How to influence your clients and not just sell to them

Designers don’t have to develop a passive selling relationship with their client, they can share their expertise and learn to influence their clients’ businesses positively. Design business advisor John Scarrott investigates…

View from above on a working desk setup, bright yellow notebook, notes, coffee and glasses

Design has the potential to be an industry of influence. And for that to happen, every design business and those working within it need to recognise, get comfortable with and develop their potential for influence. By becoming experts in influence, they become better communicators which encourages their clients to be braver with their decisions delivering more for all parties.

What does this mean for you and what needs to happen for it to take place within your business?

A consultancy that is seeing the impact of this change within their business is Open Water. I spoke with Creative Director and Head of the business, Philip Hansen about his experience of a shift in influence.

For Hansen, it’s about the bigger picture: “New approaches to influence rather than just selling are just one indication of a more general move towards design thinking within businesses,” he says. He has noticed changes in his clients and the way they are treating their customers. They are setting their businesses up in a far more customer focused way, focussing ‘on’ them rather than ‘at’ their clients.

Taking the client’s perspective

Open Water is acting on this observation. Hansen says the consultancy is “using this insight to improve relationships with clients. We are asking: ‘How can we look at things from their perspective?’”

This has lead Open Water to think more about what it is it brings, with a focus, not just on the deliverables but on the interactions that shape the deliverables. “We bring more than an end product. We bring our thinking,” says Philip.

What can get in the way of this shift? Pressures at both ends play a part, around both time and money.These can force consultancies and clients to be speedy at the expense of opportunity with a rush to the end product. And what you focus on will develop. If you focus on your end product, you’re saying ‘this is all we do’.

Focus on the customer not the end product

Hansen believes that “design businesses offer such a broad range of things, services etc they’ve always got something to offer.  But an approach that is more focused on the process, that uncovers problems and keeps focus on the customer is surely more positive and has greater intrinsic value.”

What impact has growing their own idea of influence had on Open Water? Hansen explains that “As we have become more comfortable about influence, our clients have become better. The kind of work we get improves, but interestingly, the quality of what we do hasn’t changed. But what has improved are our ability and skills to guide clients.”

Influence can become a key skill

How has this shift happened? When a consultancy starts to think of influence as a natural and ever present part of the conversation, and part of its expertise it then becomes something that can be managed.

Take for example, a typical situation for a design business, receiving feedback on work. If feedback is always seen as negative, you end up with a jarring communication with your client. What Hansen did was turn that into more of a conversation.

He says: “We ask a client questions about the view they have put forward. We are curious and during this process it may emerge – in fact it often does – that we can answer these questions in a different way.

“What happens next is that we enter a new position with our clients. When they come to us with a new piece of work, the client starts to ask us these questions before the process has started. For us this is an example of practical influence, it’s desirable to all sides.”

When designers are faced with a situation where they could use influence, they don’t always think about it in a design way. They may think, ‘the barrier is insurmountable or out of their control.’ But actually it’s about something that both parties are trying to work towards. Do they have the skills to change that position? Surely they do. These are the skills that got them here in the first place, to the point where they have an idea to present.

Where you can influence your client

So what happens when a client says ‘I don’t like this…’ or ‘I prefer it this way.’ These are opportunities for design businesses to use skills of influence.

How might you go about developing your approach to influence? Here are some questions to ask. If your sales process is about developing a way to create income that is authentic to the business, how does your sales ethos compare with the ethos of the business? Do you have a clear idea of what these are and are they aligned? Sometimes the sales team is separated from the business and protected. They are allowed their own culture because it’s ‘the way they work’ or ‘how sales have to happen’. But if your business ethos and sales ethos are misaligned? What might you be missing out on? What extra opportunities can you create from these being in-tune with each other?

Hansen also has a rallying call to the industry as a whole: “Being a designer is like living a thousand lives. You get to work with your clients on their business in ways that others don’t. If the industry doesn’t see itself as an industry of influence, it’s too reliant on clients coming to their own conclusions. And that limits our potential for change in the long-run.”

John Scarrott works with design business leaders and their teams on their sales, presenting and networking skills. Follow him @JohnDScarrott or find him at johnscarrott.com

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