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Negotiation 101: How To Sell Design Ideas To Skeptical Clients

5 persuasive tactics for faster buy-in

Negotiation 101: How To Sell Design Ideas To Skeptical Clients

Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images

You know that nervous feeling you get when you recommend something to clients?

It’s because you know they’re going to wonder why, and you’re going to have to spit out some sort of explanation. And you're going to stutter through it with meaningless phrases: "That’s how it’s usually done." "I think this is the way to go."

Instead, enter the discussion with a solid argument in your back pocket. To truly convince a client, nothing beats a lucid, coherent argument based on evidence. You may be a designer, but when it comes to pitching an idea, you have to act like sales rep. Here are five techniques for making the sale.

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1. Listen and Repeat Their Words

Oftentimes, your client is trying to tell you things they don’t know how to express. Your job as a designer is to pick through the subtleties and pull out the truths they’re not being explicit about. Before you can make a case for any kind of solution, you need to know what the problem is. And that means listening.

Listening helps you determine what the constraints of a project really are, what the client’s concerns and goals really are. It helps you see whether or not you’ve already got the right argument in hand or if it needs revising.

It also helps put the client into a stable mindset. Restating what you’ve heard back to the person you’re listening to is arguably the No. 1 way to make a client feel receptive to the ideas you’re about to present. It shows respect. It shows that your forthcoming recommendations will be tightly relevant to the client’s needs.

2. Always Ask Questions

A designer asks questions—about the users, the business, the concerns, the needs, the prior decisions, the team, the goals. As I've explained previously, great designers want to see the whole picture.

They ask questions because they’re intensely curious. They ask questions because the answers can help them see what they’re getting into. They ask questions because they want to work toward a vision they can use to make good design decisions.

Simply asking questions lets them do all that. And one more thing.

Asking questions lets a designer form a coherent argument. Asking is as important as listening. It’s part of listening. Asking means dragging more and more information out into the sunlight where it can have holes poked in it and arguments formed for and against it.

Next time you walk into an interview, ask a ton of questions. Next time you need to make an informed decision (which is, like, every day as a designer), ask a ton of questions. Next time you need to fend off a bad idea, a whim, someone’s bias, your own bias, ask a ton of questions.

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3. Patiently Unravel Your Reasoning

Recently, a client asked me to add "click here" to a proposed link. She was worried users wouldn’t know what I meant for them to click—the link was a question like "Forgot password?" I explained the reasons for not including "Click here."

Yes, it takes time to explain things like this. That email took 20 minutes to write.

But it’s always worth it. It buys you respect, and it shows your client respect. What they hear is that you care enough to explain your rationale. It also demonstrates that you have a rationale—a deep, considered rationale—for everything you do. It builds trust.

In all, educating your clients and coworkers and stakeholders with every recommendation you make has several major effects:

  • It guarantees you have a reason for your recommendation. If you can explain it, you’ve thought it through.
  • It gives everyone else a good reason for the recommendation. (Often, they just need to know there is a reason.)
  • It has a great long-term effect: It teaches people to think about design. To think like a designer. To think like a user. It teaches them that every decision has an impact on a user’s experience and therefore should be considered. Do this well, and over time you won’t need to form an argument for your recommendations nearly as often. The people around you will have learned to make better design decisions in the first place.

4. Present Your Case Like an Essay

If you can present your case well and do it up front, you don’t need to argue. Your narrative will address every concern before it even comes up.

First, it helps to apply an essay-like structure to your communication. When you’re presenting design work to someone, that college essay structure can be helpful. It's a template. It’s time-tested. Its structure of thesis–support–conclusion tells a story.

Next, here’s one crucial tip for how to keep an audience captive while you’re making your case.

A lot of times, your audience, especially smaller ones of just a few people, will want to ask questions along the way. This is fine if it’s a minor question with a quick answer. But if they nail you with something you need to think about or that a bunch of other people have an opinion on, you'll end up in the weeds in no time. There is no quicker way to derail your argument than to let something like this distract you and leave everyone forgetting what you were hoping to achieve.

The tip is pretty simple: Ask people to hold their questions until the end.

In many cases, especially if you’ve done your job of anticipating their concerns, you’ll have already answered most of the big questions. This doesn’t mean you’re done, however. It’s practically a guarantee that someone will ask you something you haven’t yet considered. This is what Q&A is for.

If you let these things throw you off track in the middle of a meeting, you may never answer all the other important questions. If your meeting is an hour, leave 10 minutes at the end for questions. If you’re running more of a feedback or review session, leave more time.

Whatever the case, leave time. Questions are the only way you’ll know what you’ve missed.

5. Point to the Evidence

There is one other way to argue without arguing.

As I explained in The Field Guide To UX Strategy, evidence can be found in all sorts of places. It can be a study you read about on a psychology website. It can be the results of a usability test. It can be data you recalled from a previous project that involved a similar design problem.

It doesn’t really matter where it came from as long as it’s credible, the conclusions are relevant, and you can connect the dots between the evidence and your current project.

Evidence has, of course, several major benefits. For starters, it means you can make a case to yourself.

No matter how much you believe something, data can prove you wrong. Every suspicion, every assumption, every guess can be validated or debunked with a little research. And the last thing you want is to recommend a false truth. When you feel like you know you’re right, take some time to make sure. See if the studies covered in articles online still back you up. See if the data you have access to can verify your belief.

If you’re unsure about something—if you are sure about something—find evidence to prove it, one way or another. This will give you a great deal of confidence about your recommendations. All you have to do to convince someone after that is relay the facts.

Hence, my second point: Data helps you make the case for your recommendation to everyone else, especially after you’ve vetted it yourself. If you’re out front with all the facts in your hand, and you’ve considered your recommendations, and you can demonstrate their validity, people will believe you. They’ll believe in you.

Finally, putting evidence up for examination with every recommendation you make will build your reputation over time. It’ll become easier and easier to get past whatever obstacles you face now. The objections. The politics. People will learn they have a trustworthy source in their midst, and they’ll come to rely on you rather than their guesses.

This article was adapted with permission from Experience Required. Buy a copy here.

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