Pitch the budget to win the job
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Pitch the budget to win the job

It occurred to me today just how many creative businesses work on the same pattern of pitching a budget to a client and how this same pattern has a real hit and miss approach to winning the client over. Funny thing is I tend to work slightly differently and over the years I have had an incredibly high win rate.

These are good results, I now realise in hindsight. So, here’s how I think so you can also get good results:

1. Don’t think about selling at all.

I don’t think about what it is that the business does that needs to be sold, but I think about what the client needs and how could I help them. I ask myself, ‘If I was this client, how would I want to be served’ and then find solutions that solve their problems.

2. Look for what else could make a difference.

I look for what else could make a difference in the client’s life that I can add in as added value. I aim to offer solutions beyond just what they asked me to provide and in ways that shows the client the full service of what the business offers. Sometimes they don’t take the extra work up in this moment, but being pro-active certainly influences their decision and shows a holistic care for their business.

3. Find the boundaries of their budget first.

I see so many creative businesses that are taking a stab in the dark at what the client’s budget is. Many are convinced that you can never ask a client directly, and even if you do that their answer of ‘we don’t have a budget’ or ‘just put up your best price’ is a satisfactory answer.  This means that you drive price as the biggest deciding factor as to whether the client books you over a competitor, rather than value and service. Big mistake in my humble opinion! My experience has always been that you can get a feel for what the client has to spend, or what their expectations are and I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s how you do it that is important. Saying that you’ll work within their budget isn’t enough either, because that’s all about you. Clients do feel that this is giving you favouritism over another supplier if they do this. If they keep seeing the price as the only measure of whether they use you or not then this is what will happen.

My experience is that if you tell the client that you are there to provide the best possible value in the execution within their budget expectations, and that is what needs to be measured rather than the price you have more chance of the client being open and honest with you. You are beginning a collaborative and two way relationship rather than a relationship much like a widget being purchased for a set price.

I simply say that I can provide a solution for any budget that they have, but the real measure is getting the best value from the execution and one that fits with their brand positioning and values. In other words ‘How can this money be best spent to solve their problem’.

4. If there is resistance be extreme.

The quickest way that I have had a client tell me what money they have available when they resist is to say something like this: ‘So, if I brought you a solution for $1 million (or whatever is an extremely high price for this brief), would you be happy with that?’ Usually they freak out and scoff and reject it immediately, but in the process will give you some boundary that is more tangible. I then check in with them to say, ‘So if it was between X and Y, that would be more in line with your expectations?’. Some clients just don’t know what things cost and don’t want to look like an idiot, so sometimes I give a few examples of past projects and explain what they could expect to pay for something similar (without disclosing the other client’s budgets).

5. Check in before submitting the final proposal.

My clients get access to a fully detailed proposal time line with step by step details of this process, but for now the one key thing I can suggest from it is to call or email the client before you send the final numbers to continue the collaborative and consultative approach and get a feel for their reaction.
Explain the approximate budget level, what they get for that money, continuing to be clear that there are flexibilities in what is to be delivered and that your aim has been to offer the best value in balance with the effectiveness of the work – versus the cost.

This is another opportunity to build a relationship and to continue to be all about service and not about cost.

6. Present the budget to soften the blow.

Break up the major deliverables so that it doesn’t just appear as one fat lump sum – or a mass of numbers with a total at the bottom. Summarise the key elements and where possible give the base level quote as a stand alone, with any additionals kept separate as an option to take up or not. Many include the whole lot because that’s what they want the client to approve, but the first impression is that the figure is too high and first impressions count.

7. Get the client to buy you and not the budget?

If you have a consultative approach, then the client buys you and will work with you to get the price right. I don’t believe that price is the only reason a client buys you if you show you are consultative and work collaboratively with them, or if the creative work is their preference. The budget wont matter at all in the first stage if they want you. At least then you have the chance to discuss alternatives and negotiate further.

8. Negotiate on different executions and solutions rather than on your margin.

Margin should be the last place that you haggle over, if at all. Stand firm that you’ll work to a client’s budget and that if budget is a problem you’ll just find another solution that works for that budget.

9. If you give discounts then show the client that you have made one already.

My experience is that if you disclose a larger discount or saving up front then the next time the client haggles with you their expectation is to just knock off a little bit more. If you don’t show the discount they expect that the first time they haggle with you that it will be a substantial saving. At quote stage, general discounts on rates or fees don’t affect auditing or contravene Sarbanes Oxley regulations. Discounts related to payment terms may need to be passed on down the line and disclosed, however, and many don’t see the value in this – best to check first.

10. Have a reason for discounts.

I have avoided cutting margins at all costs. I think this comes from working in large multi-national advertising agencies and the experience has been wonderful when I transferred into a small business mode of thinking. This mindset means you need to find other solutions to solve the clients problem rather than just succumbing to negotiation pressure. If you want to give a discount to secure the job then have a sound reason why. Make that reason clear and put it in writing. Next time the client comes to you and expects the same job for the same price then the reason is clear and it is your choice then to agree if the same conditions are present and adequate enough to justify giving the discount again. If you don’t, then then the only record in the client’s office is your quote, your invoice and the bottom line they paid. Sure as anything, they’ll want the same cost again. Protect yourself by detailing the reasons.

I could certainly go on forever about the small nuances of getting a budget over the line. Many of you may say ‘But I tried that’ and use it as an excuse to close off something new. If it didn’t work, then my experience is that it wasn’t quite done as I’ve proposed, and keeping an open mind as to how it could be done is what will bring the results you’re looking for.

What I can also add is that this approach has generated incredibly high rates of return work. It is the consultative approach, the quest for the best value, and not the ‘winging it’ with costs that makes that happen regularly.


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