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Smells Like Design Sales

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Selling our design services is like flossing our teeth: nobody enjoys it (well, almost nobody), but we all have to do it. And yet, for people who are constantly selling, we are curiously mum about it:

We work in a wonderfully open community where ideas and best practices are shared and implemented liberally. Well, except when it comes to sales.

Yesterday, on Cognition, Happy Cog’s business development director Joe Rinaldi challenged the secrecy around design studio sales processes and win/lose pitch ratios, and asked readers to share their sales stories—including lessons learned.

Not one to ignore a flung gauntlet, Fastspot’s president and chief visionary officer Tracey Halvorson has now shared her studio’s sales experiences. Among Tracey’s insights: If you never lose, winning ain’t so sweet.

The conversation continues with a response from Pittsburgh’s Full Stop Interactive, who share what business development is like at a small studio:

For every 10 leads that come in, five are worthless, three disappear before a proposal can take place, and one slips away to an incumbent, a cheaper option, or a better salesman. One, however, that vital, beautiful, fragile one goes on to become a real, honest-to-goodness project that lets us keep the lights on and the t-shirts flowing.

So, how about you? How’s your 2013 shaping up, sales-wise? What tips can you pass along?

11 Reader Comments

  1. I’ve gone to about 1 in 5 from 1 in 10 or so by listing two things on my website: average price of projects (and minimum starting price) and when i’m next available (usually 2-3 months out).

  2. Full Stop’s answer is an interesting one because it introduces the question of “But what is a real lead?”

    Internally we clarify a difference between those “5 worthless ones” — for us, those aren’t leads, and never make it in to any kind of metric tracking. Those 3 that disappear may or may not have been “opportunities,” but those last two – those are the real deal — in our vernacular, “qualified leads.”

    I noted no mention is made of past clients coming back for more (where we bat a very, very high average). We keep those separate too, but they are definitely sales in anyone’s book.

    Kudos to Full Stop. A 50% average is pretty damn good on new business and something to be proud of. We’re not hitting quite that high, which may mean we’re sending out too many pitches? But, our trailing 12 month closes are at record high projects, so no complaints.

    Part of our success? We’ve introduced minimums to dissuade the looky-loos and focused on those projects that we can get excited about. When we’re passionate, we bring our A-game. When we bring our A-game, we win more work.

  3. I should add that we’ve weeded out lots of wasted time and energy picking through worthless leads by listing our minimum project budget on our project questionnaire (another great idea learned from the Happy Cog folks). The nice thing, we can tweak that minimum depending on whether we are busy or hungry. It’s extremely effective! I strive to get to the point where we won’t bid at all if there’s not an open discussion about budgets by the potential client – but we aren’t quite there yet. However, red flag number one is a prospective client who’s not willing to discuss budget right up front. Happy selling everyone!

  4. Jay from Full Stop here. To Jason and Tracey’s collective point, we also introduced a project minimum on our site sometime in the past 18 months, and not only is it great at filtering out the smaller budgets, it might be even better at establishing a framework for discussion with more serious potential clients.

    Jason: a few factors contribute to our relatively high batting average. We’re very selective about the projects we pitch (maybe too selective at times), and we’re in a relatively small city (Pittsburgh). If you’re a Pittsburgh client who wants to work with a local studio with demonstrable experience, modern technique, and a measure (albeit a small one) of industry credibility, you really only have a few choices in town, and we’re one of them.

    In our first three-plus years of being in business, we’ve gotten by on a thin but steady stream of projects and a surprisingly profitable internal product that fills in the valleys (shameless plug: United Pixelworkers), but we seem to be hitting a stride lately with prospects. 2013 has been good to us thus far, and I hope the same is true for all of you.

  5. At Houndstooth our 2013 first quarter is looking leaps and bounds better than our 2012 first quarter and I am going to attribute 90% of that to learning when to say no and being as up-front as possible as fast as possible. To Tracey’s point, if a potential “lead” is not willing to discuss budget pretty openly , pretty quickly, that should be a flag. We’ve attempted to slim down the amount of work we pitch in an effort to work harder on the work we care about and alternate streams on simple revenue to fill the gaps. Really love the article and the openness to discuss…

  6. We’ve seen an overall increase in sales leads from end of Q4 2012 through Q1 2013. Roughly 4.5x the amount year over year as compared to 2011.

    I’d like to think it’s attributable to growing our reputation among new audiences, referrals, repeat business, overall growth, but if everyone is experiencing the same rising tide, I think you have to consider the role an increasingly healthy economy plays.

    If that is the case, and many shops are riding the same wave, what may matter most in the long run is what we can do now, to prepare for lower tides. How can we translate the sales opportunities at hand into long term growth opportunities? What revenue models can we experiment with now, that we might otherwise not have the opportunity to explore? What services can we try now, in the hopes of building alternate lines of profitability? Where can we invest, to see a rainy day return?

    I’m sure some percentage of our overall recent sales success is attributable to forces within our control, but with so much universal growth at hand, you have to consider larger industry wide sales drivers, outside our control too. Three years from now, we may be able to map our success to what we achieved in the context of this current opportunity.

  7. @Tracey, I’ve considered a few times taking the Happy Cog / Fast Spot plunge and putting a project minimum on our site. We’ve debated it in the office but I always felt that I would rather get a chance to talk to someone before a dollar value sent them away to never be heard from. I will always ask about budgets during our first conversation / email and try and discuss a rough baseline. It definitely creates extra work for us but has rarely gone badly.

  8. Sales are up the first weeks of this year. Why? Better focus. First I did websites and logo’s for everyone out there, and that simply does not work. There are so many designers out there, that you need to diversify. My focus: local pubs and restaurants. By having experience with this type of entrepeneurs, I have won a lot more pitches.
    I also increased my prices. If you want quality, it will cost you. This weeds out low budget projects, which generally eat up a lot of time and cause a lot of headaches. The low budget clients have usually not a clear idea of what they would like to see as the outcome of the project. It takes time, and sometimes a few revisions to get it crystal clear.

  9. We endured a summer slump in 2012 but have rebounded in a big way. 2013 continues to blow our minds in the terms of quantity and quality of inbound leads. We typically turn away (or lose) 7 out of 10 . Of those 3, our closure rate is about 50%.

    I recently gave a presentation that walks through the pricing lessons we learned in our first 30 months of forming our agency. It’s called “Double Your Price”. You can view it on Speaker Deck if interested.

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