Changing a Client’s Perception of Your Design Business

Ever return to a reunion and been frustrated when former classmates are surprised at your success? It may be human nature to pigeonhole one another, and since (most) clients are human, they have a natural tendency to make assumptions about your abilities and those of your graphic or web design firm that will be tough to change.

Mind Your Own Business ConferenceSmaller ships turn quicker, and your capabilities are likely to expand more rapidly than client needs will evolve.  You are a smaller firm than your client, and are likely adding capabilities very quickly. That’s another way of saying that clients may have you in a rut.

Who is Responsible for a Client’s Perception of Your Design Business?

Before exploring ways to climb out of the rut, though, recognize that you are largely responsible for what clients think of you. If current clients have limited views of your abilities, the odds are that you are the one who provided the evidence they needed. In other words, take responsibility for the image that exists of you or your design firm.

Losing Respect for Your Design Business

Most graphic and web design firms (about 80%) do not have a credible marketing plan for themselves. Since that results in too few opportunities to choose between, they compromise their positioning to get a foot in the door. The self-justification sounds like this: “I know this initial project won’t be as profitable as I would like, but there are lots of opportunities at this company, and if I get my foot in the door now, I’ll be there when the opportunities come along.”

This is a terrible plan. Rather than getting your entire body (much less company) in the client’s door, you’ll be banned to the hallway, with your bruised foot extending through the crack that seldom opens wider.

Working for small start-up companies trying to go public (through an IPO) is a classic example of this dilemma. They desperately need something, but don’t have the capital to pay for it. They’ll work hard to convince you that this is a good investment on your part. After all, as the marketing manager intones, “we are committed to being loyal to the suppliers who help us at the beginning. Think of the opportunities there will be. We are all in this together. Help now, and you’ll be the first in line once the money starts pouring in.”

With great expectations, we join the team at discounted rates and wait for the big payoff for all the loyalty and hard work. Most stories end there, though, since the typical start-up never goes public. But for those that do, it is far more common for them to replace you with someone who “is more suited to our needs right now.”

7 Ways to Earn Respect for Your Design Business

  1. Market yourself all the time, no matter how busy you are. Marketing is the most important ingredient in the success of any business. But it is not primarily about getting more work, but about the kind of work you get. Marketing has very little to do with growth in the future. It has much more to do with sanity in the present. Do you have a business marketing plan?
  2. Remember that there is an optimum level of client turnover, as long as it is for the right reasons. Every year phase some clients out with price. If your prices are fair and clients still wince, find them an alternate partner who won’t resent working at that level. Without a steady stream of new clients, you’ll be frustrated trying to re-educate current ones.
  3. Hire (or align yourself with) people who add a deep expertise to your existing ones. When you combine their experience with yours, it is legitimate to claim additional capabilities as a group. E.g., if you anticipate that a new client will require expertise beyond yours, partner with another provider up front. That’s more believable to a client than searching for the expertise after they’ve requested it.
  4. Have a marketing lunch with every major client every year. Sit down with them and “re-introduce” them to your graphic or web design firm. Explain the kind of work you have been doing, what staff capabilities are now in place, and what is planned for next year. Perception seldom keeps pace with reality, and educating your clients in smaller increments is more effective.
  5. Be careful about justifying low paying jobs to establish yourself. You are selling problem-solving. Consider it a success if you get through an entire new business presentation without talking about your work. Focus instead on asking the client brilliant questions.
  6. Wait for the marketing manager to leave their position at the client, and then pounce. Most new decision makers want to make their own mark immediately. That means bringing a new provider to the table (usually one they have worked with in the past). Since your chances are not as good, you have little to lose. Send them a memo that says: “Here’s our resignation from the account. We are resigning for two reasons. First, we recognize that any decision should be yours and we want the job only if you give it to us. Second, we have not been able to move beyond ‘vendor’ in this relationship, and it needs a fresh start. Please let us know if we can be your ‘partner.’”
  7. Finally, recognize that clients smell lack of confidence. They’ll generally believe anything you tell them, provided you say it with confidence. If  you say you can do something, they’ll usually say “yes” and move on. And how much you charge is a big indicator of confidence.

Resources for Growing Your Graphic Design Business