Going deeper with clients

Chasing new clients may be exciting, but it makes more business sense to improve the way you handle your current stable, says Ricky Oh

I can’t prove it, but I have a strong feeling that there is something in the make up of a designer that naturally leads him or her to be attracted by shiny new things. It’s probably the same urge that fires our creativity and leads us to try to see something that no one has seen before, and then put it down on paper. Which is great, as long as we are just talking about designing things, but what we do as designers doesn’t happen in isolation. We aren’t just designing things, we are running businesses and trying to make money to pay salaries and phone bills and rent and all that management stuff. And this is where the designer’s love of shiny and new can be a problem.

Whether you participate in, or even agree with creative pitching or not, the amount of work that even a small design group puts into new business is phenomenal. The initial effort to get a meeting, going over with a portfolio and meeting new people is huge. Then, one time in ten, you are asked to submit a proposal document and, more often than not, come up with a ‘few ideas’. In a small consultancy it’s not unusual for 50 per cent of the team to be working on a pitch, leaving the rest struggling with the work of existing clients that demand and deserve to be treated better.

So what makes us do it? What makes us abandon the clients we have worked with for years, the clients who have given us great creative projects and have paid their bills regularly? I’m afraid it’s the lure of a shiny new thing and the thrill of the chase – the adrenaline rush when the phone rings and the marketing director says she wants to work with you; the first glimpse of design pastures new, in which you can do anything you please.

Now, I am a designer by trade and not a trained business person and I have to admit that I suffer from shiny-new-thing syndrome, but the more my company develops long-term relationships with its clients, the more I see the folly in this way of thinking. It’s not that a consultancy doesn’t need an injection of newness every now and again – of course it does, no one can stand still in this business. It’s just that the trick is to apply the shiny-new-thing energy into more profitable areas.

Like I said, maybe one meeting in ten will yield an invitation to pitch, and then after that you can’t win them all – even if you are on top of your game and win three out of four pitches you can’t plan a business strategy on that – so you’re betting on pretty poor odds. Instead, what you need to do is focus that energy on your existing clients. They like you, they have a relationship with you, they know you and, more importantly, you know them, so already the odds are shortened.

Okay, so maybe it’s easier written than done. But there are a few pragmatic steps you can take to make it happen.

First, you need to make sure that the relationship you have with your long-term clients is one in which creativity can still flourish. True, the blindness of a new relationship, the inability to see imperfections that both consultancy and client suffer from when things are fresh, no longer protects you, but hopefully you need to replace that by a new trust between you both, one in which you both have space to experiment and the mandate to challenge.

Next, listen to new voices, but don’t ignore old ones. The old trick of putting new teams or designers on to a project does inject energy and encourage change, but the skill is not letting them wipe the slate clean and with it wipe away the creative equity you have built up. The trick is to nurture a sense of shared creative ownership in your consultancy, so when a new suggestion is made it is judged and taken on or rejected simply on its merits, not personal politics.

Finally, keep an open mind. If you, as a manager, believe your clients will never want anything new, you’ll never deliver it. Apply the same braveness you’d show to present off-the-wall work in a pitch to clients and you’d be amazed how receptive they can be. Okay, they won’t go for everything, but you have more chance with them than you have in a four-way pitch, so what have you got to lose?

Ricky Oh is a director at 3 Fish in a Tree

Building client relationships

• Breed an environment of trust between you and your client, one that gives you both the space to challenge each other• Don’t change for change’s sake – embrace new ideas, but not at the detriment of what you have spent time developing
• Share ideas between designers, make everybody believe in their shared ownership of concepts and finished products, and get everyone involved• Be enthusiastic and optimistic – keep going back with new ideas and sooner or later the client will start to demand them

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