6 Tips for Pitching to Major Clients

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June 29, 2010

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?

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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