Turning away work

I like staying busy. I try to plan work 2–3 months in advance. This gives me a good grasp on my schedule and keeps a steady flow of new business coming in.

I pad my calendar for contingencies in case babysitting falls through or a quick-turn assignment from existing clients requires some extra attention. I also make room for mentoring, which I offer up to several designers on a monthly basis.

Between writing, illustrating and a few other “for fun” things I do on the clock, I’ve added another item to my growing list of semi-daily tasks: plan for new business.

STOP! Before reading any further, make sure you check out this article on qualifying leads. It will provide helpful context regarding my criteria for accepting new clients.

I enjoy a steady stream of project inquiries, usually between 1–3 a week. It’s difficult to qualify every potential client without a quick call (or questionnaire), so I have to use my best judgement to set up some of those 30 minute meetings, which is beginning to cost me an average of 1 hour/week.

I’ve been attempting to schedule all potential client calls on the same day, which helps me (privately) evaluate their qualifications in context. This streamlines my process a little bit, because I’m able to consider varying lead confidence levels, budgets, timelines, etc at the same time.

Multiple inquiries in a single week feels good. Multiple inquiries in the same day (or hour — yes, it’s happened) feels incredible.

It’s also dangerous.

More than once I’ve prioritized the wrong lead based on vague emails and misplaced trust. I’ve also sabotaged myself by thinking I need to bid on every project that comes across my desk. Even ones that don’t meet my qualification criteria.

Something I’d heard of other designers doing is bidding high when the work isn’t fun/easy/relevant/etc. I’ve taken this to the extreme lately. More than a few times since April, I’ve tossed out huge numbers for projects I really didn’t want that bad. When I say “huge” I mean I put together a normal proposal and… added a zero.

This isn’t just a “butthole tax,” which I’ve written about before. This is more flippant — a gamble, really. One of my close designer friends calls it “go away money,” which is probably my favorite way I’ve ever heard someone describe large bids for undesirable projects. (I still use the butthole tax, but since I’ve started reforming my qualification system I’ve been less eager to add it on.)

My reasoning has always been: if they say “no,” that’s fine because I didn’t want the project; if they say “yes,” then it’ll be worth my time and attention.

I also assumed it wouldn’t hurt me to shoot off crazy proposals since losing them was of little consequence (you don’t miss money you never had).

Unless your sole priority is financial success, this approach is wrong.

If a lead doesn’t hit the criteria you’ve laid out to bid on a project, it’s best to let them know asap.

If you’re on the fence and decide to throw out a legitimate and thoughtful bid which just happens to end up on the high side, that’s totally fine.

If you’re uncertain, uninterested or just plain unsuitable for a client, it’s better to pass on the project than skew the market. I believe it’s our responsibility to educate clients and tossing out crazy numbers will have the opposite effect.

Furthermore, increasing your bids without true justification can be harmful to your business. I’m a little fearful that I’ve disparaged potential clients from working with me, thus limiting my influence since most of my work is referral-based. Nearly all my business is brand identity, so I’m dependent on positive customer reviews, all of which rests on the value my clients place on design.

My new approach is to let a client know upfront whether I’m interested in a project or not, regardless of what the budget may be. If a lead can provide 2–3 sentences on what they’re looking for, I can usually decide if it’s worth a conversation.

Rather than wait for the money to dictate our next move, I’m focusing on criteria like my interest level, the client’s awareness of me and my style, and my excitement level. If we get to the qualification portion and I’m anywhere below the “yes” threshold, I may let a client know I’m interested at a high rate, but I’m just as likely to encourage them to seek someone else out. I appreciate referrals and could stand to give out a few more of my own.

These conversations also work to my benefit. If I send someone packing with an outrageous number, there’s nothing to be gained. On the other hand, if I educate them, there’s nothing but upside.

Even if I tell an unqualified lead, “No, thank you,” there’s a chance it could benefit me in one of three ways:

  1. The client could appreciate my candor and try to meet me where I’m at; this may be budget-related, but I’ve also experienced times when clients adjusted the scope to better fit my strengths (eg: moving me off marketing collateral and onto brand design).
  2. The client might remember me further down the road, when their budget increases; or (more likely) they could call back when they’re disappointed in the cheaper route they originally chose.
  3. The client could pass my information on to a friend; Hey, I know this one designer who I really wanted to work with, but it didn’t end up happening. Here’s his information — I’ll be really jealous if it works out!

The biggest lesson I’ve learned about saying, “no,” is how easy it can be. I’ve had to shift my focus from seeing potential clients in terms of revenue and consider the opportunities they represent.

The purpose of qualifying clients isn’t to sniff out who will make me the most money, it’s to determine which projects are most aligned with my vision.

I don’t think I’d have sent out all those crazy high bids if I had my new qualification method in place at the beginning of the year. Since I’ve started reevaluating where “money” ranks on my list of client criteria, I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my bidding process. I’ve also uncovered a lot of unique requests that I may have otherwise ignored, which have all led to more fulfilling and less stressful work.

Example: Passing on work

I was recently contacted about a project for a business that needed a “rebrand.” It checked all my boxes (including timeline and budget), so we hopped on a call to discuss the scope. I was disappointed to discover they weren’t really looking for any brand identity work at all. It was essentially a production job, where the client needed a dozen different printed materials updated with new art direction, photography and copy.

The project went from “very qualified” to “never gonna happen” in a matter of minutes.

The call was scheduled to last an hour, but halfway through I began asking pointed questions about the brand, to see if there was any wiggle room. “We don’t want to change our logo.”

Not a great response. It was clear I would be a poor fit, so I piped up and politely let them know.

I shared some information about what The Hideout offers, including brand identity. I made it a point to say, “This isn’t a rebrand,” so they’d consider changing their pitch for the next designer. I also explained why their inquiry made me so eager to speak with them and how it didn’t match up with what I was hearing in our meeting together.

They’d mentioned wanting to find a reliable go-to designer for future projects, so in a last-ditch effort I told them that I’d be interested in taking on this project if it was definitely going to lead to a rebrand soon. As they informed me that was unlikely, I offered to share names of designers more suited for their needs and bowed out of the running.

30 minutes, in and out.

If I’d still been in a money-frst state of mind, I may have finished out the call and sent over an outrageous proposal. They’d likely scoff at my bid and dismiss me from ever working with them again.

That one bid may never have an impact on my business, but using this approach over and over again was bound to catch up with me (it still may). Our industry is small enough that I’m frequently collaborating with the same people and running into clients who’ve worked with former colleagues of mine.

If I’m going to embrace the word-of-mouth infrastructure that designers like me thrive on, I need to treat everyone the way I want to be treated.

Including clients who (understandably) don’t know what a “rebrand” is.

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Titus Smith

Design Dad. Running things at The Hideout Design Company LLC. If I were a typeface it would be something heavyset.