6 Tips for Pitching to Major Clients

Almost every major web designer faces this dilemma at some point: either continue working with “mom-and-pop” style businesses, enjoying effortless marketing and relatively simple projects, or transition to working with larger businesses and reap the benefits of bigger budgets.

It’s a question of experience, and with enough design work under your belt, new opportunities start to present themselves.

The most difficult part for many is making the transition. The comfort of simple work and the ease of marketing yourself can make maintaining a small client network very tempting.

You see the effort involved in pitching to a major client and you slightly recoil, worried that you’re not quite skilled enough, you’re not quite experienced enough and your business is not quite big enough.

That insecurity leaves so many designers bidding for tiny projects, working for local clients and missing out on lucrative long-term opportunities. That insecurity can grind a business to a halt and stall a career.

The six tactics below don’t guarantee long-term success with major clients, but they will help you get your foot in the door, get a contract on the table and make the possibility of major business relationships very realistic.


1. Never Compete on Price

Big companies have big budgets, especially companies that are focused on fields with as huge a potential for growth as the online world. Marketing yourself on price might work when you’re fighting for micro-clients and short-term projects, but it’s counter-intuitive when trying to appeal to major clients.

Why? Because major clients expect a certain level of size, overhead spending and expenses. They expect you to have infrastructure, employee salaries and office space. They expect you to be able to manage them, and that management begins with a per-project quote that accounts for extra time, minor outsourcing and long-term work.

So quote high—higher than you normally would. The list of corporate deals passed over because they were too expensive is relatively short; the list of proposals passed over because of low pricing and a mist of inexperience is significantly longer.

Of course, be realistic in your pricing (you’re not pitching to Berkshire Hathaway), but remember that large companies value professionalism and ability a lot more than competitive pricing.


2. Pitch on Results, Not Potential

Designers do burn people. Visit a local Chamber of Commerce meeting, and you’ll be surrounded by business owners who have been burned by would-be designers: inexperienced “experts” who have mastered Photoshop in their bedrooms and who market in their afternoons. The design world is full of self-styled experts, an unfortunate reality that it shares with the marketing and publicity industries.

This has bred an unfortunate environment for genuinely good designers. Not only are business owners skeptical of designers on the whole, but many are completely turned off by the prospect of having to update a website that another designer has put time into. The endless promises and presentations touting “progress” and “results” have turned them off, and so the chance of a senior manager assigning a large budget to your design project is low.

Fight this resistance to design by pitching results instead of potential. If you can walk into a meeting with a portfolio of websites that aren’t just pretty but highly effective, you’ll increase your chances of landing lucrative projects and long-term contracts.

Find people who have been burned by rhetoric, and give them real results, establishing yourself as the lone expert in the process.


3. Minimize Risk by Preparing Samples

In today’s economy, risk is a significantly bigger factor than it once was. Companies that had multi-million dollar design budgets have run into rough territory, now sparing only enough money to invest in cosmetic updates and the occasional usability study.

An industry that once felt entitled to massive budgets because of its complexity has run into a cost-cutting drought. Companies are keen to invest in low-cost websites, fearing that an expensive project might end up losing money.

That’s why you need a stack of samples ready beforehand, samples that prove not just your competence and ability but the way you’ve helped other people in their position. Show how your websites have improved conversion rates, how they’ve boosted customer interest and how they’ve reduced customer service costs. Then you’ll gain contracts and long-term interest, even in a troubled economy.


4. Bleed Professionalism in Your Team, Plan and Approach

They’re big, successful and influential. At this point, you’re not. So, make every effort to appear as though you are. Hire a virtual assistant to handle your phone calls. Build a paid-for-results team that functions as different divisions of your business. Treat projects as though they are routine work, not one-off events that you’re unfamiliar with.

Hundreds of small businesses pitch to major companies every month. Most fail, usually not because of incompetence, but because of a lack of managerial resources and size.

To even appear on the radar of Coca-Cola, Apple or Walmart, you need a certain size and degree of complexity. Expand, even if just by illusion, and you’ll appeal significantly more to large companies.

The bonus of this approach is that after you’ve found success with one major company, you’ll gain the security and visibility to be able to approach others. Find a formula that succeeds with one major company and replicate it, not just in your presentation and pitch, but in the way your business approaches new clients.


5. Know Exactly Who to Pitch and How to Do It

Small businesses have an advantage: they’re small, they’re mobile, and they adapt very quickly to change. Big companies, unfortunately, are not like this.

The amount of time for a decision to move down the managerial chain often creeps into the months, and the amount of effort required to even speak with someone at the top can drive employees crazy. When it comes to speed and flexibility, the decentralized micro-businesses of the world have the advantage.

But finding the decision-makers at all is a substantial victory. Hundreds of businesses fail to get the attention of major companies because they pitch to the wrong people. Ignore claims that proposals must always be submitted through entry-level employees, and aim straight for the top. Cultivate links to senior managers, CEOs and managing partners; their recommendations will mean a lot more to marketing, design and online departments than yours will.


6. Think Long-Term

Small projects, one-off assignments and low-paying gigs are of little value to a design business. They’re useful for filling in the blanks and strengthening your portfolio, but they offer barely any long-term opportunity.

Great designers and successful marketers know not to treat their major projects as they would one-off assignments. They understand the value of relationships, and they treat their valuable ones appropriately.

Whenever you submit a proposal to a major company, you’re pitching not just for that project, but for the company’s future business. Approach major clients with a long-term plan, a plan to deliver quality and to prove that sticking with you for future projects is worth the company’s while.

If you can ensure that your first major project goes smoothly, you’ll open your business to huge projects, major ongoing work and professional relationships that would otherwise take years to build.

Written exclusively for WDD by Mathew Carpenter. He is an 18 year old business owner and entrepreneur from Sydney, Australia. Mathew is currently working on AddToDesign, a website which provides value added design buzz and most recently, Design-Newz, a website that features hand-picked web design articles, resources and tutorials. Follow Mathew on Twitter: @matcarpenter.

How was your experience pitching to major clients? What other tips can you share from your own experience?

  • http://www.bradleygauthier.com Bradley Gauthier

    I like that you have “never compete on price” first… it’s the most important thing anyone in sales must understand. If you compete and negotiate only on price, you will usually suffer, becoming overworked and underpaid. Worse yet, the client will under-appreciate the lower price.

    Great article Matthew!

  • http://www.icog-studios.com Mark

    Amazing article!

  • http://www.designcrumbs.com Jake

    Great article. I’ve recently made the transition to larger clients and am very happy I did so. One of the harder aspects of getting started in the transition is the amount of time you have to look ahead. With smaller clients, I could get get a proposal out, get the contract, get the website down, and get paid within two or three weeks. With bigger clients, it’s sometimes two or three weeks just between phone calls because they have so many hoops to jump through…

    Obviously, there’s a lot more legwork and meetings you have to do as well. I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to go straight to the CEO of a company, but I didn’t realize how many meetings I’d have to go through. For instance, a large job I’m working on landing now; I initially met with the Director of Product Development, things went well, so he talked to other people within the company and set up another meeting 3 weeks later. That meeting was with the him, the COO, and 5 other people. That was close to a 3 hour meeting (that went well) and I left with them getting materials together for our next meeting with the CEO in a month. So in this instance, it’s taking at least 7 weeks (although only a few hours of legwork and driving on my end) just to get the ball rolling.

    That comment got a little long winded… Anyway, great article!

  • http://thewpguy.com.au Tony Cosentino

    Hi Matthew,

    What an amazing article, thanks for so many home truths about pitching to Major Clients.

    You are so right how we can get comfortable with Mom and Pop jobs and losing our edge for how to work with larger clients. I got a lot from this post, thank you.


  • http://www.mekonta.co.uk John Cowen

    Really good article.

    From experience working within a large company I can agree that the way you present yourself is critically important. Several times I’ve seen supposedly big (and expensive) agencies given contracts and end up churning out work no better, and often worse, than I’ve seen from small independent outfits.

    They just act as if they’re doing the best work on the planet and big companies like to buy into that.

  • http://www.innovatics.de Innovatics

    Great article Matthew, while getting bigger customers is good, it takes a lot more of planning and estimating. You quickly get overwhelmed by the amount of work and all those little problems you didn’t see at the beginning. So in my opinion it’s good to go bigger step by step and to not pretend to be something you aren’t.

  • http://www.jordanwalker.net Jordan Walker

    Great advice!

  • Clervius

    GREAT GREAT GREAT article. Sometimes I read some of these articles on design blogs and think that some of these sound like common sense. But rarely does one motivate me like this one did.
    You did a great job with this one and you covered everything I didn’t know that I wanted to know. Kudos

  • http://www.sametomorrow.com/blog adam

    Really good and useful post on this topic. The tips are really right on.

  • http://365concepts.tumblr.com/ 365 Concepts

    Hey Matthew , that was helpful . and i totally agree with @Bradley Gauthier, low price always hinder the value of ur creativity…so PRICING is one of the most important issue here. oki thnks man….keep cumming those great articles. take care

  • http://www.freelancefactfile.com Freelance FactFile

    I totally agree with your point about: “Small projects, one-off assignments and low-paying gigs are of little value to a design business.” I’m a copywriter rather than a designer but it’s just the same for me – I need to find clients who will give me repeat business. Finishing one project and then looking for another to fill the gap is hard work.

    So I look for stuff like monthly e-newsletters or regular employee publications. Annual reports represent repeat business, too. OK, they only come round once a year but they do come round again.

    Maybe you’ve only been hired for a specific project but, don’t you agree that, if you prove your service is invaluable, then that client will be sure to use you again?

    • http://www.jeansdayjob.co.uk Jake Cheung

      I agree. Anyone in business should understand the lifetime value of each of their customers. It’s not what a client buys as a one-off that matters, but what they buy over the course of months/years. (Mobile phone companies understand this completely. Once they sign up a customer, they do everything to keep them as they know that a customer is likely to stay for 5+ years, paying every month).

      Selling further services to existing customers is much, much easier than trying to find new business from scratch.

  • http://knowledgecity.com Jae Xavier

    some tips to i’d like to add:

    1) watch your body language, it tells more about you than what you speak
    2) don’t be needy, you shouldnt behave like this is the last opportunity on earth

    good pointing out not competing on price, number one mistake.

  • http://www.blinkcommunications.biz Stephen Carey

    Mr. Carpenter,

    Excellent article, which shows that it was borne out of true experience and not the latest and greatest sales techniques book on the shelf at the book store.

    My company is set up much like an independent film company. Which means that I hire a lot of free lance talent, in many, many areas. We, put together our production team based on the story we have to tell the audience during the general sessions, plus, who the headliner is for the standard $250,000 to $1,000,000 headliner for the evening of entertainment. (The merits of spending money like that are dubious to me, at best. It falls in the category of paying a keynote speaker $100,000 to give a speech about whatever, but, it has nothing to do with the Association’s membership issues. A fight I work hard at and have almost lost clients for doing so.)

    Anyway, sorry, off track, the article really hits the important points. And, what I feel people should take away from this is that they are worthy to be bidding, offering a proposal, or at the early stage of marketing. It is important to remember that you/we are the answer to some problem or task our potential clients have.

    Over 95% of our business is by referral. And, as you point out, my below the line team members (associate producer, co-writer, and perhaps my video/film producer have to ooze how professional we are (and, we are), while at the same time not coming across as if we were the potential client’s new messiah. We need to build that team with them involved.

    Once I understand the project and what we need to produce during those general sessions, I can better hire my full freelance team. I will know for sure which graphic artist I will use (which means that the one I took with me to the meeting to get the real information about the project, may or may not be on the job. Though, they will be paid double their day rate for helping me out. And, most likely, they are the artist I will be using.)

    Then, there is getting the right feel of what our company means to us and can mean to the client. We do not do blind bids. We will only bid if we have met with the client, and gotten to understand their style and their hopes for the end product. I always keep in mind that I have three clients: my direct client, her or his boss, and the audience which may range from 400 people to 55,000, depending on the association or corporation. If my direct client understands that I know the importance of getting this correct, their stress level goes way down. For us, its a new project and very important, but, for my direct client, it can mean their job.

    On the second meeting we are already discussing the meeting which is two years away, given that many of our meetings take about a year to put together as we follow our clients schedule. I want the long-term feel to be present without being presumptuous.

    If the proposal involves us creating the creative of the job, then I have to decide how confident I am in getting the project. If I feel they are just shopping ideas, then we charge between $10,000 and $20,000 for that part of the proposal. If we get the project, that money is part of the budget. If not, then at least we get something should they decide to steal the limited amount of creative that one can do with most proposal. So, I hire a set designer, a graphic designer for the look of the pitch book, a writer who can take what we believe in and see us and me. So, I am don’t look like I am bragging about my work, instead, it has to show the teams work. (I think that may be the longest run-on sentence ever, very sorry.

    Right now, I am not running my company as I recover from a six year battle with cancer. Now, time to put the body back together. But, the company and what it means still is there and the freelance team members always feel like they are truly wanted and needed, and they are. They make up my company, the teams I put together and show my clients make it all work.

    So, showing off business partner, should you have one, is usually a good idea. If both of you are video or film producers, then you know which one of you should do a particular project, BUT, what about the project that the PR department is doing? Maybe they need a VNR or a program to give the client’s lobbyist in Washington to better tell why it is important that certain things get voted certain ways.

    Sorry, too long. I miss everyone from work and hoping the next few years pass by soon.

    All the best,

    Stephen Carey

    • http://www.blinkcommunications.biz Stephen Carey

      replying to my own comment, how embarrassing. Not once did I mention the Web work we do or the very talented designers we hire and who make us look great. While I can do a decent Web site architecture to show a client, that is it. We all have our strengths. Mine is with a live cast, crew, audience – in other words, a stage. And, to be fair, that is the main source of income. But, since we can be as good as the freelance talent out there, when a clients asks us to help redesign or design their Web site, we do. It is part of telling their story. So, I apologize for not making that clear and taking you off subject.

      Stephen Carey

  • http://www.khwebdesign.net Kent

    I think my meetings will be turning around after reading this article. Great stuff!

  • http://www.roundpeg.biz Lorraine Ball

    We are starting to make this transition, and I think you nailed some of the major stumbling blocks. Well written!

  • http://tkinnovation.com Thad

    Well done. Thank you!

  • http://www.armgardtdesign.com ladreaming

    Well written article. The most difficult part is getting your foot in the door. Once you have a chance to prove yourself, then you have the potential for many future projects to come.

  • http://www.sugarcatblog.com Rachel

    This is a very useful article with some great tips. The bit about managerial resources was particularly interesting to me.

    I would disagree with your assertion that projects for small clients are ‘relatively simple’ – a lot of the smaller clients I’ve worked with have been a pain in the neck (and don’t even pay enough to make it worthwhile!).

  • http://www.4over4.com/nyc-printing.html Kate | NYC Printing

    This was extremely useful, thanks!

    I particularly found the “results, not potential” part exceptionally accurate. I’ve had people give me a pitch based on their potential, and for the most part, they didn’t deliver which was quite upsetting. I can’t imagine having the roles reversed, and having my team promise things that we could not possibly deliver!

    And one more thing, if your product or service is well developed, and you take the time to make adequate samples and project realistic results- it won’t be necessary to compete on price; because, as you’ve said so yourself, competing on price is a terrible idea.

  • http://www.benstokesmarketing.co.uk Ben Stokes

    Nice article and very well presented – It is defiantly worth enrolling on a brief business course if you have no experience in dealing with the corporate sector – In the UK we have free work shops hosted by Business Link I am not to familiar with what assistance there is abroad, but I am sure there is the same support around the world.


  • http://www.joelemberson.com Joel Emberson

    Very insightful and well written – thanks for this!

  • http://maiconweb.com Maicon Sobczak

    This article came in the right time. I learned a lot! Thank you.

  • http://www.bharatkv.com Bharat KV

    Looking for the transition from small to big companies, this article is the right start… Very well written and means a lot… Thanks for sharing…

    Bharat KV

  • http://www.webcreationuk.com/ WebCreationUK

    Brilliant writing, this is a “must keep” article mate.

  • http://www.sjlwebdesign.co.uk SJL Web Design

    Great post, Really important tips for gaining major clients!! Bookmarked!!!
    Nice One.

  • http://www.estudiopositivo.com Diseño web EP

    Great advice!Well done.Thank you!

  • http://www.psdstyle.net Chuckles

    This is a well written article. Never would have thought about those angles.

    Thanks for the tips

  • http://www.notabledesign.com website design montreal

    It’s really a great sharing Sir! Every web design company should follow these steps

  • http://www.w3spor.no/webdesign W3Spor webdesign

    Good advices! Finding the decionsmaker and make them give you some time, thats the case.

  • http://www.offenmarkt.com Megha

    Useful suggestions. Excellently written article. What else could a writer ask for!!