Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Buying Creative Sucks

Buying Creative Sucks
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If you run a creative shop, you probably offer your customers a pretty crappy experience. While it may be unpleasant to hear this, it’s likely the case. In fact, I’d argue that this is commonplace in our industry. For the most part, we just don’t understand what it’s like to buy the stuff we sell.

Buying a Burger is Much More Civilized

McDonald’s offers a dramatically better customer experience than most creative agencies. They’re easy to find, their offering is clear, and the price is set. Whether the food is actually good for you is beside the point—with McDonald’s there’s little ambiguity, and a very low probability of any unpleasant surprises. On the other hand, think about the user experience for buyers of creative services. Most agencies have muddy value propositions, require a not unsubstantial sum just to get started, and make very few clear promises surrounding results. Worse yet, the ability of most agencies to resolve conflict is quite highly variable.

Put it this way: for $7, I know exactly what I’m getting at McDonalds <insert indigestion joke>, on the other hand, I can spend $100k (or much more) at a creative agency, and be left with no guarantee of what I’ll be left with at the end. Sure, this is the nature of selling a substantially more complex offering than a burger. Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the fact that our customers have good reason to approach buying our services with trepidation, or even fear. In this post, I’ll propose why this is as it is, and suggest methods for changing how you look at the experience you give to your customers.

Are You Getting in the Way?

Starting a design agency is easy. You don’t need any professional accreditation or certification; startup costs are very limited; and, even a really bad designer can land some kind of work at the drop of a hat. As a result, a great many designers who are tired of working for someone else decide to give self-employment a go. As many learn the hard way, though, it takes more than talent and a copy of Creative Suite to run a successful firm/agency. As nice as it would be to just concentrate on the fun stuff, one must also consider those boring things like accounting systems, sales strategies, and operational procedures.

I’m of the opinion that this is why there are so many two-person shops out there that struggle once they grow, even a little. You start with a couple of talented designers doing good work, and they sell more than they can handle on their own. After months of burning the midnight oil, they decide to hire more designers, address IT concerns, establish processes, and so on. Without any real interest or aptitude in these areas, however, they tend to flounder. This results in agency owners who are shoehorned into the role of entrepreneur/manager, even though it’s the last thing they actually want to do.

Nevertheless, they truck on, confusing their dedication to creating good design for effectively servicing their customers. I’m friends with a lot of owners of creative companies, and know just how hard they work. I also know that a great many do all they can to satisfy their clients. In fact, I think this is often at the heart of the problem: trying to build the “best” creative solutions may actually be at odds with giving customers the experience they really desire.

Most creatives are builders, and determinedly not businesspeople. They want to take on new challenges, try new approaches, and see how far they can push themselves. For the record, I understand all of these desires and impulses; I also think such things can be quite hazardous to the future of your enterprise. While I’m certainly not espousing that you make repetitive, derivative, or weak design/creative, I do believe that there’s some disparity between what we feel the need to build, and what our clients actually come to us for.

Try on Their Shoes

Tell the truth: you haven’t actually bought creative services before, have you? I’ll admit that I haven’t. Isn’t that absurd? I’ve never even felt what it’s like to be on the other side of this experience! Can you imagine if Ray Kroc had never once ordered a burger at McDonald’s? That’s the sort of thing we’d make fun of, in spite of the fact that we’re largely ignorant of what the customer experience is like for those who buy from us.

While I can’t accurately say what it’s like to buy creative services, I can hypothesize. I imagine it’s somewhat frightening. As a buyer, I find your shop by way of a referral. I talk to you and a couple of others groups, but get the feeling that you understand me better than the rest; therefore, I hire you. Things start well: fun ideation sessions, lots of big ideas, smiles abound. As time passes, though, things get tougher.

Lately, it seems like I only get to talk to your receptionist or junior designers, and I start to feel like I’m not as important to you as I was at the beginning of the project. You’re bouncing in and out of meetings, but at least you show up for the big creative unveils. The hard part is that everyone at my office is starting to question whether we’ve hired the right group. There’s tension, and it feels like you aren’t really listening to me, or my concerns.

Truth be told, your creative concept doesn’t really work for my boss, but you insist upon it anyway. This leaves me having to either piss you off, or go head-to-head on the issue with the person who signs my paychecks. I’m still not sold either on what you’ve presented, and this leaves me increasingly uneasy.

As much as I want to avoid making you mad, I’m even less interested in losing my job over this project. So, I try to negotiate. This doesn’t seem to work, because whatever I suggest, you seem to just glaze over, or end by telling me to simply “trust you.” I know you’re supposed to be a good company, but this thing that started out seeming like a great opportunity is giving me a fucking ulcer.

Reprogram the machine

If you run a creative company, you are no longer just a designer. In fact, you may no longer be a designer at all. Instead, you are the figurehead behind a professional service. As such, the way you deliver this service is as important as the look, feel, and performance of the end deliverable.

As hard as it is to get used to this notion, you need to get real about how connected the overall process and experience are for the client. If you build a really effective website, but your customer feels crummy about how you got there, you’ve failed. If you’ve crafted a creative campaign that wins all kinds of awards, but doesn’t make your customer’s phone ring, you’ve failed. If you deliver a powerful brand, but it is never fully integrated because your client isn’t truly sure of it, you’ve failed.

As kids, our parents load us up with false platitudes. Common themes revolve around notions like: if you play fair and do your best, all will be fine. This sort of thinking, while well intentioned, is often erroneous—particularly when you run your own business. Doing your “best” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if the phone stops ringing and cash flow dries up. Being “right” is cold comfort if your customer tells their colleagues that they wouldn’t hire you again. Producing award-winning creative is moot if your client goes out of business.

In order to run a prosperous firm/agency, you need to make a concerted effort to treat it just like any other service-based company. While it likely makes you uncomfortable to hear this, the success of creative companies isn’t really about the creativity of your offering. I know world-famous designers who are broke, and complete hacks who live quite a nice lifestyle. Quality, while important, is subjective and can be hard to quantify; the relationships you have with your customers are what will most affect your bottom-line and the long-term health of your company.

In order to build these relationships, you’ll need to establish methods of working in which you address your customer’s reservations and fears clearly and with grace. You’re the one who needs to lead them through the process, help them when concerns arise, and ensure that they’re getting the support they need, as they prepare to make what might represent really big changes for their organizations. In a way it’s just another user experience problem. Let your designers obsess over typography, usability, and aesthetics; as the founder, your job is to step back and obsess over how your customers feel.

Communication is the first step

Establishing a positive user experience for your customers largely comes down to thinking from their perspective. First off, accept that change is difficult and that you’re probably asking your customer to take on some amount of risk by employing your strategies and ideas. While there’s nothing wrong with asking them to make bold moves, it would be awfully foolish to think that such changes would go off without a hitch.

Overwhelmingly, the solution to making these relationships work revolve around communication. The more present you are in the process, the better. Weekly check-ins (while they can be tough to instigate) are one way to build a solid rhythm that can be maintained right through the engagement. Randomly getting in touch to ask how things are going can help bring small concerns to light before they grow out of control. Brief emails with relevant information and remembering to cc pertinent groups can help mitigate any concerns relating to project progress.

It can also be useful to make note of how you’re doing on both timeline and budget at key intervals. It’s reassuring to know that everything is on track and that one won’t be surprised by unanticipated costs. If, on the other hand, you are running into issues surrounding time or cost, bring these points up early. If you aren’t prompt about highlighting potential concerns, you shouldn’t expect your client to take any responsibility for them.

Another thing: email lacks fidelity. Sometimes it’s a good idea to just pick up the phone and talk. This is doubly important if there’s a sticky issue to be dealt with. Sometimes we sound like assholes via email, when we don’t mean to. Don’t let your fear of phone conversation get in the way of properly servicing your clients.

Work Together

To service our clients best, we really need to feel like we’re on the same team. Part of making that happen is dependent upon breaking down the awkward barriers that we tend to establish in the common supplier/client relationship. It’s important to remember that we aren’t in a line-item business. Given the nature of our engagements, we need to establish methods of interacting that allow our clients to easily ask us questions that are hounding them; meanwhile, we need to feel sufficiently able to make suggestions that might initially make some parties uncomfortable.

In order to achieve a state in which this sort of discussion can occur naturally, one needs to set up certain mechanisms. One I use over and again, is to ask our clients to yell at us when they’re unhappy. While I’m not particularly keen on experiencing the brunt of someone’s frustration or anger, I do want them to know that they can say or ask anything. When they feel that way, I get to the heart of any potential obstacles rapidly. The last thing I want is for something to fester because our client is trying to be polite.

Similarly, I think it’s my responsibility to poke holes in things. If our client says that everything is great, but their body language reads differently, I need to push for the real reaction. This is where the questions come in: “You know, I’m glad you’re generally on-board, but are you really sure? Is there anything you’d like us to change? Even just a little? Should we try another run at this? Don’t worry about hurting my feelings here—we just need to get this right.”

Whether you like it or not, you don’t hold the power in this situation. Your client is paying for this service, and if this devolves into a pissing match, your client will win and you will lose… in more ways than one.

Think in Terms of Resolution

Certain stages in the agency/client engagement are more fraught with peril than others. The most notable, in my opinion, is what I like to call the 3/4 chasm. This tends to occur at some point after strategy, when creative is nearing completion. All of a sudden, seemingly small concerns have a strange tendency to balloon into obstacles that may seem almost insurmountable. It’s imperative to establish mechanisms for dealing with times like these, as they are make-or-break in how your client feels about the service they’ve received from your agency.

Part of the reason for the discomfort at this stage relates to the how the creative process moves from being highly abstract to quite tangible. That big picture concept that seemed to make so much sense at the beginning, can feel less so once your client can actually see what it really looks like (in spite of how much you might believe in it). The issue here isn’t whose opinion is right or wrong; it’s solely a matter of determining what to do to achieve the best result for your client. The onus is on you to find ways to get them to where they need to go.

At this stage, emotions can run high; therefore, you have to control your impulses. Remain professional, and take the high road: Explain the reasons behind your direction/decisions clearly; avoid laying blame or unnecessarily beating yourself up over missteps; simply concentrate on what needs to be done and when. The more level and clear-headed you remain, the better go. Our clients aren’t looking to us to acquiesce on every point any more than they’re looking for us to pick a fight on every point. What most tend to appreciate is when we concentrate on objective problem solving, and continuing to keep them apprised of where we all stand.

Put an End to “Surprises”

The creative process is a mystery for a great many, and this isn’t a good thing. In fact, it’s a real obstacle for all of us. I think it’s safe to say that if there were greater standardization and understanding relating to how we work, we’d all benefit from such clarity. While you may hate having to explain what you do at infinitum, I get the feeling many clients would appreciate being able to buy creative services with less vague responses from us relating to deliverables, costs, timelines, and the like.

What our clients really deserve from us is assuredness. Many are (rightly) concerned about trusting the wrong agency, only to have their investment backfire, resulting in them losing their job or business. Part of assuaging such concerns comes down to simply avoiding any unpleasant surprises. Communicate clearly and explain yourself; chose lucid, continued discussion over dramatic unveils; run your projects professionally; and, make yourself available to address any concerns as they arise. I don’t want to finish my Big Mac, only to be saddled with a bill for $50k in extras; your clients don’t either.

While I’m certainly not proposing that doing the things here will mitigate all challenges you might face with clients, I do believe they are sound suggestions. If you are finding yourself feeling stressed as a result of your client engagements, I’d ask you to try the above. In doing so, I’m convinced that you’ll improve client satisfaction—and affect your happiness—dramatically.

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. As usual, an excellent article. As it happens, the content could just as effectively be about my industry (real estate trading). Cheers!

  2. Great post and insight. Really appreciate your perspective of looking at our industry from the inside out.

  3. Jesse Grant says:

    RIGHT ON THE MONEY! As a client of two very talented agencies my frustration has been with the lack of communication on the on going cost vs. budget. The other thing is agencies tend to have bigger ideas than my budget (or lack there of) can swallow. I would love (and gladly pay more) for service that put their money where their mouth was. If you feel billboards, TV ads, newspaper etc. is the way to go, show me the results or my money back.

    The only thing I disagree with is that all businesses can be broken down to line item pricing. It takes some work, but it an be done.

  4. Great points, it seems that a lot of architects here in Belgium would need to read you ...

  5. Nicely put... the key point being the importance of continually putting yourself in your client's shoes (and behind their bifocals).

  6. Thanks Eric - well put. I have been thinking a lot about this lately myself, creating tools to reduce 'surprises' etc in the process. I have no interest in creating mystery around the coveted "creative process" but I feel I've heard far too many times from clients how they've felt duped by a designer so sometimes, my service approach is more damage control (from past client experiences)!

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  11. Tomas says:

    Nice article thanks :)

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  13. tim nach says:

    Solid article the only thing I don't agree with is the big mac analogy. This is a very simple product and can only be made one way which is even out of the workers control based on a proven recipe. There is already customer acceptness in the product. Vs some shit product some start-up has or a poorly marketed great product. A great website doesn't mean great sales so to say give me my money back if it doesnt work is hilarious. Id draw the same conclusion on tv warranties when one breaks

  14. Jason says:

    Very well put and to the point. I can totally relate. Bravo!

  15. A valuable and insightful article, Eric. You've upped the communication ante & reminded us what really matters for us to be of value to our clients. Thank you.

    Your thoughts hold true for all facets of creative media, and especially as it applies to my niche, illustration. The mystery of the process can be off-putting and so the communication process is totally key to successful outcomes for our clients interests.

  16. If clients go to McDonald’s and insist on a Big Mac but without cheese because they get their cheese somewhere else and with a different kind of meat and for $5 instead of the regular $7 because they are not a regular client, what do they expect from that customer experience? They are surprised that there is no such thing as a free lunch? Surprised they hit a mine in the minefield they created themselves by trying to get the best deal ever by maxing out the risk on everything?

    If you spend N% of your time on providing assuredness the first thing a client probably does is trying to get an N% discount because at that point he thinks he is not interested in assuredness, and after ignoring all the warnings he goes to a cheap agency that doesn't provide assuredness, and at the end of the project he complains about not getting any assuredness. What's the surprise there? That there are agencies desperate enough to work with clients like that before they deserve to lose their job and go out of business?

    The primary assuredness such clients want from a creative shop is that they are special. They don't want the assuredness the creative shop has serviced hundreds of clients like them, knows exactly what has to be done and what it costs.

  17. First off, great article. I know this isn't really the meat of the discussion but I think your Big Mac analogy actually raises a serious issue.

    The most difficult thing I've found being a freelance designer is figuring out what the hell the client is actually trying to order. If it where as clear as a Big Mac, I'm sure I would be able to deliver predictable results.

    Half the job is guiding a client through an ill defined menu (a fault of my own) and making sure there order is explicit enough to produce. Once the order is defined you have to cook up the ingredients and hope to god you've covered every nut allergy, diet requirement or peculiar taste.

    I suppose it's like ordering off a foreign menu with a waiter who speaks in a broken english (a fault of not being able to speak in client terms). It's a gamble for sure.

    It would help having photo's of the dishes in the menu, but then you might as well be selling templates.

    I guess it's a trade-off, between the excitement of unexpected results and blandness of predictability.

  18. The answer isn't really in determining a clear deliverable. It's more about how you manage a relationship; do that well, and your life (and those of your clients) will be much nicer.

    I encourage you to start asking questions about how you run your process: How do you involve your client? How do you convey your ideas? How often do you allow for input? How do you ask for feedback? How do you document your thinking?

    I don't think there's one right way to answer any of these questions. That being said, taking the time to ask them—and take responsibility for such concerns—will put you miles ahead of many of your peers.

  19. Well put. An insightful response.

  20. Rachel says:

    Great point. As creatives we need to design a simple way to work, and create a great experience for our clients.

  21. Leksaker says:

    Been there, done that, on both sides actually. And it is oh so hard. Some people are simply not cut out for the job. It's a question of having that natural talent to get into the head of the customer and act accordingly.

  22. Leigh says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. I am an in-house multimedia artist for an educational non-profit. We recently contracted work with an internet design/branding/technology firm. I found myself explaining to my boss what exactly they were proposing, why those things were important, and why it was going to cost 150K. I wasn't at the meeting where this was all presented, but from talking to my boss, the firm was not able to communicate their plan in a way that made sense to him. He was visibly upset, and feeling very frustrated with the whole process. From the firm's perspective, they were just continuing the work they had been doing, meeting the requests of the client and giving us a roadmap to achieve their goals. From the client's standpoint, the firm surprised us with a large fee that didn't include actually making the thing, didn't explain any "lingo," and didn't make the case for the importance of wire frames, usability testing, and a cohesive brand strategy. While the strategy was great, and exactly what we wanted, all my boss saw was 150K, a bunch of stuff we didn't need, and no tangible end product. Take some time to make the case for what you're proposing! Your client isn't necessarily going to know what you're saying if they are not designers themselves. They won't tell you if they don't "get" it.

  23. Barry A. says:

    Very good article Marci.

    If I go back many years, too many, I recall a talk (Lecture) I gave on "CREATIVITY" to a class in High School and also to a class at Tyler School of Art and Design.

    My talk was focused on verbal communication. How do we - you and me and our client, know if the person hearing our words is receiving them as we intend... and visa versa?

    Example: I you were to say to your client, "the photography needs to be softer." What is it you are picturing... and more importantly, what is it your client is picturing?

    It's ALL in communication. Right? - "Miss pair-o-hands"

    love ya...


  24. Thanks, but who's Marci?

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