Design View | Design articles and news from Andy Rutledge

03/26/07

Promises

Okay, Web designers, design creatives, agency principals, project managers, information architects, client services directors, and Web freelancers: 1) Right now, write down your personal or agency brand promise (i.e. your marketing/value proposition(s) – what is special about you or your agency). Next, 2) write down your precise role in fulfilling that brand promise. Be specific.

Finished? Okay now, 3) write down the directly related, tangible results that are evident at the conclusion of your client projects. In other words, what are the specific features of the results you or your agency delivers to your clients that your competitors do not deliver to theirs?

Now, 4) write down precisely how these results fulfill the brand promise you use in your marketing and your pitches.

Was this simple exercise easy for you? Were you able to make your lists without hesitation? Did everything work out as expected and did the results you listed describe your original promise? How many of you got stuck somewhere?

If you got stuck anywhere on this little exercise, I’ll bet that you have the feeling that at some point in your projects you or your agency go from being special and inspired to being plain, mundane, run of the mill, …average. Somewhere along the way, you lose your brand promise. Why? I’ll bet that the reason some of you lose your brand promise before the end of your projects is that you get drawn into the uninspired, apathetic, myopic, “make do” world inhabited by your clients.

At some point many projects go from being about what you or your agency can bring to your clients’ vision and execution to being about just satisfying clients’ low expectations and getting the project finished, done, out the door. Regardless of what the reasons are, this result means that you’re failing on your promise to your clients. Specifically why this happens is surely an individual issue, as the possibilities are manifold. But there may be some things you can do to prevent this sort of failure, or at least enlist your clients’ help in preventing it.

Define the promise and define responsibilities

Your clients hire you or your agency for specific reasons. In each case it is likely that your brand promise was significant in their decision. Or perhaps it was how you or one of your staff members seemed to “get it” and shared an inspired vision and result during initial meetings about their project. In any event, they hire you to deliver something you suggested you could deliver – something that they believed none of the others they spoke to could deliver.

So when they sign your contracts, in their minds they’re contracting with you to receive that special something that you seemed to have …something they want or desperately need. So where is that “something” defined in your contract? Well, surely it’s not defined in the contract because that result is only possible with the client’s full cooperation and participation, right? And we all know how most clients would rather pass a kidney stone than cooperate and participate sufficiently in their own creative/Web/marketing projects. And we’re usually powerless to compel them to do so.

At some point many projects go from being about what you or your agency can bring to your clients’ vision and execution to being about just satisfying clients’ low expectations and getting the project finished, done, out the door.

So define these promises and responsibilities in the contracts. Really, detail how the specifics of the inspired and elegant results are wholly contingent on the client’s commitment and participation. But DO NOT merely state how the client must deliver content by such and such date, or how they must be in–contact during the project or specific phases of it, or how timely approvals are essential. This is all necessary but it has nothing to do with your ability to deliver the special results they’re expecting.

Instead, your contracts should have specific references to the high ideals and special qualities of the desired results that were integral in their decision to work with you; how your brand promise meets their specific needs. Your contracts should be as much about your requirements of the client for your being able to satisfy those needs – as they are about quantifying the deliverables.

Your contracts should have passages that state your client’s responsibilities to work at your level – not the other way around. You’re the professional they hired to do what they cannot do or conceive of themselves. They are required to work at your high level rather than their own (most likely) make–do, apathetic level. Make sure that they understand that the results of the project will directly reflect their own participation and level of commitment.

Detail in the initial meetings that you cannot simply “flip the switch” and make their company seem great. They’re required to live up to the ideals they set forth with you. In fact, it might be a good idea to give them a little speech, something like this:

In signing this contract with us, know that you’re also committing to a contract with yourselves; with your employees and your own customers. Your commitment to this project will define the character of your company for your employees, your investors, your customers, and potential customers. Your commitment to this project will be directly reflected in the results.

By hiring our agency you’ve enlisted our expertise at how best to accomplish the goals that your team and our team have defined. In order to accomplish those goals we require your untiring and enthusiastic participation and cooperation – even if you don’t fully understand some of the elements of that participation (which we’ll work hard to make clear). In the end, we can only accomplish what we are allowed to accomplish; the quality of the result will depend significantly on the quality of your participation.

Something like this should probably be spoken during your initial meetings and a copy of something similar should absolutely be included in the contracts – made conspicuous, repeated, and referred to often.

What about your commitment?

So that last part takes care of some important commitments required of clients, but this only allows you to have the chance to do what you promised. You’re ultimately responsible for the quality of the result. If you don’t believe that, you’re in the wrong profession.

Remember the start of this article …the 4–step exercise to see if you even know how you or your agency is supposed to provide value to your clients? In order to fulfill your responsibilities, you’ve got to be clear on each step and the results have to describe the original brand promise. If any of the steps give you trouble, you do indeed have trouble.

Having a clearly defined sense of what makes you or your agency special or superior is essential in your being able to responsibly serve your clients.

If you’re not able to clearly define number one (your brand promise), I’m not sure what I can say to help you. You’ve either got no clearly defined passion for your work or your company is without an identity. Some would say, without a soul. Best of luck to you.

If you’re okay on one, but number two is problematic (your precise role in delivering on the brand promise), again I’m not sure what to say. This should be a no–brainer. If you or others in your group/company don’t know how their work fits into the scheme of delivering the specifics of your brand promise, you or your company have no business helping other companies with design or marketing of any kind. I sincerely hope this is not the case with you or your agency.

Numbers three and four are where most of us will run into trouble (tangible results and how they directly relate to your brand promise). I believe that having a strong sense of the concepts in the first two questions goes a long way toward ensuring that your promise is fulfilled, in some measure, at the conclusion of projects. If not, or if not completely, I expect that there are morale problems at work or an unclear idea of what exactly your brand promise is and how you’re supposed to ensure it gets fulfilled.

Having a clearly defined sense of what makes you or your agency special or superior is essential in your being able to responsibly serve your clients. Some might say that one can do professional work, just make a good living, without any real sense of how you embody and deliver quality. But I say that’s professionally irresponsible. I say we’ve got to have a clear set of superior ideals and a clear method for delivering on those ideals. But it should also be clear that ideal results are not possible without clients assuming responsibility for the requisite level and quality of participation. We’ve got to work to cultivate commitment on both sides and to define the relevant responsibilities for both sides.

Here’s a question for you to answer for yourself: How are you doing this now or how will you in the future?

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