Free Samples as a Sales Technique

I can’t walk past a Mrs. Fields Cookie store without nabbing a free sample — they smell good, taste better, and, assuming I remember to wipe the chocolate smudges from the corners of my smiling mouth, leave no trace of my momentary indulgence. Sampling helps keep the cookie colossus from crumbling, just as it has helped many other outfits grow their sales.

Yet sampling is not a one-size-fits-all sales strategy, and sometimes it can backfire. Consider a recent letter I received from Karen, a designer, who recounted how she and her business partner met with a local industrial-park owner to discuss his Web site. While they talked, to impress him with their smarts, her partner drafted how the park’s home page might look. “We sent him a quote the following day,” she reports. Two days later, however, and having heard nothing in the meantime, she was “shocked, astounded, and hurt” to see that he had used their suggested design as an eye-catching ad in the local newspaper.

Karen’s experience is far from unique. Almost everyone who sells ideas or designs has been hurt by giving away free samples at some point or other. If a rep on a sales call succumbs to the urge to show off, it can cost big bucks. “We were so angry,” Karen wrote, adding in a steaming-mad aside that she would love to get even — except that she needs the industrial park’s business. Sorry to break the bad news, Karen, but chances are that you’ll never see a jot of work from this guy, who probably doesn’t think that recycling the sample you left with him was any big deal.

Some customers come right out and ask for free samples. As a professional speaker, I often get asked to speak without a fee, the lure being that someone in the audience might know someone else, who could possibly hire me to speak at some unspecified point down the road. In my case, I set a quota of targeted pro-bono work and stick to it. This helps me to decline those invitations without feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge.

Karen deserves credit for having the courage to confess her mistake, and also because she is searching for ways not to repeat it. I always say, “When you win, you earn — but when you lose, you’d better learn.” The question is: How do you demonstrate great ideas to a prospective customer without giving away the store? Here are some ways to avoid the freebie trap:

  • Sell your prospect on the benefits of using your outfit. No matter whether you sell Web-site designs or landscaped gardens, pitch clients on your creativity, fast turnaround, and competitive pricing.
  • Show what you’ve done for other clients. Cite your completed projects, and succinctly lay out what you see as the customer’s general problem and how you aim to solve it, as you have done for so many others. For example, instead of being too free with the samples, Karen could have told her prospect about how her designs helped a previous client grow international sales, or why yet another design created a more upscale image. An architect might want to stress how the shape or location of a client’s lot poses a particular challenge — one that only he or she is qualified to turn from a minus to a plus. This problem/solution format gives a presentation more punch. It also helps subsequent clients connect with your work because, if they face similar challenges, they can see how you solved them elsewhere.
  • Don’t be shy about sharing testimonials. Forget modesty. Just cut and paste a high-impact sentence or paragraph from each letter, add the customer’s company name (and contact information, if you want), and lay it all out on a single, easy-to-absorb page.
  • Break a large sale into smaller pieces. For example, many sales trainers will ask potential clients to buy their books for, say, $50 apiece. If customers sign up for the entire package, the book’s price is credited against the total cost.For designers, separating the design fee from the implementation charge can be scary, since there is always the chance you might not score the second part of the deal. So presell your customer on the benefit of having you, the designer, implement your own work. And be careful not to give away your great implementation ideas. Architects make excellent role models in this regard: They sell their designs and then, for an additional fee, oversee the construction.
  • Consider a money-back guarantee. If the client doesn’t like what you do, there will be no obligation to pay for your work. If you chose this route, be very sure to understand your client’s real problem, both as he or she describes and as your experience leads you to perceive it. Otherwise, you could both be losers: They don’t get what they want. You don’t get paid.

Remember, if prospects press you for on-the-spot design solutions, remind them that free advice is worth exactly what they pay for it — nothing.

To borrow from Charles Dickens, sampling can be “the best of ideas, the worst of ideas.” If you’re prone to showing off how great you are by giving away free samples, you can be harder on your bottom line than the worst embezzler. Simply put, you’re stealing from yourself. However, if your sample is well thought out, it can grow your business faster than I can tell that Mrs. Fields salesperson, “You bet I’ll take a dozen!” Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols is a sales consultant, trainer, and Vistage speaker based in Houston, Tex.

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