Running the agency

This gives our work purpose and meaning

This gives our work purpose and meaning

The final set of Q&As that Bill Beachy asked me to contribute for his forthcoming book, Drawn to Business.

This set of questions are mainly around winning and keeping clients, with a little bit of my own views on what is and isn’t important at the end. Sign-up here to receive updates on Drawn To Business prior to its publication. Hope you’ve enjoyed reading these Q&As – email me with any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear from you.

What are your keys to landing projects?
– Getting back to a client in good time – no one likes to be kept waiting.
– Not being too pushy – if a client wants to place work with you, they will.
– Meeting the client half-way. It can be a big risk for a client to buy design, so I’ll walk them through some of the process before they decide to go with us. It puts their minds at rest.

Sometimes I’ve offered a ‘risk-reversal guarantee’ – whereby they can back out at a certain point and I’ll refund their deposit. You’ve got to be pretty confident you’ll deliver on a project to do this, but I’ve never had anyone ask for their money back. I think it also demonstrates how you understand their position, and it removes any risk for them.

Do you have any words of wisdom on writing a successful proposal?
Do your research. Don’t boilerplate – one size definitely does not fit all. Show that you’ve started to do some low-level thinking on their behalf. It shouldn’t be ideas but considerations about their product, potential pitfalls, trends in their sector, etc.

Do you have any thoughts on effective negotiating?
Rarely do we get asked to lower our fee. If we do, something has to give, and I make a point of saying it cannot be the process. If something has to be shaved off, it will be time or number of people on the project. Don’t lower your fee without something in return, it sends out the wrong message and sets a precedent. Try and understand where the client is coming from first. It could be that the project could be broken down into phases, enabling you to take on a smaller chunk of work now and pave the way for a larger piece later on. Try and work with them, they have a job to do and a project to deliver – they need you to work with them and be flexible – but don’t give too much away if you can avoid it. The best clients will appreciate that you’re going to add value to their product or service. If they’ve done their job properly, they’ll already have an idea of what their percentage of investment will translate into in terms of increased sales. The clients who don’t have a grasp of that are usually the ones who will see your service as a cost, and try to barter you down.

What was the biggest difficulty you had to deal with in building your company? How did you overcome it?
Self-belief, by far. From the word go I had some doubts about my ability to run a design business. The fact that I had 13 years’ prior experience, with some of the world’s biggest agencies went out of the window.

You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to have some failures, and that’s all good. I spent way too long trying to never put a foot wrong. That was a bad idea. It made me question my self-belief – was I going to mess up? What will the client say? Will they take their business elsewhere? When you make a mistake, learn from it and move on.

For some reason, when it’s your own business the stakes seem so much higher. You no longer have the boss behind you to pass the buck to – you’re the one everyone will be looking at when the shit hits the fan. You have to just deal with it and keep going.

Be confident in your own abilities. Don’t try to be an expert on everything – use your team, delegate, and find the help you need. Don’t rush, take it one step at a time and the confidence will grow.

Can you think of any keys to good customer retention?
Let them know you’re on their side and that your number one aim is to do great work for them. Deliver on time. Stick to your agreed fees and project schedule. Send them information from time to time that you know will be of interest to them. Say thank you for their business and let them know how much you mean it. Flag bad news early and own up quickly if you’ve made a mistake – they’re usually very forgiving because they’re human, and they make mistakes too. Ask them every year if they’re happy with the work and service you provide. Ask them if you’ve earned the right to keep them as a client – if you do all of the above, you should get a positive response.

Do you have any final thoughts or stories you’d like to share with the readers of this book?
Being a designer is a huge privilege. You get to go and be creative in a nice environment and work with and for great people. I like to regularly remind myself and my team of two things:

1. Graphic design isn’t the real world…
Being a graphic designer is a strange and mysterious job to 99% of people. You exist in a small and often very insular bubble – even to the clients we work with. Be grateful for this, because it’s very cool and stimulating, but also remember that there’s a very big world beyond your shiny iMac – a world that we ultimately design for. The world of graphic design is not what appears on the most popular design blogs – it’s in supermarkets, doctor’s waiting rooms, newsagents, shops, museums, websites, train stations… everywhere. Have a grasp of the real world, because that’s where our work gets seen and that’s where our clients are paying for it to be seen: in the real world.

2. It is not a matter of life and death…
I’ve never heard of anyone who died from a graphic design-related incident. Graphic design is important to the client (because they need it to solve a problem) and to me (it’s how I feed my kids) but it’s never a matter of life and death. An idea is not worth killing yourself over, it’s not worth working through the night on, and it’s not worth arguing with the client over. A mistake in graphic design will not physically harm anyone. Chill out. In the grand scheme of life, love and death, graphic design does not register. Have fun with it, enjoy the creativity, but don’t make yourself ill over it. As my mother-in-law sometimes says to me, “Don’t work too hard Chris, it’s not worth it!” And she’s right.

What kind of advice do you give to graduates?
I know someone, who used to be a client, who has recently retrained to be a graphic designer. She emailed me to ask for some advice – here is what I recommended.

Keep up the enthusiasm and experimentation. Don’t feel the need to make each project look commercial, I’m more interested in a point of view than a jam jar label. Try not to look too much at other people’s work, there’s so much about and it’s in overload on the blogs. Ignore all that stuff and do your own thing. My only criticism with a lot of student work is that their portfolios can look very current – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’ll get you a job – but I think a good question to ask is, “What do I want to contribute to the world of design?” That isn’t something you can answer overnight, it takes some people years to start to work it out. I’ve been designing for over 22 years, and I still only have a vague idea of my point of view. Other than that, be yourself, be confident and have fun.

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