You’re a Salesperson–Not Just a Designer

Designers face many challenges that are often discussed and pontificated on, from Grunt to typography. What’s worth emphasizing is what happens before and after the design is created. Design isn’t just about one thing, and in order to be a designer of any consequence one must be able to sell.

One of the most frustrating experiences that I ever had in the business of design wasn’t with a client or agency I was consulting. One of the most painful experiences was with a designer. Designers can be hard to work with. I know–what a shock!

There is always a common thread to what designers do when they design successfully and most of it has to do with selling. By selling, I mean selling your ideas both to internal groups as well to colleagues and clients. The bulk of this post is directed towards selling to clients, but some of these tips can be applied across the board.

Care About Clients

Crazy, right? You need to actually care about the client! That means being thoughtful and listening, and it means eliciting answers to questions that your client didn’t even think to ask. Clients, at times, don’t know what they don’t know. It is your job to get answers and weave those answers into a viable solution.

Many times I have heard designers I worked discuss how something would hurt the user and not be beneficial to UX. Yes, that is important and at times critical. But it’s crucial to not discount client concerns without first considering where they are coming from. Definitely don’t use subjective usability references to win the battle and lose the war. Do your homework on the client. Spend time getting to know their needs. Know the client. Your solution may not be at all what the client was expecting, but because you care and have their trust, the solution you see will be easier to sell.

Here are some things to keep in mind in client interactions:

  • Clients need your help–not your design snark. Keep that snark for hilarious conversations amongst friends!
  • Identify with the client and listen–flex that empathy muscle.
  • Clients don’t hire designers all the time, so they’re not experts. Don’t expect them to be.
  • They don’t have the same knowledge you do, so approach it from an educational stance and share what you know and where you’re coming from.
  • Don’t mystify what you do as a designer. By obscuring what you’re doing, you’re making it harder for them to understand your recommendations, and you risk losing their trust.
  • The more you open your ears, the more you understand.
  • Don’t make assumptions, but trust your gut.
  • Set expectations by asking the right questions.
  • Your job is to solve problems and then sell the solution to anyone that will listen.

Designed To Sell

When designing I am concerned about three things and only three things:

1. The Client

The client comes first. Think about their position in their competitive set: Are they profitable YoY? Are they desperate for something to boost sales or boost company moral? Do they have operational issues or special situation? Are they hard to work with? You should know the clients’ wants versus needs. Research! When you’re on a call you should know what they represent–never guess.

2. The User

Interfaces should be entertaining and easy to use. Think about their users by asking questions: Who are they? Are there more of them this year than the last? What’s the demographic? In other words, you’re asking all the usual questions to understand the true user situation. Take the initiative to run your own usability tests if you have to! Get a baseline of what the users are feeling and see if that jives with executive strategy. After that, you may discover holes in their business strategy, so close those up in the design with the client.

3. The Technology

Make sure to use the right technology at the right time. That means you understand the tech and its associated financial costs. Don’t promise the moon and deliver a pizza pie. At the same time, it’s ok to stretch your developers to a point just before they send the one finger salute. Be realistic and creative. Understand exactly how the technology you’re designing for works. You’ll save time and money doing so.

Always Be Closing

Alec Baldwin as David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

The thing is, if you can’t adequately sell your solution to your colleagues when they have hard questions, how will you sell to clients? Presenting a design is not selling a design–one is passive and the other very active. This is about actively selling and not acting as if you’re owed deference, because you’re The Designer. It is important to be confident and not be afraid of disagreements, because there will be disagreements, and if you’re prepared, you can steer the conversation in a respectful, productive direction. Clients and vendors don’t always agree! The best designers sell their version of the story–they talk about where they are coming from, what the goals are, and what narrative this particular design creates, and how it all elevates the brand they are working with. Be professional, amiable, and lead design meetings. Leaders sell; followers purchase.

Helping clients starts with yourself. Helping clients is all about you; it’s about how you are going to solve a problem and then you sell the solution.

At the end of the day, you have to help the client know what they don’t know. You do so by first putting yourself in their position and simply listening. Research your client and their work, and think of the project itself as part of the sales cycle. Understand your relationship with this client can turn into not only more work for them, but referrals with others. The best part of your design is you. It’s not some grid or grunt task. It is not just design per se; it’s the story you’re telling with it. Whether you’re employed full-time or a rockstar consultant, selling is the order of the day. Go sell.


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