When you’re starting out,  you wonder, how long does it take to become an expert at something and at what point can you you start selling expertise?

What do you do until then?

Well, you charge by the hour and you create things. That’s the general idea.

So I want to address the question of how can you sell your creative services as an expert. How can you sell expertise when you’re just starting out and have little to no experience?

So everyone has experience that they can draw from. If you’ve been to design school, art school, if you’ve been in any sort of liberal arts, studying marketing or advertising or fine art, you’ve got things to draw from. That’s your expertise. Granted, you’re going to build experience and build expertise as you go, but you can still position and sell what you already know.

And for most, perhaps it is I design  logos, or I design  websites, I design slide decks and pitch decks and things like that. I create amazing narrative illustrations. I write copy for marketing and technical manuals.

Whatever it is, you have experience, you have expertise. So the thing is to figure out how to sell that.

The reason why you want to focus on selling your expertise rather than selling time — in other words, charging by the hour — is because you’re going to have more opportunity to work with better clients. If everything comes down to how much time you spent on something, you can still create a piece of crap and have spent 25 hours on it while somebody else can create a thing of beauty in four hours. So selling time is not the thing. Selling time is basically one step away from being an employee who is paid by the hour.

So if you’re coming into freelancing out of a W2 job situation — a full time or part time job, or you’ve been punching a time clock and committing to a certain number of hours out of your day as someone’s employee, it’s very easy to charge that way because that’s what you’re used to.

I’ve done several podcast episodes on pricing and the concept of price versus value, and how to increase your prices, how to charge more the right way to charge hourly, if you’re going to do that. But generally speaking, what a client is looking for from you as an independent creative is not how many hours you spend on something. That actually doesn’t really matter to the client, unless you make it matter.

A lot of clients will come and say don’t spend too much time on it. I had a client I worked with for years and he was always jokingly telling me, “Well don’t spend too much time on it.”  And I responded, “It’s going to take the time that it takes.” But the thing is I wasn’t charging him by the hour. I was charging based on the the project itself. It didn’t matter how many hours I spent because he knew exactly how much it was going to cost him as long as the scope of work was accomplished and it didn’t change.

When you focus on expertise, first you have to determine what that expertise is. If you’re an illustrator, your expertise includes your drawing ability, of course, your ability to execute the image in whatever medium you choose. It includes your style. But it also includes your ability to translate words and concepts into images and determine the best composition and color scheme that’s going to communicate what the client wants to communicate. So the expertise that you have includes the execution, it includes your drawing ability. It includes your ability to imagine the best way that the idea or the story should be conveyed in visual form.

If you’re a photographer, the client wants to communicate something, so you go about plying your craft in such a way that what the client wants  communicated is going to be conveyed through your work.

So any creative can approach a client project from a problem solving point of view rather than an execution point of view.  For instance, is this for the website or for social media? How are you going to shoot this thing and light this thing so that people will be enticed to buy it from the website? If it’s on social media how is it going to stop the scroll? How is the image going to compel people to stop and take a look at the image and take a look at the client rather than continue to scroll?

When your focus is on selling expertise rather than execution you have to look at what the client is trying to accomplish with the work that you’re doing. So it puts you onto a higher level. You have to look at things more broadly than just focusing on how many items are in this shot and how many detail shots do you want? How many crops?

When you focus on selling expertise, when you focus on solving the client’s problem, you have to look at the results. Did your work accomplish what it was sent out there to do? Did the client make more sales? Are they getting more visits and clicks on their website? Are people buying their product?

So selling expertise instead of time, being problem-solving and results oriented rather than creating-pretty-things- oriented is the shift that you need to make.

How then do you actually sell expertise, especially if you don’t have a lot of  experience? Clients look for proof they want to see it in your portfolio. They want to hear you talk about things in a way that will prove to them that you’re the one to work with that one understand that they’re not going to waste money investing it in your creative services.

One of the ways you can approach this is by talking about your process. You want to talk about how you internally approach a creative problem. You don’t want to sit down and solve the problem for them or throw out ideas to them without being paid for actually solving the problem. But what you do want to do is talk about how you approach a problem.

Say you’re a designer and the client is coming to you because they need a slide deck because they’re doing a TEDx talk in two months. So the questions that you ask to understand the scope of their problem and laying out the visual assets that you’ll create for them —charts and graphs and things like that. Those are all the deliverables that result from the problem-solving, and those deliverables will help engage the audience.

Know your process and be able to talk about it, and be able to repeatedly talk about it with client after client after client.

Another thing you can do is create a tip sheet or a white paper that you can provide to prospective clients again, that can talk about your process. I did one that was fairly popular and people really appreciated which was how to keep the costs of a design project to a minimum It was titled How To Cut the Cost of Design. And it basically was advice for the client. You know, do this. Don’t do that. Be prepared. Don’t add scope creep.

So anything that you can create to give to your client that’s free that will help educate them about you and your process and maybe about the creative industry in general is a way of proving your expertise.

One of the things you don’t want to do is take a salesy approach where you are chasing down the client. You don’t want to hound them that you do this or that. You don’t want to keep running after them if they’re not sure about you.

One of the ways to present yourself as an expert is to be picky about the projects you take on and the clients you  work with. But don’t go chasing them because that shows desperation. Experts are not desperate. Clients seek out experts. So if you’re chasing trying to chase a client you’re not positioning yourself properly as an expert.

Don’t pitch your ability or your past clients or how good you are at something. What do you do instead? You ask them questions to diagnose their situation. You cannot solve a problem until you understand what the problem is.

You don’t want to actually claim I’m an expert at this; I know what I’m doing, because any claim has to be proven. And basically if you have to keep stating and restating or  convince and persuade, that’s going to be off-putting. That’s going to turn your client away. You want the client to come to you.

If you’re looking for clients in a particular industry, get to know that industry really well. Share some valuable insights about that industry that will going to capture your prospective clients’ attention. Definitely ask about the prospective client’s situation — what are they dealing with, what are their challenges? Why are they talking with you?

Experts know when to let go. They know when a client is not going to be the right fit for them, because they’ve already figured out who they want to work with — who their ideal audience is — and what they want to provide. If you know what you want to do and who you want to work with, it’s very easy to recognize when prospective clients don’t fit. So you’ve got to do the groundwork up front because an expert does not work with just anybody. The expert is going to work with people that they can best serve.

Your website should not be just portfolio. You should talk about what you do. And you should talk about what you offer and the problems you solve on the front page on your homepage. This is true whether you’re a copywriter, a photographer, an illustrator, a designer, I refer to it as having an agency style website rather than a portfolio based website. Certainly you’re going to include your portfolio but you’re not going to lead with your work. You’re going to lead with your approach or you’re going to lead with what makes your work different. 

And then the last thing: when you’re in a conversation with a client, allow them to do the majority of the talking. You do the majority of listening. At the end of an inquiry session, you’re going to make a judgement, you’re going to say, I think we can work together. I think I can help you you seem like a good fit. Or you’re going to say “I don’t think that I’m a good fit for you. I think you’re going to be better served by continuing to look for somebody to work with but this is not a project that I’m going to be able to accept that this time.

Experts do not take every project that comes along. They are selective.

So how can you sell expertise in creative services when you’re just starting out you have very little experience? 

  • Understand that you do have experience and expertise that you are able to sell
  • Figure out how to sell it
  • Do more listening than talking.
  • Don’t pitch yourself; do not chase clients.
  • Don’t sell on the basis of time but sell on the basis of what you know. 

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