The Art of Selling: How to Build Strong Client Relationships

A successful design project relies on a strong partnership between consultant and client—and that doesnt come by happenstance.

by Stephanie Simpson

Art of Selling

Building a strong client relationship begins well before project kick-off.  Strategic business development is, of course, critical to your firm’s profitability. But it’s also foundational to the success of your product designs.

Start by building a relationship based on your clients needs.

This means you need to ask a lot of questions. It’s tempting to go into a meeting with a prospective client and start talking about your service offering. But what do you know about their situation? Are they having a good day at work? Are they having a good day at home? Is this the right time of year for new projects in their budget? What are their needs? You won’t discover any of that if you go in and start to talk before you listen.

Good business development is about building a relationship with a person and finding synergies. The goal is a respectful client relationship that becomes an effective working partnership and results in world-class product design.

Ask, listen, and take copious notes.

Your first scheduled discussion with a prospective client should be a phone conversation that gives you a chance to ask clarifying questions. This is an interview to help everyone prepare for an effective in-person meeting.

This and every time you talk to your client, have a pen and paper with you. It is very important to write down anything significant they say. Again, this is not only about your product! You should be writing down where they are going on vacation, how many kids they have, what their spouse’s name is – those things are important, because they help you connect and lay the foundations of a solid client relationship. How do you remember new people you meet in your personal life? Use those same techniques.

And then also start to write down the important things they say about their business needs. You are trying to understand their needs, and how those fit with the broader needs and current priorities of their organization. Also, try to ascertain what is driving their need for change. If you can understand their motivations, you will be better able to respond with meaningful solutions.

Ask for budget and timing up front.

A lot of people are afraid to ask for the prospective budget and timing. If you don’t ask, they won’t tell you. Let them know that you are aiming to put together a ballpark proposal for them. If they are not sure, then you can offer some guidelines. Throw out a number that equates to a team size or a product quantity and ask if that is what they are looking for. Give them two options. Are you looking for a team of 3 people or 5 people? Are you looking for 5 licenses or 10 licenses? Are you looking to start now or in 3 months? Are you looking for this to be a 3-month engagement or a 12-month engagement?

Regardless, ask the questions so that you can get some details to work with. Once you have some details, you can put together a proposal that meets the requirements they gave you. And then you have a starting point for negotiation. 

Related: Project Management Skills Every Designer Should Know 

Create a plan that fits their needs.

This is where all your asking and listening pays off, because by now you should have a very good understanding of what they need to accomplish, what they expect your company to provide, and what resources they’re able to commit to the project. Now you can create a sensible proposal. Ideally, you will use their own words in the proposal, so it’s clear you have heard what they said, and your proposed approach directly answers the problem they’ve outlined.

Create a white board schedule that sketches out the next 3 months. What are you going to do for your client in the next 3 months? How much will that cost in software, hardware, and resources? How many of their needs will that plan meet? This is Phase 1 to start. Phase 2, 3, X… are all the rest to come.

Present to your audience with the effort they deserve.

Now that you have a plan, make sure you present it for impact. Who are you presenting to? Are these corporate officers? Is this a startup? Do your research, and know who is going to be in the room. Naturally, you can – and should – commit more resources to pitch for a larger sale. Regardless, you should always be respectful and present the best you can for every prospective client. In every case, large or small, you are always helping the client choose the most effective use of their valuable resources.

Take care of the emotional side of your presentation. Sound enthusiastic without exaggeration or hype. Be relaxed and informal in speech, but rigorous in terms of logic and detail. Cover all the bases. Anticipate criticism or difficult questions. Be as specific as you can. Generalizations are not convincing.

Ask the provocative questions.

Even when you are presenting, you are continuing to build a relationship. If you can make the meeting more of a workshop and less of a presentation, you will continue to learn more about the client, and your end product will reap the rewards. Sometimes you don’t have that luxury. In that case, put a lot of questions in your presentation. That way you are able to pause and get the audience to talk more than you are talking. Ask provocative questions. I have asked questions like, “What would happen if you didn’t do this?” and “What would happen if you put your current design on a future device”? Questions like these will provoke open-ended thinking about the possibilities of your proposal, and demonstrate the value of an outside perspective.

Respect their position.

Your prospective client knows a lot more than you do. They have only given you a very small sliver of the story. They need certain things to get this approved. You don’t have enough background to understand why. Don’t try to win those battles. Get the sale and then work on the battles – only the important ones –when you have the project.

Know your own value.

Your prospective client will inevitably ask for a discount. I think a little bit of a discount is fine. But I don’t believe in taking away hours from a project without taking away scope. Your team won’t make it on time, or they will be wiped out. Your product will suffer. Your client will not enjoy the results. Decide on a manageable scope together with your client, and then put 100% effort into that. Over deliver and you will get more bang for the buck. It may take a little time to work on a plan that works for both of you, but that patience pays off in the end.

Ask for the sale, have patience, and be persistent.

Yes, you still have to ask for the sale. You still have to be persistent and follow up regularly. People are busy. You are not the most important thing on their plate all the time. Follow up and don’t make them feel bad for it. Just keep building that relationship.

Communicate just enough.

Communication is key to any relationship, so it’s the cornerstone of selling. There is the obvious communication—when someone contacts you, contact them back ASAP. I think you should try to get back to them within a few hours—sometimes sooner. The rest gets a little tricky. You don’t want to bother someone. If they have told you to contact them after a certain period of time, then wait until then. Most of the time, try to control that contact period by asking when you should contact them. Also find out what important dates are coming up and when things are due so that you understand where you fit into their schedule. And then be careful about communicating too much. Following up once every 2 weeks is fine. But it may be once every month depending on the sales cycle. Don’t forget to add them to your company newsletter. Send out holiday cards. If you find something interesting on the Internet that pertains to them, send it to them. It’s always a good thing to send a colleague something they can relate to.

Years ago, I had a software client with the government, and I would call him every month to chat with him. He would tell me every month that he didn’t have any needs for an extra license. We would chat a little bit about our lives, build our relationship a little more, and hang up. The end of the year came, and I got a call before I did my monthly rounds. My friend was calling me to buy a couple of seats of software. My (just enough) persistence and relationship building had paid off.

It worked for me. It can work for you as well.

Stephanie is a Client Services Director at argodesign, where she leads cross-functional teams of Creatives and Technologists to deliver successful programs spanning the lifecycle of product design and development. Her passion is to help bring creative ideas to market through effective communication, selling, and management.  

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