Do Clients Choose Us, or Do We Choose Clients?

Mark Busse – One Comment

We’re often asked about how Industrial Brand does business development and finds our clients. Good question, but not one that can be easily answered in a short explanation or blog post. One issue that always gets met with raised eyebrows is the fact that we’re sort of picky about the clients we DO work with and how often we actually decline work.

What? Decline work? In THIS economy? Are we crazy? I don’t think so.

We feel that it is important to consider what our clients, their products, practices, and reputations say about us as their design partners. The words of advertising legend Dick Lord sum up how we feel about choosing clients:

Be honest. Do good work. And remember’ you’re defined by your clients. Be as discriminating about clients as clients are about agencies. Work with people you respect, on products you believe in. Great work, great clients and honest relationships; that’s the secret…

Things aren’t always so black and white though. It’s easy to say no to a pornography website project, but what about online gambling? We’re confident we’d decline working for a tobacco client, regardless of the revenue potential, but what about a drug company?

And can we please be honest about something? Realistically, how often really do designers engage in any real due diligence investigating their potential clients and their backgrounds the way companies check OUR references? Not often enough I’ll venture to say.

Beyond the important ethics issues, how about a client that has no experience working with a brand strategy firm like ours? Or if the primary contact isn’t empowered with the authority to make decisions for the company? Or even if the company is in a totally different industry or sector where we’ve decided to specialize? These are all important issues worth considering when taking on new clients—for us anyway.

So, understanding that we can’t always take super cool, well-paying clients whose companies, products, or service are things we love and endorse, we created a six point grid by which to judge all potential clients and projects.

The rules are simple. As we consider any prospective client or opportunity, we ask ourselves six simple questions—we call them “The Six Ps”:

  1. Positioning: Is there something about this client or project that will enhance and leverage our portfolio so we may attract more, similar and better work in-line with our emphasis on serving professional services firms?
  2. People: Are they good people we will enjoy working with? Are these people experienced working with a strategy-driven brand consulting firm like ours and respect our team and processes? Is there a point of contact with authority to make decisions? Will we be able to access key stakeholders and leadership in the organization? Will they trust us to do our best work?
  3. Purpose: Is this client doing meaningful work we can get passionate about and be proud of? Is this client/product/service something we can endorse and believe in, or at the very least not compromise our ethics or do harm to people, communities or the environment?
  4. Potential: Do we have the resources to meet the requirements of this project? How will this affect the team or company’s growth? If there is any doubt about delivering a quality result or on time, then we pass.
  5. Profit: Is there inherent potential to make enough money with the initial project to contribute to a healthy bottom line and sustain the business? Is this a high risk start up with clients spending their own personal money? Has the client allocated appropriate budgets and is being forthright about those parameters? This criteria is intentionally near the bottom as we don’t want the dollar value to be a key motivator for taking on work.
  6. Perception: Are there any other factors beyond the above that we need to consider? What does our instinct tell us? Can we determine why this client needs a new design firm? Does it feel like they terminated their previous creative partnership for good reasons?

We find we do our best work when all six Ps are aligned, but if the answer to these questions isn’t yes to at least three of them, for whatever reason, including gut feeling, we decline the work. Every time. Sometimes this has meant missing out on tens of thousands of dollars of revenue—perhaps much more. But by doing this, we better understand who we are as a design firm, as a company, as individuals, and as a brand. Our integrity is intact and our reputation is unsullied. Well, mostly.

A final thought worth sharing is our stance on RFPs (Request For Proposals). Typically we don’t participate in them for a variety of reasons we explain in this article I Have A Proposal For You. Simply put, we don’t believe the RFP process is typically open and fair or results in accurately revealing the right partners for a given project.

How do you choose clients? How often do you decline work?