Free Advice: Design Firms

Re:Designing Your Website — What You Need to Know

Invited to Denver to be a juror for the 35th annual SMPS National Marketing Communications Awards, I reviewed 19 of the best websites in the industry. Here’s what impressed me and where even the best of the best are missing the boat.

We’ve come a long way, but …

Firms are getting better at tracking traffic, but are they measuring the right thing? Using Google Analytics, you now have access to a range of metrics like how many unique visitors you are getting, how long they spend on your site, and what pages they are viewing. But is that what your CEO cares about? Most firms fall way short of quantifying the business value of their website. How many leads is it generating? How many new clients is it capturing? How many new employees is it attracting?

Companies have moved on from static sites that serve essentially as on-line brochures. Most understand that the medium can be interactive; there is an opportunity for two-way communication. Many are now embracing social media, including videos, and creating fresh content via blogs. But having five-month gaps between blog entries suggests that you don’t have a lot to share that’s of value.

One firm boasts about being a thought leader and offers a downloadable white paper.  Good start. But it’s hard to be considered a thought leader if you just have one thought.

Leading-edge firms are winning points for creativity in web design, but beware. What some viewers find clever others find annoying. Being different for the sake of being different doesn’t help your case. If the site is not intuitive to navigate, if visitors are confused or frustrated, they will leave and they won’t come back.

Content is king. A clean layout and pretty pictures are critical, but if people are coming for information, the writing has to be compelling, as well. Most of what I read on websites is either too long, too skimpy, too generic, too dense, or too boring. And what a shame it is when the writing is strong but nobody knows it, because the text is illegible due to poor choices of fonts, backgrounds and/or type sizes.

Some helpful advice

Establish your objectives and define your audience. Everyone wants to reach potential clients. But don’t forget about existing clients, business partners, influencers, past and prospective employees, journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who can help you build your business.

Determine what your audiences want to know. Make it easy for them to find it. And let them know “You are here,” so they can navigate easily to wherever else they want to go.

Be yourself. Everybody starts the process of web re-design by looking at competitors’ sites. Consequently, many sites look the same, and clients can’t distinguish one firm from the next. Instead of copying others, find your own voice and reveal your company’s distinctive personality. Don’t just list your office locations, illustrate what the environment and culture are like.

Showcase your people as well as your projects. Everyone says, “Our people are our most valuable asset.” Sure they are. Now show us why we would want to work with them. Shoot real people in real settings. Avoid the stock photography images of posers around a table, someone pointing to a drawing, or a close-up of a handshake — all cliches.

Make it easy to do business with you. Easy to contact you. Easy to find your office. Easy to know what role you played on a particular project. Easy to apply for a job with your company.

Offer something of value. Engage visitors with interesting content. Share useful and helpful information. Give them a reason to come back.

Optimize for mobile devices. No longer can you expect that your site will be viewed on a computer in an office. Your site now has to work on tablets and phones. Increasingly, that will mean creating a separate mobile version of your site that downloads quickly and is sized correctly not only for viewing but also for fingers.

According to a survey of 500 professional service firms, 46% have redesigned their websites within the last year. And, according to Hinge Research Institute, 66% of firms plan to increase investment in their website — and online marketing — in the next 12 months. Get it right. Follow the advice above to make sure your money is well spent.

What Clients Don’t Want

At the request of Boutique Design magazine, I managed to get the attention of some ultra-busy clients — reaching them on four different continents — and asked them how they want to be marketed to by design firms.  I learned as much about what they don’t want.

The revealing responses came from these four hospitality industry luminaries:

  • Dana Kalczak, Vice President, Design, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
  • Mike Paneri, Senior Vice President – Hotel Development, Viceroy Hotel Group
  • Carl Kernodle, Vice President, Development Asset Management, Hyatt Hotels Corporation
  • Larry Traxler, Senior Vice President, Global Design, Hilton Worldwide

Their responses to my questions are quoted verbatim, but I chose to protect them a bit by not revealing who said what.

HW: How are design firms breaking through the clutter and getting your attention?

“Great work, creative intensity, and strong design communication skills always speak louder than words, sales calls, and lunch meetings. Just show me how you have created great design despite today’s challenging financial situations­.”

“Your website is the first place I go when researching a design firm. It’s your primary means of communicating your credentials, your experience, and your design style. I hate seeing renderings. Anyone can have a beautiful drawing done. If it has been built, show me the real thing. And let me know what your role was on the project. I also want to see bios.”

“I’ll admit I’m influenced by pretty pictures. Get your work properly photographed and published. If I see images I like on your website, I may ask you to send printed materials of the project. But, ironically, in the case of many firms, their websites are more out-of-date than their brochures are.”

“When I like what I see, I arrange a meeting. I always think of designers differently after I’ve met them … sometimes for the better, sometimes not. I once asked to meet a restaurant designer whose work impressed me. He was so arrogant I resolved then and there, ‘There is no way we will ever work with this @$$hole.’”

HW: What’s the best way to reach you?

“Don’t call me. I find unsolicited calls annoying. Email is the best way to reach me. If we need to talk, you can set up a call through email.”

“You’ll get my attention when I see good work; not necessarily by continually contacting me. I appreciate those who present their work and let it speak for itself.”

“Every firm wants to come in to meet with me. I suggest sending me your printed materials first. When we’re embarking on a project, we review design portfolios and seek to match a firm’s strengths with the intent of the design and the location of the site.”

“I don’t need printed materials. Electronic is cheaper, quicker, and just as effective. If you’re going to send me anything, put in on a flash drive rather than a pile of paper.”

“If we already know a firm, staying in touch electronically is a good idea. Electronic newsletters can be a non-intrusive way to get my attention and stay top-of-mind.”

HW: What’s your impression of business development people?

“Business developers have their role in scoping out opportunities for their firms, but it’s much more impactful when I get a call from a design firm owner. BD people can be effective if they have some longevity and seniority with their firm and can speak with authority. For me, the issue is trust.”

“One super-aggressive, annoying, high-pressure salesperson who contacts me regularly has been with five firms in seven years. I simply don’t believe him any more.”

“Some BD people are so persistent that they verge on being stalkers. I will do anything I can to avoid them and, by extension, their firms. Self-effacing and sincere will win out over pushy.”

HW: What are some of your pet peeves when it comes to marketing?

“Don’t expect that if you met me at a conference — where I got dozens of business cards from others just like you — that it will have left a memorable impression on me.”

“If you’re a large firm with multiple offices, don’t have multiple people from different offices call me. It just makes you look disorganized, and it doesn’t endear me to your company.”

“If you’re a small firm, don’t exaggerate your capacity and capability. If you try to take on something you can’t handle, you will ruin your chances for working with us in the future. If you’re right for a project, but it’s too big for you, we may hire you for a piece of it.”

Howard’s takeaways

Don’t waste the time of a busy client. If you have something of value to share, marketing can be effective. If you’ve done good work, let them know. Otherwise, they seem to be saying, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

Your takeaways?

When a Client Says, “Your Fee is Too High”

My advice is to ask, “Compared to what?”

Or, try this variation: “Can you help me understand what you mean?”

If you ask the client to articulate what’s behind the concern about fee, you can have a conversation. It helps to think in terms of building a relationship not just winning a job.

Either way, the client will offer one of several answers. When you have more information, you can determine the best strategy for either making the sale or walking away from the project.

If the answer to the question is “compared to firm XYZ,” and your firm is the one the client would prefer to work with, ask if you can see XYZ’s proposal. Then, you can make sure the client is comparing apples and apples, and you can look at adjusting scope, if necessary.

These days, there are, indeed, firms who deliberately and strategically low-ball fees to get work. I think it’s fair to point that out to a client while raising a seed of doubt in his or her mind about the long-term viability of that approach. The truth is, it may be part of a strategy to keep people busy rather than laying them off, or it could be an attempt to buy the work as part of an effort to enter a new market. Some firms use this deep-discounting approach as a way to get their foot in the door and hope to make up for their losses later on. The problem is that creates unrealistic expectations on the part of clients and is unsustainable in the long run.

Back to the answers you might hear …

If the answer is “compared to what I expected,” you can ask how they came to expect what they expected and discuss what other types of firms they have worked with and the level of product and service they are hoping to get. This will give you a clue as to their level of sophistication and a sense of who your competitors might be.

If the answer is, “compared to our budget,” ask the client to share the number and have a conversation about if and/or how the scope might be adjusted to meet the budget.

If you suspect that it’s just an opening gambit in a negotiation game, determine if you want to play that game. These clients want to feel that they’re getting a deal. But don’t rush to discount without first determining if you’re the client’s first choice.

If clients raise a price objection BEFORE making their decision (rather than telling you after someone else was selected), think of it as a gift. It’s a great opportunity to engage them in a dialogue, educate them about the value you offer, and build a relationship … whether or not you get this particular job.

What are your thoughts? Please share your tales from the trenches with me at

25 Trends for Architecture and Design Firms

The annual trends forecast — compiled by the staff of DesignIntelligence and the Greenway Group — recognizes new opportunities for design firms to have greater relevance in the years ahead.

Several of the trends can inform your marketing strategy, starting with the very first (Trend #1): Go global. That’s where the action is, especially Asia.

In Trend #21, the authors articulate  a strategy for avoiding commoditization:

“Evidence-based design and proof statements about return on investment can be seen as both marketing opportunities and chances to create value for clients. Offering clients a competitive advantage in their markets becomes leverage for design firms.”

In other words, it’s not enough to say you add value. You need to offer proof.

Recommended Read

Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose

By Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth, David. B.Wolfe

I confess: I bought this book because of its clever title, which sounded different from many of the marketing books that line my shelves. By page two, I learned that the original title was In Search of Marketing Excellence, which seemed much too mundane for a book that challenges the traditional marketing paradigm head-on.

Debunking old mindsets

The authors start by describing the zero-sum world view that now dominates business: stakeholders are adversaries to be subdued; suppliers are objects of exploitation; employees are expenses; governments are monkeys on the backs of business; consumers are prey for marketers and salespeople.

That mindset has lead to the conclusion that one stakeholder group can only benefit at the expense of others; and this is how capitalism has traditionally worked. Firms of Endearment (FoEs), however, place no stakeholder above any other. Where Darwin talked about the survival of the fittest, these authors claim that the fittest are those who know how to cooperate.

Winning business today is about becoming the ultimate value creator. And the types of value that the best companies are generating are those that matter: emotional, experiential, social and financial. Firms of Endearment seek to gain a “share of the heart,” not just a “share of the wallet” by aligning (not juggling) the interests of all of their stakeholders. So it’s not a question of who comes first: Customers? Investors? Employees? They all come first.

Before you choke on smell of incense or start to hear the chant of Kumbaya, you might want to consider some of the firms who have made the transformation and whose financial performances are blowing away the S&P 500 averages and the “Good to Great” companies. The authors use dozens of case studies from across industries – from Costco and Whole Foods to Southwest, IDEO and IKEA and more – to make a compelling case for the competitive advantage of working with and for an endearing company.

The motive here is not political correctness or corporate social responsibility—it’s something much more palpable: long-term competitive advantage in everything from marketing to recruitment.

I’m lovin it

You’ll read the word “love” in this business book not once but repeatedly. Firms of Endearment are those companies that people love doing business with. Love partnering with. Love working for. Love investing in. In an organization that doesn’t separate human nature from corporate nature, love does not seem out of place.

How you can benefit from this book

It seems hard to argue with the success of the business models described in this engaging book. You might want to assess your company against the distinguishing traits of Firms of Endearment, which:

  • Freely challenge industry dogma
  • Reject traditional marketing methods
  • Create value by aligning stakeholder interests
  • Operate with a long-term perspective
  • Favor organic growth to growing by mergers and acquisition
  • Blend work and play

Paradoxically, these firms don’t focus on finances, but they are, indeed, highly profitable … despite spending more on employees and other stakeholders than most companies.

If you buy this book, I’d recommend that you get an extra for the boss. At its core, this is a book about developing and nourishing leadership and culture. No company can become an FoE without the CEO doubling as the CTO, Chief Transformational Officer.

The transition to becoming an FoE is more than a one-person job, and it’s also a lot deeper (and slower) than a silver-bullet program that starts and ends with rewriting your mission/vision/values statements. The authors voice what a lot of us already know: People do not rally around fake flags; cultural change has to be authentic.

While many of us may not expect to see our firms profiled in the next edition of this book, there is a lot that you and the other leaders in your firm can do today to start modeling the sound business strategies of the Firms of Endearment.


Howard Wolff
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