Pick Projects Based on Trust Instead of Dollars / by Matthew Cook


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of a design partner as a strategic management consultant.

Many of the projects that I talk through with potential clients are presented as cut and dry. The conversation centers around needs and deliverables. They rarely pitch a project that includes thinking through uses of their design personnel, effective production processes, or how well their current operations as embodied in their web presence fits with higher company goals and values. Instead, you find these incongruous circumstances when you’re in photoshop during design round 3, completing stakeholder interviews during an IA exercise, or at a kickoff meeting having just received downpayment on your signed scope 2 days ago. When this happens you can do one of several things:

  1. Cry.
  2. Ignore it.
  3. Have a serious conversation with the client that usually involves asking for more money and time to do something that they feel very protective about.


This is nothing new. One of the reasons many studios and freelancers bill for “discovery” is exactly this. The standard fix to keep this from happening is anything but standard. Some studios fix this problem in their sales tactics. Others fix it by posting case studies that highlight the benefits outside of production or simple execution that they have provided to clients. Those ideas work, but they’re flawed. One is a potential barrier to the client (convince them of your consulting prowess) and the other is a text-based one way conversation. 

I argue that to get in position to provide strategic management consulting in addition to services as a designer, developer, etc. you have to be selective of your clients and tactically build trust in team leaders from the outset. Some potential clients should never make it past an email conversation with you; Old news. They may not fit your style or preferred process. Maybe they need a skill that you don’t enjoy providing. Maybe it’s as simple as not having the budget for what they’re asking for. These are all good reasons to decline work, but the most important reason to cut off a potential client is a lack of trust.

I think about this a lot. I’ve made it no secret that the reason I love my job is unequivocally the amazing people I work with. I have paramount respect for what the people in my industry are capable of doing. The most important thing I do is try to build client trust that mirrors my respect. Clients don’t have to feel the same way, but they need to understand the team they’re engaging is not simply a photoshop machine. It’s a widely experienced federation with an intimate understanding and intuition when it comes to implementation techniques to accomplish business goals.

I’ve found that this view of my team is best communicated by the way I treat them and talk about them in front of clients. I purposefully do little things that put us on the right path. I don’t respond to initial inquiries. The guy in the director role responds first and kindly hands their questions and goals over to me. After I take over I don’t stonewall, but I also don’t get everybody on phone calls at the drop of a hat. I dig in, ask the easy questions, and probe a little while helpfully teasing them with our past successes, excitement about certain types of work, and my personal opinion of how awesome my guys would be at doing their work. By the time everyone finally sees eachother on Skype the conversation isn’t about design rounds and content management systems as much as it is about whether the client thinks we’re the best fit. I set the client up to choose whether or not we’re worthy of their project, rather than how much money they’ll pay or what deliverables they want. 

If you can position your client to choose whether or not to trust you instead of whether or not to sign dollars, you’ll start each project in an awesome place. You’re set to ask the questions that your client is embarrassed to answer. He’ll feel ok telling you not only his business goals, but also his personal goals with the project. He’ll look to your team for validation of what he’s trying to do. He’ll want to know if you think he’s asking for the right thing and if they’re doing things the right way.


This is more than conversation tactics. It’s a way for managers and business minds to approach a business to business relationship as well as internal team dynamics. It means a lot of honesty and refusing to hard sell a client. Design teams need to understand that executing a project isn’t about who’s in charge, but about how to find and put out the best results. There are a lot of implications here on team dynamics and skill sets. Maybe I’ll hit that sometime soon.