Dealing with design buyers

When pitching to inexperienced buyers, designers need to be prepared and not commit too many resources to the initial process, says Grahame Jones.

I haven’t heard anything yet. They said they’d get back to me on Wednesday with their decision. I’m sure we’ll hear tomorrow. Thursday comes and goes. Nothing. I decide to call on Friday and leave a message. The client is in a meeting. I hear nothing back and there’s nothing in the post on Monday either. Strange. I call again and leave a message again. Then I decide to e-mail (I hate e-mailing – it’s an excuse not to talk face-to-face, so to speak). Still there is no response. Something is wrong. I call the secretary and leave another message.

Finally, I receive an e-mail. We haven’t got the job, but we have got an apology for not responding any sooner – apparently they were very busy. There is no feedback, just ‘it was a tough decision’ and nothing to thank us for our efforts. Arghhhh!

Does this sound familiar? This experience sums up my current bugbear – unprofessional buyers, particularly when tendering for new work.

This year I have been continually chasing their decisions, long after they promised to respond, and most then hide behind bland e-mails.

Excuses for not giving us work have been equally frustrating. One prospect told us that we had too much experience, even though we were originally selected for having relevant experience. Too expensive was cited by another – even though we never gave them a quote.

Over the past five years, there have been more poor buyers than good ones. In the corresponding period more design consultancies have joined the market. In fact, there is now a massive over-supply and this has strengthened the position of buyers. Maybe this has had an effect on how they treat the tendering process.

Once upon a time, buyers may have sought responses from, say, two or three consultancies – now they have design groups falling over themselves to compete for work. There is more choice, so some buyers don’t see the need to treat designers and the process with due respect. I heard that one client (unnamed, of course) asked 18 design groups to tender for its annual report.

There is no excuse for bad manners and I think we have been on the wrong end of this too often recently. I wonder how much respect some buyers have for designers and what design can do, as well as the time and effort consultancies spend on tendering for work?

Clients need to be taught how to buy creative services professionally, not just when commissioning new work from new designers, but how to get the most from their designers on a day-to-day basis. They also need to educate their own internal buyers and decision-makers.

How many times do you suspect that the people you are presenting to haven’t bothered to read the brief, don’t know what criteria is being used for evaluation and don’t know why they have been asked to attend in the first place? There is no substitute for experience. Clients seem to be getting younger – from secretary one day to marketing manager the next, without any training in between, and, hey presto, they’re buying creative services.

Losing is a part of life. I don’t mind losing (well, I do), but it is the way in which projects are lost that matters. We all know how much money is spent on this process. Recent research by British Design Innovation claims £38 000 is the average, annual cost of free-pitching. Add time for doing a straight tender and costs could triple.

So what does this all mean and where will it take us? It’s difficult to say, as there will always be an oversupply of designers and there will always be inexperienced buyers. The trick for designers is to spot one before committing resources – which is easier said than done.

Design groups need to be more diligent and ask questions to help them respond to opportunities. How many consultancies are tendering? Is the incumbent participating? Do we have a relationship?

Buyers need to consider their approach too and would receive a greater quality of response, and respect, if they too were more diligent. Don’t invite consultancies in willy nilly to participate – some may be unsuitable, so do your homework. Keep numbers down to no more than three groups. Give access to decision makers and be more open about your criteria. Develop a considered brief and last, but not least, learn how to give bad news.

Education is key. Consultancies, opinion-formers, industry bodies and so forth have to continue to educate clients on how to buy creative services effectively. It’s a big subject I know, but I for one am prepared to do my bit – are you?

Grahame Jones is director of Soukias Jones Design

Practical steps for design groups

• Develop criteria for evaluating opportunities

• Meet buyers beforehand, including decision-makers

• Develop a good nose for smelling inexperienced buyers

• Don’t jump at every opportunity

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