First Published: Mass High Tech: The Journal of New England Technology – January 19, 2007.
Last week, we looked at the lack of good business reasons to start a web design studio and how to bootstrap your startup through clean invoicing and clear evaluation of your time and talents. After all, competition is stiffer than ever, the hours are long, and yet, everywhere I turn, there are new studios opening shop. This week, we look at sales and marketing, and why you have to be more than just a good CSS junkie: You must be good at business if you want to stay in business.
If you can’t sell, get help
Selling is the hardest job in the world. It’s mostly filled with thankless tasks guaranteed with lots of rejection. It’s also the most important job in the studio. If there are no sales there is no work, simple. Most designers I meet are horrible at selling and all the training in the world is not going to change them. If you’re one of those designers, find someone who loves to sell and has the energy to go out and pound the streets. Notice I didn’t say anything about needing experience. Energy is infinitely more important than sales experience for a salesperson’s success. Studies have shown that the only common characteristic across successful salespeople, regardless of education, race, age or background, is perseverance. Pay them a small salary and a big commission. The best salespeople prefer working for commissions because there is no limit on how much they can earn.
Don’t sell when you are selling
This is advice for anyone in the studio. Whether you are the creative head or the business development director your best pitch is the one you never make. Let other’s pitch you. I don’t need to tell you that when a referral comes your way it’s like money in the bank. The referral is nothing more than a pitch on your behalf. Create a community of salespeople out of your clients, partners and your general network. When a new prospect asks you to respond to an RFP, send over a list of references instead. Tell them very nicely that you are too busy working on a deadline to write out a ten page response to their request but they should speak to your past clients in the meantime. If you’ve done impressive work and delivered on your promises this tactic will close the prospect for you, every time.
Never ever get tempted to buy an ad in your local daily or in the Yellow Pages. It’s a waste of money. Your entire marketing budget should be spent on your existing clients and contacts. Send them thank you gifts and tokens of appreciation when they refer someone to you. Better yet, send them a check every time they refer someone to you. Very quickly they’ll start spending more time selling you than selling themselves. If you doubt this technique, try it for a month and see what happens.
References and portfolio work is what gets you more work — and nothing gets more work than doing brand-name work. If you don’t have either, then offer a few well known local brands or high-profile businesses a discounted web redesign. You’ll be amazed at how effective a mockup or screenshot is at getting a potential client’s attention. Give them a taste of what you can do for them and then draw them in for a bigger piece of work. This will enable you to build a portfolio of recognizable names while establishing a Rolodex of connected clients that will refer you more work.
Nothing will ever take the place of quality design and clean standards-driven programming, but it’s not enough. Understanding and mastering your own business will also make you a better designer. You’ll be more sensitive to your client’s business objectives as they relate to the design and you’ll have more credibility if you are running a successful business yourself.