13 November 2006
Linda Cooper Bowen
Linda Cooper Bowen

As creative people, many of us are so busy that we don't bother to take the time to look at the big picture of how our business is running. Marketing and self- promotion often have a low priority as day-to-day activities of managing the office take precedent over future plans. Unless you have a full time marketing person taking care of promotion and new business development, chances are you don't think about marketing until you are hungry for clients.

Not even the best clients will tell you directly what you are doing wrong. They have their own investment in the relationship and prefer not to confront the design firm unless things are really unworkable. But if they're unhappy, eventually they will find someone they like better and move on and you may never know why. It is hard to learn specifically what your strengths are in terms of service, creativity and value if you don't take the time to ask. A formal client survey is the best way to do this. Clients are impressed that you care enough to do this kind of research - it is an extension of your service and a strong marketing message. The only way you can correct weaknesses and build on successes is to identify them and develop a strategic plan.

Should I do the survey myself or hire someone to do it for me?
An outside consultant can ask questions that you cannot. The survey is anonymous, answers are not attributed to the interviewee and this guarantee of total confidentiality produces direct, honest responses, and the findings are almost always positive - or at least, constructive. You and the consultant develop a questionnaire that addresses particular issues facing your practice. After analyzing the final report, the consultant will make observations and recommendations that then form the foundation of your new program. It is objective, immediately valuable information that provides concrete feedback about issues you may often have wrestled with like pricing, service and capabilities.

How will this information change the way I work?
An environmental designer told me at a recent conference how much he benefited from the survey process. In his post project survey we learned that negative criticism on his project usually came after his part of the work was completed. When outside contractors and fabricators failed to properly install or maintain signage elements, the designer was held responsible. This was upsetting news for him and as a result he now will not take on a project unless his contract includes managing the complete installation. In another case, a large graphic design firm found that after 20 years in business, they needed an objective idea of how they were doing. How did their creative product compare to the competition? Were they too expensive or did clients feel they got good value? Were the firm's principals, as well as the staff, delivering the level of service promised? The survey exercise was extremely useful management tool and provided immediate resolution of issues they often wrestled with. Clients even went so far as to suggest additional services they wanted the firm to provide. On the strength of this information, the office changed its identity, expanded its services and improved all areas of client interaction.

Can I conduct my own survey?
Yes. Although it is not as impartial or objective as one conducted by a third party, the resulting feedback is extremely worthwhile. Be prepared to spend considerable time on the interviewing and data analysis process that can take up to 50 hours by e-mail, telephone or fax. Person-to-person (telephone) yields the most complete answers but promise clients not to take up more than 10 minutes of their time to do the survey. Contact only the people you have worked with in the past three years, no more than 25 companies (although even as few as five will yield excellent data.)

Decide what it is you most want to learn and structure your questionnaire accordingly. Ask for constructive suggestions rather than, "What is wrong with us?" questions. Never ask a question that can be given a one-word answer; a better form might be, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate X Design in ...?" Questions like "What would you like us to change?" or "How can we improve our service?" are very constructive.

Clients have an investment in keeping a good working relationship with you and are most willing to offer this information. Creativity and design savvy may win you the job, but keeping the client depends on knowing what they think of your office's total performance - and, as everyone knows, it's far more expensive to find new clients than to keep existing ones. A client survey provides new insight, and it's the best, fastest and most economical way to build a successful practice.

for more information, contact:

Linda Cooper Bowen

About Linda Cooper Bowen
Linda Bowen, a former graphic designer and New Business Development executive in New York and Los Angeles, is the author of The Graphic Designer's Guide to Creative Marketing: Finding and Keeping Your Best Clients (John Wiley & Sons 1999). She has taught marketing at Pratt Graduate School of Communication and Design in New York, and lectures and frequently writes about professional practice issues in leading design magazines.

About Applied Arts Magazine
Applied Arts Magazine is Canada's leading graphic arts publication, showcasing the best work from graphic designers, art directors, creative directors, copywriters, photographers, illustrators, multimedia designers and Web designers in Canada and beyond. With an average readership of sixty thousand, Applied Arts Magazine publishes six issues a year, including the Photography & Illustration Annual published in July, and the Design & Advertising Annual published in January.