3 posts categorized "Negotiation"

When Should I Decline Client Work?

Yes, Not Yet

The failure most of us frequently face in the business of design? The failure to recognize that a client project is something you should decline. Here are common situations where working designers fail to decline an opportunity that may be a poor fit.

The client thinks you want the work they're offering, no matter what.

This is the beauty of establishing strong client relationships from your first contact—if you connect during those initial dialogues, there will be a strong reservoir of trust that will fuel your first projects. They like talking with you, and expect that working with you will be the same. They genuinely care about your shared success. They just don't realize that what they're throwing your way is not the best fit. Right client, wrong project. And we're afraid to say no, for fear they won't come back.

Your long-term client knows you need work badly.

The studio has been quiet, except for your primary client's big project. This client, when they're in the studio or communicating with you, is aware that the studio needs business. You might have even asked them directly for more business. And in return, they bring you a project that can keep the cashflow running, but is a poor fit for your short- and long-term goals. So, you take it.

The client doesn't know that you lack competency in an area… and you don't tell them.

Designers don't like to admit weakness in a specific area, especially if they are hungry to keep work rolling in from a client. Example: You design their identity system. They're offering you some motion graphics work to animate it for a video. You've never used AfterEffects or Flash. Now may not be the time to crack the manual and dive in. There's too high a risk of failure. This holds even more true for facilitating development work. Are you really going to learn enough HTML 5 in three days to do front-end development for that hybrid mobile app? Disaster comes in many flavors, and this is one you don't want to inflict on any client. Bring in the appropriate specialists. Mark up their time. Get it right.

The client doesn't want to work with anyone else.

This is similar to the previous situation, except the client knows you don't have the expertise they seek—and they still want to give you the work. They are willing to trust you with something they know you may not fulfill effectively, either out of trust or desired convenience. This is dangerous. Making an error on a project in a known area of weakness is still an error.

The client wants you to do work that's part of their job responsibilities.

Designers are frequently hired to fulfill tasks that are outside their client's job description. But sometimes design projects come along that are part of a client's everyday work responsibilities, and you often don't recognize that you're doing their job until you've signed the contract and started the project. The risk with these kinds of projects is that you usually don't get to follow your standard agency process and have to work through the same politics as your client to gain approval on the work. This can be a burn on your time and resources, making a prospective project an unprofitable venture.

The client desires your bid to establish agency selection criteria.

"If you say no, there are plenty of other agencies yearning to tackle this project." This threat is always half true. If a client threatens to take the work to another agency, they're taking this tack because they want something from you: your participation, your investment, your attention. Either that, or they just need a third estimate to see who is the best fit.

You really do need the money.

Yes, you need to pay rent. Yes, this work is not beneath you. Yes, the work will hopefully lead to better things. You have staff you need to keep busy. It'll be over quick and then you'll be on to better things. Projects stroll through the studio that are purely money-makers and never appear your portfolio. (Does the Regional Design Annual accept PowerPoint templates as a category?) But if word spreads that you are really good at the very projects you don't want to specialize in, you risk being offered those projects over and over again. The old adage reads: "Be careful what you're good at." Can you afford to promote yourself as an expert in one area and end up spending your time working in another?


You will be continually thrown opportunities you don't really need or have the depth of knowledge to fulfill well. You need to be prepared to walk away gracefully as part of any ongoing negotiation. So you've recognized that you should be declining a prospective project. How do you do it?

  • You need to show humility. Declining work is a form of power that you hold over your shared client/designer relationship. You should not let the client feel like you are declining the work because of ego.
  • You need to do it early enough in the new business process. Once you’ve moved too far down the sales cycle, such as the point where you’ve already generated a proposal, it can be unprofessional to say “No” to an extended offer on your part.
  • You need to leave the door open for the possibility of “No." You should be honest that a project may not be a 100% perfect fit for your studio in early discussions, until you've gathered the necessary background information.
  • You need to encourage future opportunities. “The trick is to turn down work, but have the client remember you as a positive person/agency that they want to work with in the future,” says project manager Fiona Robertson Remley. “No” should never be the last thing a client remembers about their interaction with you.
Declining an opportunity is not a sign of weakness. It's a continuation of an ongoing relationship. Use your refusal as a chance to describe what kind of work is a better fit, and be willing to make a reference to someone in your network who can fulfill their needs and return the referral in the future. Such a dialogue would sound something like this, delivered via a phone call or in a face-to-face meeting:

"I’m sorry, but it looks like the project we’ve discussing won’t be a good fit for us at this time. Let me refer you to another designer (or two) that would be able to help you out with it. And we should put something on the calendar for coffee in a month, as it was really great talking with you this week about our shared passion about Web analytics.”

This is a subtle art, especially in the midst of any critical negotiation with a long-term client. But remember: this is not the last project opportunity you will receive. And if you do it correctly, your potential for reward may only increase in the future.

I'd love to hear your stories regarding this topic. I'm sure we all have a few of them…

This post is part of an ongoing series I've been publishing every other week on PRINT Magazine's website, Imprint. Read the most recent ones, which are about risk assessment, client confidentiality, and proofreading like a pro, which have been previously discussed on ChangeOrder.

Not Good Proposals. Great Proposals.

Sign Here

With titanic battles happening nowadays over new business, it's crucial that you craft great proposals to win life-sustaining projects.

Not good. Great.

In the past, I've worked at agencies where proposal writing consisted of creating a laundry list: one final logo in the necessary formats, two rounds of client revisions, and so on. That worked fine when the money was flowing. Nowadays, the cost of entry is higher. Clients look at the deliverables, the price, and then start to haggle without mercy. Maybe that worked a few years ago. Not so much now. If you're bidding on a serious project for a new client, you need something a bit more... thorough. Be prepared to ante up with a great proposal.

Here's what to keep in mind when you write it.

Continue reading "Not Good Proposals. Great Proposals." »

Simple Negotiation Tactics for Designers

Colorful Language

Have a position before you enter the room. Good negotiation always starts with knowing what you want and putting it forth in your initial conversation. The rest of the negotiation is convincing the other party that it's in their best interest to meet you there.

Make sure your position is realistic. If you wanted two million dollars and a platinum-plated Rolls Royce, negotiations would be difficult. Thankfully, if you're presenting an estimate for a design project and have some strong logic behind your pricing, or some ground as to why your audience will prefer green instead of blue for their new logo, there is less room for slippage. Speaking of which...

Have a fallback position that you can happily live with. And don't go there as soon as you need to give ground. Go only halfway.

Know your trade-offs. When you're negotiating around a project, it's rarely about just time and money. It can be about prestige, portfolio work, meaningful contribution to the world at large, and creative freedom. Know what you're bartering if your fees are cut for the promise of future work, and don't let it steal the bread right off your table. Stroked egos don't pay bills.

Always keep the big picture in mind. Changing a headline or swapping out a photo shouldn't be a drama. Spiking a killer concept to play it safe, that's another story. Know which decisions require formal negotiation, and which are just potholes in the road. If you have a strong creative brief and a strong contract, many of these points should be non-issues.

If the stakes are high, take your time. Keep in mind that the larger the negotiation, the more important it is to never show your "settling point" until you're out of your initial negotiation. Get some time and space to think it over. Otherwise, whomever you're negotiating with think that they can push you even further. (This is very hard for most people. They want the problem solved right there in the room, so they don't have to worry about it any more and can move on.)

Be prepared to leave the table at any point. Be willing to walk away from something you want if you think the terms are going to hurt you in the long term. This is very important in contract negotiations. Potential clients can smell desperation and will exploit it.

Keep your dialogue humane, respectful, and honest. When negotiating with clients or your boss, make sure you don't turn your negotiations into an "us vs. them" scenario. They share the same set of human needs that we do, and relating with them on a human level will not only strengthen your continued working relationship, but also cement the expectation that no matter what happens in your work, you'll always be on equal footing as human beings.

If you fail, don't take it personally. Just learn from it. Don't let your conscience eat a hole in your gut. Hindsight is 20/20. If you don't get the work because it wasn't the right fit, or the client overrules your beautiful color scheme because they don't like purple, then derive some learnings from what happened and move forward.

Well-couched failure can lead to a future win. Relationships between your co-workers and your clients continue, even if you fail in your negotiation. If you've been cordial and truthful about your position through the entire negotiation process, you'll gain respect, which is the coin that can barter you future success.