Jun 2023
5 Min Read

How to Land Better Projects

Finding the right projects is hard

Recently I shared a post brain-dumping some of the core beliefs I hold when talking with potential clients. My main responsibility here at the agency is talking with folks about their business, the problems they are facing, and determining if our expertise would be a good fit to solve the issues they’re struggling with as an organization. These core values are top of mind for me every minute of the day.

I try to focus more on values than behaviors because values shape behaviors. It’s a lot more effective to shape the reasons you do something than it is to try to force yourself to simply act differently.

People on Twitter seemed interested enough in this list of New Business Values to warrant unpacking things a bit more. These core values are the result of a decade of agency experience. Some of these are realizations I’ve had on my own, and others are mantras I’ve adopted from Blair Enns, David C Baker, Chris Do, Jonathan Stark, Mike Buzzard, and Jon Lax. At the end of this post, I’ll direct you to some of the resources that I’ve found to be invaluable in our quest to secure the best clients with the most awesome work and corresponding budgets possible.

Core Values for New Business

Being honest is the best thing for the client and agency, even if it means losing an opportunity.

Fear of losing a project is a hard thing to fight. Fear will cause you to make bad decisions. You’ll oversell your abilities, give up budget, commit to unrealistic timelines, or a myriad of other mistakes that will hurt you and the client. Be honest. If you’re thinking it, find a way to say it respectfully to the client. If you know what it will take to do good work for someone, tell them and stick to your guns.

We don’t “need” any one project.

There are an infinite amount of potential opportunities. Related to the above, the best way to fight fear in a new business conversation is to treat every project like you don’t need it. Even if it’s been a month since your last opportunity.

Think of it this way. Our ancestors had to hunt food for survival (much like we have to hunt for projects to survive). But if your great great great great (x20) grandfather got too hungry he might start moving too quickly and loudly, scaring away potential meals.

The same is true for us. Move slowly. Think before you act. Do what’s best for you and the client. Diagnose the client’s problem with precision and present solutions that you know will work with budgets you are confident will cover your costs. The right project will come along, and you’ll nail it if you’re patient.

Try to kill the project 5 times in the first call.

This is the best way to ensure the project is the right fit for both parties and lets the client talk themselves into hiring you IF we’re really a good first for them. “Why now? Why us? Why not something else? Why not a cheaper option? How do we know this is the right place to focus our time?”

This sounds a bit rude at first, but trust me, it’s one of the best ways to make sure the project is right for you and that the client will be happy with your work in the end. You want to make sure the client really DOES need that site or brand redesign. You want to make sure they’ve done their homework and that you agree on the value you’ll provide. You want to make sure that the work you could do for them is the work they really need because you can do better work (and charge more for it) with that type of circumstance.

Like a specialist, your job is to diagnose and treat.

Find the clients most important business problem and treat that problem with the appropriate weight in the conversation.

Sometimes the client doesn’t always approach you with the right problem at first. Some folks do, but often their business is hurting or they are trying to hit a new goal and they are just trying to make the next best decision. Your job is to be a doctor for them, finding the root of the problem and prescribing the right medication for the job. This requires asking a LOT of questions and shutting up.

Once you find the most important business problem they are facing, and you’re confident your creative expertise can solve it for that person, treat that problem with care and understanding. The client can sense if you understand how important this work is, and they’ll treat you with trust and respect as a result.

Be the first to present a potential budget.

This is the primary way to frame the cost of doing good work for the client. It’s called “price anchoring” and it’s a real thing.

Once I understand the work that a client needs in order to be successful, I’ve got a pretty good idea for what budget I need in order to do good work for them. Usually, this is some percentage of the ROI the client would get from the investment they are making with us.

As soon as I know that number, I say “This sounds like an X amount of money project. Is that more or less than you were expecting?” You just set the price tag for what it takes to do good work at the level the client needs for the project. Every other conversation you have about budget, every one, will swirl around this number that you’ve set.

Want solid budgets that you know will set you up to deliver killer work? Start price anchoring.

Never change a quote once it has been given.

This gives up power in the relationship and is a dangerous precedent to set.

Again, this sounds a bit rude and dangerous, but you are the expert in your field. YOU know what it takes to do good work for this problem, not the client. If the client knew how to solve the problem they wouldn’t be talking to you.

If you want your opinion to be taken seriously, don’t change your budget. If you want to avoid missed deadlines and project overages, don’t change your budget. Ever.

Give prices, not estimates.

This is controversial, but I don’t give estimates for work. Not ever. I tell the client the price it will take to work with us. That price doesn’t change unless the problem we’re trying to solve changes.

Getting to this point takes a whole lot of research into changing how you work if you’re charging for time and not value, but it’s worth the effort for you and the client. But that’s a whole other blog post/book/podcast.

The main point here is this- you should be good enough at your craft that you can deliver a price that doesn’t need to change. And being the client when the price keeps going up, and up, and up SUCKS. I know first hand that it’s the worst feeling in the world.

By changing the price on a client you’re ruining any chance that they’ll end up happy, and you’re therefore destroying the thing you need most from a client outside of a paid invoice- a referral.

Provide value by solving problems.

Our core product is NOT a deliverable or time.

Our estimates don’t include hour breakdowns. I have no clue how much time it’s really going to take to do the work. At this stage, the only thing we can be absolutely sure of is that our plan and the scope will change.

Clients are also not paying us for time. They don’t care about our time. They don’t care if a problem takes ten minutes or ten days really, what they care about is that their problem is solved as quickly as possible.

Deliverables are also largely irrelevant. A client won’t care if it’s a new site or a slightly changed checkout flow that gets them to their sales goals for the year. What they care about is hitting their sales goals.

So solve problems for clients first. The time and deliverables are components of solving those problems, but they are not the value we’re selling.

Peace of mind to a client through a retainer IS solving a problem and providing the right type of value, in the right situation.

This is a bit of a side note, but folks in the value-based pricing world argue a lot about whether a retainer is ok or not. Retainers are primarily important for consultation work or team-augmentation work.

My opinion is that retainers can absolutely be value-focused if it’s providing peace of mind to the client. Sometimes the biggest problem for a client, especially in larger companies, is ensuring the team isn’t blocked by a skill that is missing from that team. In this case, we’re providing massive value to the client and solving a real problem by creating a retainer for them as a solution.

If you commit to a date to deliver something, deliver it on time.

Nothing ruins trust earlier in a relationship than delivering an estimate late. Get it done.

We never bad mouth other creatives. Ever.

Even if a client does.

I can’t believe I have to say this, but negativity is toxic and will get you nowhere in life. Nowhere worth being anyway.

You have no idea who knows who and who else might be listening. Just don’t do it. Plant seeds of positivity. You never know when one might spring up, ready to harvest.

We find the best solution for a client, even if it means sending them to another agency or freelancer.

The second I know the clients most important problem, and I know we can’t solve it well for them because it’s not our area of expertise, I tell the client as much. If we’re interested in growing in that area, I’ll offer a solution that includes a discounted proposal for letting us stretch some new muscles. Otherwise, I send the client to someone better suited for that work. The client will respect you for it and will probably return when they have something for you that makes more sense.

If we wouldn’t gladly have lunch with a client outside work, we do not work with them.

Our gut is often right. Go with it.

This sounds potentially discriminatory. What I don’t mean here is that I only pursue projects with clients who look and act like me. What I mean is that the best work happens when you like being with your clients. You need to enjoy being together and respect each other in order for the project to be a real success. My rule of thumb is that I only work with a client that I would get lunch with and enjoy that time. Your rule might be different, but for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t waste your time working with jerks.

Smile. Be personable. Be real.

Get to know the client and become friends first.

I forget this one all the time. Joking with the client and smiling is not wasted time, it’s valuable relationship building investment. You want the client to get off the call feeling energized by your conversation. You want them to feel positive and excited. Chances are they walked into the call with you stressed about the problems that are threatening their business. Give them a taste for what life on the other side of working with you can feel like.

Give a client options for how to engage with us.

It’s not our job to determine how much risk a client is willing to take. It’s our job to recommend a variety of solutions that will likely solve the client’s problem.

This goes deep into sales theory that I can’t unpack here, but clients need options to weigh when making a decision. Either you give them those options, or they’ll find other options to compare by talking to other agencies. We want them comparing our work to other work we could do with them, not with work other people could do for them. Give them options and let them decide how comfortable they are giving you a large sum of money.

Don’t sell yourself or the agency.

I know this sounds contradictory. This is a sales call after all. However, the client contacted you for a reason. Focus on them, not you. If you find yourself starting to pitch them on your capabilities, ask them questions about their business and then respond with how you might be able to help them be more successful.

Two things here-

  1. The call isn’t about you. The client already knows you to the extent they need to for now, otherwise they wouldn’t have wasted their time calling you.
  2. Selling yourself makes you sound desperate, and we don’t want to sound desperate. How would you feel as a patient if you went into the doctor’s office and the first thing she did was desperately try to convince you how qualified she was to be there? Damnit doctor, I’m sick and just need you to fix my problems. You yapping on about your degree makes me feel like you don’t actually know what you’re doing.

Sunk cost bias is real.

If something doesn’t feel right, walk away.

Sunk cost bias is our tendency to overvalue something or justify a bad decision in our minds when we’ve spent a lot of time on that thing. It’s scary to call our efforts a waste or admit we were wrong. But the cost of not walking away is high. If a potential project feels weird, walk away. In all my days at Underbelly, the times I have ignored that feeling have always turned out bad. Always.

Treat every client with the same respect, regardless of their size or budget.

You never know when a potential client will bring you a massive project in the future, or who they might tell about your agency. I can’t count the number of times that person at a small startup with no budget went to a larger company with a huge budget and called us back because we were the one place that treated them respectfully when they were “small potatoes.” Every person, regardless of background, is valuable and deserving of our respect. Treat them well. The world needs it.

You are the right person for this job.

You are good at this job. You are in this position for a reason. Be confident and trust in your abilities, skills, and training.

I’m not sure there is a single millennial I’ve met who doesn’t battle from imposter syndrome. I don’t know if it’s a curse specific to our generation or what, but it’s real. We are insanely self-conscious and full of doubt.

Remember, you have worked hard to be here. Sure you’ve made mistakes, but mistakes are just lessons you learned on the way to success. You belong here. Tell yourself that before every call. They called YOU for a reason. Go. Get. It.