The 5 Assumptions That Will Sabotage Your Client Work

There’s an old business tru-ism that goes something like: “when you assume, you make an ass of you and me.” The expression is especially pertinent to creatives who make incorrect assumptions about client relationships. When we make an assumption, it is often because we are afraid. When it comes to client relationships, sometimes it is easier to keep your head down and keep working. However, these relationships are all about communication. 

Creatives usually make assumptions because they are uncomfortable looking like a pest by asking too many questions. Others avoid asking questions entirely because they think clients will perceive them as inexperienced. However, asking the right questions actually makes you appear detail-oriented, inquisitive, and knowledgeable. 

The most successful creatives prevent any assumptions by being honest and direct with clients. Otherwise, we can assume misleading information and get into deeper problems than we realize. After working with hundreds of principal of creative firms, I’ve seen the same self-destructive assumptions made over and over again:  

Assumption #1: When clients pick creative partners, price is king.

Creatives often think that price is a client’s most important priority when selecting a firm or evaluating proposals.  As a result, creatives spend a lot of unnecessary time and worry trying to figure out the magical number. 

The reality is, other factors like industry expertise, creativity, and trust have a stronger influence on who the client selects than price. If you know the selection criteria (and even how a new client will weigh these criteria) you can better position and sell yourself and respond to these criteria in your proposal. Spend less time worrying about the magical number (hint: there isn’t one) and more time understanding and responding to all selection criteria. Ask potential new clients: What criteria do you look at in selecting a creative partner and how would you weigh those in order of priority? What other creative partners are you considering (so we can tell you what makes us different)? Have you worked with a creative partner before and what worked and didn’t work about that relationship? 

Factors like industry expertise, creativity, and trust have a stronger influence on who the client selects than price.

Assumption #2: A new client has visited your site and done their homework on you.

Creatives put tremendous weight on their websites and their proposals as their primary sales vehicle and rely on these tools as a way to educate potential prospects on their value, services, and expertise. 

Despite all the time you spent developing the perfect promotional tools, most clients have little time to conduct thorough due diligence and often rely on referrals to choose a firm, rather than spending enough time on your site or reading your lengthy proposal. Don’t believe me? Check your site stats and see how long new prospects visit your site. 

Most clients choose a new creative firm based primarily on trust and a strong personal connection – this cannot be made through a proposal or a short visit to your site. Therefore, a good general rule of thumb is if the prospect is coming in cold or doesn’t know you or your firm well enough (do not assume they do), then do what you can to insist on an in-person meeting before you write a proposal. If that is not possible, then present the proposal in person. I’ve seen this level of extra effort increase win rates by tenfold. 

Assumption #3: Clients want creatives to be experts from the start.

When meeting a new client for the first time, creatives think they have to be positioned as the expert on the client’s business, strategy and project. Therefore, creatives focus much of their questions in the first meeting on the client’s business, strategy, and target audience or on other types of information that may influence the final creative solutions.

Before you can write a proposal, you need to ask more questions related to project or relationship requirements, what needs to get done for this to be considered a success; if the client does not know, propose a discovery or research phase during which you uncover and define what is needed. Yes, clients want to know you are a strategic thinker, and certainly you can begin to talk about those issues. However, in an initial meeting to discuss a potential relationship, you are not there to immediately solve their problems – you are there to there to focus on what it is you are pricing and why you are qualified.  

You are not there to immediately solve their problems – you are there to there to focus on what it is you are pricing and why you are qualified. 

Assumption #4: Clients do not want to reveal “confidential” information.

Based on past experience, when creatives asked questions like “what is your budget?” or “who else are you considering?” clients answered with “that’s confidential.”  Yet, this doesn’t mean you should avoid those topics, but reframe them so the client can answer them within a proper more open-ended context. 

Instead of asking, “What firms are we competing against?” you can ask the more general question: “How many other firms are you considering and, specifically, which firms or what types of firms?” You can even qualify it by further explaining “this information will allow us to create a proposal that demonstrates what we believe is our competitive value.” In other words, if one of your competitors hasn’t worked with the client before, and you have, you can bring up your experience and knowledge of the company. Or, conversely, if your competitors have worked with the client before and you haven’t, you can emphasize that you bring fresh thinking into the relationship but also have other best practice insight within their industry.

The same works for budget questions. First ask, “What is your budget? And then explain “Having a sense of your budgetary parameters helps us tailor our proposal accordingly and also allows us to understand the importance or value of this project to your company overall.” You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get more insightful answers if you simply reframe the question. 

You’ll be surprised at how quickly you can get more insightful answers if you simply reframe the question. 

Assumption #5: Clients understand the impact of project changes.

Many creatives avoid tough questions, and prefer to live in La-La Land where challenging conversations are avoided at all costs.  The worst assumption creatives can make is that clients understand that their delays or changes (in approvals, in content complexity or deliverables, or in scope) have impact. As a creative you know another round of approvals at any point in the project will require more time and money, but you need to clearly communicate that with the client before moving ahead. Let them know the impact of their changes.

Always keep the client abreast of changes to scope, schedule, and fees before incurring the additional time, service or cost; clients will change their behavior, pay additional fees or change the schedule if they see the consequences of their behavior.  


When we were young, most of us were told that  “honesty is the best policy” and the rule holds true for business as well. Don’t be afraid to ask the right questions and explain why you need answers. You’ll come across as professional, considerate, but most importantly, you’ll do a better job. 

How about you?

What assumptions did you used to make that you’ve since abandoned? 

More insights on: Clients

Emily Cohen

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brutally honest consultant, Emily has worked with leading design firms to improve operational effectiveness and build efficient teams and processes. She is a frequently-requested speaker on business-related issues for the creative industry. She also runs Evolve Symposium an expert-led, peer-driven event focused on business practices for principals of creative firms.  
load comments (39)
  • Pam Brown

    Thank you for this post. As a solo-preneur designer, I’ve probably lost some proposals due to the assumptions I’ve made that you’ve listed above. Consider this page bookmarked! :)

  • Matt Litherland

    I freelanced for a few years, attracting larger scale jobs over larger agencies is difficult. 9/10 clients, wanted Facebook for $200.

  • Jonathan Patterson

    This is a great read. I’m not reticent in the least when it comes to asking questions. The more the better, in my opinion.

    • Eric Ward

      Well, maybe some moderation in the questions, as you don’t want to ‘fatigue’ the client. After all, they are paying us to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of creating solutions, through independent research, development of ideas to fruition, in addition to their own independent efforts (whatever our consultancy pertains to). Use questions to ‘pace’ the project as it develops; gives reason to maintaining an ongoing dialogue between consultants and our clients.

      Part of our ‘art’ is to intuit (subtle distinction between this and ‘assuming’ by some, btw, yet profound differences in outcomes, if practiced artfully). Our intuition is a ‘filter’ we need to glean useful answers from our questions to the clients…the ‘in-between-the-lines’…the inevitable unspoken parts of dialogue…there’s always the chance of clogging that filter if used excessively.

  • Dave Waite

    Great advice, Emily!

  • Eddie Olivas

    Great stuff! I know I’ve been guilty of making assumptions which has lead to plenty of headaches. I will definitely keep this in mind when talking to clients this week. Thanks Emily!

  • Storytegic

    GREAT posting. Thank you! We would add the following: Assumption: Clients read and understand the proposal you submit. Forget it. They read what they want to read. We’ve discovered that it is incredibly fruitful to submit a formal proposal — put it all down on paper — and then talk it through, step by step. Invariably, the client’s understanding of what is being proposed is not 100% in line with what the agency is proposing. Clarifying not only makes life easier but also establishes the collaborative style right up front. And can also lead to a better plan altogether!

  • garymcole

    Good post. Regardless of the service (creative, strategic counsel, etc.) being provided, our job is to walk in the door with more questions than answers, then work with clients to determine the actionable strategy that best fits their needs, challenges and culture.

  • dsreyburn

    Life is easier when you have the tough conversations early. And you find out quickly that they get easier with practice

  • Tom Durkin

    I arranged an informal chat with the last client I worked with and it really helped with our relationship! Can recommend it to anyone starting a new project

  • Tom Palmer

    Bad Assumption #322: When clients say they want really fresh ideas, they frequently want a tiny change plus some validation that their old ideas were smart/strong/elegant.

    • Federico Montemurro

      I know what you mean Tom. These kind of clients love to talk about sophisticated food but they are unable to approve new recipes.

    • Eric Ward

      Oh Tom… you nailed the general client psychology motivations. In that ‘validation’ you are pointing to; it often goes one step further. Because their initial investments are validated, the redesign only requires ‘small effort’; it promotes an idea I sum up with this analogy:

      Clients often acquisition resources like the wishful-thinking consumer generally buys a car. An ‘average’ car purchaser has a “KIA” budget, yet walks into the “BMW” showroom thinking somehow, someway there may be a way they can get their ‘dream car’ versus their practical reality.

      What to do with a seemingly ‘no win’ sales moment. A “KIA” type company resourcefully, in that context, develops ‘designs’ that speak to the desire, as closely as is economically possible. There is art and value in this, which we have to communicate to the clients.

      • Terry Price

        my KIA cost more than a BMW.
        and it’s a better car.

      • Eric Ward

        Comparative sizes? I don’t favor any brand, yet in the U.S. KIAs on average are far more affordable options that BMWs comparing size-for-size. I haven’t seen a $130,000.00 large sedan KIA…is there one? The point was KIA is an interesting company trying to address customer ‘desires’ with practicality of the average consumer’s car budget. And, there are differences in the fit and finish of these two particular options. Subtle differences between the two examples mentioned and to some willing to accept certain perceptions. To others, there are great differences, both perceive and actual.

        As designers we step between ‘perceived values’ and ‘actual values’ every day through our work for, communications to, and deliverables to our clients… yes? I think Emily Cohen was addressing this through your acknowledging a need for honesty of expectations in our communications. Same two-way honesty that needs to be in the relationship between the auto manufacturer and their customers.

      • Urbanomic Interiors

        I love the car analogy and often use it myself. I have recently developed some fun questionnaires for my clients, that help me get better insight into the level of quality, features and price point that a client is looking for. One of the questions is “If you were to compare the expected quality and cost of this project to purchasing a new vehicle.. what kind of car would you be shopping for? It is a multiple choice where along with naming some brands I also included information about cost and quality. One of the multiple choice answers is “I would be shopping for a porsche/ferrari/Lamborghini ! I want ultimate performance and driving experience, and I am willing to pay the price for it!”
        This really helps me get into their frame of mind, because often what I want to offer them and what I think is important as a designer, is not what they are looking for. In some cases I am willing to modify my product to suit them, and in other cases it helps me realize that they are not a client who’s needs are in line with my brand or product line.

      • Eric Ward

        Great approach! You’ve taken the analogy a constructive step further in ‘qualifying’ the clients and your brand fit. We sometimes forget that we are ‘interviewing’ a client to see if the business relationship is a good fit out of fear of ‘losing an opportunity’. Often I’ve seen competitors think in terms of making wild adjustments to expectations, sometimes the client’s as well, that end up be detrimental to both parties…ultimately…diminished expectations as an outcome which is the polar opposite to the agenda for the client and ourselves… Unfortunately, these experience ‘taint’ clients’ understanding of consultants in our given industries…Yes? Then we have to compensate for others’ neglects.

        How do we know we are ‘exceeding expectations’ if we haven’t defined both parties’ expectations through the suggested techniques Emily Cohen has constructively laid out for us?

      • JETTYfx

        10lbs in a one lb bag lol, great analogy with the car

  • designdiva

    great post ditto!!

  • Eric Ward

    To Emily Cohen… concise and on the mark with your insights! Thank you! I’m linking your article to my LinkedIn discussion as recommended reading. The discussion post is about networking digitally versus traditional (in-person) as your post is prescient to topic. A beautiful circular discussion experience…

  • lifepm

    Its incredible that these assumptions happen more often than not, and its core is fear. Once you allow fear in, you’ve already lost. Great post, thanks!

  • Terry Price

    no worries. I’m new to this site and I’m still finding the tone. it was an excellent article.

    • Eric Ward

      Brilliant article…yes indeed… Emily Cohen has potentially enhanced my ‘gray muscle’ application toward clients… I’m looking forward to experiencing the outcomes and how they might end up differently…for my clients’ betterment as well as my own. Good Luck to you, Terry, as well!

  • mrutt

    great information, thanks! I fall victim to some of these from time to time.

  • Heather Romero

    I’ve actually lost a project because I was too concerned about finding printing cost information than the design itself. I’ve since decided I’m a designer, not a printer, and that is what I’ll stick to!

  • picked_a_name

    thanks for the word!

  • Eric Pomert

    I think my biggest pitfall assumption has been: “The client is sure they want someone to do this project, so I’d better get them excited about ME.” Through some wise mentors, I’ve learned to put the spotlight on the client and make her feel at home. If they don’t already know me, clients want to know that they matter and will be taken care of in the creative and logistical aspects of the project. If the client knows me and likes treating me like a rock star, I just let them as long as it seems to put them at ease….

  • JETTYfx

    This was a great post that resonates with me. Especially about quoting a customer. I used to undervalue myself and time it would take to finish a project. I still quote less time because I know that I tend to be a nitty-picker. However my mom has been getting into my head and now I don’t quote less to get the job, she says, “It’s the price of doing business.” And I agree.

  • Emily Cohen

    Thanks for the great response to my post, it was fun to write and I love that I stimulated so much discussion. Keep it going!

  • virtualprgrrl

    Very good post. Also, when you work with in-house marketing directors, make sure you are making them look and feel good. And don’t assume clients know what they want. They may say they want X, but they are looking to you to bring the ideas.

  • NewBusinessHawk

    Great points! I would love to repost all of these on my site! I may have to just create a short review and link back here. :)

    I would add where I see most creative types fail is with understanding how important it is to help define the budget, clarify the needs, make sure they understand the approval process and timing. But all of that takes first building trust. Your outline is very similar to what we teach (we call it agency baseball). First base is understanding how to build trust, only after that can you move onto second base (needs, process, timing and budget). third base is understanding how to present solutions, home is creating urgency.

    I have a short review of it here, but there is much more that reflects your thinking throughout my blog.

    The only other big hurdle I see is failing to understand getting a new project is a negotiation. And often creatives see price is the BIG issue, but to the client it could be all about security, or timing. Take a class on how to better negotiate… it will help!

    Keep up the great work!


  • Justina Greiciute

    great article. Don’t ever assume. Go an extra mile and find out for sure.

  • Carla Salas Risco

    Thank you so much for this article, Emily. It really helps me a lot now when I’m starting!

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