Monday, May 3, 2010

Selling-in without selling-out

I’ve just finished reading Dirty Little Secrets’ by Sharon Drew Morgan. The book, which is subtitled ‘Why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell’ is more long-winded than is necessary for its premiss but it contains some interesting thoughts nonetheless.

The basic idea is this: most of the time when a sales lead runs cold it is to do with reasons connected to, but beyond the basic reach of, the solution that is being sold. Morgan hypothesizes that if sales people spend more time understanding the internal issues of the business they are attempting to sell to, they can help their buyer navigate potential hurdles and therefore increase the chances of ultimately closing the sale.

It sounds obvious. And it is. But Morgan is right in thinking that not enough energy and resources are dedicated (on both the seller and the buyer side) to figuring out and preemptively dealing with, issues that may get in the way of implementing a particular solution.

We are all familiar with being left scratching our heads over what happened when a great prospect is suddenly not returning our calls for (what seems like) no reason.

Morgan’s book is directed mostly at large business-to-business contracts but I think this idea is applicable to the relationship between agencies and clients and the selling-in of creative solutions.

Any person who has worked in new business for a design or advertising agency will tell you how much time and energy it takes to close a deal even when the client seems to be very willing to
work with you.

The part I’m interested in here is what happens next after the contract is signed and we move from selling mode to doing mode. We tend to think the ‘selling’ part is over and we can now concentrate entirely on the problem at hand. But every time we present work to a client at every stage of a project, we are (or should be) selling not just our creative ideas but the solutions required to implement them.

In my experience agencies almost always underestimate the time and resources this part of the process will take. And as a result budgets and schedules overrun and frustration on both sides boils over.

Think of the situation where you’ve fought hard to win a job. You’ve thrown everything you had at it, bowled the client over in the pitch presentation, sealed the deal and drunk the champagne and now you get down to the really fun part of doing the job. Your team knuckles under and comes up with what is arguably the perfect solution to the problem that the client has commissioned you to solve. The first presentation goes well. The client loves your solution and is excited about taking it back to discuss with the rest of his team. Two weeks later you get a call saying they need to discuss some ‘changes’ and here begins the age old client/agency arm wrestle to try to get your work implemented in the way that you originally intended.

Both the client and the agency are at fault here for underestimating the amount of upfront work that still needed to be done. I believe we will increase the efficacy of our creative solutions and reduce the amount of wasted cost and heartache if we all (both agency and client) get better at doing the ground work.

I’ve heard tell that Pentagram have a policy of not undertaking any project unless they can deal directly with the head of the company. This is a very good policy and one that makes it much easier to get good work implemented. But it’s a policy that you can insist on if you are an entity with the heritage and reputation of Pentagram. If you are a small agency or one just starting out, this will be almost impossible to achieve in many cases. The alternative is to start the project with some very serious conversations with your immediate client on what the chain of approval will be and make sure they understand that secondhand feedback passed down from above will not be helpful to anyone. A good boss will either be in the meetings or will trust their team enough to delegate the decisions.

But it’s not just about internal approval. There are often real, practical hurdles to getting a solution implemented no matter now perfect it is for the problem at hand.

I worked with a client recently who asked us to redesign their corporate website. In the information architecture stage we came up with a solution based on improving user-experience which required a completely different approach to customer segmentation than the one they had been using for many years. The clients in the marketing department who commissioned us loved the solution and were eager to implement it but a rearranging of how their customers where segmented lead to a rearranging of how their product portfolio was sold which meant retraining and reconfiguring a global sales team. All of this is good, important stuff but as the creative agency it means the development of the website and hence the final payment of your fee could be delayed for a long time. Thankfully, due to the determination and persistence of the client team, this particular project turned out well but these situations can bring small-to-medium agencies to their knees financially.

Any really good, significant creative work will bring about some change in the organisation it is designed for.

Before embarking on any important project both agency and commissioning client should ask themselves ‘Are we really ready and able to apply all the effort that will be required to make this change?’. And by ‘this change’ we need to be looking at it in the context of all the connected changes that will also be needed.

At the risk of repeating myself, you cannot overestimate how long this part of the process will take. You should budget for it and schedule for it and not even let your creatives switch on their Macs until you can brief them on the full range of problems surrounding the one you have been commissioned to solve. And, more importantly, be willing to keep solving new issues as they come up at every stage until the project
is complete.

My advice to creatives is, if you are not good at, or just don’t want to, get your hands really dirty in your client’s business in this way then hire someone who can. Either that or accept the fact that you will come out of many meetings saying ‘We’ve given them a perfectly good solution so why they hell won’t they just buy it?!’

My advice to clients is try to think about all the chain-reactions you are about to set off before you commission a creative solution and make sure you have the access and the resources to manage them. And once you’ve begun the project, allow your agency the access and resources to help you implement the best solutions.

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