A List Apart

Getting to No

Getting to No

I’ve been selling website design and development work for over 10 years, so you’d think I’d have this stuff licked.

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Hardly. I used to think the hard part was “getting to yes,” but over time, I’ve learned that the hardest part isn’t closing the deal, but figuring out which deals are actually worth closing. It all begins with taking a hard look at the prospect you’re talking to, and keeping an eye on early behaviors that all too frequently lead to problems.

“You can’t afford to be picky”

Determining which prospects you want to work with is often considered a luxury. Don’t think of it that way. Even if the economy is in the tank and you absolutely need the gig, you should be very critical of the prospects you’re considering working with. These are the people who will become part of your immediate and potentially long-term future, and you want to make sure you don’t spend that time drinking schnapps to get through the day or grinding your teeth at night.

Remember: the prospect you’re considering is the client you’ll have.

Five red flags

Years ago, when I first started noticing these signs, I’d often ignore them or say, “They won’t be this way when we start working together.”

Oh yes they will. Bank on it.

Be on the lookout for these classic signs that can lead to Costco-sized bottles of antacid.

The never-ending contract revisionist

If you find yourself unable to come to terms after negotiating ten versions of your contract with your prospect, or if they keep asking for updated project plans before you’ve even signed an agreement, beware. They may show similar tendencies during the actual project, especially if the people you’re negotiating with are the same people on the project team. Wireframes, design comps, and other deliverables may be scrutinized to an extraordinary degree, and may also require the approval of multiple stakeholders. In rare cases, such scrutiny garners better results, but it more frequently results in watered-down, design-by-committee mediocrity.

If you encounter the never-ending contract revisionist:

  • Ask yourself if your contract is bulletproof to begin with. Be sure to work with a lawyer on this, as he or she will consider aspects of your future working relationship that may have never crossed your mind. If your contract isn’t comprehensive, you’ll waste time getting it to a solid starting point.
  • Make sure the contract you’re negotiating has plenty of wiggle room for revision work/iteration during the project, and protect that time during your negotiations: You’ll need it. Also, make sure you understand what might be causing the prospect to want to continuously revise the contract. Have they had a lousy experience with another vendor? If so, what led to that situation? Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The giant project team

Be sure to ask your prospect up front about how many people from their side will be part of the core project effort. If it’s a number greater than three, be careful. Large project teams, especially those in which everyone has equal input, often lead to unfruitful compromise and watered-down results. They also tend to extend timelines, because receiving and digesting feedback from large groups can be a tedious process—especially since it can be delivered in contradictory fragments.

If you encounter the giant project team:

  • Encourage your client to consider a working group of no more than three core decision makers, and only involve a larger stakeholder group for the first presentation of major milestones. Invite the larger group to your first design presentation, not the third, when you’re presenting finely honed work. If a high-profile stakeholder sees something late, you can count on reworking your design.
  • Stress the fact that there is a direct correlation between the number of people associated with the project and the project cost. Involving more people is more expensive. People need to be paid for their time, and the energy project managers will spend orchestrating large groups and sifting through their feedback can add significant overhead.

Mr. or Mrs. Vague

At Happy Cog, we ask our prospects to complete a project planning questionnaire before having a direct conversation with them; the questionnaire helps us identify the prospect’s project goals and expectations. It’s a lot to ask for up front, but often uncovers valuable nuggets of information that help us decide whether or not an opportunity is viable. If our questions are left unanswered or are only one or two words, it’s a sign that the prospect may be hurried or disengaged, or that they don’t fully comprehend what they’re looking for. On the fi‚ip side, if the answers are verbose, well constructed, and even conversational or witty, that’s a sign the prospect “gets it” and that the relationship could be very rewarding.

To avoid Mr. or Mrs. Vague:

  • Consider asking your prospect to complete some sort of project questionnaire up front. If you don’t want to do that, be sure you ask them a lot of specific questions in a telephone or in-person conversation, not over e-mail. You can learn a lot about someone through conversations. A prospect’s tone and demeanor can paint a vivid picture. If they don’t laugh at your jokes, it could be that they are humorless—or, as in my case, you may not be as funny as you think you are.
  • Don’t settle for half-baked requirements. Break out the spreadsheet before you bid on the gig and start documenting exactly what the project requires. For instance, simply saying “We need to design a donation form” isn’t good enough. A donation form for what purpose? Accepting donations from whom? Supporting what forms of payment? Will it require payment processing? Form validation? It’s not fun, but you’ll be very happy you did it, especially when the scope begins to creep.

The prospect with ants in their pants

I have found that a “typical” website redesign effort (definition, information architecture, design, coding), if executed thoughtfully and thoroughly, can take at least five or six months to complete, and this is without content management system (CMS) integration work. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting paid $1,000 or $100,000 for the project, the process, timeline, and level of effort is often similar.

If your prospect comes to you in March and says the site needs to be up and running in May, be very careful. Not only should that seem unreasonable, it also means you need to figure out why the timeline is so short. Is the prospect simply trying to use up budget dollars? Are they rushing to beat a competitor to market? Are they being pushed by a high-level executive who is not familiar with the work the project requires? You’ll need more time, especially if you already have other projects cooking.

Another situation: You receive an inquiry from a prospect asking you for an immediate phone call to discuss an opportunity right away. Like in an hour. You should ask yourself why they are in such a hurry. If a prospect imposes a deadline for an introductory meet-and-greet phone call, imagine the deadlines you’ll see pop up during the project.

If you see ants in someone’s pants:

  • Get the Raid! Be sure to educate your prospect on your design methodology, and communicate that quick-hit decision making can often lead to significant (and expensive) rework down the road. It’s far more cost-effective to do things right the first time. And no matter what, keep a vision of working at three a.m. several nights a week and on weekends in your head. Because you will.
  • If you want to take the gig, raise your rates. Your time will be consumed, so you need to make it worth your while.

The vanishing boss

If you’re dealing with an organization (say a startup or small company) with a head honcho who has a lot of things on their plate, learn what role the boss will have with the project. Often, a prospect may tell you that the boss will be peripherally engaged, but the day-to-day management and approvals for the project will come from the boss’ team. Don’t buy that for a second. It’s not uncommon for the boss to be present at the kickoff, vanish for the entire project definition and information architecture phases of the project, and then pop in after you’ve presented your second round of design comps to tell you “it’s all wrong.”

You don’t want to get an e-mail that says “Please stop your work.”

  • To engage the boss, be up front in the beginning. Tell your prospect it is crucial that the boss check in during major milestones, so they know what’s going on. Also, communicate to the boss using the methods they are comfortable with. If the boss has never logged into Basecamp, it’s safe to assume they have little idea of the day-to-day decisions you’re making for the project. So send the boss a text. Shoot them an e-mail. Make a quick call. They won’t be upset with you for keeping them in the loop.
  • Consider doing some exploratory design work early in the project, no matter how rough. I’m not talking about spec work, I’m talking about high-level design thinking just after project definition. It’s much easier for the boss to understand a project if they can get a glimpse of what the design direction or end game could be. I’ve seen more than one boss tune out completely during the entire first half of an engagement. Perhaps they view it as too abstract or high-level. So show them some early sizzle, then cook the steak. It works.

Just because I’ve focused on some warning signs here, it doesn’t mean there aren’t a host of positive signs to look for when evaluating prospects. There are, but that’s another article. And it’s always easier to point out the problems, right?

My hope is that with these five red flags in mind, you’ll avoid potential headaches in any engagement, making your life a happier one. In your own experience, what warning signs have you uncovered when working with prospects, and what strategies did you employ?

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