Great clients don’t care about your portfolio.

“You’re my guy. I’m yours forever. Now, how much is this going to cost me, ten grand?” I’d just met this guy on Instagram twelve hours before this conversation, and we were already sealing the deal.

“A bit more. Let me put everything we just discussed in writing, and I’ll send it over for a signature here in a few hours.” A quick hug, and he was out the door.

A lot of things changed in the year immediately following what I call my “Phoenix Moment.” One of the most profound changes I committed to was a complete reversal in how I worked with clients. This change guides the entire working relationship, but the foundation of that shift is rooted in your first few moments with the client.

Ditch the Look Book

Can I let you in on a secret? When you’re doing web design for B2C businesses, a great deal of the clients worth hiring aren’t looking at your portfolio. They’re not interested in pretty pictures. They ultimately help, yes, but they’re icing on the cake. “Does it look good?” becomes an afterthought along the way, a box to check on the way toward closure.

You know what sells? Answers. Confident, concise, informed solutions. Results.

Bullshit, you say? The client above never saw a portfolio. Five out of six before him didn’t ask for one, either. We don’t have a portfolio or examples on our website, and that decision has helped our sales — we’ve tested it.

Let’s compare this to something we’re all familiar with: the job search. According to Tony Beshara, owner and president of Babich Associates (the oldest placement firm in Texas):

the best-performing resumes give a hiring manager everything they need to feel good about calling you, while leaving out anything that could give them an excuse to not call you. For example, they don’t care about your “objective” section. They’re not hiring you because of what you want, they’re hiring because they need someone to fill their role… and worse, those extra details could deter them when it really has nothing to do with the actual job.

In line with this, we went against the grain and tested not having a readily available online portfolio, and it greatly increased the number of leads we were getting as well as our overall close rate. Why? Well… maybe they personally didn’t like the color blue which was selected for that one project three years ago and went somewhere else. If you’re in the room when that comes up, it becomes a conversation.

Website portfolios generally leave judgement calls (“does this look good?”) up to the website visitor, who is generally not qualified to judge the work by those things which matter (data, business goals, ROI). Even when the details are listed out as a lengthy case study, many people have trouble directly relating the information to their specific situation.

Yes, examples are nice and purposeful, but only as part of a conversation when they’re relevant in the client-hiring process.

Get Out of the Trenches

Let’s get one thing straight: it doesn’t pay to compete with other low-paid freelancers. Trying to beat the competition by lowering your prices is a losing game. Quite literally, it pays to be seen as a senior authority.

Beyoncé doesn’t audition for Coachella. She creates a reputation, she has a history of performing well, and she agrees to do the performance when she’s asked… if it suits her goals, of course.

Brain surgeons don’t have a look book, they build a track record. When it hurts badly enough and success depends on a professional’s skill level, you go with the most experienced, most expensive investment you can afford.

And when that happens, the power shifts.

How to Hire a Client

That’s right, I said hire. If you’re ever going to turn this thing around, you need to reverse roles in the working relationship. You do not need their sale, but you’re happy to help them if they’re interested in becoming a client according to your rules of engagement.

Arrogant? No. You’re an expert, if even to just the people who are less experienced than you. They are currently unable to get to their desired destination by themselves; otherwise, they would already be there. You are the doctor, and they are the patient. If we’re going to responsibly take care of them, we need to be in control.

This happens through a conversation, which has four parts:

Help them to articulate their pain. They’re not building a website because the internet isn’t yet full enough; rather, they’re trying to solve a problem (which is usually related to money). Get to the root of the issue. Every time they lay out a problem or goal, ask yourself why. What’s the emotional heart of the situation? People buy on emotion, and they aren’t logical until it comes time to justify the close.

Inspire them with alternative realities. How good can this possibly be? In your experience, what should this look like? Paint that picture for them, the one that replaces their pain with a better situation. By asking yourself what could be at the heart of their issue, you’re able to address that here as well.

Recommend the problems which should be addressed as part of the bigger picture. Note, I did not say to solve their problems. We do not work for free. But we do articulate which points need to be fixed in order to provide the solution and bring their alternate reality to life.

Encourage them with past stories. Everyone feels like their problem is big and unique until they hear about three or four people you’ve worked with who are no longer in pain. People need to be told what to think — not directly, but through the social validation of their peers. Nobody wants to be the first one on the dance floor.

After this, a simple question creates a fork in the road. “Would you like our help with this?” Ask it, and then shut up. Let them move forward.

This conversation facilitates a connection unlike any other sales process we’ve seen to date. In our case, that connection closes 90% of the projects we decide to take. Next time a prospect pops up in your inbox, try not selling them. Instead, know this:

If you can articulate the problem and reasons behind it better than they can, they will automatically assume you have the solution.

After the HIRE conversation, if you feel like they’re not a great candidate, listen to your gut and pass. If they are a good fit, make it easy for them to move forward with the next step.

People hate to be sold to, especially when they don’t really know if it will solve their actual problem. They want answers and results, not pretty pictures. Your portfolio is a tool that gives them way too much information before the important conversation which needs to take place.

Give them hope. Give them context. Kill the portfolio.

Hey there! It’s no secret that design school doesn’t prepare you for the real world, so I started the AgencyBoss community to bridge that gap for you. Check out your new mentorship community! Just click here and get ready to learn.

Shawn Weston is an author, award-winning designer, #AgencyBoss, and daddy of two. Follow me on Twitter | Connect with me on Facebook

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