Here comes an opportunity. But is it a good fit?

“People are effective because they say no.” – Peter Drucker

Many have written on the topic of “How to get your client to say YES” and win a project. A few authors have written on the equally important, opposite topic of “How to say NO” to turn down a project from your client. But even fewer still have discussed the important question that lies beneath: how do you decide if an opportunity is a good fit in the first place?

To accept – or pass – on any given project, you need to have a filtering methodology in place, well before your client starts the conversation.

The More Mentality

What one word best describes the mindset of an entrepreneur running a Creative Studio? MORE.

We want more killer projects. We want more top clients. We want more big budgets. We want more great talent on our team. We want more profits. This can lead us to accept every single project that comes in the door.

But this “More Mentality” does have its pitfalls. Over time, this mindset can produce a bias where at some point the pursuit of more actually results in less. Sound absurd? It’s not.

No doubt you’ve experienced when-more-is-less at your firm. Just think of any project you accepted and then later regretted taking it. At the time you agreed to do the project, you experienced the thrill of more work, more money, more respect. Only later did you realize all you got were more problems. Oops.

The Path to the Regrettable Project

Why do we accept certain projects only to regret the decision later? Here is how the conversation with your client typically goes:

Client: “We love you guys. We have this exciting project we want you to tackle. We have a good budget.”

You: “This project is awesome. We’re in!”

Time passes…

Client: “Let’s get started. Oh, the final budget isn’t great (read: small). And the requirements have changed (read: grown). And my boss wants to tweak (read: ruin) the creative.”

You: (nervously) “OK… we will do our best!”

Time passes…

Client: “Sorry for all these changes. You know how it is. But I got you an extra two weeks (so you can lose even more money)!”

You: (to yourself) “This project is turning out badly. We are financially upside down. We won’t even be able to show it on our reel. Let’s get this done and make sure we keep the client.”

Time passes…

Client: “Sorry, but we’re disappointed with how the project turned out. We’re already working on the next project but we decided to go with your competitor…”

You think: “My team is frustrated. We lost money. We lost the client. How exactly did I get into this mess?!?!”

What just happened here? And more importantly, how can you avoid getting into these messes in the future?

Fear Drags You Into Messes

No one – especially salespeople – likes being a buzzkill. The client is excited to get started. Then your fear of scaring away the client – and his project – causes you to keep your mouth shut despite the deal getting worse in the early stages.

The trick is to turn these seemingly awkward client conversations into client conversation opportunities. This is the perfect time to start filtering out projects that are not a fit for your firm. Or guiding your client down a path to a better solution.

How? By mastering the Art of Diplomacy. This skill is what I call “Telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they are looking forward to the trip.” 

Remember, when you feel awkward, your client feels awkward. If you are excited, your client is excited. Don’t express your worries about obstacles. Do express your enthusiasm about possibilities.

When your client starts changing a deal – in these early stages – use it as an opportunity to offer more appropriate solutions:

You: “For that budget, we can’t do that. But here is what we can do. It’s going to be great…”

You: “We included 3 rounds of revisions, which is plenty. If you need more than that, we will gladly provide you a proposal to cover those fees.”

Do you see how these conversations are solving the real problem – while also managing the client’s expectations – before the project has even begun?

Raising Objections Early and Often

In the early stages of a potential project, it’s your job to educate the client on what is – and is not – possible. Use early discussions to confirm that you and the client should keep moving forward. Try this:

You: “I think we’re a good fit for your project, but I’m not sure. Tell me more.”

This turns the tables on your client. Now it’s his job to sell you. The client thinks he is vetting you, the vendor. The irony is that you are vetting him as a client, too.

This turns the tables on your client. Now it’s his job to sell you.

Smoke him out. Force him to convince you his budget is good, he won’t allow the creative to be watered down, he won’t be a nightmare client to deal with. If he convinces you, you both win.

How to Decide: Use the Three R’s™

Let’s review. So you are ready to do things differently. You are keeping your “More Mentality” in check. You are mastering the Art of Diplomacy. You are raising objections early and often.

Drum roll. Now comes the point in the conversation when the client is about to award you the project. Will you say “Yes!” or will you say, “No, thank you…”?

Decide in advance what your filter is. Which types of projects should you accept? Which ones should you politely decline?

Over the years, I developed a methodology for filtering opportunities that has served many creative firms well, known as The Three R’s:

  1. REEL: Will this be a showcase project or win us awards?
  2. RELATIONSHIP: Will this client appreciate us, bring us future business, or refer us?
  3. REWARD: Will this opportunity be profitable?

Here is how you apply the concepts:

  • If a project meets all of The Three R’s, accept the project without hesitation. Get moving. It is going to be a huge success. Decision: YES!
  • If a project meets two of The Three R’s, take note. It might be a good fit. But you and your team should manage expectations carefully. Decision: MAYBE.
  • If a project meets only one of The Three R’s, watch out. Accepting this type of project will almost certainly result in a huge mess. Decision: NO.

Strategic Byproducts

As you begin mastering the The Three R’s™, your creative studio will start to enjoy other strategic byproducts that start with the letter “R,” like Referrals, Respect, and Repeat business.

And for those opportunities that don’t meat your standards, you will hopefully avoid the least favorite “R” of Regret.