Creativity thrives best within defined constraints. My process isn’t just important for project management and organization, it’s absolutely essential to deliver amazing results. The kind of results that I guarantee to my clients or they can have their full budget back to invest elsewhere.
(Spoiler - no one has ever requested a refund, thanks to this.)
I work with my clients through a phased engagement framework. This means that we approach their project as a series of sub-projects that are billed separately. But why? Let me explain.
Imagine moving to a new area and needing to find a new primary care doctor. You’ve been experiencing a persistent pain in your abdominals for about a couple weeks now and you’re ready to be done with it. So you do a little research online, maybe ask a friend who’s lived in the area for advice, and finally make your decision.
You call the office to make an appointment, and surprisingly the Doctor themself answers the phone! When you ask to make an appointment to be seen, she tells you that an appointment isn’t necessary and that you can just tell her what you’re sick with right there over the phone.
Skeptically, you tell her about your symptoms, how long they’ve been bothering you, and about how you’ve recently moved and have thus been dealing with a lot of stress lately. You then speculate that it might be gallstones.
The second you stop talking, the Doctor says to you “Oh ok, well the solution for gallstones is pretty straightforward. Surgery would definitely fix it. That will cost you about $20,000. Does that work for your budget?”
You are totally incredulous, at a loss for words. You just met this Doctor for the first time—over the phone, no less. She didn’t even run any tests, or ask you any follow-up questions! She just took you at your word for entire diagnosis. Even if surgery would fix the problem, surely there’s more we need to do to know if that would really be the best path forward.
Stunned by their completely amateur approach, you hang up then phone and never call that Doctor again. How could anyone who calls themselves a healthcare professional prescribe a treatment like that while doing so little in the way of due diligence?
You call a different Doctor’s office and they do everything right. They schedule an appointment where they learn about your medical history, ask about your symptoms, and ask a series of specifically targeted diagnostic questions to narrow down the field of possible answers. Then they tell you that they’ll need you to come back in next week so that they can run a few tests to be confident in their diagnosis. Then they’ll sit down with you to discuss your options.
This is all very important work—after your experience with the first doctor, you don’t want someone to simply take you at your word for what the problem is. You want someone who understands that it is their professional responsibility to be absolutely sure of your diagnosis before prescribing the solution. Someone who will use their expertise and leverage all their diagnostic tools before committing to a treatment plan.
Diagnose, Prescribe, Design
In the past, you may have worked with designers, strategists, or agencies who behave more like the first doctor. You come to them and say you need a new website, they ask a few questions to try to get an idea of the complexity of your website, and then they write up a proposal with a defined price estimate and send it over. After a series of back-and-forths, you commit your entire budget for the website and they get to work.
But this approach is risky—and negligent.
It relies on your ability to self-diagnose in an area outside your own specialty. It is dependent on you ascertaining exactly what your business needs and how to best allocate your limited budget to solve those needs.
Speaking from years of experience in digital strategy, there is always some amount of fog around what a new client needs and what would truly be the ideal solution for them. As a service provider, if I don’t do something so that this fog fully clears out then I’m going to have to cover myself by shooting really high in the project proposal. I’ll scope in things that may or may not be totally necessary. I’ll make guesses and assumptions on what would probably work for you, based on my experience with other clients. I’ll do as little work as I can when building your estimate, and I’ll make my proposal as generalized and as vague as possible to cover for the unknowns that will arise. This is what most designers, strategists, marketers, or agencies do.
I approach things differently.
I view it as my professional responsibility to fully diagnose a problem BEFORE proposing any solutions. If a client comes to me with a self-diagnosed problem, then it is my professional responsibility to validate that diagnosis before moving forward. It is better to go 1 step in the right direction than to take any amount of steps in the wrong direction.
It’s impossible to fully diagnose a complicated business problem on one phone call. It’s impossible to do it on 2, or even 3 phone calls. Developing the ideal solution for your problem takes time, effort, and expertise. It requires tools, procedures, and a strategic framework. It requires us to collaborate and share our knowledge with each other.
There’s a reason why most agencies or freelancers don’t do this—it’s not easy work. It’s time intensive and requires a great deal of planning and critical thinking. Simply put, it’s too much work to do for free.
I agree with them. It is difficult. It’s far too much work to do for a client before they even write their first check for the project. But I also think it’s essential if you are going to be a responsible professional practitioner. I refuse to sell solutions that are based on assumptions.
To solve this problem, here’s what I ask of new clients.
Instead of just taking me at my word and committing your entire budget up front based on a guesswork proposal, why don’t you let me roll up my sleeves and develop a really intimate understanding of the problem first?
We can do this for a fraction of your overall budget and, in doing so, minimize your risk. We can research the problem and explore it with you, fully leveraging both my expertise in digital strategy and design thinking and your knowledge of your business and customers. Together, we’ll create an in-depth plan together that we can be absolutely confident of solving the problem within your overall budget.
Afterwards, we’ll know exactly what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and why it needs to be done. The scope will be correct and firmly defined. The price will be fixed and I can avoid over-pricing the project because all the unknowns have been solved for.
When I present my recommendations at the end of the process, you can agree to move forward with me on one of the options I present to you. Or you can take this detailed, professional plan to someone else and have them implement it. Or you can even try to implement it in-house!
To some, the strategic framework I use as a diagnostic process seems like a waste of time or money. Others recognize that what this process really does is guarantee that we’ll be making the correct decisions about how they should spend the rest of their budget to take their brand to the next level.