Creatives usually make assumptions because they are uncomfortable looking like a pest by asking too many questions. Others avoid asking questions entirely because they think clients will perceive them as inexperienced. However, asking the right questions actually makes you appear detail-oriented, inquisitive, and knowledgeable.
The most successful creatives prevent any assumptions by being honest and direct with clients. Otherwise, we can assume misleading information and get into deeper problems than we realize. After working with hundreds of principal of creative firms, I’ve seen the same self-destructive assumptions made over and over again:
Creatives often think that price is a client’s most important priority when selecting a firm or evaluating proposals. As a result, creatives spend a lot of unnecessary time and worry trying to figure out the magical number.
The reality is, other factors like industry expertise, creativity, and trust have a stronger influence on who the client selects than price. If you know the selection criteria (and even how a new client will weigh these criteria) you can better position and sell yourself and respond to these criteria in your proposal. Spend less time worrying about the magical number (hint: there isn’t one) and more time understanding and responding to all selection criteria. Ask potential new clients: What criteria do you look at in selecting a creative partner and how would you weigh those in order of priority? What other creative partners are you considering (so we can tell you what makes us different)? Have you worked with a creative partner before and what worked and didn’t work about that relationship?
Creatives put tremendous weight on their websites and their proposals as their primary sales vehicle and rely on these tools as a way to educate potential prospects on their value, services, and expertise.
Despite all the time you spent developing the perfect promotional tools, most clients have little time to conduct thorough due diligence and often rely on referrals to choose a firm, rather than spending enough time on your site or reading your lengthy proposal. Don’t believe me? Check your site stats and see how long new prospects visit your site.
Most clients choose a new creative firm based primarily on trust and a strong personal connection – this cannot be made through a proposal or a short visit to your site. Therefore, a good general rule of thumb is if the prospect is coming in cold or doesn’t know you or your firm well enough (do not assume they do), then do what you can to insist on an in-person meeting before you write a proposal. If that is not possible, then present the proposal in person. I’ve seen this level of extra effort increase win rates by tenfold.
When meeting a new client for the first time, creatives think they have to be positioned as the expert on the client’s business, strategy and project. Therefore, creatives focus much of their questions in the first meeting on the client’s business, strategy, and target audience or on other types of information that may influence the final creative solutions.
Before you can write a proposal, you need to ask more questions related to project or relationship requirements, what needs to get done for this to be considered a success; if the client does not know, propose a discovery or research phase during which you uncover and define what is needed. Yes, clients want to know you are a strategic thinker, and certainly you can begin to talk about those issues. However, in an initial meeting to discuss a potential relationship, you are not there to immediately solve their problems - you are there to there to focus on what it is you are pricing and why you are qualified.
Based on past experience, when creatives asked questions like “what is your budget?” or “who else are you considering?” clients answered with “that’s confidential.” Yet, this doesn’t mean you should avoid those topics, but reframe them so the client can answer them within a proper more open-ended context.
Instead of asking, “What firms are we competing against?” you can ask the more general question: “How many other firms are you considering and, specifically, which firms or what types of firms?” You can even qualify it by further explaining “this information will allow us to create a proposal that demonstrates what we believe is our competitive value.” In other words, if one of your competitors hasn’t worked with the client before, and you have, you can bring up your experience and knowledge of the company. Or, conversely, if your competitors have worked with the client before and you haven’t, you can emphasize that you bring fresh thinking into the relationship but also have other best practice insight within their industry.
The same works for budget questions. First ask, “What is your budget? And then explain “Having a sense of your budgetary parameters helps us tailor our proposal accordingly and also allows us to understand the importance or value of this project to your company overall.” You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get more insightful answers if you simply reframe the question.
Many creatives avoid tough questions, and prefer to live in La-La Land where challenging conversations are avoided at all costs. The worst assumption creatives can make is that clients understand that their delays or changes (in approvals, in content complexity or deliverables, or in scope) have impact. As a creative you know another round of approvals at any point in the project will require more time and money, but you need to clearly communicate that with the client before moving ahead. Let them know the impact of their changes.
Always keep the client abreast of changes to scope, schedule, and fees before incurring the additional time, service or cost; clients will change their behavior, pay additional fees or change the schedule if they see the consequences of their behavior.
When we were young, most of us were told that “honesty is the best policy” and the rule holds true for business as well. Don’t be afraid to ask the right questions and explain why you need answers. You’ll come across as professional, considerate, but most importantly, you’ll do a better job.
What assumptions did you used to make that you’ve since abandoned?
A brutally honest consultant, Emily has worked with leading design firms to improve operational effectiveness and build efficient teams and processes. She is a frequently-requested speaker on business-related issues for the creative industry. She also runs Evolve Symposium an expert-led, peer-driven event focused on business practices for principals of creative firms.