the book The Challenger Sale shows just how vital this skill is in a complex B2B sale. It’s what separates the top sales performers from the pack.
Creativity as Friend: Inspiring the Interested
Inspiration comes easily to creative people. They get visions of what might be and they excitedly share those visions with those that might benefit from their ideas. This is powerfully effective at moving a client along in the buying cycle. At least, it is when the client is at the appropriate place to begin with.
The appropriate place is the “interested” stage when the client is gathering information, trying on new ideas, but before he's fully committed to taking action on his problem or opportunity. The most important thing to know about this stage is the client is overweighting the benefits of change in his mind and underweighting the costs or the consequences of failure. He is actively seeking inspiration, looking for some external impetus to decide to take action.
Creative people excel here. Nobody inspires the interested like a creative director talking about her vision for the next campaign. You can probably think of many meetings where clients reacted physically to inspirational ideas–bolting out of chairs and pacing the room, excitedly running to a whiteboard or slapping palms onto a table saying, yes, yes, yes! This is the creative professional at her highest power in the sale.
Creativity as Friend: Quick Thinking
One of the hallmarks of creativity is the ability to think on one’s feet. Because of this strength, creatives excel at and even enjoy handling objections on the fly. They’re comfortable at the front of a room or in a conversation where things are fluid and they’re likely to be challenged.
A design firm principal and design director once told me a story of presenting a new logo concept to a consulting firm client. The work was done by one of his juniors and he hadn’t properly vetted it before presenting. When he unveiled the logo there was a long pause until someone on the client side spoke up. “That’s interesting–you’ve changed our name from ‘XYZ Consulting’ to ‘XYZ Consultants’.”
Missing only one beat, the design director replied with an earnest, “Yes! Consulting is what you do. Consultants–that’s who you are.”
They bought it. I’m betting you have a similar story. Or twelve.
The Dark Side: Three Ways Creativity Hurts You
For each strength a creative person has in selling–and there are far more than the three listed above–there is a difficulty. Here are three.
Creativity as Foe: Terrifying the Nervous
The creative’s go-to skill in selling is inspiration. It’s powerful early in the buying cycle when the client is looking for inspiration to summon the courage to act. Once the decision to act is made however, the client’s psychology changes and so must the salesperson’s approach. The client now underweights the benefits of change and starts focusing on what might go wrong. The job of the salesperson here is to reassure the intent–to calm down the nervous late-stage prospect who is now more concerned with making a mistake, more worried about the consequences of failure.
Into this environment comes the creative person reaching for his go-to tool: inspiration. What do you think happens now?
Answer: conflict. Fear, even. The client is looking for assurances that everything is going to be okay and the creative salesperson is still talking about how good things might be, still introducing new ideas, still leaning on the benefits of change, often oblivious to the growing nervousness on the other side of the table.
An only slight oversimplification would be to state that in such a situation the creative mind is working from the neocortex–the developed part of the human brain that deals in abstract ideas, and the nervous client is operating from the amygdala–the ancient, reptilian part of the brain responsible for the more basic fight-or-flight response. The creative is focusing on how great this could be while the client is focusing on how dangerous this could be.
I witnessed this disconnection in my agency career many times, long before the science was ever explained to me. When I finally understood, many of those strange meetings where we clearly lost the business for reasons that were indecipherable at the time all came flooding back to me. “Ohhhhhhh…”
Closing is about calming the client down. This is counterintuitive to someone whose strength is getting people excited.
Creativity as Foe: Neglect of Details
The nervous, late-stage client often asks very specific questions that the creative salesperson finds peculiar for both their specificity and their seeming triviality. They’re usually questions around how things are done.
“This discovery session you mentioned that would kick off the engagement–is it at your office or ours, and how long is it?”
Most firms would offer a reply that demonstrates flexibility–a willingness to accommodate the client.
“Your place or ours is fine. Anywhere from a half day to a day.”
The right answer is a more definite one. “It’s done at our office in a room constructed for the purpose. It’s six hours long; we like to start early at 8:00 so everyone still has a few hours at the end of the day to get other things done. Here’s who will be in it on our side and here’s who we need from your side.”
Such a response says you’ve done this before. It says you have systematically learned how to do this properly and you recognize the importance of following the model. Such is the response of a practiced expert.
In the moment, the creative mind sees the question as odd and unimportant. It, after all, is focused on grand ideas of wonderful change, and the client is asking about seemingly trivial details. Well, they’re not trivial to the client! They’re questions designed to reveal if you’ve done this before, if you really know what you’re doing, and, ultimately, how likely you are to screw this up.
So, there’s the issue of not seeing the significance of the question and there is the larger issue of not having the right answer in the first place because it’s in the nature of the creative mind to be random rather than systematic.
This brings us to our final cost of creativity in selling…
Creativity as Foe: Distaste for Systems & Routine
Creative people are easily bored by routine, or at least they’re convinced they will be bored by the routine they’re considering. This is the flip side of the asset of being able to think on one’s feet. An inordinate ability to deal with things as they arise can lead to a lack of proper preparation and an aversion to a systematic approach.
Most creative firms suffer from a dearth of what I call sales infrastructure: standard sales processes, behaviours and tools–the supporting items that need to be built to make selling easier. These items could include a written description of the discovery session, an infographic of the diagnostic phase of the engagement, a universally understood and used set of language around the firm's value proposition, a formalized approach to responding to RFPs or even just having responses to frequently asked questions.
These tools require an investment in time and repetition that can seem daunting to a creative mind that finds it easier to create yet another proposal, from scratch, again, instead of investing the time into building something that’s repeatable and teachable.
It's hard to bring discipline to routine tasks such as developing and applying systematic approaches when your strengths lie in thinking on your feet, inspiring others to take action and the ability to see what nobody else sees.
The net, I believe, is that creative people have great, competitive strengths when it comes to selling. Just a little understanding about how these strengths can quickly become weaknesses goes a long way to improving sales success.
I hope you find this helpful.
PS: On the subject of structure and discipline for selling creative, we’re about to open registration for the Win Without Pitching training program that begins September 1st. The program offers a structure that allows creative firms to bring the discipline to build the missing pieces of the new business development puzzle. Learn more…