You don’t need to lower your rate. Just tell better stories.

4 min read
Steve Brownlie
  •  Feb 8, 2018
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As a result of some poor framing and presentation—deliberate, I should add—comedians Hamish and Andy found themselves unable to sell a private performance from Ed Sheeran for just $2.

Rory Sutherland, Executive Creative Director at Ogilvy, points out that one of their first instincts is to cut the price. But the people walking by aren’t buying because it seems so bizarre and hard to believe—and the fact that it’s being billed as a “peep show” probably has something to do with it, too. It takes over two hours for someone to finally hand over $2 and enjoy a 30-second solo performance of “Thinking Out Loud.”

A screenshot from Hamish and Andy’s Ed Sheeran “peep show” experiment video

Sutherland goes on to explain how that kind of decision making is pervasive in marketing teams because it’s safe. Nobody gets fired for following the economic principle that if we cut the price, we should sell more.

Many designers are putting themselves in the same position as our hapless (or genius?) comedians. As a talented designer you have all the star power and the ability to wow your clients. But often you’re missing out on value, or you’re even erroneously cutting your prices. Telling a better story and framing your offer more powerfully would allow you to do the opposite.

“Don’t lower your rate. Just tell better stories.”

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I’ve been a salesperson primarily for all of my career. The first two design packages our agency sold, back when we still did consulting and design projects alongside SEO work, were sold at three times the average price for similar work, as surveyed by Expert Market.

Related: How I landed Cards Against Humanity as my first freelance client

We didn’t even have a portfolio or any samples to show. And they had cheaper quotes in their hands when they decided to go with us. We stood out because we connected to the customer’s story. From there we added our vision to their existing plans in such a way that our proposal seemed to them to be the ideal fit for their business.

In fact, it was the ideal fit. We understood the clients’ story and what they wanted to say their customers. From here, we were able to deliver that through design, something our competition couldn’t show. I’ll explain that further later.

But first, a story.

Student grades—and a design story

Imagine for a moment you’re a student. You’ve always had an eye for design and can make any document, whether printed or submitted online, look beautiful.

Now imagine trying to convince another student struggling with a paper and eating noodles for dinner every day, to part with $200 to make it look prettier.

You might find yourself struggling to get them to pay you $2—especially if your selling point is a portfolio of pretty presentations and the promise that their portfolio will look the same. That doesn’t fit with their objective of adding some more in-depth analysis to the piece.

Back when I was a student, I was struggling on a paper. It was a particularly dry economics piece about the impact of contiguous currency zones and trade. I knew it was weak compared to my usual work, and I only had an hour to do something about it since my final draft was completed very close to the deadline.



I realized we’d spent a lot of time that year in the accountancy part of the course, studying annual reports from businesses. Businesses with impressive results still took enormous time and invested huge sums in presenting beautiful reports. So I decided, with an hour to spare and little hope of vastly improving the quality of my analysis, to give it a go for my report.

It was a time before everyone was as familiar with technology as they are today (most of my fellow students could barely use a word processor) so I’ll admit the competition was low in the formatting department. But I cracked on with adding images, colorful sections, backgrounds, and call-outs. Presented the stats in more interesting ways and did everything I could to mimic those corporate annual reports.

When I got my grade back from the professor, my heart sank at the first line:

“Sometimes when a piece of work is this well presented, it’s a clear case of form over substance.”

Luckily he continued, “However, in this case, that was not true.” He went on to include a long list of things that I hadn’t done very well and a nice grade for a piece of work I could easily have received an F for.

Armed with that story about the impact and power of design, it’s easy to convince someone that the work you’re doing aligns with their goal of achieving a better grade. You’ve been able to change their perception of what options are available to them on a tight deadline to achieve the same result.

Your portfolio needs your stories

This is going to hurt, but when a potential client looks at a long portfolio of your past designs, they dislike many of them. They don’t align with what they think their brand represents or the story they’re trying to tell. They might not know the reasons why, but usually when you dig deeper it’s along those lines.

Thinking back to one of the first designs we sold, it was for what was once a small, family-owned, local business that had become quite large and corporate. They wanted to retain that identity and focus on the story of the owner above “appearing large.”

The final design we agreed upon with them had a lot of hand-drawn sketches and a similar look and feel across everything from the animated explainer video to the logo.

“The story behind your designs can transform a potential client’s perspective on them.”

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I remember following the usual best practice of popping up a portfolio and sending it to potential clients we were pitching.

It came to light that everyone hated that one design in particular. On one call I told the story of the owner—his past, his experience, the way his business has always been viewed in the community, and how the brief and our final design was an attempt to preserve that as his business grew to a much larger size, while also allowing him to convert better and use technology more efficiently.

Suddenly, armed with the story, people loved it again. They could see it not as a portfolio piece that “didn’t fit what they would want,” but as a piece where we’d lovingly created something that both worked for the business and achieved sales, but also didn’t sacrifice their story in doing so.

Once again this demonstrates how the story behind your designs can transform potential clients’ perspective on them. They may not enjoy the visuals for their own design, but they can appreciate the work that went into the design and why it was right for that particular business owner.

Some quick tips for improving your portfolio:

    • If possible, design your site to sell your experience at designing high-converting, money-making sites and tell the story of how you achieved that for some real clients. Explain that they don’t necessarily know what will work and that their competitors (who they may instinctively wish to replicate) might have it wrong, but you can help them. Drive them to call you first, not just look through your portfolio.

“Your portfolio needs your stories.”

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  • Reduce your portfolio to just include campaigns where you can tell a complete story about your strategy and the end results to the business. Then build your portfolio to showcase lengthier case studies, not just a gallery of designs. Even a beautiful gallery can be overwhelming and confusing to a customer who might not be able to identify what they need.
  • Show enough variety in your trimmed-down portfolio to tell some different stories, from full rebrands for big businesses to a fresh, high-converting approach you took for a small firm.

Eliciting your client’s story

I used to sell mortgages and life insurance. The bad salespeople start out with getting to the quotes as quickly as possible:

“Here’s the three cheapest quotes. Pick one.”

This is the moral equivalent of those design brief forms some agencies send out asking the client, “Pick three sites you like to give us an idea what we’re aiming for.” As if they know what they like—or even care. They want to grow their business, tell their story, and sometimes even change the world.

To be successful in the mortgage world, you must understand every nuance of the client’s life—their hopes, dreams, and priorities. You’ve got to ask lots of questions like, “Five years from now, how would you feel about still living in this area?”

The business equivalents of this are long chats about how they started the business, what they dream it will be like in a few years, and how they present and sell their business to potential customers.

“Stop being afraid to charge what you’re worth.”

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Obviously, you still need to know that they hate red, don’t like live help/chat because their call center is too busy, and want to avoid Times New Roman. But these are little touches that perfect the brief.

Interestingly, going through this process has the same impact on conversions as it does in the mortgage world. Often, as I found out when I didn’t have one, you aren’t even asked for a portfolio at that first meeting.

They don’t want to send you three random sites they like.

They trust that you’ve taken the time to understand their business and can’t wait for you to come back and present your final proposal, sketches, and price.

And it might be way more than you’re used to charging when you’re competing by sending out your portfolio and matching the price on their other two quickly drawn-up quotes from competitors.

Charging more is another thing designers often shy away from, but charging more is a powerful tool to grow your business and make higher margins. The extra effort (and talent) involved in getting to know your client and understanding their story (so that you can sell that story to their clients) elicits a higher price tag—without having to send a massive list of extra features and optional upsells.

How to elicit client stories at meetings

    • The first call with a client is never about trying to sell anything. Sometimes you will, but the main purpose is to set up a near-guaranteed sale on call #2. Make them feel like it’s an expert consultation the whole way through, and don’t deviate.
    • Start out by disarming them with some light chat (unless you have a very short slot with them) and use that as an opportunity to ask questions about them personally and a couple of quick questions about the business. Get them comfortable and talking.
    • Tell a short story to establish your authority. Establish that a combination of what they want and design aimed at converting customers will be essential.

“The first call with a client is for setting up a near-guaranteed sale on call #2.”

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  • After that, your main job is to keep asking questions. Find out about the founders, find out about their history, find out about their previous projects and what they liked/didn’t like. Find out about results they’ve achieved/not achieved in the past.
  • Avoid sending clients tedious questionnaires about favorite colours and their 3 favorite sites. You can elicit that information gently during the call, but you want to build the idea that you’ll create the perfect solution to their problems and won’t do a paint-by-numbers design.
  • And that design they think they want? They don’t really want it. They’re not designers—they just filled in the sheet as best they could.

I can’t tell you what your story is or what your clients’ stories will be. But hopefully you’ll start harnessing the power of those stories to improve margins—and to improve the work you’re doing for your clients.

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