Act like an expert, not a designer

Mark Busse – No Comments

The following article by Mark Busse was published on December 9, 2013 in Design Edge Canada Magazine.

As a young design producer I was convinced my job was to keep clients happy. To service them to death. To deliver what they asked for on time, on budget, and with a smile. I also thought it wasn’t my job to do sales. I was wrong.

I recently read a powerful book called The Challenger Sale and attended a workshop presented by the author Matthew Dixon, executive director of strategic research at the business performance consulting firm Corporate Executive Board. Based on extensive study of sales professionals, their customers and the buying process, Dixon has turned the conventional view of business development and sales on its head. Turns out most of us have it all wrong.

Selling design requires using the gears in our heads to demonstrate we’re more than order takers or pretty makers.

I’ll never forget the day when, as a young man, I was ‘summoned’ by a new client. To say I was intimidated by this man would be an understatement. He had a reputation for being demanding and he scared the crap out of me.

I zipped over to his office—a huge room like those on Mad Men with a giant wood desk and a credenza along the back wall. I remember noticing no papers anywhere in sight. Ever the keener, I arrived early and was ready to talk about work underway or receive his brief for our next project. What I didn’t expect was a voodoo doll.

Yup. A voodoo doll.

“People say you’re a smart and talented guy, hey?” he began. “But what I want to know is whether or not you’re going to give me what I need” he said. Convinced my job was to take orders from this guy, I nodded enthusiastically and confirmed my intention to carry out his every order—on time and on budget. I flashed my friendliest smile.

Turning to retrieve something from his impressive credenza, he swivelled his high back leather chair around and asked, “Do you know what this is?” lifting toward me a 12 inch sewn cloth effigy of what appeared to be a white male figure. “This is you.”


He then picked up a comically large hatpin, you know the kind with the huge teardrop pearl head on top, and started slowly pushing it through the head of this…me doll. “And this is you if you only do exactly what I ask for—even if it’s delivered on time and on budget.” He smiled.

The silence in that room was thick as honey. I couldn’t move or speak. “Sorry?” was all I could squeak out.

“I pay you to be an expert, right?” he continued. “And obviously you are capable of producing what I need. Lots of people can. What I NEED from you is your expertise. There’s much more value between your ears than in your work. So if you’re not going to be honest with me, speak openly if you feel there’s a better way, or even teach me a few things along the way, then I’ll find someone else to work with.”

Did I mention how this guy had a reputation and I was intimidated?

You know what though? He was right. And that was almost 20 years ago! These days it is absolutely our role as design experts to act as such and lead, guide, and even teach our clients. Otherwise we’re just…I dunno…pretty makers.

According to Matt Dixon, there are various types of sales approaches, including the Hard Worker, the Relationship Builder, the Lone Wolf, the Problem Solver, and the Challenger. It is this last type, the “Challenger”, that thrives by employing a method where instead of merely accepting and following client instructions or demands, the designer is well informed about their customers and offers a unique perspective, is often assertive and willing to push the customers and engage them in debate, and guides and takes control of the sale and relationship. Doesn’t sound like the “customer is always right” paradigm we were all taught, does it?

“Design professionals are not dissimilar to other professional services we’ve studied,” explained Dixon in a recent conversation. “Left to their own devices, a newly minted designer will assume the best way to win work is to react to the demands of the customer, giving them exactly what they think they need. But with better informed clients these days, this doesn’t work well anymore.”

He’s quite right actually. If a prospective client issues an RFP asking for prices for a new logo design, the classic assumption is that to win the business, you need to follow their instructions or design brief to a tee without questioning the need, context, or bigger picture. That’s an outdated and ineffective sales approach.

According to Dixon’s research, the buying process has changed in recent years. Never before have clients had easier or more access to information, allowing them to have a broader understanding of their own needs and benchmark against others, often downloading information from competitors’ and suppliers’ websites.

Experienced design buyers can figure out much more on their own and are much further down the purchase path before they ever pick up the phone or email potential design candidates. This frequently leads to bottom line purchase decisions as suppliers hungry for work cave on conditions or price.

The key to this is to realize that what design buyers are really looking for is the thing they missed.

Most designers are stuck in the old paradigm, believing their primary sales function is to explain qualifications, services and past accomplishments as they try to convince prospects to hire them. But as Dixon’s research shows, that is merely “ticket to the dance” information, often readily available to buyers, as well as our peer networks (eg. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) where they can learn much about us.

Design buyers will always want to see our portfolio work and judge our ability to produce gorgeous design solutions, but remember that by the time you meet with them, they’ve mostly made up their mind about us and our abilities. Dixon’s studies demonstrate that sales performance increases dramatically when an informed customer is “challenged” with diagnostic needs analysis and a plan tailored to a customer’s context, needs and objectives which often include making more money, saving money, improving recruiting efforts or a host of other business problems.

With the precious face-to-face time you have with prospects, instead of focusing on your qualifications communicate what you’ve learned about their business, but more importantly what insights you’ve gleaned from working with other customers in ways that can be beneficial and deliver value to them.

It’s important to be respectful to clients as experts in their fields, but knowing that prospects these days know (or think they know) a lot about design and marketing, and have many affordable options available to them, try to focus on things our clients do not know and this can be used as a selling advantage.

For example, the next time you arrive at a pitch meeting, where normally you’d take them through your portfolio and the various arguments on why you are qualified to be their design partner, instead hand them copies of a printed document and say, “Here’s our response to your RFP which you can read and we can discuss later, but what we’d like to talk about right now are the three things we feel you missed.” If they insist on still viewing work, show them one comprehensive case study of a project they can relate to and focus on the key discoveries and insights you created for that client other than how nice the graphic design was.

By confidently explaining that you solve problems like theirs all the time and want to warn them about pitfalls that they might not be aware of, essentially offering to save them time, effort and expense, you will stop them in their tracks. Dixon calls this “making them blink”. It won’t always work, but by causing them to reconsider their situation and brief you can reveal insights and opportunities they may have missed altogether, positioning you as (most likely) the only candidate brave enough to have challenged them and left them with this “gift”.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting providing free speculative creative, but something that confidently demonstrates your expertise, perspective and unique ability to solve their business problem in ways they may not even have considered.

And for you designers who feel sales isn’t your job—you’ve missed a very important lesson: we’re ALL in sales.

This approach may seem counter-intuitive to a young designer, but like anything, sales takes practise. The “challenger” approach requires confidence and needs to be used with caution, lest you are perceived as either unsure of your own process, or worse, an arrogant jerk. But if you start behaving like the expert you want to be now, soon you will be.

I’ll never forget that client (especially his terrifying voodoo doll) who so bluntly made clear his desire for me not to serve his every whim. It felt unnatural to me at first, but I soon realized that good clients actually WANT to be taught. By behaving like the expert he was paying for by challenging, informing and guiding him toward business success, we created a tighter bond based on trust and mutual respect that others could not breach.

So the next time you are speaking with a new client, remind yourself that although they may seem to have a lot of information (and make no mistake, they do), the fact is that you know things they don’t. And despite all the attention given to portfolio work in the design field, it’s the insights and perspective you can provide that they want to pay for. So resist the urge to act like a designer and instead act like an expert and use what’s between your ears before someone jabs a pin in it.