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Soup to Nuts: Where's the Value?

February 7, 2000
by Pat McClellan

It's pretty clear that success in this or any business is based on creating long lasting customer relationships. Perhaps this is why so many freelancers end up becoming "perma-lancers". Long term relationships with clients provide you ongoing income without requiring you to have a continuing sales and marketing effort, and this is a huge savings. Getting additional business "no-bid" also gives you a bit more power in pricing, so you've got a chance of actually getting paid what you're worth for a change.

There's the added benefit that the longer you work with a client, the more they trust you. That trust often allows you more creative freedom and an expanded management role. Pretty soon, the client starts turning to you for everything, "soup to nuts". Maybe you started out doing some Shockwave movies and now they're asking you about redesigning their e-commerce engine. From their perspective, you're a smart "web-guy", so you must know how to do e-commerce, right? Or maybe you started out doing glorified PowerPoint presentations in Director and now they're looking for you to do some massive hybid CD-ROM/web program with object-oriented programming. They're thinking you can do it because it's all Director, right?

Right. So what do you do now that they're looking to you for a solution you don't have?

Know When to Say "No"

There's certainly no shame in doing what you do well, and not doing what you don't know how to do. Nobody can know and do everything related to our industry. Heck, who even knows how to define "our industry"? Is it all things related to the web? Or maybe all kinds of communications? Or games? Or educational and marketing materials? Add to this the fact that multimedia attracts multi-talented people, but there's a big difference between multi-talented and omni-talented. It's hard enough for us to define our boundaries; there's not much hope that our clients will. It's up to you to know when to say "no". Here are some guidelines that might help:

That's a lot to consider and I'm sure there are other issues that will arise. There are implications to your career, the way you define the mission of your business, your enjoyment of your work, your reputation. Undeniably, there are implications to your relationship with the client, but you can't afford to let this factor dictate your course of action. There's just too much else at stake. Ultimately you have to answer this question: if I do this job will I be providing value to my client? If the answer is no, then decline the business.

But what's the effect of saying no? How can you gracefully decline business without damaging your relationship? Actually, it's easier than you might think -- and you can even turn it into a positive relationship builder. Think about your relationship from your client's perspective. They've hired you to solve a problem or create a solution. That solution -- in exchange for the money they pay you -- creates value to them. No matter how much they might enjoy your charming personality, as soon as they decide that they're paying you more than the solution is worth, you're gone.

Here's how I like to handle the situation of saying "no". Before declining, do some investigating to find someone who can handle the job. If you're not qualified to evaluate whether someone can or can't handle it, then at least generate some leads. Then it's time to talk with your client. Explain that, while you're flattered that they looked to you for the solution, you feel that the job is outside of your area of expertise. Take this opportunity to redefine what you see as your core competency and the value you can provide the client. Tell her you are concerned that you would not be able to provide the same value the client has come to expect from you. Then provide a list of leads and offer to help the client in the process of selecting another vendor. Your client should appreciate your honesty and your concern for providing her with ongoing value. You might find that this opportunity to redefine your areas of expertise will lead to other jobs which, in fact, fall within your skillset and interests.

Know When to Say "Yes"

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you should decline every job that challenges the boundaries of your experience. Quite the contrary. When I was working in a big corporate communications department producing videotapes, one of my clients asked me if I could produce one of those new computer programs for a trade show kiosk. And guess where that led my career? I'm a strong advocate for challenging inertia. It's too easy to get comfortable in a rut while the world is advancing around you. It's important to keep moving, and maybe what the client is asking for is the nudge you need. But just make sure that it's in the direction you want to go.

Of course, just because you take the job doesn't mean that you have to do it yourself. That's what sub-contractors are for. In fact, there are sub-contractors who can do just about anything, so why not take every job and sub-contract it? How do you decide?

If you answer "no" to any of the questions above, then using a sub-contractor is out of the question.

Focus on Value

As far as your client is concerned, it all boils down to whether you are providing them value. Value is simply the ratio of the services you provided to the amount of money they've paid. It's your client's job to make sure that that ratio is as high as possible. It's up to you to justify your value with the quality of your work and the relationship of trust that you build. That's the essence of any professional reputation. Don't risk that reputation by trying to be all things to all people.

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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