Mind over matter

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Selling creative services

Creativity is one of the most elusive skills in the business world. Clients want it on their teams. They need it to communicate their brand, their story, their purpose. But they often do not realize the nuances that go into hiring a creative professional—especially the right kind of creative for their specific project.

Creative thinkers often employ fresh ways of viewing business problems, but the line between structured business processes and free-flowing ideas can be tough to bridge. “We go to design school and learn how to make things visually pretty, but we are never really taught how to communicate anything about a service or product to an audience,” says Aaron Easler, creative director at branding agency Top Hat.

When trying to communicate your ideas and talent to potential clients, it is easy for creatives to fall into the traps of doubt—often known as impostor syndrome. The condition was first identified by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978. The notion is that you have only succeeded due to luck, not because of your talent or qualifications. So, when you are sending a proposal to a potential new client, impostor syndrome is the nasty feeling that sneaks in, making you feel like you are a fraud. Studies have shown that an estimated 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome.

For one or two-person design teams trying to get new clients, doubt can be more common than those with less growing pains. But Easler says doubt can be the biggest deterrent in your approach. Within the two-and-a-half years he has been at Top Hat, he says the firm has gone from a two-person agency with a lot of energy and no notable work to a six-person, full-service creative team with a thriving portfolio.

The difference between “no notable work” and “a lot to be proud of”? Easler says the bottom line comes down to client trust. “Naturally, we’re attracting really different clients with different needs and expectations today than we were then.”

Easler says that clients need reassurance more than anything from startups. “The shorter your history as an agency or creative professional, the bigger the gamble they’re taking by hiring you. The only logical way to make up for that risk is by making it crystal-clear that you’re hellbent on doing great work for them to make a name for yourself, without sounding desperate.”

Even when your body of work is more robust, Easler says trust still remains prominent in the client-wooing process. “Now, clients are seeking us out for our work and really are interested in two things: budget and fit. They want to know that we have their best interest in mind and either have knowledge of their industry or are willing and capable of gaining that knowledge.”

At the end of the day, Easler says clients want a team that they trust to be responsive and eagerly find creative ways to solve their problems.

“Clients are seeking us out for our work and really are interested in two things: budget and fit. They want to know that we have their best interest in mind.”
— Aaron Easler, Top Hat

But you can’t sell trust without confidence in your product.

“I’ve spent years at other agencies being extremely uncomfortable with the sales process and instilling confidence in clients,” Easler says. “When I joined up with my business partner at Top Hat, that changed dramatically, simply because I now know that the team I’m working for can and will deliver great work.”

Of course, you know you (or your team) will do a great job, but the challenge lies in communicating your ability to the client. Creative professionals and sales people have almost opposite skill sets, which can make it extremely intimidating as a designer to go up to bat for your own artistic work. But there are a few keys to selling your creative abilities without sounding over-enthusiastic or under-qualified.

Mano y mano

While your portfolio will get your foot in the door, creatives say that nothing beats a strong process presentation as a sales tool once you get on the phone. The process itself does not particularly matter because different processes can work well for different-sized agencies or different categories of clients.

The key is to have a strong rationale for your approach and to present that rationale in a way that allows you to speak more broadly about your experience and knowledge in the industry, as well as some shortcomings of other approaches that other people vying for the job may have presented.

Cami Travis-Groves, a freelance coach, graphic designer and founder of camiimac, says she asks “what feels like 1,012 questions” when first exploring a client’s needs. “What I’m selling as a creative service provider is not the service, but the result of what my services have created,” she says. “That’s really the only thing my clients are interested in.”

“What I’m selling as a creative service provider is not the service, but the result of what my services have created. That’s really the only thing my clients are interested in.”
— Cami Travis-Groves, camiimac

As soon as you can zero in on what your client’s desired results are (like Travis-Groves), you can work backward to design your proposal. Show them why your expertise is unique to their specific wants, but also don’t be shy to “dig your heels in when you think the client is really going astray,” Easler says. “You won’t please everybody, but you will get more of the type of client you actually want to work with over time.”

Additionally, Travis-Groves says that it is a designer’s job to educate its clients on what to expect when it comes to deliverables, budgets, timelines and results. “On everything, under-promise and over-deliver. You’ll end up with delighted customers every time.”

And there’s nothing like word-of-mouth marketing that comes from a happy client. It takes a little practice and a little finesse, but any creative can learn to speak about their qualifications with poise and wisdom. One way to side-step impostor syndrome is to remind yourself of the work that you have done and to reassure yourself that you would not be where you are if you did not work for it.

In case you needed to hear this today: You. Deserve. This.