The HeART of Design Business is a five-part series addressing the inner tensions artists feel as they face the creativity-sapping realities of running a business. Part one dealt with matters of money and finances, part two with measuring time, and in this third installment we’ll dig deep as we face the universally despised tasks of marketing, sales, and new business development.
Most owners of professional design practices would prefer to work on almost any other facet of their business than sales and lead generation—even the finances! Knocking on doors, as it were, is the last thing they want to do. But without a viable pipeline of opportunities, the business will eventually falter.
Outside of professional sales people, very few business owners relish the hunt for new business. And for artists, this effort is not just unpleasant, it drains all the creative energy right out of their souls. New business acquisition (or, more to the point, the lack thereof) is universally stressful.
Facing a meager, or empty, new business pipeline is a dreadful moment. And unfortunately, it usually takes dreadful moments like these to motivate design firm owners to start scrambling for new opportunities. This makes them desperate. And a desperate sales situation leads to some really bad deals. It invites unprofitable business with unqualified and often despotic clients.
Desperation can fill your pipeline with all kinds of bad opportunities, which will set you up for even more stress later.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Designers can cultivate a new business approach that, while still requiring discipline, can actually become a positive, affirming, and productive experience.
How Narrow Positioning Changes the Sales Experience
The fundamental prerequisite for changing the sales experience is to develop a well-crafted, sharply honed, positioning statement. Choosing a narrow position (limiting what you do, and who you do it for) sharpens your new business axe. It makes it easier for you to identify your market, and it makes you more effective in reaching that market. Additionally, it enables your prospects to easily verify your expertise—and as you will see this completely changes the sales experience.
Much more can be said about the importance of positioning, but I’m taking a different approach here—for more on positioning itself read my article The Sharp Edge of Positioning. What I want to describe and contrast here is the experience of selling from a generalist position compared to selling from a narrow specialized position.
The Generalist Firm Sales Experience
A generalist design firm typically builds their business around a referral and reputation model. That’s fine as far as it goes, but under this model you have very little control over where your work comes from or who you will end up working for. With this model the owner of the design practice anxiously waits for the phone to ring, or for an email to come in. When the phone does ring, it leads to even more anxiety. Right out of the gate you cannot anticipate very much about the needs of whoever it is on the other end of the call—and so you have to do the dance.
There are many steps in this dance: you need to make a good impression, build some chemistry, get a read on the prospect’s budget (unless they volunteer that, but who are we kidding), determine the scope of the request, throw out some numbers, and try to persuade the prospect that you can deliver. This kind of persuading process requires a lot of fishing around, speaking in generalities, making unrealistic promises, and most likely under bidding.
Once you hang up from that call, having promised a proposal of some kind, you face even more stress. Lacking sufficient detail of the prospect’s needs, your proposal will have to major on boilerplate generalities about your firm’s experience, vision, and creativity—and little on the specifics of the project itself. And your estimate is often merely an educated guess that you hope is in their ballpark, but will also cover your costs. You send it and then you wait. And maybe call—and leave a message. Or email, and wait for a reply. Sometimes you get the business, and sometimes you never hear a thing. Occasionally you get the, “we’ve decided to go in a different direction” email or call, which is always discouraging, but at least then you know that opportunity is dead.
No wonder designers don’t want to do this any more than they have to! I’ve lived this, it’s no fun. But I also lived out doing it a different way, and it made sales one of my favorite moments in running my design firm.
A Controlled Sales Experience
Let’s re-run the sales experience under different circumstances—assume that you’ve carved out a narrow position and that your website clearly expresses and demonstrates your expertise. It clearly articulates what you do, who you do it for, and why that benefits them.
First of all, having focused your market, you no longer need to just wait for the phone to ring. Knowing who you want to work for makes it easy to find your prospects. Let’s use, for the sake of example, a positioning that focuses on private secondary schools. You can easily go to LinkedIn and search the Primary/Secondary Education industry and filter by the function for principals and marketing directors. There’s your market. You’ll need to think through your approach but you now know where to start.
Consider, by way of contrast, what parameters you’d use in LinkedIn search if you were a generalist firm. You’d have almost no parameters, because almost any business is a potential client. Controlled marketing activity is D.O.A. for the generalist firm.
But with targeted positioning you can easily find your market. Then you can use InMail, or even plain old email to reach out. Your message, under a sharp positioning, would be tailored to that market. And if you have worked for a number of similar institutions, you already have a pretty good idea what their most crucial needs are—and your brief into can speak to those needs.
If a prospect then decides to investigate your message, and click through to your site, they would find a firm that really does know their industry, has good answers to their questions, and understands their needs. And perhaps your experience goes deep enough that you could even publish price ranges with a high degree of certainty that you can produce quality work under those ranges.
When they take the next step to set up a call with you, many of the hurdles that random new business calls entail, have already been cleared. They know what you do, they know there is a good chance that you’ll be a good fit, and they may even know your prices. They have, in effect, pre-qualified themselves on a number of fronts. That means you can focus in on essentials during that phone call. You can get to the substantive information you need to respond meaningfully to their request. You’re the expert on the call.
The real joy is how a call like that feels. In contrast to grasping for details in a random call, you have confidence, already knowing most of the issues, in a focused new business call. You can even know personal and professional details about this prospect—especially if they responded to your initiative on LinkedIn. This prospect is already half sold. And your experience, and the answers you have really do fit their needs. And that kind of conversation is very helpful to them, and affirming to you.
Just consider this experience from the potential client’s perspective. How many times have they had to prod and poke a potential new design firm and sift through the generalized answers for some substance? They’re tired of the dance just as much as you are. How refreshing for them to find a firm that really does know their world. Instead of winging it, hoping they found a competent and dependable resource, they come away with a strong sense of confidence in your firm.
As a result of the refreshing, confidence-instilling nature of that kind of experience, the tone of these new business calls is usually complementary and affirming. And as you share your expertise with clear answers to their questions the client feels like they’re breathing fresh air, and they’ll often signal that back to you in complementary ways. And when the call is over and it’s time to write a proposal, since you already have a number of similar samples to start from, the process is easy and accurate—you just have to tailor it for this particular opportunity.
And finally, when you’ve won the business, delivered the product, and been paid, having satisfied the client—that heart warming experience will build your creative confidence like nothing else! An improved sales experience like this can really help overcome the barriers in the heart of an artist toward sales!
There are other heart issues to contend with with respect to the narrow specialized positioning I describe here. For help with some of those see my article Agency Branding: Artsy or Artisan?