A common thought shared by many exceptionally talented young professionals (designers, developers, artists, you name it) is that they’re too young to be taken seriously. Why would anyone value the services of a stereotypical student over those of an experienced company or agency? It’s this kind of thinking that holds back many of us. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think I was “qualified” enough to open up a design agency until I had a college degree. I’m here to tell you, however, that these hindering thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve experienced firsthand the stereotype placed over me while freelancing throughout high school and college, contracting for a Fortune 500 company and starting a design agency and have learned how to combat it.
To do great work is one thing. But to do great work that adds value to a company or organization is another. This is the first and most important lesson I’ve learned about portraying yourself as a value maker. Sure, my first clients knew I was pretty good at designing things on the computer and that’s why they hired me. Beyond that, I was just a punk kid that wasn’t to be trusted with too much responsibility.
I got laughed at whenever I’d quote a website design for any amount over about $600, was referred to as a “kid” and was expected to work an ungodly amount of hours for little to no pay. I started to accept this kind of treatment and client abuse because I thought it was just the way the world went round: you start your career as a slaving intern, land an entry-level position, work your way into a management position, then if you’re lucky, an executive position. And it’s not until you’re in that management position that people start to respect the value you bring to the table.
But that conception of the American workforce chain does not at all have to be true! I found a way around it to get clients to respect the full value I bring to them, bypassing the whole age factor. Here are the key things I’ve discovered to accomplish this:
Sell Value, Not Websites
I’ve come across many young designers who are really good at what they do who just don’t have a grasp on professionalism and don’t see things in a brighter light to realize what they’re actually doing when designing websites. They may know HTML, CSS and Photoshop like the back of their hand, but that’s the extent because they’re so competent in them and love to design. The truth is, very rarely can you make a career out of just knowing how to design websites. And you definitely can’t make it on your own just knowing web design. You have to also understand that what you’re doing is providing a professional service that your clients value and rely upon to grow their businesses. You must think in broader terms and see things how your clients or employers see them, which is, more often than not, in a business-growing-money-making mindset.
You have to also understand that what you’re doing is providing a professional service that your clients value and rely upon to grow their businesses.
See, to us designers, when we sell a website we’re selling a piece of our soul. It’s like raising a child whom we love and adore to the point where they’re ready to take off on their own, and then selling them off! But to the buyers, they take the website (our beloved child) and use it for one sole purpose: to grow their business. Websites might be the most important marketing/advertising tool there is, but in the end they’re still marketing/advertising tools when they get in the hands of the client. They’re treated as just another tool used to check a business objective off the “marketing” list.
So the way to separate yourself from the client’s next door neighbor’s kid that knows how to open up Dreamweaver is not by selling websites, but by selling value. You must show clients how truly valuable good design is in a way that shows the impact on their business objectives and bottom lines.
You have to go from thinking and asking terms like these…
- “I’m really good at designing websites because they look awesome!”
(This makes you sound like a craftsmen, rather than a partner in achieving your clients’ business goals)
- “What would you like on your website? How about a photo gallery, contact form, services page and an about us page?”
(To the client, you’re just a gopher that inputs what they tell you)
…To terms like these:
- “I use my talent as a web designer to bring value to your business in order to aid your growth strategy and increase your bottom line. Good design is my medium for value creation.”
(This shows you care about what the client cares about and that you’re not just a designer, but rather a value creator)
- “What message do you wish to give about your business that your target market truly cares about?”
(When clients are asked straight forward, to-the-point questions about their business and not just website-related specifics, they get the impression that you’re there to help them mature)
During my initial conversations with a client, talking about the website is always the last thing I do. I make it a point to first show interest and that I’m eager to learn about what the business does, its target audiences, their organization, future goals, etc. Many times at the end of those initial conversations clients will positively comment on the fact that I got down to the nitty gritty about their business goals. After all, their perception of a website is just another marketing piece, so they came in expecting to tell me all about the photos and Word docs they have to give me to get their new website going. These high level conversations just reinforce to the client that I’m not here to give them a website, but to give them one of their most important tools to expand, grow or market their business. And that requires that I know the in’s and out’s of the way they do business!
Charge What You’re Worth
If you do a good job selling the value you bring to the table, it’s much easier to charge clients an amount equivalent to that value. And you should! I’ve played around with tons of pricing models and have settled on that of value-based pricing. Sure, it makes quoting projects much easier if you have a standard chart that goes off of the amount of pages and features, but to really make money in this industry (and that’s what you want to do, right?) you have to charge your worth.
For example, let’s say you have a client who wants to sell their products online (because you’ve convinced them of the value of course!). You could either charge them a basic fee for the design and development, roughly based on how long it will take you or your team, OR you could see things in a bigger picture and figure out how much value selling products online will create for your client’s business and base your price off that. If the particular client has a record of selling their products like hot cakes in their storefront and they’ve proven to you that there’s a demand for their products, then most likely they will make a great deal of money by selling online. If they can cover the costs of your services in product sales in, say a week, then you’re not charging enough.
My rudimentary formula goes like this:
Hourly Rate x Projected Project Time x 2 + (Maximum amount you think the client values your services for - 10% of that amount) = PROJECT COST
Of course you have to have a minimum using my formula and probably a maximum too, as not to totally overcharge, but you get the idea: every project is different. The last part of the formula (the maximum amount you think the client values your services for) might look like a little like price discrimination, but it’s not. It’s “value discrimination”. There’s no harm in charging a little more for one client who will reap the value of your website more than another client who won’t utilize the site to the same degree.
Do a Really Good Job
It should go without saying that you should do a good job on each project you work on. In the web industry, a huge percentage of a client’s decision to hire a certain agency or freelancer is based on the quality of work they’ve done in the past. In other words, your portfolio is everything! I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t had to do any advertising for my agency in the year and a half we’ve been in business. Our portfolio simply sells itself the majority of the time. Referrals on top of that have helped too, but without a strong portfolio with case studies of how the websites we’ve designed have helped our clients’ bottom lines, we would really have no chance at gaining new projects.
Referring again to selling the value of a good website, it’s really difficult to do this without backing yourself up by showing your past works. Of course, if you don’t have any past works to highlight the value you created (or if you didn’t create much value at all), you will unfortunately have to sell yourself a little short the first few times until you establish a strong portfolio. But don’t cut corners on these ones just to get another addition in your portfolio. Ship your very best work.
Don’t Take on Every Project
It’s hard to turn down work, especially when you’re just getting started because you can smell those fresh hundred dollar bills in your hands, but sometimes you just have to say no to certain projects. Until recently I would basically take on any and every web design or logo design project that came my way, granted that I got paid what the project was worth. But I’ve now realized that oftentimes it hurts both your productivity and your bank account to take on certain projects with certain clients.
But I’ve now realized that oftentimes it hurts both your productivity and your bank account to take on certain projects with certain clients.
A lot of the times it’s difficult to judge whether a project should be turned down or not, but there are a few main deciding factors for me:
- If you’ve had a negative experience with the client in the past
- If the client seems like they know everything
- If the project is simply beyond your capabilities and you don’t have the resources or budget to bring on outside help
- If you don’t have the time
- If the client isn’t willing to pay what the value is worth
What does turning down projects have to do with clients taking you seriously, you ask? Well when you take on projects for less than they’re worth or work with demanding and non-appreciative clients you start shutting doors. You shut doors that were once open for you to sign on new clients that pay you what you’re worth because they hear or see otherwise. And you shut doors that were once open to work with clients who value your time, opinions and solutions because you let other clients run over you in the past and they either saw or heard about that or you just settle to be treated the same way again.