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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