Fortify old ties as well as seeking new ones

For years the design industry has railed against clients, on the grounds that “they just don’t understand us”. Clients do not realise the impact design can have on business performance, the industry’s argument goes. Nor do they treat design practitioners with the respect they deserve.

Education has been cited by everyone, from design’s official bodies to media commentators, as the key to enlightening potential clients to design’s benefits. To this end client “converts” are trotted out to explain the contribution a good consultancy can make, not just to a company’s visual communications, but to its overall strategy.

There is undoubtedly some truth in this opinion and there has been some success in furthering the cause. The Design Council’s on-going initiative to guide a handful of Civil Service departments towards better design management practice, with invaluable help from design management doyenne Jane Priestman, represents the pinnacle of that effort.

But now clients have been given the chance to answer back – and their response isn’t perhaps what design groups expected. Client surveys carried out by The Tutt Consultancy and Havas-owned Brandowners respectively suggest that all is not entirely well, with poor service and lack of evaluation of design projects cited as common grievances against consultancies.

The biggest failing attributed to design groups in the surveys is their perceived obsession with winning new work – for new clients – rather than nurturing relationships with those they’ve already won over.

These findings appear very unfair to both the bigger branding consultancies and the smaller, creatively driven specialist groups which are renowned for retaining clients over many years. But they might reflect the mass of consultancies out to impress their financial masters on the strength of new-business wins.

Even if the findings don’t ring true for you, the issues behind the surveys throw up a few useful questions. How much, for example, does it cost to win new work compared with the cost of retaining existing clients? If referral is the best way to get your name across, what are your clients saying about you? How often do you get really innovative design through with a new client, compared with projects for clients with which you’ve built up trust?

Tremors on the international stock markets threw up warning signs to business this week, which might result in a slight tightening of belts, if only in the short term. What better time to boost your relationships with existing clients while the boom continues. If the City’s fluctuations recur, you might be glad you did.

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