Building a Sales Funnel: A Standard Operating Procedure for Securing Clients
"If you had to start over, what would you do differently?"
That's a great question I've been asked more than a few times in interviews about building a successful, high-profit consulting practice.
It's a simple question with a complicated answer. And when faced with a glacier of a problem, I tackle it the only way I know how: by breaking it into ice cubes.
In my business, I write standard operating procedures (SOP) for the various tasks that make up my business so that I can repeat and improve them, then quickly train contractors and employees on how to do them. So why not write a SOP on how I would start a successful freelance business?
Over the last seven years, I’ve made mistakes, tried dozens of tactics and strategies, and finally built a successful business for the life I want, all with Shopify. I've turned that experience into a standard operating procedure that you can use to avoid the same mistakes I made, and build a business for the life you want in actionable bite-sized chunks.
My current business and SOP has allowed me to:
- Bill by the project, instead of by the hour.
- Never negotiate or haggle on price.
- Improve the quality of my clients (and my work).
- Gain authority as a valued expert.
- Earn enough income to buy my first home and travel the world.
- (I also bought some truly ridiculous cars along the way. I do not recommend this; it was not a good investment.)
If those sound like good goals to you, then give yourself permission to try my plan.
Ready? Here we go.
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Step 1: Quickly communicate your value by defining your core positioning
Jonathan Stark, a successful tech author and creator of Jonathan’s Card, once told me about the time he hired a now-huge business coach to help him grow his business. On their first call, the coach asked, “What do you do?”
Jonathan started to explain, but after 30 seconds, the coach cut him off.
“You’ve lost me. Call me back when you can tell me in ten seconds or less,” the coach said, hanging up.
Is that extreme? Absolutely. Does he have a point? Absolutely.
When someone asks you what you do, how long does it take you to answer?
Now imagine that person has to tell someone else what you do. Will they even remember? If they do, will they get it right?
That’s the danger of having vague positioning in your business. Your positioning has a lot of influence over your pricing, and the projects you take on.
Sometimes called “niching down,” having a defined positioning statement lets you describe exactly who you help, and how you do it in a single sentence.
The only step to positioning is to define your core positioning statement, which defines who you provide value to, what their needs are, and what expensive problems you’re helping solve.
Here’s the formula: “I help [ideal client] achieve [goal]. Unlike my competitors, [differentiating statement].
As an example, my positioning statement is:
Kurt Elster helps Shopify store owners uncover hidden profits in their websites. Unlike other Shopify Experts, Kurt is solely concerned with providing the highest possible ROI.
That statement lets me communicate my value in less than ten seconds, and it actively disqualifies potential clients who aren’t a good fit. The result is that my ideal clients can easily remember me, and offer referrals when they encounter other store owners.
Niching down with a positioning statement can be an intimidating process, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s the counter-intuitive approach to becoming seen as a valuable expert.
Pro tip: For further reading, I recommend Philip Morgan’s The Positioning Manual.
Step 2: Write an initial service offering
When a prospective client asks you for a price on a project, what happens? If you were like I was years ago (and like many other freelancers), I bet you’d say, “Well, that depends…”
You’d then try and figure out their scope, write a proposal, send it off, and get rejected half the time.
Pretty frustrating, right? For me, it was demoralizing. My life felt like a constant carousel of prospect on, proposal off, client on, client off, repeat.
Fortunately, now that you’ve niched down with your positioning statement, there’s a better way.
Instead of coming up with a bespoke offer, and pricing for every single client you talk to, why not publish an offer that represents a great starting point for you to do your best work, for your ideal client?
Let’s say you’re an app developer. The first step to every app project is gathering requirements. That would make a great initial service offering (ISO). Charge one-fifth to one-tenth of your initial project cost (say $500 if your project is $2,500), to research the client’s ideas, their business, and determine the best course of action. Call it a roadmap.
Why does this work?
- A client who is serious about spending $10,000 or more on a project shouldn’t object to spending five to ten per cent of that budget on research to ensure their success. Anyone willing to invest in the roadmap is clearly serious about their business, and respects you as a consultant.
- Psychologically, it’s much easier to sell these lower-priced service offerings because they represent reduced risk, which is what every buyer and business owner wants.
- Afterward, it’s much easier to sell the larger projects because your initial service offering gives you and your client a chance to get to know each other on a professional level, and see what it’s like to work with you.
What if the client says, "But how much would it cost to just build it?"
That’s when you demonstrate your status as an expert and say, "We don't know if this will solve your business needs yet, so it would be pointless to start building before we understand those needs."
We’re only on step two, and already you’ve made it clear that you’re not just a pair of hands — you’re a skilled expert.
Step 3: Price your service offering
Now we need a price for your ISO. The right price is one that represents a great return on investment for the client, and equitable compensation for you.
If I were pricing a roadmap for the first time, I would price it based on my experience with writing proposals. If I add up meetings, research, and time to write a proposal, I estimate that a great proposal takes four hours to produce. If you charge $200/hour, then our initial starting price for a roadmap is $800. If a typical app costs $10,000 to develop, and our roadmap helps to ensure success, then we’ve come up with a price that is both a great ROI, and good compensation for us. Ideally, we’re now charging enough to disqualify prospects who will not be a fit for your typical proposal prices.
We could stop there, but we may want to adjust the price up or down. You could add 20 per cent to pad for revisions, or unforeseen scope creep. Or you could adjust down by 40 per cent to use your ISO as a loss leader (a product sold at a loss to attract clients). Your pricing is just a number on your website; you can revise it at will.
I come up with my agency’s prices based on the time a project takes, then add 20 per cent to allow for some scope creep without being punitive. From there, I adjust based on supply and demand. When selling a package that exceeds the time I would generally spend, I’ll double the price.
As service professionals, we all have a terrible tendency to woefully undercharge for our services.
The owner of a successful agency once told me, “If you’re not charging a price that makes you uncomfortable, you’re not charging enough.”
“How much should I increase my prices by?” I asked.
“Double them,” he answered.
Since then, I’ve doubled my prices two, three, or even four times depending on the service offering. Each time, the result was the same; the quality of my clients improved because of their investment, and my work improved because I had more time and resources to devote to my client’s success.
If you take one thing away from this chapter, I hope it’s this: “Charge more.”
Step 4: Call to action
With the price decided, you can add a clear call to action to the bottom of your service offering. What do you want your clients to do next?
Here are a few options; none of them are wrong:
- Ask them to fill out an application to gather more information. Do this if certain people don’t seem like a good fit for your service offering.
- Ask them to pay a deposit to get started. (I do this for my Website Teardowns offering because it’s nearly universal.)
- Have them fill out a contact form, presumably so you can schedule a meeting.
- Send them to your calendar with a service like Calendly or Youcanbookme.
Which is right for you? I’ve used them all, and I like sending people to an application so I can gather information, and then send them directly to a scheduling link. This way, I can have the most productive initial phone calls possible with my clients. (And yes, I strongly encourage you to get on the phone with your clients. I know many of us are phone-phobic, but a 15-minute phone call is worth a hundred emails.)
Step 5: Validate your service offering
You should have a complete website listing your service offering, which means you have something to sell. But before you invest time and money promoting it, we need to validate it.
Does your ideal client want it? Do they believe that it’s priced right? What objections will they have that we can address?
More bad news for the phone-phobic among us: it’s time to talk to people. We need to do some show-and-tell for all that hard work we did in the previous steps.
Write out a list of ten prospects or past clients who are (or are very nearly) your ideal client. This might include past clients, past prospects, new prospects, loose connections, friends of friends, or even cold outreach (though if you’re resourceful, you won’t need to do any cold outreach). If you have an email list, email your offer to the list with a call to action to set an appointment and discuss the service.
If you’re just starting out fresh and have no network to leverage, I would come up with a list of dream clients and use a service like EmailHunter, or even LinkedIn, to reach out to them. Alternatively, you could look for people who could introduce you to your dream clients.
Here’s an example of a cold outreach email I’ve used successfully in the past:
From: Web Designer
To: Potential Client
Subject: A small favor
I'm writing to ask a small favor. It's okay to say no, but I'm hoping you could give me some feedback on a service I'm developing for Shopify store owners like you.
It's designed to solve [PAIN/PROBLEM] but I'd greatly value your expert opinion before I start promoting it.
If you'd be open to sharing some quick feedback, reply with a quick thumbs-up and I'll give more details.
If you get a positive response, follow-up with an email like this:
From: Web Designer
To: Potential Client
Subject: Follow-up to your response
Wonderful to hear back from you!
Let's schedule a 15-minute call to get your reaction to my idea (I want to make sure I'm solving a REAL problem, and not one that I imagine Shopify stores like yours have).
Let's schedule a call. Please pick the time that's best for you:
(If no times work, tell me, and I'll work around your schedule.)
With your new friends, you’ll want to get on the phone with them, review your offer, and gather feedback. I usually take a lot of notes by hand, but if it’s a Skype call, you could use CallRecorder to record the conversation (with their permission, of course).
Here’s your meeting agenda:
- Describe the problem you’re solving, and ask if they’ve experienced it. If yes, proceed to...
- Walk them through your service offering as a proposed solution. Ask, “Does that make sense? Am I explaining myself well?” Once they’re clear on the topic...
- Gauge their interest, i.e. “Would this be useful for your business?”
- If no, ask why not, i.e. “What don’t you like about it?” or “Is there a way I could make this the perfect solution for you?”
- If yes, give them a price and ask if they want to get started, i.e. “Okay great. The price is $X. Shall I send you an invoice, and we can book a time to get started?”
Your primary goal is to gather feedback. To get the best feedback, you have to ask for the sale to get an honest reaction. The only way to truly validate is to ask for their money, and see what happens.
Step 6: Build a sales funnel
Now that you’ve generated some early interest in your offering and have validated it, it’s safe to invest more time and money marketing it.
To complement your initial service offering, come up with a freebie offering. I’ve used a combination of cheat sheets, email courses, screencasts, and even quick phone calls. The one thing I’ve learned is that less is more with these freebie offerings or lead magnets. Offering an entire free book feels like you’re assigning your prospects homework, versus a quick guide on how to do something, which, in practice, is more useful.
The ideal freebie offering does two things:
- Provides value to your ideal client (in exchange for their email address).
- Helps people self-diagnose the problem that your initial service offering solves.
To get your freebie offering, you want them to share their email address and opt-in to your newsletter. Sending out regular updates will let you stay top of mind, while continually demonstrating your value.
Step 7: Next steps
Time to fill up that sales funnel!
Pick two acquisition sources from this list:
- Networking events
- Podcast guest spots
- Guest blog articles
- Forum participation
Use those two sources to promote your freebie offering. If it provides value and costs nothing, you should be proud to share it with the world. Think of it like building a house. Each action you take is a brick laid in that house. Does any one thing change your life? No, and you shouldn’t expect it to, but when you stack enough bricks, and stand back, suddenly you’ve accomplished something special. This process lets you build authority over time.
For me, I work best when presented with a problem to solve. I joined Facebook groups and answered questions, and was a guest on podcasts. Maybe you prefer writing and teaching, in which case, you should get to work on that ebook you’ve been putting off.
Do what you’re comfortable with, and do it consistently. After six to eight weeks, you’ll begin to reap the rewards. Within six weeks, I began getting referrals from people I didn’t know because they’d heard I was “the Shopify guy.”
Go buy a boat
You now have a start-to-finish, productized consulting business and sales funnel. Over time, you’ll figure out what works, and what needs tweaking. You can regularly optimize your funnel by refining your positioning, pricing, and service offerings.
This may sound like a lot of work, but this work is the difference between someone who’s earning $30,000 a year and $300,000 a year. It’s a blueprint for an inbound marketing funnel that will bring you prospects who see your consulting fees as an investment in the future success of their business.
About the Author
Kurt Elster is a Senior Ecommerce Consultant who helps Shopify store owners uncover hidden profits in their websites. Kurt is the founder of ecommerce agency Ethercycle, author of Ecommerce Bootcamp, and host of The Unofficial Shopify Podcast. He lives in northwest Illinois with his wife and three children.