How to win work on your own terms

The DBA’s John Scarrott talks to consultancy Shaw+Skerm about the guidelines they set themselves for winning work.

No.1 Angel identity and signage, by Shaw Skerm
No.1 Angel identity and signage, by Shaw Skerm

How you go about winning work is a central part of your identity as a design business. It affects the way you work when you’ve secured a project and shapes your sense of self-worth. Given this and the proportion of your time spent trying to win work, the way you go about this process matters.

In 2013 Matt Shaw and Paul Skerm, of London consultancy Shaw+Skerm, did a lot of pitches and lost more than they wanted to. They learned the hard way that something needed to change. They decided to focus on their process of finding work, in particular on:

• Deciding who they would work with (and who they would decline); and

• Their approach to these new relationships.

How do you assess whether you’re going after the right work for the right reasons? And find the confidence to turn work down for the right reasons too? Shaw+Skerm developed a list of six questions to ask clients to evaluate opportunities and to assess whether the work, the relationship and the money was going to be right for them:

• ‘Can we meet you?’ When a client agrees to meet prior to the presentation it means they are serious. Matt and Paul get a sense of the client’s motivation by sitting across the table from them. No meeting, no motivation.
• ‘What is the budget?’ There should be an openness around the budget. If the client doesn’t know for sure, then get an approximation. Otherwise, how do you know what you have to work with?  No budget, not budging.
• ‘How many other consultancies are you seeing?’ The client shares the number of other agencies in the mix. More than four? No thanks.
• ‘Here’s how we present…’ Open up the dialogue about the pitch. Discuss whether or not this works for both parties. Find a common ground.
• ‘Our approach is not a free pitch.’ Creative pitching does not work. Straight credentials are not enough. Shaw+Skerm take a different approach. They unpick and analyse their case studies. They know them back to front.  This means they can align them to the brief.  To back up the past work, they create some talking points, mini insights to engage the client and get a conversation going. They don’t give their ideas away for free.
‘Is the opportunity worth it?’ Not just the money. Does it fit your strategic direction? Is the type of work right for the business?

Matt and Paul also looked again at their approach to these new relationships – how could they communicate and interact better with clients, to be more open, more flexible and more human:

• After they send an email, they pick up the phone. They don’t send an email and sit on their hands. They call and ask ‘How do those figures sound?’
• When a decision-maker drops out of the meeting, they ring up and say, ‘Sorry to hear about that. How will this affect your process? We would be happy to come in a second time if that would be helpful.’
• They’re clear that credentials are good but not good enough and the creative pitch is a no-no. Shaw+Skerm have found the in between approach. They use mood-boards which aren’t time consuming and allow them to show a snippet of what they do, to dangle the carrot and open up dialogue with the client.
• They show their process in action. The client feels like they’re getting a taste of what it would be like to work with them. By bringing clients into the process early on they are able to shape the finished result.
• There’s a focus on the end customer of their client. If it’s an exhibition design, they talk about the visitor. They adopt different perspectives.
• They don’t say ‘We won’t work for work’. But they’re confident and clear that they won’t do the work to win the work.

Shaw+Skerm’s criteria help them pause and think rather than rush headlong into the next job. It’s all about a dialogue with their clients, not a dictatorship. They recognise that the client has systems and ways of working and they first seek to understand these, before blending theirs and the client’s working practices together.

It’s been a very conscious, considered process, to gradually introduce these criteria into their business. And they’re now successfully changing the way they win work. As Matt and Paul say, ‘It feels great to win work on our own terms’.

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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  • John Scarrott November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Want to resist giving more than you want to or overcommitting at a new business meeting? Write a cheque payable to your client-to-be for the total value of the job. Put the chequebook in your pocket. When you spot the signs that you’re approaching the point where you might start to over commit or give too much, touch or tap your pocket and this will remind you, break the pattern and you can reign yourself in. I suggested this to a design business recently, they did it and it worked. #30daystokickfreepitching Day 19 today of resisting giving expertise away for free. (PS tear the cheque up after

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