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On Letting Go

Buying the Whole Enchilada

Spendy Tacos

The client ask seems innocuous on the surface: "Could you share with us your hourly rates, and how many hours your team will be spending on this website redesign by role?"

Whenever these kinds of questions come up, I can't help but think of my first efforts in making mole enchiladas.

You need a set of specialized ingredients: dried chiles, Mexican chocolate, nuts, seeds, garlic, onions, raisins, cilantro, cinnamon, broth, and more. After reconstituting the chiles, you'll roast the nuts and grind them to a paste, mixing everything together with the broth and letting it all cook for a few hours before blending in chocolate. Then you're ready to make the enchiladas. The first time I tried making mole, we started prep at 4 PM and were barely finished with the enchiladas by 11 PM. We tried to have just the mole for dinner at 9:30 PM, but that's not a meal—it's more like a liquid dessert.

Why did I try making my own mole? Because one of my favorite Mexican restaurants has an incredible mole, and I thought it would be fun to make my own at home—for $25 in ingredients—instead of paying $10.99 for vegetable mole enchiladas when I go out to eat. I asked the kindly waitron at the restaurant what kinds of ingredients they use in their mole, then tweaked a recipe I found on the Internet a little bit to see if I could calibrate the same savory qualities.

But when I factored the level of time and energy I put into my own mole enchiladas, versus going out to eat, the latter was going to win in the long term. I can't afford to make mole every weekend. I'm never going to be an expert chef in traditional Mexican cuisine. I'm okay with that.

Some clients aren't.

When clients ask to take a peek behind a design firm's curtain and understand exactly how project estimates are created, a few consistent reasons have kept cropping up.

  • Clients are seeking to outsource effort. They fulfill the same activities you provide in-house, and understand the ingredients, time, and labor necessary to carry out the end deliverable. They're just too busy to manage it with their in-house staff and want to see if there is a cost-savings benefit to using an outside firm.
  • They are looking for a properly-priced expert. They lack the competency to fulfill the project and are confused by variances in pricing and timing for delivery. These situations can happen when another firm in a competitive bidding situation has underestimated a potential project, making everyone else in the process look expensive.
  • They're seeking a negotiating position. I've seen situations with large projects where line-item costs have been part of scope negotiations, often when clients have worked on the agency side and understand how your firm makes money.
  • They are critiquing your working process. I've worked at agencies where clients—often non-designers—think they know how long it takes to fulfill work based on, say, their cousin's freelance design business, or their interactions with another firm.

If these kinds of situations arise, I find myself itemizing what a design firm can provide their clients that can't be so easily quantified:

  • Focus. If resourced appropriately, your client has a dedicated team that is hell-bent on fulfilling their project deliverables.
  • Perspective. Designers working in the orbit of a client organization, rather than within it, can find new ways of thinking about (and improving) their client's efforts in the market.
  • Craft. The attention paid by a set of expert craftspeople, from the information architecture to awesome implementation, can only come from specialists at the top of their game.
  • Gestalt. It's not the parts of the whole—it's the whole that the parts make. Most companies, no matter how great their intentions, often lack the ability to make the decisions necessary to preserve the gestalt of a great design through implementation.

If none of these notions strike home with a client, I try to keep all discussion around fixed fees related to deliverables, as opposed to sharing hourly rates or discrete tasks to fulfill any deliverable beyond a schedule of client touch-points. Opening a negotiation around hourly rates should be avoided, as such rates exist to cover your overhead and other operating expenses.

Would you go to your favorite Mexican restaurant and ask them to itemize exact ingredients and proportions they use to make their mole before you buy it, while also ensuring that you receive the recipe afterwards for your home use? Would you shop around at different Mexican restaurants, trying to lower their price on their mole enchiladas based on your expertise in making them? Would you tell them you could do it at home cheaper, so you could get a discount on dinner?

Even writing down these questions makes me sound a tad bit crazy. And still these situations come up, and still we designers cede ground because we believe such transparency is the only way to secure a potential client relationship. In the long term, however, exposing such information will open up opportunities for your client to weigh the relative worth of your deliverables versus your time spent on said deliverables.

But I would posit that the quality of your end product should be the arbiter of your worth, not the number of people spent working over a fixed period of time.

If quality is evident in your portfolio and promised in your proposal, then what discount does any client deserve in seeing how your design firm fulfills its work?


Scott Theisen

David...beautiful metaphor. Mole enchiladas are the shiz, and so are you.


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