When do clients look for a new design partner?

This question is all about new business opportunities. Finding new business is one of the most consistent challenges for any creative business: the constant need for new challenges. And it’s not just about the ability to sell your skills, it’s being able to get a foot in the door. It’s knowing when the door is a little bit ajar and the client may be open to change.

That’s why we wanted to understand the trigger that makes a client consider changing their design partner. Do clients change supplier often, or rarely? And if they are looking for another partner, what happened to the last one? Are clients loyal or fickle?

This is the sixth article about our August 2020 ‘What clients want’ survey. We surveyed Australian clients from a wide variety of industries, with budgets ranging from a once-off project fee of $3,000 to an annual marketing spend of $1m.

Do clients regularly change design partners?

It seems most clients are open to changing their design partners.

Nearly 40% of clients proactively invite designers to pitch for their work

That’s not to say clients are disloyal. My guess is, like all of us, they have FOMO. 23% of clients said they would invite a designer they have met – networking or online – to pitch if they have a good feeling about them. Add to that the 16% of clients who will act upon a referral from a colleague and you have nearly 40% of clients proactively asking designers to pitch for their work.

That’s a positive – it means there is potential for new business. But it’s also means designers should never take a client for granted.

Why would clients change design partners?

I think it’s fair to assume that clients don’t rush headlong into change. When asked why they would invite a design partner to pitch for their work, 28% of clients said if the incumbent agency fails and loses their trust.

This is actually a positive statement because we know designers make mistakes – we’re human – we forget stuff — and certainly don’t work in a cut and dried, black and white space.

Design projects are complex. They have many moving parts, often produced in a limited timeline and to a shifting brief, yet 72% of clients must have empathy to our challenge, because given all those opportunities for error, only 28% look for another supplier.

I’ve sacked a designer because of poor communication — not listening to the brief and believing they knew best when they didn’t understand the communication objectives and client needs.
Anonymous client response

Of the 28% of clients who have sacked a design partner, a majority of the reasons revolved around communication. Not understanding the brief or being inflexible as a project unfolds. All factors that correlate with earlier insights demonstrating clients want a design partner, not a supplier. They want problem solvers and strategic thinkers, not box tickers and commodity brokers.

Using a pitch to price check

Nearly a quarter of all clients used pitches to price check their design partner, either randomly (when approached) or as a business decision for large value projects.

16% of clients used a pitch as a business decision for large $ value projects.

It may be the new project was larger than previous, or perhaps not within the scope of the incumbent designer. Or perhaps it’s just an excuse to see what other skills are out there? All are constructive reasons to get another quote, and the opportunity to impress a prospective client.

Less acceptable is the 7% that regularly use a pitch as a price check. These are the clients to run from. Clients judging design partners on price alone are not after a relationship. They’re judging creativity as a commodity rather than a value add. It’s a business relationship where profit will only come from quantity rather than quality – a race to the bottom.

Interestingly, these respondents who used pitches to price check were not from just one industry sector. They were from government, technology, food and beverage, and bizarrely, the design sector.

Our results in detail

When faced with this question: When do you invite designers to pitch for your work? clients responded:

These figures correlate strongly with previous insights from the same survey. Clients prefer to find their own designer – infact 70% of clients proactively sourced their design partner and 48% of clients said their preferred method to find a designer was referral from a colleague. So it’s no wonder that given a great referral from a colleague, 16% would ask them to pitch.

We also know clients want to build a relationship with a designer, they want a design partner, someone who will take the time to understand their business and their industry sector. I know – given that we’re human, given my experience as a design studio owner and now as a mentor – designers make mistakes. Yet, from these figures I think it’s fair to assume a vast majority of clients don’t rush off to for another designer even after a mistake is made. That means most designers have been successful forming a strong, binding relationship with their client.

So, what does this mean?

Three takeaways:

  1. It is not brainsurgery to keep clients. Clients, like most of us, probably don’t relish change. Remember the insight from a previous article … designers who initiate discussions, who share insights and research and who communicate regularly exceed most client’s expectations.
  2. Be the designer clients have a good feeling about: get out of your studio and into spaces (physically and online) to meet clients. That’s how you get invited to pitch.
  3. Designers who work with large budgets should expect to regularly pitch for work. Best you read this. 😉
  4. When looking for new clients, ask existing clients for a referral.

Want more?

Here’s five more articles about our What clients want survey:

  1. Do clients look at designer’s websites
  2. Do clients think designers are proactive or reactive?
  3. What clients want to hear in a pitch
  4. How clients find designers
  5. How clients prefer to meet designers
  6. A summary of our 2019 UNseminar – we invited three clients to be grilled by designers.

As always, happy to discuss, just email.

Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, I pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council I use my experience, and research, as a design mentor and coach. I help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement paid gigs with research, mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

An archive of my previous career is at mbdesign.com.au.
My current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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