For years, when speaking to classes of design students or to groups of industry professionals at conferences or other gatherings, I've shared the Jeffism "Pay a great deal of attention to your own 'gut instinct' - it will always be one of your best personal business advisors."
With that advice, I mean that you need to listen to that uncomfortable sensation in your gut when things just don't seem right in a possible business situation. When the little fine hairs on the back of your neck stand up; pay attention and react accordingly. Listen to those voices in your head that are suggesting you run in the opposite direction. With imaginary "red flags" popping up all over; stop what you are doing and evaluate the situation completely before proceeding.
I often tell the story of a potential dream client contacting me in regards to the complete rebranding of an educational institution. I've always enjoyed doing projects for colleges, universities and schools - and it would have been an impressive portfolio piece upon completion.
However, "red flags" began to pop up before I ever met with anyone to discuss the identity crisis of the college. The initial meeting with the potential client was rescheduled several times due to the need of one individual to be in attendance. The message being sent to me in that first round of interaction was that my own schedule was not of importance to the possible client. To meet with the parties involved I had to reschedule appointments on my calendar several times.
Still, I at least wanted to learn more about the possible project and get an in-person sense of what I might be dealing with in a working relationship with these people. I put together a great presentation of past work and set off for our first meeting - calling first to make sure it was still actually happening.
I immediately "clicked" with the marketing director and knew this situation had the potential to be an incredible project opportunity. The other individual in the meeting was the person whose presence was required as one of the major decision-makers in the process of redesigning the identity for the facility. As I got into my presentation this woman picked up a magazine and began to flip through it. She was paying absolutely no attention to me conveying the information that had required our repeated rescheduling of the meeting for her personal benefit.
The presentation went very well. Upon the conclusion of a few back-and-forth questions the very pleasant marketing director stood up, shook my hand and said, "I really look forward to working with you on this project."
The other woman finally put her magazine back down on the table.
I couldn't believe the words were coming out of my mouth as I told the marketing director, "I'm sorry, we won't be working together on this project. It was necessary for us to reschedule this meeting several times so (this other woman) could be in attendance and during my entire presentation she was busy reading a magazine. If she is to be one of the decision-makers in the process I cannot take on this project."
The marketing director was smiling widely at me when I completed my statement. The other woman in the meeting looked mortified.
My legs were shaking as I got up to leave the conference room. By the time I got to my car I felt as if I was going to be physically ill. Still, I knew I had made the right decision in immediately listening to my gut feeling about the situation and acting on my instincts.
When I got back to my home-based studio there was already a message from the second woman apologizing profusely about what had happened. She asked that I reconsider and call her with my decision. I returned her call and told her I had to "listen to my gut instincts" in regards to the project and decline taking it on. I also said I would be happy to recommend several other designers for the redesign effort.
Prior to sharing the names of other designers with the potential client, I called them and explained the situation. Each agreed to my referral. Weeks later one of the designers called me to tell me she had taken on the project and, although she had appreciated my referral and warning, it had been a total nightmare.
Several years later, another situation arose that proved my "gut instinct" was still fine-tuned - and it saved me from a potentially publicly embarrassing situation.
I was contacted by a potential client, who left a phone message about having been in the restaurant industry for several years and needing a designer to brand a new restaurant in a high profile downtown location. I've always loved working on restaurant projects so I was instantly intrigued. I called the gentleman and immediately got a sense that something was not right with the situation (red flag). I felt as if I was talking to the stereotypical used car salesman (little voice in my head talking to me). One of the oddest things was he would not give me a mailing address for the sending of one of my marketing packets - which would give him a great deal of information about how I worked in a project such as the one being proposed (hair standing up on the back of my neck).
My curiosity caused me to do a Google search on the individual and it was really strange when no information at all resulted. A similar search of his phone number gave me a few strange references - including the fact he had previously gone by another name and had been involved in a few sex-related businesses. Now, that was a major red flag for me!
The next day I had a voice mail message that our meeting date and time needed to be changed to accommodate the man's schedule. (Here we go again…) In calling his number, I talked with his secretary, arranged a new appointment time, and actually got a mailing address to send off my packet of additional information.
In meeting the potential client at the site of the restaurant, my sense of his being the "used car salesman" type was confirmed. He shared his plans to create a family style restaurant - in an area of town not exactly suitable for such businesses (weird little feeling in my "gut"). I was then shown some rough concepts from the other designer with whom he was working (MAJOR alarm going off in my brain). Finally, the man said, "Why don't you throw together a few rough designs and if I see something I like I'll send $50 your way." (O.K., now I was WAY beyond annoyed)
Huh? Although I already knew I would not be working with this individual, I was kind of stunned.
As I attempted to collect my thoughts, I asked, "Did you not receive the packet of information I sent explaining how I work on such projects?
"Yeah, I got your packet in the mail - but I can't be bothered to review such things," was his response.
My final comment was, "Well, had you "bothered" to read what I sent you, you would realize I don't work without a signed contract and a deposit on a project proposal - and I don't do speculative work for anyone."
It was his turn to be a bit stunned.
A few weeks later his name was in the news a lot. Almost overnight he had turned his "family style" restaurant into a strip club. City officials, neighborhood business owners and community association leaders were up in arms. In the end, the owner of the property evicted the business from the property due to breaking a clause in the lease.
I was so pleased to have once again paid attention to, and acted upon, my "gut instincts" in avoiding involvement in what could have become a nightmare situation. The flags, of any and every color, waving in my mind had caused me to take a second look at all aspects of the potential project. Listening to the little voices in my head, doing a bit of online research, and speaking my mind had prevented me from taking on what would have surely been a P.I.T.A. (Pain In The A**) client.
Coming up in Part Deux: My "gut instinct" is in need of a major tune-up.
© 2008 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives