When I am approached and given the opportunity to bid on a graphic design project, inevitably I am asked for samples from my portfolio. I am always happy to provide them, and to point them to my Web site where they can view more, but I wonder if they realize that my portfolio only tells a part of the story. The samples allow a prospective client to gauge my design ability, but give no insight into my reliability.
Occasionally I get a request for references, but I find out later that most of the time those references are never checked (my willingness to provide them being proof enough, I suppose). But what surprises me is that while I hear many clients complaining about designers and firms that they’ve been burned by in the past, so few of them attempt to verify the reliability of the firm beforehand.
Why is reliability so important for a design firm? The simplest and most obvious answer is that most projects are not one-off isolated events. Many times, a project is simply a first phase in a longer campaign. If you turn out to be a flake, and don’t deliver what you promised on time and within the agreed-upon budget, you are likely not to be retained for the remainder of the campaign, regardless of the quality of your work. A stunning portfolio might bring a client in the door, but consistency and reliability will keep them coming back.
Your reliability is also directly connected to how often and how strongly your clients will recommend you to their colleagues. I get probably 90% of my new business through referrals, and if I started delivering late or going over budget, those referrals would start to dry up. I might not even know the reason why. The phone would just stop ringing.
And thus being consistently unreliable can cause a designer to develop a reputation as a flake, which can haunt them for a long time. In a field as crowded and competitive as graphic design and marketing, a good reputation is vitally important. If you feel you’re developing such a reputation, the best remedy is to become reliable fast. Here are three ways:
- Schedule Realistically: Only you know how quickly you can turn things around, so be realistic about schedules that you develop. Clients are often impressed when I push back on a timeline that I feel is too aggressive. I’ve turned down lucrative projects that I knew I couldn’t get done it time because ultimately I would be blamed for missing the deadline.
- Estimate Honestly: If you bid low to win a project and then hit the client with changes in scope and extra fees, they’ll usually pay it, but that will likely be the last money you see from them. Give your clients a realistic bid; try to work within their budget; and don’t accept projects that are below your threshold. You may lose a few to competitors who underbid you, but the ones you do get will be more likely to lead to grateful clients and more work (and the prospect may come back to you after the low-bidders flake out).
- Do Whatever It Takes: Finally, once you’ve settled on a price and a schedule, do whatever it takes to get it done on time and within the budget. If that means, you have to stay up all night to meet your client’s deadline, then that’s what you do (and you’ll be more likely to plan better the next time). If it takes you longer than you estimated and you end up spending more hours than you’re getting paid for, chalk it up to experience and bill the client what you promised.
Reliability is not a substitute for ability, but ability by itself is not enough to establish a great reputation and keep clients coming back. How you deliver what you deliver is just as important, if not more.