Research Paper By Lulu Cook
(Health Coach, AUSTRALIA)
Why did you decide to go into coaching? Was it because you are awesome at sales and just knew you could make stacks of cash in the booming coaching industry? Or was it because you have a passion for helping people transform, for supporting them as they reach big goals in their life, relationships, career, or health…and maybe you don’t know much about how to sell?
If you can’t sell what you do, you don’t have a business.~ Renee Hasseldine, coach and author
If the second example more closely describes you, it’s time to learn the basics of how to sell. Some in the coaching industry are naturally adept at selling their own services and taking advantage of the market for coaches, estimated to be worth more than US $1 billion. More commonly, new coaches lack skill in the sales process, which may explain why the International Coaching Federation (ICF) estimates a typical coaches’ annual salary to start at just US $27,100 – not quite the lucrative entrée into the world of helping people that will let most coaches pay their bills!
Even sales experts can struggle with this when they don’t have their process perfected, as Hermann and Goldratt speak to: “our funnel seemed loaded with opportunities, but we were winning very few of them”. For coaches, you may have the right target market identified, carefully designed and attractive packages of your services to present, and a “sales funnel” that’s bringing interested people to you for those free discovery calls, but you’re still not getting clients and making the money that will allow you to turn your passion into your livelihood. In other words…you just can’t close the deal.
Learning how to sell is one of the most powerful things you can do to create a successful coaching business. In fact, selling has been described as the most important thing a coach does, even more than the actual time spent in coaching sessions with clients. According to Carsten Schnier at www.lifecoachhub.com, “…with any business, it is necessary to sell your services…and close the deal. Asking the right questions is important, but not asking the questions…is simply wrong and won’t do you any good, nor will it benefit your customer. If you can’t sell, how do you intend to make money?”
Perhaps unfortunately, the ICF Coaching Competencies fail to mention sales and marketing, yet they are crucial to success as a coach. After all, if you can’t get convert inquiries into sales, you won’t be in business long enough to have those transformative conversations with clients.
Some coaches come into the field with professional expertise or a natural aptitude for sales, and they don’t have any problem with getting potential clients to commit to and pay for services – this paper is not aimed at them. For those who are out of their league with sales or have had too many free “discovery calls” that rarely lead to paying clients, the information presented here will first identify and transform some of the common objections coaches have to learning an effective sales process. Then it will outline a simple and general sales flow derived from the expertise of both successful professional salespeople and researchers who study the psychology of selling and buying. The aim of this paper is to distill a useful sales structure for coaches that will help you close deals, get clients, and create a sustainable business doing what you love – helping people.
Overcoming Your Own Objections
Overcoming objections is one aspect of a typical sales process, as we’ll learn later. Here, we’re referring to the internal objections some coaches may have to selling – the limiting beliefs that are blocking success in this arena. Think for a moment about the words “salesman” or “sales” – what comes to mind? When asked this question, people often respond with words like, “pushy, manipulative”, “sleazy used car salesman”, or “snake oil salesman”. (Apparently there’s not quite as negative a bias out there against saleswomen, or maybe it’s just not what we most often think about when we imagine a salesperson.) If this describes how you think about sales, then you may need to change your mindset around what it means to sell if you want to become successful in your coaching business.
If you’re harbouring some unsavoury stereotypes about what kind of person does sales, it may be challenging for you to embrace this aspect of business building. To begin to transform what “sales” means to you, consider talking to people you know, like, respect…and whom you know are good at sales. Have conversations with people who have maintained their ethics, integrity, and humour whilst supporting their families in a sales role. Make a conscious effort to notice their good qualities, and the good things they’ve been able to do by creating sales opportunities that benefited both the seller and the buyer.
As you have these conversations with the good people you know who just happen to be dynamic salespeople, you may begin to notice something reassuring. Much of what distinguishes excellent salespeople are skills that coaches hone in our training, beginning with the ability to create a sense of trust and liking with potential clients. Some qualities that are identified in the research as being useful to successful selling are natural strengths for many coaches. Examples include empathy, in which the would-be seller is attuned to the reactions of a potential customer and adjusts their approach to be more aligned, and resilience, when the coach maintains a positive sense of self-esteem even in the face of failing to close a sale – or more likely, many sales. Amongst the other fine qualities many salespeople demonstrate is their generosity in sharing advice about books, trainings, experts, and even some of their own shocking failures – so reassuring to struggling coaches who may be losing potential client after potential client!
The arc of a successful sales strategy is comprised of the following general steps:
- Sales funnels and prospecting
- Qualifying leads
- Engagement / asking questions
- Problem / pain point
- The solution
- Overcoming objections
- Close/ call to action / make the sale
Let’s take a look at each of these.
1) Sales funnels and prospecting
Are you ready to go find some gold? Just like a gold miner in the olden days, this is where it starts, with sales funnels and prospecting. The entire sales process is kicked off by prospecting – “finding leads and turning them into prospects”. A sales funnel will give you contact information for people who may or may not eventually become clients – these are your leads. It begins with generating some interest in your service from…humans. It’s a broad brush at this point. These are people who are possibly interested in your services – they may have viewed your website, been referred by satisfied customers, followed up after hearing you speak, read an article you wrote, or subscribed to a newsletter you offer. And if you’ve ever wondered, “where do I find the leads, people who have the problem I can help solve?”, you may find solidarity in knowing that as many as 42% of professional salespeople report struggling to find prospects, according to HubSpot’s State of Inbound Sales and Market Research. Leads are “unqualified” – you have a way to communicate with them, but absolutely no idea whether they have the ability or interest to buy your service. Prospects have the purchasing and decision making power to actually buy your services at some point. Don’t get too hung up on the verbiage here – most importantly to eventually closing a sale is to move those possibly interested people to the next step, qualifying.
2) Qualifying leads
Qualifying a lead is screening the people you have found through your funnel and prospecting. Successful coaches don’t invest time and resources in courting someone who isn’t interested, can’t afford is, or doesn’t have the authority to purchase coaching services. This is the place to use a strategic set of questions that gives you the information you need about this individual’s ability to purchase from you, while also beginning to build engagement and trust, should they be qualified as potential buyers. According to the Online Marketing Institute, the factors to keep in mind here are “budget, authority, need, and timeframe”, or BANT. Qualifying means knowing you are talking to someone appropriate to the services your offer – for instance, if you are a parenting coach, you want to be sure that the lead you are talking to is a parent or envisions becoming one in the future. An individual who tells you that they do not plan to be a parent and that they think overpopulation is the cause of all the world’s problems may not be the ideal target for the parenting coach to spend time trying to convert to a sale. This matters because “qualified leads are more likely to convert to buyers”, as observed by Salesforce. To narrow down a large group of prospects to a smaller group that you are more likely to close a sale with is the goal of qualifying leads, and requires a coach to interact, investing time, effort, and engagement.
3) Engagement and asking questions
Engagement and asking questions show your lead that you are committed to understanding their problem, and that you care. The qualities that originally drew you to coaching can come to the fore here. You interact with the prospective client, drawing them out about why they are interested in your service, and listening to them intently. You begin to use their own language to describe their concerns and to demonstrate rapport. Research indicates that the successful salesperson uses attention and curiosity about the potential client to generate excitement. Some sales models omit Engagement as a specific step yet bypassing the empathetic focus here may be to skip an aspect of the sales process at which coaches can excel. This part of the sales flow has the potential for big long-term pay off with qualified leads. Research by Avila and Inks suggests it’s effective to include ample time to developing relationships – so much so that there’s a name for this, “Relationship Selling” or “Trust Based Sales”.
All things being equal people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like, and trust. ~ Bob Burg and John David Mann, authors
The downfall of this approach can be that those who tend to focus on building relationships may be too timid to ask for the sale and to close the deal. In at least one study, Relationship Builders were found to underperform more than any other personality type of salesperson, and Challenger types, who are willing to be a bit provocative and confrontational, were found to perform the best in meeting their sales goals. For coaches who excel at relationship building, and who are committed to being successful salespeople, commitment can help bridge this potential gap. Putting in the effort to build relationships over time allows coaches to move into enduring relationships with their clients, rather than relying on “one and done” models, which are short-lived and difficult to capitalize on for the long haul. So even if being challenging is not your strong point, you might harness persistence to keep following up multiple times as part of your pathway to sales success, all the while engaging with the prospect about their concerns.
If the relationship seller brings trust and expertise to the table…then relationship selling is still the best selling process. Good salespeople must build value laden relationships. ~ Avila and Inks, researchers
4) Problem or pain point
“Problem” is the blunt expression of the potential buyer’s motivation – this is their “pain point”, the one thing they’re desperate to change. If the individual you are talking to does not have some kind of problem to solve or an area they’d like to improve, they are unlikely to purchase your coaching services. Good salespeople use engagement to identify the prospect’s concerns, and then draw out more details about how the person struggles with that issue. Studies suggest that customers buy in response to their needs and problems, and the successful salesperson will amplify those in the consumer’s mind. The idea is that by triggering the buyer to reflect upon their difficulties, the prospect experiences a heightened emotional sense of pain or frustration, to which the seller can then offer a solution which will be received with relief.
This may not come naturally to some coaches, who prefer to focus on the positive actions a person could take, rather than “dwelling” on the problem. However, by minimizing this step, the coach loses an opportunity to enhance motivation for the client. Just as we would ask, “what is getting in the way?” with a client in a coaching session, we need to draw out and understand the person’s experience with what isn’t working for them, before we can move them toward solutions. Business coach Jenny Shih suggests identifying, “What problem does my ideal client have? What does my ideal client want? How am I going to help them solve their problem or get what they want”? With clarity around the problem, the coach is now ready to move the conversation on to the next step, offering a solution to the potential client’s pain.
5) The Solution
Solutions-oriented discussion now helps relieve the emotional distress the client may have been reminded of in talking about their problem. In this step they see how the coach can help them alleviate their concerns or achieve their goals. You get to deliver insights in this phase that shift how the potential client views their problem and their capacity to change. Successful sales approaches rely upon this delicate fulcrum to motivate the buyer to purchase.
Avila and Inks comment in their paper, The Evolution of the Sales Process, “Customer responses dominate the early portion of the sales interaction, and only after relevant needs have been established does the salesperson begin to relate how his or her offering can satisfy these needs.” The coach has already garnered information about the individual’s pain points and what results they are looking for. Now is the time to address how their coaching services can help the prospect achieve those results. Many coaches have trained to develop a positive, results-focused perspective, so this is an area where they may really shine in talking with a potential client.
Figure 1: moving client from pain point to purchase
Other coaches may do well in this step when they offer unique solutions, focusing on the buyer’s values and economic drivers, such as those with the Challenger sales personality. For instance, a Challenger type parenting coach might point out that hiring them may help avert problem behaviours in the child that would cost money and opportunities in the future. There is a risk of being perceived as pressuring the would-be customer with this approach, yet for coaches who are naturally more comfortable with confrontation and challenge, this can work well when tempered with the reflective capacity and empathy that coach training often imparts.
6) Overcoming objections
Overcoming objections refers to how the coach responds at that point in the sales conversation when a prospect voices their uncertainties, excuses, or “objections” to working with the coach. These are reasons why the would-be client is not ready to purchase coaching services at this time; the potential coachee talks themselves out of the sale right here. This is a key moment in the process of converting leads to sales, and if you do not have good responses to offer, this is where you will lose sales. The approach sales trainer Jordan D’Urbano suggests is to “pre-handle objections”, meaning that the sales person voices any potential obstacles before the buyer can, and defuses them. Objections that are likely to arise include pricing; according to HubSpot’s market research, 6 out of 10 potential buyers want to discuss pricing at the first conversation. Knowing that many potential clients are likely to inquire about cost suggests how important it is for a coach to have a powerful reply to this, and other objections, when they arise in a pre-sales conversation. Many salespeople have a stock set of responses to typical objections, and there’s nothing wrong with using a scripted answer you are comfortable with if it helps you get to the close.
Closing means to seal the deal and get the client to commit to working with you. This may include actually collecting payment in the moment, or it may simply be the commitment, with final details to be worked out following. When it’s done in writing, it’s referred to as a “call to action”, and it should be a clear and motivating invitation for the prospect to move forward to the next step (eg: “click here to sign up for my newsletter”). Verbally, it means not missing the opportunity at the end of a “free discovery session” to ask the would-be coachee for what you want them to do. Depending upon the situation, that could mean asking the client to schedule their first session, purchase a package, or book a reservation for a presentation you are giving. The goal is to increase “conversions” – more people going from the contemplation phase to actually purchasing your coaching services.
Closing strategies to try
- The Final Discount: a summarization of the benefits already discussed and the encouragement to “sign up now” for a special rate
- The Question: “Would you like my help?” or “would you agree that the coaching I offer will help you solve your problem with lack of motivation in your career? If yes, then let’s get you started by booking our first session!” are examples of powerful ways to encourage the prospect to commit
- The “Take-Away”: suggesting that the service will still be available at a later time, but that it will cost more or include fewer features if the prospect waits
As simple as it is, directly asking for the prospect’s business is a step many coaches miss. Particularly for coaches who excel in the relationship-building style of relating, or for those who still harbor negative stereotypes about salespeople, there can be a concern that this step is too abrupt or pushy. You may want to remind yourself that actually asking for the sale increases successful conversions. By the time a coach has engaged in the kind of sales conversation that draws out the motivations and hopes of the buyer, it should be clear that they are looking for help with that particular problem – there’s nothing wrong with directly asking them to agree to be coached on the topic! And of course, the would-be client is always welcome to say no.
Some people do have a slower decision-making process, more research they need to do, or are simply not ready to make that commitment in the moment. With research indicating that consumers need multiple “touch points”, or exposures to a sales message, before they will commit to a product or service, coaches can expect that it will be unusual for a prospect to buy at the first conversation. Whilst the exact numbers vary, it’s a general rule of thumb derived from research that 80% of sales occur only after at least 5 instances of contact between the seller and the buyer.
Prospects almost never come out and say, “OK, I want to buy this product right now.” No matter how interested they are, they will be inclined to let you just walk out the door unless you specifically ask for the sale. But asking someone to buy from you in so many words can be a scary experience, especially for someone who is relatively new to sales. ~ Wendy Connick, sales blogger
There are two keys here for coaches who want to close successfully. First, making the sale requires a direct and actionable request on the part of the coach. It’s not ending the conversation and crossing fingers, silently hoping the buyer wants to go ahead and buy; it’s directly asking them to take the next step. Second, it means being willing to continue the conversation with a potential client even after they’ve said “no” to that initial invitation. By showing up persistently via email, social marketing, and in conversation, continuing to ask questions of the potential client, refining the service offered to the customer’s pain point, and asking for the close, you increase the odds of closing the deal in the long run.
Your Call to Action
Many people are drawn to the field of coaching out of their passion and care for others. They want to help people, to make a positive difference in others’ lives. Unfortunately, they may not have the business experience, and particularly the sales knowledge, to catapult them toward successful and financially stable careers doing what they love. Whilst there are many packages and programs available for coaches to develop a business plan, identify their niche, and begin to market themselves effectively…the time will come when the would-be-coach is talking with a potential client, and needs to understand and be comfortable with how to move that conversation through a sales flow. If you are already a sales whizz and are effectively closing lucrative deals for a sustainable coaching business model, you already know this. If the whole process feels a bit opaque to you, and you are having a hard time actually getting anyone to buy the services you’ve put so much time, money, effort, and heart into, here’s a call to action for you.
Call to Action!
- Become familiar with the general sales process outlined here.
- Reflect on any aspects of it you are already great at, and where you may have a lack of focus or skill.
- Choose one or two areas to develop, whether with further reading, podcasts, or a sales training program.
- Adapt the general sales flow presented here into a model that works for you, that feels genuine, authentic, and easy, and that also lets you close the deal and make sales.
To be a truly successful coach, you need to not only be great at asking those powerful questions and applying those tools we learn about in our ICA training once you’re working with your clients. You need a process to move people from contemplating how you could able to help them to actually purchasing your services in order for you both to benefit. Learning how to sell can help you get there, so let’s make it happen!