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24 ways to impress your friends

Charm Clients, Win Pitches

Over the years I have picked up a number of sales techniques that have lead to us doing pretty well in the pitches we go for. Of course, up until now, these top secret practices have remained firmly locked in the company vault but now I am going to share them with you. They are cunningly hidden within the following paragraphs so I’m afraid you’re going to have to read the whole thing.

Ok, so where to start? I guess a good place would be getting invited to pitch for work in the first place.

Shameless self promotion

What not to do

You’re as keen as mustard to ‘sell’ what you do, but you have no idea as to the right approach. From personal experience (sometimes bitter!), the following methods are as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot:

  • Cold calling
  • Advertising
  • Bidding websites
  • Sales people
  • Networking events

Ok, I’m exaggerating; sometimes these things work. For example, cold calling can work if you have a story – a reason to call and introduce yourself other than “we do web design and you have a website”. “We do web design and we’ve just moved in next door to you” would be fine.

Advertising can work if your offering is highly specialist. However, paying oodles of dollars a day to Google Ads to appear under the search term ‘web design’ is probably not the best use of your budget.

Specialising is, in fact, probably a good way to go. Though it can feel counter intuitive in that you are not spreading yourself as widely as you might, you will eventually become an expert and therefore gain a reputation in your field. Specialism doesn’t necessarily have to be in a particular skillset or technology, it could just as easily be in a particular supply chain or across a market.

Target audience

‘Who to target?’ is the next question. If you’re starting out then do tap-up your family and friends. Anything that comes your way from them will almost certainly come with a strong recommendation. Also, there’s nothing wrong with calling clients you had dealings with in previous employment (though beware of any contractual terms that may prevent this). You are informing your previous clients that your situation has changed; leave it up to them to make any move towards working with you. After all, you’re simply asking to be included on the list of agencies invited to tender for any new work.

Look to target clients similar to those you have worked with previously. Again, you have a story – hopefully a good one!

So how do you reach these people?

  • Mailing lists
  • Forums
  • Writing articles
  • Conferences / Meetups
  • Speaking opportunities
  • Sharing Expertise

In essence: blog, chat, talk, enthuse, show off (a little)… share.

There are many ways you can do this. There’s the traditional portfolio, almost obligatory blog (regularly updated of course), podcast, ‘giveaways’ like Wordpress templates, CSS galleries and testimonials. Testimonials are your greatest friend. Always ask clients for quotes (write them and ask for their permission to use) and even better, film them talking about how great you are.

Finally, social networking sites can offer a way to reach your target audiences. You do have to be careful here though. You are looking to build a reputation by contributing value. Do not self promote or spam!

Writing proposals

Is it worth it?

Ok, so you have been invited to respond to a tender or brief in the form of a proposal. Good proposals take time to put together so you need to be sure that you are not wasting your time. There are two fundamental questions that you need to ask prior to getting started on your proposal:

  1. Can I deliver within the client’s timescales?
  2. Does the client’s budget match my price?

The timescales that clients set are often plucked from the air and a little explanation about how long projects usually take can be enough to change expectations with regard to delivery. However, if a deadline is set in stone ask yourself if you can realistically meet it. Agreeing to a deadline that you know you cannot meet just to win a project is a recipe for an unhappy client, no chance of repeat business and no chance of any recommendations to other potential clients.

Price is another thing altogether. So why do we need to know?

The first reason, and most honest reason, is that we don’t want to do a lot of unpaid pitch work when there is no chance that our price will be accepted. Who would? But this goes both ways – the client’s time is also being wasted. It may only be the time to read the proposal and reject it, but what if all the bids are too expensive? Then the client needs to go through the whole process again.

The second reason why we need to know budgets relates to what we would like to include in a proposal over what we need to include. For example, take usability testing. We always highly recommend that a client pays for at least one round of usability testing because it will definitely improve their new site – no question. But, not doing it doesn’t mean they’ll end up with an unusable turkey. It’s just more likely that any usability issues will crop up after launch.

I have found that the best way to discover a budget is to simply provide a ballpark total, usually accompanied by a list of ‘likely tasks for this type of project’, in an initial email or telephone response. Expect a lot of people to dismiss you out of hand. This is good. Don’t be tempted to ‘just go for it’ anyway because you like the client or work is short – you will regret it.

Others will say that the ballpark is ok. This is not as good as getting into a proper discussion about what priorities they might have but it does mean that you are not wasting your time and you do have a chance of winning the work. The only real risk with this approach is that you misinterpret the requirements and produce an inaccurate ballpark.

Finally, there is a less confrontational approach that I sometimes use that involves modular pricing. We break down our pricing into quite detailed tasks for all proposals but when I really do not have a clue about a client’s budget, I will often separate pricing into ‘core’ items and ‘optional’ items. This has proved to be a very effective method of presenting price.

What to include

So, what should go into a proposal? It does depend on the size of the piece of work. If it’s a quick update for an existing client then they don’t want to read through all your blurb about why they should choose to work with you – a simple email will suffice.

But, for a potential new client I would look to include the following:

  • Your suitability
  • Summary of tasks
  • Timescales
  • Project management methodology
  • Pricing
  • Testing methodology
  • Hosting options
  • Technologies
  • Imagery
  • References
  • Financial information
  • Biographies

However, probably the most important aspect of any proposal is that you respond fully to the brief. In other words, don’t ignore the bits that either don’t make sense to you or you think irrelevant. If something is questionable, cover it and explain why you don’t think it is something that warrants inclusion in the project.

Should you provide speculative designs? If the brief doesn’t ask for any, then certainly not. If it does, then speak to the client about why you don’t like to do speculative designs. Explain that any designs included as part of a proposal are created to impress the client and not the website’s target audience. Producing good web design is a partnership between client and agency. This can often impress and promote you as a professional. However, if they insist then you need to make a decision because not delivering any mock-ups will mean that all your other work will be a waste of time.

Walking away

As I have already mentioned, all of this takes a lot of work. So, when should you be prepared to walk away from a potential job? I have already covered unrealistic deadlines and insufficient budget but there are a couple of other reasons. Firstly, would this new client damage your reputation, particularly within current sectors you are working in? Secondly, can you work with this client? A difficult client will almost certainly lead to a loss-making project.

Perfect pitch


If the original brief didn’t spell out what is expected of you at a presentation then make sure you ask beforehand. The critical element is how much time you have. It seems that panels are providing less and less time these days.

The usual formula is that you get an hour; half of which should be a presentation of your ideas followed by 30 minutes of questions. This isn’t that much time, particularly for a big project that covers all aspect of web design and production. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time, though it is very rare that you will be granted any.

Ask if there any areas that a) they particularly want you to cover and b) if there are any areas of your proposal that were weak.

Ask who will be attending. The main reason for this is to see if the decision maker(s) will be present but it’s also good to know if you’re presenting to 3 or 30 people.

Who should be there

Generally speaking, I think two is the ideal number. Though I have done many presentations on my own, I always feel having two people to bounce ideas around with and have a bit of banter with, works well. You are not only trying to sell your ideas and expertise but also yourselves. One of the main things in the panels minds will be – “can I work with these people?”

Having more than two people at a presentation often looks like you’re wheeling people out just to demonstrate that they exist.

What makes a client want to hire you?

In a nutshell: Confidence, Personality, Enthusiasm.

You can impart confidence by being well prepared and professional, providing examples and demonstrations and talking about your processes. You may find project management boring but pretty much every potential client will want to feel reassured that you manage your projects effectively.

As well as demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about, it is important to encourage, and be part of, discussion about the project. Be prepared to suggest and challenge and be willing to say “I don’t know”.

Also, no-one likes a show-off so don’t over promote yourself; encourage them to contact your existing clients.

What makes a client like you?

Engaging with a potential client is tricky and it’s probably the area where you need to be most on your toes and try to gauge the reaction of the client. We recommend the following:

  • Encourage questions throughout
  • Ask if you make sense – which encourages questions if you’re not getting any
  • Humour – though don’t keep trying to be funny if you’re not getting any laughs!
  • Be willing to go off track
  • Read your audience
  • Empathise with the process – chances are, most of the people in front of you would rather be doing something else
  • Think about what you wear – this sounds daft but do you want to be seen as either the ‘stiff in the suit’ or the ‘scruffy art student’? Chances are neither character would get hired.


Sometimes, especially if you think you are an outsider, it’s worth taking a few risks. I remember my colleague Paul starting off a presentation once with the line (backed up on screen) – “Headscape is not a usability consultancy”. This was in response to the clients request to engage a usability consultancy. The thrust of Paul’s argument was that we are a lot more than that.

This really worked. We were the outside choice but they ended up hiring us. Basically, this differentiated us from the crowd. It showed that we are prepared to take risks and think, dare I say it, outside of the box.

Dealing with difficult characters

How you react to tricky questioning is likely to be what determines whether you have a good or bad presentation. Here are a few of those characters that so often turn up in panels:

The techie – this is likely to be the situation where you need to say “I don’t know”. Don’t bluff as you are likely to dig yourself a great big embarrassment-filled hole. Promise to follow up with more information and make sure that you do so as quickly as possible after the pitch.

The ‘hard man’ MD – this the guy who thinks it is his duty to throw ‘curve ball’ questions to see how you react. Focus on your track record (big name clients will impress this guy) and emphasise your processes.

The ‘no clue’ client – you need to take control and be the expert though you do need to explain the reasoning behind any suggestions you make. This person will be judging you on how much you are prepared to help them deliver the project.

The price negotiator – be prepared to discuss price but do not reduce your rate or the effort associated with your proposal. Fall back on modular pricing and try to reduce scope to come within budget. You may wish to offer a one-off discount to win a new piece of work but don’t get into detail at the pitch.

Don’t panic…

If you go into a presentation thinking ‘we must win this’ then, chances are, you won’t. Relax and be yourself. If you’re not hitting it off with the panel then so be it. You have to remember that quite often you will be making up the numbers in a tendering process. This is massively frustrating but, unfortunately, part of it. If it’s not going well, concentrate on what you are offering and try to demonstrate your professionalism rather than your personality. Finally, be on your toes, watch people’s reactions and pay attention to what they say and try to react accordingly.

So where are the secret techniques I hear you ask? Well, using the words ‘secret’ and ‘technique’ was probably a bit naughty. Most of this stuff is about being keen, using your brain and believing in yourself and what you are selling rather than following a strict set of rules.

About the author

Marcus Lillington is Business Development Director at Headscape and Co-host of the Boagworld Podcast.

Marcus has over 10 years experience working in both new and traditional media, including experience in commercial, consulting and project management roles. With Paul Boag and Chris Scott, he is one of three founders of Headscape.

In his early career, Marcus was a professional musician, gaining success around the world. He still claims it’s the only thing he’s any good at.

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