Using Small Projects as a Fast Track to Bigger and Better Work

One of my favorite behavioral psychology findings is the concept of small asks.

Especially when trying to win over a new customer or build a relationship with someone I look up to.

The idea that starting small is the best and easiest way to win a new account, pitch a huge project, or develop a relationship with a VIP might seem counter intuitive. If you get your shot, why not swing for the fences?

It’s easy to believe that you should go for it when you (finally!) get your chance to pitch the CEO.

Ah, if only it were that easy.

There is a tremendous amount of value playing the long game and starting small. Here’s why I like thinking that way.

First, it gets your foot in the door with the client.

It’s fine if you ask for the big project or retainer in the beginning. What’s your plan to get there if it falls short? After all, not every client is ready and willing to sign up for a major initiative with you the first time around.

By having smaller introductory offers you make it more likely the customer will hire you.

Many of your customers want the bigger project. For many customers, it’s important that you prove that you will deliver on a smaller project before talking about taking on something bigger.

Which is the second reason I like this approach. Starting small gives you an opportunity to deliver value on a key project.

Now, why is this so important? What changes when your customer experiences how you work, and deliver, on a small project?

The #1 thing: trust

You start building trust with this customer.

Everyone says they can do more. They’re able to deliver on bigger and better work. Your customer has heard this over and over, but when they hire someone it doesn’t always work out. This is your way to prove you can deliver.

Your customers are looking to see what you do while working on a smaller project. How you handle it speaks volumes about how you’ll deliver on a bigger project.

It’s not just in the results. It’s in how you communicate, how you stick to deadlines and guidelines.

In the end, it’s about how your customer feels working with you. If they don’t think it’s worth their time, why hire you for something even bigger?

It’s also your opportunity to make sure you really want to do that bigger project with them.

Now, if you want to do more work for that client, if you’ve made them feel like working with you is a great experience, then you’ve set yourself up to have a great shot at earning that big project or retainer. There’s one more thing you can do to set yourself up even better.

The third reason I love starting small is that a well designed first project sets up future projects, including retainers.

What do most of your customers need to do before they hire anyone for that big project or for a long-term retainer? That’s the question you want to answer, and the answer should be the first project you do for your customer.

Sometimes the better question to ask is, what’s the first major chunk of that project?

Both are a great way to set up the next project, by taking care of a fundamental need first that puts them in position to say “yes” to an even bigger project.

Build trust, show your customer you’re great to work with, and set them up for even bigger things. A simple and effective way to start working with any client.

How could you apply this to your business? Let me know in the comments!

Rejection Isn’t Real

The most universally hated part of pitching prospects is rejection.

I hate it too. Early in my sales career I would get so frustrated if a prospect shot me down.

I’d get off the call and my mind would race. What did I do wrong? Was it something I said? Oh why didn’t he get it?

It felt like I must have done something wrong.

A few years later I discovered that I was wrong, but not for the reasons I thought I was wrong.

I read two books that changed my outlook on sales. They were titled, “How to Sell More in Less Time With No Rejection” (volumes 1 and 2) and were written by sales trainer Art Sobczak. Packed in these books was a magic idea, a true game-changer. There is no such thing as rejection.

I know, it sounds too good to be true.

Except it is true.

Rejection is a frame of mind. What do I mean by rejection isn’t real? The painful kind of rejection doesn’t exist when you’re pitching clients! They’re not rejecting you, they’re saying “no” to your offer. If there’s one big idea you should get from this post, it’s that feeling rejection is all in your head.

Like I said, it’s not personal, and it’s not a reflection of you as a human being. The pain of rejection only exists if you create it.

Here’s what I mean.

Say you pitch someone your product. If the person says, “no”, tell me, is that rejection?

Yes, and no.

Yes, your offer was turned down. No, you should not feel bad about it.

What’s happening is you’re confusing personal rejection with having your offer turned down. These are two completely different things.

It’s normal to feel this way. For most of human history, getting rejected by the tribe meant you were going to die. You were doomed without the support of your community.

Does that sound anything like the kind of rejection you face pitching a client? Not really.

An easy way to think about it is that we feel bad when we mix up our definitions of rejection.

If we look “rejection” up in the dictionary, the most common definition is:

The dismissing of a proposal or an idea

If we go by this definition then we can safely say a client turning you down counts as rejection. But is this kind of rejection anything you should be fearful of?

Let’s take it one step further. How many things do you say “no” to every single day?

What you wear, what you eat, who you spend time with, what you work on… in each of these decisions you made a choice. You picked one thing.

And you rejected everything else.

Would you say that’s the kind of rejection you don’t like? I doubt it. That doesn’t sound like the rejection I feared, the kind of rejection that frustrated me. I would be perfectly happy with that kind of decision.

Getting turned down like this is a learning experience, not rejection. That’s why Art put “with NO Rejection” in his book’s title.

If you learn something every time you pitch a client, if you focus on understanding their business and why they would or would not buy, you’re not getting rejected. You got a “no” because it was either the wrong offer, or the wrong time, or someone else had a better offer. That’s how you learn something every time you pitch a client.

If that’s all rejection is… why do we have this fear of rejection in the first place?

Rejection has another common definition:

The spurning of another person’s affections

Or, to say it in plain English, GETTING SHOT DOWN.

That kind of rejection is rooted back when we couldn’t live if we were thrown out of the tribe. It feels awful.

Yet we still mix up these two different situations.

If getting rejected by a prospect is the rational kind of rejection – bad timing, wrong offer, nothing personal – then what can you do to shift your perspective from feeling like you’re getting shot down to accepting someone else’s decision?

The key is to focus on what’s being rejected – you, or the offer.

It’s so easy to attach what you do with yourself. I know I’ve done this a million times.

I forget to pick up my daughter’s favorite yogurt at the supermarket and think, “Jeez I’m an idiot!”

I’ll drive down the road and get every green light and think, “I got the magic touch!”

Those are powerful ideas for common events. By thinking them I’m programming myself to believe those ideas about myself, for better and worse.

Forgetting my daughter’s favorite yogurt is a minor mistake, one I can fix.

Getting a series of green lights is a stroke of luck, one that’s going to happen every so often.

These events have little to do with who I am and nothing to do with my self-worth. The same is true for you. Who you are, what you’ve done, and what you’re capable of doing has so little to do with the things that happen every day. They’re a reflection of what we’re doing in the world, yes.

However, there’s no reason to label myself an idiot because I forgot to buy a basic dairy product.

You aren’t rejected by your prospect. What got rejected was your idea, your proposal, your terms. That thing got shot down, not you.

There’s no reason to feel like you got thrown out of the tribe.

I’m not saying you’re going to walk away happy, nor that you should. Of course not. Look at me. I’m competitive and I hate losing. There’s not much fun in putting hard work into an idea, a proposal, and a meaningful conversation, only to get a “no” at the end of it.

The reason I stick my neck out is because there’s no way to get a “yes” without being willing to hear “no”.

It’s much easier to stick my neck out knowing that “no” is feedback to my pitch and my proposal. It’s not personal. I can take that feedback and figure out how I can do better next time.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who aren’t in sales and it seems like there’s this myth that the perfect targeting with the perfect pitch means you’ll always get a “yes”, and that’s what you should aim to do.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The best offers I’ve ever seen in my life got a “yes” about 65% of the time. We’re talking about cherry picking who to talk to, who to pitch, and having a massive competitive advantage. Odds are that’s not you and your business.

It’s crucial to separate your offer from yourself. You’re going to get a lot more “no’s” than “yes’s” if you want to land clients and make an impact. It’s much harder to keep trying if you feel like you’re the one getting rejected every time.

Next time it happens? Take a deep breath and remember – you’re not getting rejected, they’re just saying “no” to your offer.

The Fear of Selling is Normal

I wish there was a way to tell you that you can get over your fear of selling… but that would be a lie. A big, bold lie.

This is something I learned from an early age for myself.

When I was 11 I started my first business. Neighborhood lawn mowing. I wanted to buy comic books and my monthly allowance wasn’t cutting it, so I decided I’d knock on doors to find some customers.

Except instead of knocking on everyone’s doors, I knocked on a few doors of the people I knew well, then put flyers in everyone’s mailbox and waited to see who would respond to me.

The strategy worked just well enough that I never had to look again. My customers stuck with me, I’d add new customers every so often through word of mouth, and I made enough to buy my comic books.

Never knocked on those other doors, though.

This pattern has repeated itself in one way or another throughout my life. Show me another way to get in front of a prospect and I’ll take it. If I can avoid a cold call… I will.

Yes, I’ve learned ways to minimize it, to get past it, and to take action. The truth is, I’ve always been afraid to sell.

It seems better to start this post by making it clear that if you’re afraid to sell today, odds are the fear will never go away.

And that’s ok. You don’t need the fear to go away. You can learn how to minimize it, get past it, and take action. That’s as good as it’s going to get.

Let’s start with something that seems obvious, yet no one ever talks about it.

Has anyone told you it’s normal to feel fear when you ask for the sale? It is normal. It’s a 100% sane, normal, common feeling to have.

We’re hard-wired to need to belong to a group, a tribe, since that’s how we survived for at least tens of thousands of years. To be cast out from your community meant that you lost your only support system. Your community helped raise you, feed you, protect you, shelter you, and you added to that so everyone else could do the same.

Getting rejected socially was a potential death sentence.

Accept feeling afraid. It’s normal. Go ahead and smile, it means you’re human!

There are different aspects of sales that might cause you to feel fear. For me, it’s cold outreach. For others it may be handling objections or asking for the sale. There are more (I dig into another one of mine later on in this post). Keep in mind that the process of getting better in these situations in the same, even if the source of the fear is different.

So how can you still take action even though you’re afraid? Let’s talk about what’s happening.

In that moment when you feel fear and you don’t act, you’re flinching and standing still. Julien Smith wrote a wonderful short book on this. It boils down to the fact that every time we face something we don’t want to do, we flinch. If you stand still when you flinch… you lose. Game over.

The key isn’t to not flinch. You will still flinch, even as your response gets more comfortable and more automatic. The key is to accept that you’re going to flinch and know how to
still go forward with it.

You need to understand those two things about yourself and why you’re flinching. If you can understand those two things, you can find a way to still move after you flinch… and even while you’re flinching.

First, understand the specific reason you’re afraid. I’ve talked to dozens of people as part of my immersion – one group in sales, one group of small business owners – and both shared the same few reasons they were afraid. What’s curious is that most people are not afraid of every single thing, just one or two specific things.

I mentioned that I had another fear in sales. Early on in my career I was afraid of calling people higher up in the organization. I felt if I got the CEO or a Regional Director on the phone, the ultimate buyer, and they said ‘no’ that I was dead forever in that account. At least if I started low and they said ‘no’ I could go above them, right?

Except at the end of the day I needed to sell that CEO or Regional Director anyway. If I started at the top and got a ‘yes’? Smooth sailing from there.

I was trying to prevent losing my ability to sell to the account over going on offense to win the account. Once I went on offense? Huge difference.

(Secret: if you cold pitch someone they won’t remember you, especially higher-ups. They get pitched every day. Heck, I’m a mid-level manager and I forget most of the people who pitch me, and I only get a couple per month!)

Second, look at the transaction from both sides. What kind of impact can you have on the other person’s life if they say ‘yes’ to you?

So many times we’re too busy lost in our own heads that we forget the impact we can have on others if they say ‘yes’, and that we’re doing them a disservice if we don’t ask for the sale and don’t charge appropriately. We forget that if we decide to take on great clients who pay well that we’ll deliver an even better experience.

I always remind myself that it’s ok if the other person says ‘no’, but it’s no ok if I fail to ask for the same or charge an amount that pushes me to deliver huge results.

This is super common. So many people have told me they’re afraid to ask for the sale because it feels like they’re taking money from the other person. Or that they’re not worth a certain amount of money they’d like to charge.

How are you going to have the impact you want to have?

Ask for the sale, let the other person decide, and charge enough so you feel obligated to deliver for your customers.

Let’s unpack the last two pieces of that sentence.

I’ve heard it many times: I feel like I’m being pushy, aggressive, or scammy selling. Nothing could be further from the truth when I do it.

Why? Because I’m guiding the other person through a buying decision, not selling them. It allows me to make sure that they’re saying “yes” or “no” for the right reasons.

It also lets me decide whether or not I want to work with this customer. I’ve had more than enough experiences with customers I shouldn’t have worked with, both in my own business and working for others, to know that the money will not outweigh the headaches when it’s not a great fit.

Then you have to charge enough to feel like you need to deliver. This was something I had to work on as a sales professional, too. I always thought, “If I charge too much they won’t buy!”

Now I know better. If I charge too little I won’t deliver the level of service they deserve.

You should make sure you’re charging enough that you feel like this client is gold to you. Not because they’re your client, because they’re paying you well for what you’re delivering and you have something bigger to live up to than collecting a mere paycheck.

One last thought on selling that helps tie all of this together: it always seems easier to push than to pull.

We fall short when we feel like we’re trying to pull someone’s money out of their pocket. That’s where sales feels scammy and aggressive. We flinch because we’re afraid to take. We push past the flinch when we realize both sides are better off if we say ‘yes’ to one another. It’s easier to feel pushed into action, past the fear of selling, because if my prospects knew how I could change their lives they would be pushing me to help them out.

Think of it as the push you give your friend when they need a hand. A well placed nudge that’s easier on both of you than grabbing their hand and pulling them into whatever they’re afraid of.

If you found this helpful, tell me, what’s your biggest fear selling? What do you think you could change to help you get past the flinch?

I Struggled Getting Retainer Clients Until I Offered These 2 Things

Have you ever pitched a retainer to a client, one that seemed like a layup, and they shot you down?

It can be so frustrating. You do great work for this client, they seem to love you, and yet they just won’t say ‘yes’ to a retainer.

The weirdest part is the client wants to keep working with you! It’s not like they fired you. They want nothing more than to keep working with you on a regular basis because you deliver great work, on time, and at a good rate.

You seem to do a certain amount of work or hours most months, so you pitched a basic retainer for them to always have you for those hours each month. And they said ‘no’.

Makes no sense, right?

If they love your work and want to keep working with you, why not hire you on a retainer basis? It would be so much easier!

To those who’ve discovered the real reason clients sign retainers, the answer is obvious: they said ‘no’ because the retainer benefits you, not them.

Pitching a retainer based on how much work you do most months benefits you, not your clients. It guarantees you a certain amount of money every month, up front. What does it guarantee the client? Access to you for a certain amount of work.

The most common objection you hear is, “If I’m paying you by the hour/project already, why would I pay for that up front each month? If I don’t use it, I lose it!”

They’re right, too. There’s no reason for your clients to sign up for a retainer if that’s all you’re offering.

Think about it. Imagine you go buy groceries every week, and most weeks your bill is $100. The one week you walk in and the store manager says, “Since you spend $100 here most weeks, we want you to give us $100 in advance every week for your groceries and we’ll guarantee you that you can buy them! If you go over one week, no need to worry, you can pay the difference at the register.”

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Hell no, I’m not signing up for that!

What if I don’t need as much one week? What if I’m on vacation? Why am I paying you for groceries I may not need?

Question for you – how is your offer any different? You’re pitching your client a retainer that gets them access to you for a certain number of hours or for your typical projects whether or not they use it. That’s how they see it.

If you want to pitch retainers that your client is far more likely to say ‘yes’ to and even be excited about, you have to get two things right.

1) Your offer needs to focus on a result the clients wants.

It can be so hard to talk about what you do in terms of results. As someone who’s worked in sales and marketing for over a decade, I get it. You want to talk about what you do! It’s interesting, it’s exciting, it’s something you put blood, sweat, and tears into.

Except that’s not what your clients hires you to do.

Your client hires you to produce content because it can help them get new leads, keep customers engaged, and get them more sales.

Your client hires you to improve the design of their website so more people convert into leads and buy things.

Your client hires you to help them with strategy and analytics because they spend more time marketing and selling to people who are more likely to buy.

They do not hire you because you write content, redesign websites, or create a strategy with numbers. They hire you for results!

My earliest clients hired me to produce evergreen sales materials for them, but for different reasons. The first one was an artist and designer looking to do more outbound prospecting so he could build relationships with new companies to get more work. Another client hired me to write emails and improve their website copy to increase customer engagement and sign up more new customers.

Neither hired me because I could write words for them, they hired me because I tied what I did to key results they wanted.

You have to be able to articulate what results you are getting for your client, and you have to understand it better than your client does.

2) Your offer needs to be like a subscription, something they need delivered every month.

Here’s the question you need to ask: does my client need this type of work to be done every month to keep getting that result?

This is a mistake I made the first time I did freelance work.

The first few projects I pitched were around evergreen sales materials that helped get customers. Emails, sales scripts, website copy, things like that. This was the perfect set of projects to start with since it gave me a chance to learn how to land clients.

After that I stumbled into one key area I could provide on a monthly basis: leads.

A potential client and I were talking about the evergreen sales materials I could provide when he shifted gears. “Who’s going to send out these emails and follow up on them? What if we hired you to do that for us?”

Another potential client I was talking to wanted me to focus on online lead generation strategy.

This wasn’t obvious to me at first, even though it should have been. I had spent 3+ years working at an agency whose focus was Go-To-Market strategy. Our approach was to define product/market fit, then use direct outreach to find leads. It was a simple model. And most of our clients signed on with us for at least 6 months, either on a long-term campaign basis or a retainer model.

I could provide a version of that to my clients!

They didn’t need evergreen sales materials often, but they needed leads every single month.

I shifted my focus from creating sales materials to helping my clients get leads.

Every time I’ve struggled getting new clients or consistent consulting work it’s because I’ve strayed from this formula.

I wish I could say I figured this out and ran with it. Nope. When I shifted my focus to more established startups I started doing projects again instead of figuring out what results I could provide on a monthly basis.

I’d get hired to help fix a few things, do a little training… nothing long-term. It’s part of the reason I’m working with small businesses and agencies again.

Understanding your customer and their needs is crucial to making this happen.

The simple formula to define a great retainer for both you and your client is:

I provide my client (service) which delivers them (results) that they need every month.

Leave me a comment on how you do that, or could do that, for your clients!