Dealing with Multiple Decision Makers in a Marketing or Design Project
One of biggest advantages of working for a growing Marketing and Technology Firm like Optimum7 is the clientele we attract. Whether a small to medium sized business or a Fortune 500 company, I can honestly say I have been blessed with some of the best clients and best people any Marketing Director could hope for. So before moving on to this piece, I’d like to give a round of applause to each and every one of our clients.
Now, despite how fantastic our clients are, one of the biggest challenges I have faced is dealing with multiple decision makers. This is especially difficult when working with a design and/or marketing project. The reasons are quite simple:
- Design is already an intricate process. Whether it is an ad or an entire website, everyone has a different idea of what is aesthetically pleasing.
- If you’re working with a fairly new company or a brand that isn’t well established, it may be that the pecking order hasn’t been established. This means you may be dealing with more than one “head honcho” and trying to work around internal disagreements and individual egos making power plays causing internal disagreements and confusion. This can be extremely difficult to manage if you don’t set rules and boundaries from the outset of the professional engagement.
- Everyone is a marketer and a designer. :) Didn’t you know?
I would like to share with you some of the wisdom that these past four years at Optimum7 have taught me about dealing with multiple decision makers involving a wide array of marketing and design projects.
Know the Project, the Plan, the Deliverables, and the Client – Better Than You Know Yourself
While this is an obvious point, it is also the root of all the issues you’ll experience down the line unless they’re given the right amount of attention and detail at the start. Depending on how your organization is set up, a potential client will typically jump from sales to planning to execution in a short amount of time. Like I said before, this is an advantage of working with a small, growing firm. However, once a contract is signed and set on the project manager’s table, it is up to the Director (moi) and project manager to study, review, understand, live and breathe every detail of the project before we even begin engaging the client. If this part of the process is taken lightly and client engagement begins, you will find yourself very lost very fast, and an army of decision makers will eat you alive.
I’ve developed this method, which I call the 3 by 3 step method, to execute projects. So here is what you need to do:
- Read and study the contract as if your life depends on it. Trust me, it might.
- Annotate and create a list of questions you may need to ask to the person that has already engaged the client. This will almost always be the sales person.
- ALWAYS ask – Who is/ARE the decision makers here?
- Make sure that every single question on your list is answered before you even think of engaging the client.
Let’s pretend that there are three decision makers on the client side of your project.
- Identify who they are, their background with the company, and their current role.
- Identify what their involvement was during the sales process. This is key. The sales person has insight that can help you profile the decision makers.
- Profile the decision makers according to their communication style (very important*). I use the following two categories:
- Conversational and down to earth types
- Bottom line and judgmental types
With this information, identify the “One” of the bunch. In my experience, 8 out of 10 times there is always one.
*Very important disclaimer: ALL clients are both (conversational and bottom-line) given the situation. Anyone can be conversational and relaxed, but if you’re not producing or meeting the expectations you initially set, things will go sour very fast. The only reason why I profile clients in this manner is because it can help you understand their internal dynamic a little better which, for us, is extremely important when communicating with clients, especially when there is more than one restaurant owner overlooking the chef.
Now that you’ve equipped yourself with all the information you need regarding the project, the company, and the decision makers aboard, and the “One” of the bunch, you can begin engaging the client. With this level of understanding, you will find yourself very comfortable writing that first email or making that first phone call, confident that you are not going in completely blind.
Set the Right Expectations and NEVER miss a beat – because they will
My friend, boss, and mentor wrote this fantastic piece on the fundamentals of consultation. One of the strongest points of this piece is its emphasis on setting the right expectations and following through. This is truly the key not only to consultation, marketing, or design, but really to life in general. If we all set the right expectations every time, we would have close to complete control of everything in our lives, especially in our professional lives. Needless to say, this is HUGE when dealing with multiple decision makers. Setting the right expectations will result in tighter control from your end, tighter control results in effective follow through, and effective follow through results in great work and happy clients, right?
Not always. :) At least not with multiple decision makers, that is.
You see, multiple decision makers translate to different timing in communication, different levels of understanding of the work at hand, and quite often selective hearing and even reading. While you think you are setting the right expectations for the client, it is even more essential that you never miss a beat on the project. This means you never miss an email; you never miss a deadline and, most importantly, never allow any of the decision makers to feel confused, cast aside, or unhappy. We’re still free to dream, right?
Since this utopia doesn’t exist, here’s what you need to do:
- Work with a project management system. You will need ONE house where all the details of the project will be communicated and ONE roof under which you’ll communicate with all decision makers. This will result in efficiency and accountability as the project moves forward. You will never have to deal with “he said, she said” situations if you are disciplined about keeping all communication under that one roof. At Optimum7, we use a system called Podio, and it is fantastic.
- Every phone call you have with any of the decision makers every single one, MUST be recapped in full, posted on the system (Podio) and copied to all of the client decision makers.
- Everything, and I mean everything, must be confirmed by each decision maker. You may not always get confirmation from all of them, so make it easy on yourself and finish your messages with text such as “kindly confirm that the group…etc., etc.” before you move forward with any kind of request or approval. This will make the group accountable – not you – and you can keep them on a straight line toward the completion of the project.
NEVER Lose Your Cool
Ladies and gentlemen, we are all human. Our clients are human, you are human, I am human (I’m pretty sure at least). Therefore, mistakes will happen, certain items may hit the fan, and even the best of project managers and account executives find themselves under heavy fire at times. Whether it is your party’s fault or the client’s fault, it is essential for you to never forget that you are a professional, that you are providing a service and that you are a consultant. Therefore, it is our job to educate the client, to lead the client and the project while making sure that even if they lose it, we never do.
However, there is a HUGE difference between “service” and “servitude.” Don’t cross the line into servitude. The professional agreement is an agreement to provide professional service whereby the client seeks your expertise, leadership, insight and advice. Keep it that way. In other words, maintain the boundary that helps define you as the expert and professional you really are. Some clients may, at times, actually blur the distinction between service and servitude, actually attempting to dictate tasks on a whim at times. Simply, maintain and preserve the relationship by guiding the client back to the purpose of the engagement in the first place
Fortunately, like I said at the beginning of this piece, we have been blessed with some fantastic clients, but no matter how good you or your clients are, you will always encounter individual issues. My advice to you is:
Keep it cool; it’s work. We love what we do, but at the end of the day what matters is the work we produce. If you know you and your team are doing a fantastic job and it’s your very best, that you have pushed the limit of what the best is, then you can go home at night and rest easy.
The Bottom Line
The biggest advantage of working with a growing firm like Optimum7 is its clientele and the leadership behind those companies. I cannot begin to tell you how many fantastic projects we have been blessed with, whether single or multiple decision makers. Now I’d like to turn the table around and talk a little about the Optimum7 team and what makes us unique. All the pointers I just gave you mean absolutely NOTHING without the team standing by you.
So let’s take a moment and give it up to my team at Optimum7! I would not be writing this article without all of your hard work. You guys get Don-Love ;)
Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor
You studied, planned, engaged, executed, and followed through on the project with complete coolness and like the boss you are. At this point, layback, pat your self on the back (not too much, though), and let yourself feel good.
Oh wait, there’s another project coming in! Here we go again! :)