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My article, The Sad State of Design, 2012, garnered some excellent comments from readers and the poll showed an overwhelming number who agreed that the design industry is in something of a sad state (Results: 93%, yes 7%, no). So, does that mean that graphic design is going to the dogs and there’s no hope? Hardly. All it needs is a slight change in the way we approach things.

Fellow Advisory Board member, Dave Bricker, summed it up pretty well with the statement, “As professionals, we must assert our value and help our clients to understand it.” And that we must. His sentiment was echoed by several readers in their comments.

Dan Turner took it a step further, writing, “Educating clients takes years. My advice? Don’t do it. Don’t spend one second on it. Instead, find quality clients who already understand the value of good graphics and are happily paying for them. Problem solved.” Therein lies the meat of this follow-up article.

Finding those quality clients can be tricky, but it must be done if we are to build a vibrant practice, do great work and foster excellent client relationships that are based on trust and mutual respect. But how do we do that? In a word, “qualify.”

Qualifying prospects, as I mentioned in one of my comments, is the process of determining if a prospect is a good fit for your business. That sounds simple enough, yet so many graphic designers don’t do it, opting, rather, to take on whatever comes through the door. That’s usually the result of blind fear … the fear that nobody else is going to come through the door so they better take the gig. It’s that kind of thinking that puts a graphic designer behind the eight ball before they even get started.

The truth is that there will be, in all likelihood, others at the door, unless you really stink at being a graphic designer or are ridiculously tough to work with on projects. Sure, there are ups and downs and slow times when you’d swear somebody sprayed client repellant around the door. But, those times come and they do, in fact, go. What we’re left with at the end is the choice to take on a client or not.

I’ve been at this for a while. I’ve learned a couple of things along the way. First, have a clear picture of your ideal client. A profile, so to speak. Second, look for every reason why you shouldn’t work with a prospect. That might sound counterproductive, but it tends to keep you safe in the not-so-long run.

If you’ve been designing for some time, you probably have, or have had, some great clients. These are the patrons that provide stimulating projects, pay well, on time, and people you get along with. They’re not necessarily friends, but you wouldn’t mind being stuck in an elevator with them for a while. These are the clients you want to clone.

If you’re just starting out, you have a clean slate. Give careful thought to the type of clients you’d like to work with as you build your practice. What’s their industry? Are they large companies or smaller ones? Are they local to you or all over the place? Are the projects highly visible ones that will potentially get your name around? Do they have a steady stream of projects, or do they tend to offer up only occasional gigs? The answers to questions like these will help identify your ideal target audience, or niche, and you can begin hunting for companies that fit the bill.

Just because a company fits your profile, it doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for your business. It’s just the starting point. Next, they’ll need to pass some other tests. Typical qualifying questions include:

Do they buy what you’re selling?
A prospect may fit your criteria, but they may have an in-house department that handles their graphic design items or they may have a long-standing relationship with a designer or firm. Those relationships are a very tough nut to crack, if at all.

Can they pay for it?
You may be targeting larger companies that appear to be rolling in dough. Don’t count on it. Just because they’re big doesn’t mean they’re not on the brink of bankruptcy. If possible, run a Dunn & Bradstreet report to check their ability to pay. If you can’t afford that, at least ask around to see how they pay others. Printers, photographers and writers come to mind.

You might find that they do, in fact, have the ability to pay but they do it slowly. It’s not unusual for companies, especially larger ones, to pay in 45, 60 or even 90 days. What’s that going to do to your cash flow?

Is there a reasonable budget for the project?
This is the big stumbling block that was the crux of the previous article. Much of the reason the design industry is failing is due to budgets taking a nose dive. A big part of that is the perception, on the part of client companies, that graphic design can be gotten for a song. Crowdsourced design, job boards and the likes have given clients the notion that a great logo can be done for a buck and a quarter. A brochure budget can hover around a couple of hundred dollars, or less.

Sorry folks. It doesn’t work that way. Good design takes two important things – time and money. The reality is that a graphic designer can’t do their best work when they’re worrying about paying the rent or where their next meal is coming from. We live in a time where everybody is asked, or rather, required to do more with less. It’s the nature of the beast. But, when a prospect knocks on the door and their pockets are almost empty, it’s probably time to close the door and walk away. If that freaks you out, you might be better off working for somebody else.

Does the timeline work with your current workload?
Often that knock on the door is accompanied by a ridiculous turnaround request … or demand. Unless you’re utterly desperate or a masochist, it’s another reason to shut the door. A prospect’s lack of planning shouldn’t result in an all-nighter crisis for you.

Is your contact the final decision-maker?
Here’s a tricky one that happens all too often. You court a contact at a prospect company for a while. Things seem good. They fit your criteria, appear to pay well and have nifty projects. After a bit, your contact brings you in to discuss a project. You get all the information, go back to your office, roll up your sleeves and start to draft a proposal. You invest a day, maybe two, researching, crunching numbers and writing compelling prose. You’re rather tickled with yourself.

You set up a meeting to review your proposal and that’s when the bottom drops out. After the review, your contact says, “Hey, this is great! I just need to go over it with my boss (or committee, or worse, their spouse).” Your heart sinks. You realize you’ve been courting the wrong person and now you’ll need to start all over again.

This could have been avoided with the simple spin of a question. The question is, “Who, beside yourself, is responsible for approving the proposal (or project)? Posing this question does a couple of things. First, you learn who the real decision-maker is and second, you let your contact gracefully save face. The thing is, everybody wants to feel more important than they may be in reality. So, it’s not unusual for a contact to project the idea that they’re the decision-maker, when, in fact, they’re not.

Is there a good personality fit?
This may seem trivial, but it’s actually pretty darn important. Do you get along with the people on the prospect’s team? Over the course of a typical project, you’ll spend a fair amount of time with these folks, whether in-person, on the phone or over email. If you don’t get along, tensions can easily rise and conflict can rear its ugly head.

As mentioned, you don’t need to be best friends, but you should be able to get along, at least through to the end of the project. Try to be authentically likeable. If they like you, it’s a good start toward you liking them. Remember, people buy from people, not companies, and, they generally buy from people they like.

Do things feel right in your gut?
We can have all the qualifying questions and processes in the world, but, at the end of the day, it’s often a matter of gut feelings. That doesn’t sound very scientific, but gut feelings are often spot on. I think it has to do with our collective knowledge and experience, albeit unconscious or subconscious. If you’ve gone through the qualifying exercise and the prospect still doesn’t sit right with you, there’s probably a reason.

In addition to the questions above, I also use a more project-specific client questionnaire to further qualify prospects. The link will take you to a downloadable pdf of one of my questionnaires. This one is for site projects, but can be modified for logos, print materials, etc. Feel free to adapt it for your needs.

While going through these questions, sometimes it becomes apparent that the prospect doesn’t have a clear idea of what their goals are or what they’re trying to accomplish. Also, they might not want to share budget information or have a budget in mind. When those kind of flags start flying, usually it means it’s time for me to walk away and let somebody else train them.

Hopefully, things will go right more than they go wrong. When that happens you need to start drafting a proposal. I, being the benevolent soul that I am, can offer some help, especially for those of you who are new to this stuff. You can download a pdf of one of my proposals here to use as a guide. Sorry, folks, I had to block out the fee information because I wouldn’t want to get slammed for apparent price-fixing. Governments tend to be funny about that kind of stuff.

So, in closing, is the design industry in a sad state? If so, whose fault is it? Sure, the industry has seen some better days. So has the global economy. Like many things, it’s everybody’s fault and it’s nobody’s fault. It’s simply the way it is.

As Bricker put it in one of his comments, “… the train is the train is the train.” And so it is. The industry has changed and it’s not going back to the way things were, once upon a time. Clients and prospects are looking for the biggest bang for their buck. You can’t really blame them. When we designers buy something, we want the same. All we can do is adapt, or re-adapt our mindset, stick to our guns, be fearless and clean off the mat in front of the door. It’s the fearless part that tricks up many a designer.

By correctly qualifying prospects, we can avoid, or at least minimize the impact of low-ball prospects and clients that want the moon and the stars for a paltry amount. There’s nothing in the playbook that says you have to take on those types of clients. Leave that to the other guy or gal. Focus your efforts on those prospects that meet your lofty criteria and yes, it should be lofty. It’s the price of admission to the black turtleneck for lunch bunch.

Download the client questionnaire here.

Download the sample proposal here.