Buying a product is easy. You either visit the store to try out the thing, or check out an online vendor, look at photos, read the reviews, pick a color, and add to cart. Yet we still stress over whether it will arrive undamaged, whether it will work as advertised, whether the shade of color is like the one on the photo or a bit off…
Now imagine buying a black box. You have just a vague idea of what will be inside, but no information on the detailed features. You know what problem you want to solve and what goals you want to achieve using the item in the box, but no knowledge of how it will work.
Buying services is like buying a black box.
You have to trust the vendor that what’s in that box will change your life for the better—that what’s waiting for you in that box is something you will be thrilled with and be proud to show to others. But you can’t open the box until you pay, and there’s no refunds if you don’t actually like what’s in it. That requires some serious faith in the vendor!
I’m fully aware of the risks my clients take when working with me. I used to think I should be offering money-back guarantees, endless revisions, or doing exactly what they tell me to do to make sure they’re happy. Thankfully, I learned quite a bit over the years and I no longer think that. I do one logo proposal and one revision within the scope of the project, and only offer a refund in case I cancel the project. I know where the real value of my work lies, and I want to share these thoughts with you today.
The real value of creative services
Let’s imagine a dialogue where a client is asking the designer to do speculative work, ie. work for free and the client will pay “if they like it”. This happens a lot in the design circles, usually in the form of contests (which suck in my opinion).
Client: “How about you do the design first, and if we like it, we’ll pay you and then give you a lot more work.”
Designer: “How about you pay me 50% upfront, and 50% after the design is approved, before I deliver the final files.”
Client: “But we don’t even know what we’re buying? How am I supposed to pay for something I can’t see?”
Designer: “That’s the point. You can’t see it because it doesn’t exist yet. My specialized skill is creating something that doesn’t exist—that’s the real value of my service. If you could see it, then you could be doing it yourself, and my work wouldn’t be worth much.”
People often conflate creative work with the result, because that’s the only tangible thing that people see—but the actual value of creative services is in the part that the clients can’t see: the mysterious and highly skilled process of researching, analyzing, envisioning, and creating something that did not exist before. And yet, we charge for our services in deliverables: so many thousand words of web copy; so many days spent on site to decorate the offices; so many logo variations and revision rounds.
There is a benefit to charging the hourly rate because it validates the process, not just the end result, but it’s not practical because it makes quoting a project budget in advance impossible. We quote a lump sum and hope we won’t go over the allotted time too much because every hour unpaid is our loss.
We sell the results. We make promises. We do our darndest to impress clients.
The clients end up happy, even though they were a bit scared in the beginning, but we were brave enough to carry both of us through. We helped them believe.
But we forgot to explain what the real value of our work was. We focused on the results, and that’s all they could see. They thought the money they paid was for the final thing—what they saw the moment they opened the box. They don’t know what they paid for in reality.
The money is meant for the box, and for what goes on inside before you open it.
The money is funding a creative brain that spends days and nights contemplating your business and trying to figure out the best possible outcome that would serve your goals. The money is funding the physical, mental, and emotional expense that your project is taking on the hard-working creative who took custody over it.
That money is ensuring that the creative person will give your project 100% of their focus and abilities. You are buying stock in their brain power, in their schedule, in their emotional investment.
If you don’t pay up front, you don’t have an investment—the creative service provider is taking all the risk for your business’s sake. They’re spending energy that they’re not even sure they will be paid for. They can’t focus on your thing, because they need to diversify and chop up their time and brain power between many projects to increase their chances of winning.
Even if you don’t like the result, the work has been done. The physical, mental, and emotional energy has been spent. The research, analyzing, envisioning, and creating were all performed for your benefit. You can pretend like it never happened and refuse to pay them, but the creative can’t. They have dedicated a tiny portion of their life to you, and you decided it’s not worth anything to you. How is that fair?
Clearly, it isn’t.
If you can’t handle the mystery of the black box, don’t buy creative services.
Buy ready-made stock graphics that you can see before you pay.
Learn the basic skills and create your own stuff.
Scrawl your ideas on paper and pay a student to turn them into final work.
But whatever you do, don’t hire a professional. A creative pro will ask you to trust them. They will ask you to part with your money before you see any work done. They will take their sweet time to focus on your project and in the end (if they’re any good), they’ll surprise you.
The moment you open that black box you will see something unexpected—something that hasn’t been done before, and that only you now own. Savor that moment—only once in your life will you be able to see what that creator has made for you with fresh eyes. Only this once there is a point in time when mystery turns into clarity.
Bask in your creative’s ingenuity and congratulate yourself on trusting in them. Your trust has fueled their creative genius and they worked their butt off to honor it.
I know that to a business owner, only results matter.
You need the results you need. You don’t have time and money to throw on things that won’t work. I’m not saying you should give up on pursuing results. I’m saying you can’t get results before you invest in them.
Results require work, and work requires investment. If you’re only paying for what you can see, you’re not getting the best results you could be getting. That’s fine if you’ve decided that you don’t need the best, and are content with mediocre results. But if you’re luring creatives into speculative work under the guise of choosing “the best”, I have some bad news for you.
If you want the best talent to help you with your business goals, you can’t treat them like dirt.
Disrespecting creatives and pitting them against each other in a zero-sum game doesn’t result in the best work being done, and it’s a start of an unhealthy professional dynamic. You may think you’re winning, but you’re losing out on creative talent that could have done much better work for you, and you’re losing the goodwill of creatives you’ve used up and tossed away.
Even those you pick as “winners” will count every penny you pay them afterwards to see if their on-spec time investment was worth it. They will never go above and beyond for you, because you’ve shown them you don’t deserve that.
Change the conversation.
If you’re not sure you trust the creative professional, vet them carefully and ask for references. If you have doubts about their ability to do the work at the level you need them to, examine their portfolio and tell them which of their previous projects you especially liked so they know what you expect from them.
But after you’ve decided that you trust them, trust them. Don’t ask them to placate you with unpaid consulting and creative work. That’s just gross, unprofessional, and a waste of everyone’s time.
Pay their advance invoice and tell them: “I trust that you will do great work for us.” That sentence alone will fire them up—they’ll be super excited to start working on your project and give it all they’ve got. It’s not everyday that we hear these words, and when we do, it matters more than you think.
Your trust will be greatly rewarded.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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