Working with a Sales Rep

Most design firms are founded by someone who designs—that is to say, someone who is actively involved in producing the creative work being sold to clients. In addition, it's very common for that founder to be responsible for all marketing and sales during the early years of the business. The owner personally solicits new clients, then leads each project while the work is being done. This approach works very well as long as the company remains small.

However, if the firm grows, the founder's personal workload will gradually increase to the point where this broad mix of responsibilities must be sorted out. Some things will have to be delegated or else the overall size of the company will be limited to the individual work capacity of the owner.

When the time comes to sort out the hats, the founder will have the luxury of deciding what to keep and what to delegate to other people. This involves making a choice between a role that is primarily internal (leading the creative process) and one that is primarily external (representing the firm to the business community). As designers, many founders choose to remain involved in the hands-on creative work. This means that someone else, often a new hire, will be charged with new business development. This shift marks fundamental change and it brings with it a number of important challenges.

If a new employee is going to be given responsibility for marketing and sales, the transition must be carefully planned. Advance preparation is necessary to set expectations and establish a structure that will meet the needs of the firm and enable the new person to succeed. Good planning will help to prevent confusion, make it easier to gauge performance, and reduce the possibility of disputes and disagreements. Here's what you should do to prepare.

Update your overall marketing strategy

Start by taking a look at your current mix of clients and services. Is there anything that you would like to change? Young firms tend to take shape in a reactive way, accepting any project that comes along, but established firms become much more proactive—aggressively pursuing certain types of work that might not come in the door otherwise. To become more proactive, you must first articulate your strategy. Is growth an objective or do you want the size of your firm to remain the same? What are your plans for existing relationships? Usually these relationships are referred to as “house accounts” and a certain amount of momentum carries them forward. Requests for additional work on existing accounts usually come directly to the creative team. Chances are that your new marketing person will not be involved in existing relationships, but be specifically charged with finding new clients in certain categories. What do you want those categories to be and what credibility does your firm currently have in those new areas?

Identifying and pursuing opportunities

Look at your current practices. How do you become aware of potential clients and convince them to consider you for new projects? In most design firms, this involves a great deal of personal networking, ongoing research in business journals, trade publications and online, as well as maintaining visibility at client industry events. To keep tabs on all of this activity, your firm needs a database for contact tracking and customer relationship management. If you don't already have one, now is the time to put one in place—it's an essential tool for new business development. In addition, the person hired to manage all of these marketing activities will need an appropriate level of administrative support.

As more and more leads are identified and pursued, a clear set of selection criteria is needed for filtering and prioritizing them. The founder usually defines these criteria and they can vary quite a bit from firm to firm. Your criteria might include some or all of the following: each new project must be a match to your services and technological capabilities, present a creative challenge, and be of interest to your design team; when completed, you may want the project to have a certain amount of visibility; the client organization should be within one of your target industries, be a reputable company, and offer some potential for the development of a long-term relationship; your primary contact there should be someone with sufficient authority; and finally, each project must have a realistic schedule and budget as well as the potential to produce a profit for your company. Some design firms give more weight to certain items. Your criteria should be written out, preferably in a worksheet format so that they can be applied to all opportunities in a consistent way.

Set specific, realistic goals for new business development

Think about what you will ask the new hire to accomplish. If your strategy is to maintain the firm at its current size, what volume of work is required to do that? How much of your current volume includes existing clients or services that you want to replace because they're not satisfying or profitable? Exactly what amount of new business is needed to take their place?

If your strategy is to grow, you must decide by how much. Set the new target for annual billings, then break it down into client categories and project types. In each area, what amount is already in place and what must come from new business development? When making these decisions, be realistic about how much growth is possible and how quickly your internal systems can expand. In most instances, an annual target for organic growth of 10 or 20 percent will represent a modest stretch, but a target above 50 percent could easily place too much strain on your staff and systems. Set goals which are high enough to motivate, but not so high that they can never be reached. Pressure to hit unattainable targets will quickly demoralize your team.

Make sure your sales materials are current and complete

When meeting with potential clients, your new business development person will need a supply of great promotional materials. Make sure that you have an initial set of materials in place that will last at least six months. It will take that long for a new hire to come up to speed. Later, he or she will be able to assist in the development of new items.

Most creative firms have a modular system in place that includes a company backgrounder, an overview of services and clients, a series of specific case studies (by project type or client category), and reprints of recent press coverage. Any combination of these items can be slipped into a presentation folder or assembled using an in-house binding system. Many firms also design promotional mailers on a regular basis, often in the form of postcards. When hiring a new business development person, it would be great to have a mailer either in process or recently completed.

Write a detailed job description for the new position

Young design firms sometimes use outside sales people on an independent contractor basis, similar to the way that photographers and illustrators work with agents. Established firms bring the responsibilities in-house, allowing business development to happen in a more integrated and sustained way. Don't hesitate to give the staff position a very impressive-sounding job title. An executive title can help open doors at a senior level within client organizations. Next, write out a detailed job description that explains required duties and personal responsibilities. In a design firm, a new business development person usually…

  • Conducts industry research
  • Identifies and qualifies leads
  • Initiates contact to make potential clients aware of services
  • Follows up with all prospects through systematic mailings, phone calls, appointments and correspondence
  • Gives capabilities presentations
  • Maintains a contact tracking database and produces periodic reports on activities and opportunities
  • Reviews requests for proposals and collaborates with other team members to develop project schedules, budgets and pricing
  • Drafts proposals that clearly define each project's scope of work
  • Obtains internal approval before releasing proposal documents
  • Negotiates with clients to obtain signed acceptance
  • Transitions new projects to the creative team
  • Represents the design firm in the business community through business and civic organizations
  • Writes press releases and manages ongoing public relations efforts
  • When necessary, acts as an internal client, working with the founder and creative team to develop new marketing materials for the firm

Put your best efforts into the development of this job description and be as specific as possible. It's important to present a very clear set of initial responsibilities. At the same time, you need to reserve the right to make future changes. Your firm is going to evolve and you should be able to redefine this position when necessary.

About the Author:

Shel Perkins is a graphic designer, management consultant and educator with more than twenty years of experience in managing the operations of leading design firms in the U.S. and the U.K. He has served on the national boards of AIGA and the Association of Professional Design Firms. He has been honored as an AIGA Fellow "in recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community." The third edition of his best-selling book, Talent Is Not Enough: Business Secrets For Designers, is available from New Riders.