Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Sales: The Fail Team

December 6, 2010

For those of us who care about professionalism, there’s plenty to find fault with in the largely-unprofessional world of the design profession. This is especially true of the various facets of common agency conduct and conventions. Others have taken to task certain components, but what I see as the single most damaging component to the professionalism of most agencies is the sales team.

It may sound counterintuitive: the sales team is charged with bringing in project revenue (clients), but the classical basis for needing a sales team and the results of most of its efforts are reflective of agency failure. In fact, it is the concept of and need for the sales team that is counterintuitive for a good agency staffed by professionals. Professionals understand this. Those who are unacquainted with professionalism likely will not.

You see, a salesperson is typically evaluated like this: how many project dollars did you bring into our agency yesterday, last week, last month? If the answer is substantial, “keep up the good work and keep bringing in those dollars.” If the answer is insignificant, “sorry, you’re outta here.” Now, think about that, and how this sort of standard corrupts the professionalism of everyone in the agency. Still confused? Well, while you’re thinking on that, let’s examine how things are supposed to work.

The good agency

An agency that is worth anyone’s time and interest doesn’t have a sales team. Okay, let me qualify that: such an agency doesn’t have a sales team whose job is evaluated according to the mere influx of project dollars. Rather, the good agency has a quality reputation with results to match, which brings a constant flow of potential client interest and continued activity from past and current clients. At such an agency the sales team, if there is one, is there to manage the quality of projects brought to the team. At the good agency, project and client evaluation is always qualitative, seldom quantitative. Professionalism requires this standard.

As I’ve noted before, my job at my agency is to say no. I’m the “sales team.” My default answer to any potential client and any proposed project is no…until I’m convinced that the client is the sort of person/people we want to work with, and that their project is the sort of project that we’re suited to. We don’t work with unsuitable clients or with unsuitable projects. This, of course, means that I turn down a lot of projects, but it also means that my team works only on good projects with good people on the clients’ teams. The alternative would be bad for everyone involved.

Holding to this sort of standard is not easy. It requires that the salesperson deliberately turn away potential clients who are keen to pay large sums of money to the agency. This is sometimes a difficult thing to do, especially when cash flow is beginning to wane and the list of scheduled projects ends in a couple of weeks. But professionalism doesn’t accommodate expediency or compromise; this is certainly true when we’re talking about the fundamental components of professional interactions: clients and projects. Not all agencies and salespeople are prepared to hold to professional standards, though.

The bad agency

At the bad agency, the fundamental qualification for clients and projects is, “does the client have budget?” If the potential client has money to spend, the salesperson’s answer is “yes, let’s get your project scheduled.” Typically, this is the entirety of the salesperson’s job; dude, you sign the client! This means that there is little if any qualitative discrimination in the process.

In most cases it doesn’t even matter if the agency has the capability to do what the project requires; the assumption is they’ll hire someone to do whatever they don’t know how to do. The objective here is revenue. Period. The salesperson knows this and everyone else knows this…which inevitably has consequences.

An institutionalized lack of qualitative discrimination leads to the agency team having to deal with quite a few ridiculous projects and distasteful clients. The fundamental characteristic of most of these projects is compromise. Compromise begets compromise, so a project and relationship that is begun with compromise must be conducted with compromise and will end with it, as well. There are no exceptions.

The fact that the agency owner is comfortable sending distasteful projects to his/her team says everything one must know about that person and his/her agency. Such an environment is not one that is enjoyed by anyone. At best, those employed by the agency tolerate the situation and most are ever vigilant for an opportune exit. At this agency, everyone present is simply subject to what they can endure. The clients of this agency are probably in the worst possible hands.

You are your reputation

Agency sales is not so much a skill or activity, but rather the result of quality. A good agency founded in professionalism will thrive on word-of-mouth promotion and referrals. A good agency has satisfied, enthusiastic clients and produces the kind of results that garner interest and attention. A good agency doesn’t need a sales team to bring in clients or projects; only to cull the bad from the good.

What’s important to understand, however, is that one cannot simply switch from inadvisable, unprofessional practices to advisable, professional ones. If an agency has survived by the indiscriminate efforts of a sales team, it cannot simply begin to live by word-of-mouth promotion. We are what we’ve done. Professionalism demands a recognized pattern of uncompromising behavior. This is why our first steps into the profession are so very vital. Mistakes made at the beginning will color our results and reputations, even our choices, for a long time. So be careful.

I know quite a few designers who are employed by agencies that are driven by an indiscriminate sales team. In each case, these designers are disturbed and discouraged by the sort of work they have to endure and the sorts of clients they have to work with. History shows me that these agencies are not long going to enjoy the benefits of having quality designers on the team. Good people will not endure idiocy forever.

If you run an agency like this, know that your best people are looking for an exit right now. They’re there not because they want to be, but because they don’t have a better option. Yet.

If you’re thinking of starting an agency, even if it’s a 2- or 3-person startup, begin things right: don’t start until you have a reputation that garners respect and attention. Don’t start until you have a pipeline of projects. And when you do pull the trigger, make sure your choices are founded in professionalism; uncompromising, with an eye toward quality over quantity. Make choices that support your foundations and when presented with the choice between dollars and reputation, choose reputation every time. It’s the only thing that will allow you to continue making choices rather than having all your choices made for you.

Finally, when it comes to sales, let them come from your reputation rather than from someone or a team of people whose job it is to rack up project revenues. That path is a trap and you’ll never escape, but I assure you that your best people will. They’ll go to work for professionals and your agency and your clients will be relegated to the dregs.

Come to think of it, maybe you and your clients already are. Food for thought.

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