Design business advisor John Scarrott looks at how designers can stop being seen as suppliers and start being seen as partners. He also talks to one creative director who has already made this approach part of their business strategy.
These days, design businesses should be partnering with rather than supplying to their clients. Why is this a good thing? What does a partnership look like and what are the risks? And what can you do to move deeper into partner territory?
Why partnerships work
As a partner your position is more secure because your relationships are deeper and stronger, assuming you also add value of course. You are part of the discussion that leads to the work as opposed to your client coming to you, telling you what to do and you then working in isolation. As partners, you will solve problems together, which expands the scope of possible solutions and builds a better understanding of the relationship for each of you. All things being equal, partnerships should yield better returns for both parties in the medium term.
What does a partnership look, feel and sound like?
When you’re in a partnership your client’s problems are your problems. Their challenges are your challenges. You jointly own the situation. And most importantly, your client feels this.
If your client lost you, they’d feel as if they were losing a valued member of their team. Your remit does not end when you deliver a piece of work. You are involved in the outcome and also the follow up.
You give up some control over the outcome but you remain fully involved in the work. You know when to step back. You will hear yourself saying: “What I’d recommend is this, but it’s your final decision.”
You develop better empathy. You can understand and appreciate your client’s position without agreeing with it. This means that you can disagree and stay working together.
You add value in the run up to the work and afterwards. You suggest what could happen outside the scope of the work. This needs to be treated as an investment on your part to start with. You could make it conditional on the size of the project and budget for it by attaching a percentage of the fee to partnership building.
What to watch out for
Something to guard against is focusing all of your efforts on one person within the client’s business. Doing this, especially with someone at mid-level is a risk. Given the fast staff turnover in marketing departments, should they leave, the relationship and the partnership walks with them. Similarly, at the top level, bearing in mind today’s preference for consensus management, it is advisable to think both across and down the organisation when building relationships.
Be prepared to work harder. A partnership is an investment. This will mean extra work and quite possibly extra unpaid work. The pay-off is extra paid work in the future and better pay for that work.
How to move into partner territory
So how do you go about shifting towards “partner” and away from “supplier”?
It makes sense to start with your current clients. They are your most established relationships and probably closest to the partner status that you’re looking for. They are a good place to test some new ways of developing relationships.
I spoke with Charlee Sully, creative director of The Usual Studio who has employed a number of partnership building strategies in growing her design business.
Create conversations: set up a time to speak, away from a pitch or piece of work. This enables the scope of the conversation to be broad and wide ranging which can lead to new ideas being discovered. Sully’s approach speaks to this way of working: “When I’m in the midst of discussions around a potential piece of work, I talk about other things, not the quote. I’m not ‘pushing’ on this all the time – are you going to do it, shall we sign it, etc – although I know it’s important. I take a softer approach.”
Get interested and fired up about your clients: Sully says: “I engage and become genuinely interested in my clients. I’ve had training in journalism so perhaps it’s this background that means I love to ask questions. My conversations often end with my client saying things like: ‘I’m fizzing with ideas’ and ‘I really enjoyed meeting you.’ That’s how I know I’ve started to build a good relationship.”
Get comfortable with a focus on relationship and not stuff. Sully says “I’m comfortable with meeting people, despite being an introvert. I’m very open and I don’t mind speaking about mistakes. I speak to clients almost as if I know them already and this creates a warm and relaxed conversation. I listen and you’ll find me making notes. It’s important that they lead the conversation.”
Create a budget line for your partnership development: base this on a percentage of what your client spends with you. That’s your investment in the future. You can then measure what that investment has yielded at year end in terms of growth of income.
So you’re all set to shift your relationships into partnership territory. But just before you do, there’s one final risk to watch out for. The risk associated with being too successful at it. Sully highlights this risk.
“Often my relationships reach a level where people are sharing information with me that they wouldn’t share with other business owners. They treat me almost as a temporary business partner. This means I have to be mindful of the boundaries of my relationships and make sure that friendly does not become friends.”
You may consider this to be a ‘high class problem’ to have but if you’re coming upon this situation, Sully has written a piece that clarifies the territory which I would recommend reading.