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The thoughts, musings, and recent blog posts on design thinking and communications, from the team at NDO*Creative.

How To: Win Clients Without Pitching

No, this isn’t some shitty clickbait title. I really mean it: there’s a way. It’s actually derived from a lesson learned after years of consulting and the tutelage of Blair Enns – specifically his “Win Without Pitching Manifesto”. Read the passage below and change how you get clients from here on out.


Spoiler alert: I’m a millennial. That means I love equally the teachings of Seth Godin and Run the Jewels: I love studying stoic philosophy but also have Logic’s “YSIV” album on repeat. And as a millennial, I’ve watched the Complex News show “Everyday Struggle” numerous times (pre-Joe Budden departure).

The banter and back and forth between the hosts and guests like Wale, Lil Yachty, and T.I. was always entertaining, insightful, and interesting; however, there is one episode that stood out to me, for a very important reason.

Erykah Badu is many things: Singer, songwriter, guest on Everyday Struggle, and an otherworldly artist with all seven chakras aligned; however, she also has an illustrious dating history.

From Common to Andre 3000 to Jay Electronica, Erykah has courted some of hip-hop’s most reclusive, eclectic artists of our generation. There’s even a running joke that artists can’t look Badu directly in the eyes, lest they fall prey to her spell. 😂

In a flustered fashion, Joe Budden asks Erykah midway through the interview about how on Earth she attracts not just men, but people in the unique way that she does. “What’s your secret?” he asks her.

Badu hesitates briefly, ponders her answer, and then whispers in Joe’s ear the four-word secret to her success:

“I listen to them.”


I tend to compare the world of gaining clients closely with dating, for a few reasons.

Whatever your industry, whatever your skill set or unique value, and whatever your demographic – your clients are human beings with needs. Maybe those are their direct needs, the needs of their business, or the needs of their customer – but they’re needs nonetheless.

And whether you are heterosexual, homosexual, somewhere in-between, identify as a man, a woman, or a toaster-oven, you also have needs. So do the people you date.

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And with both clients and partners, being an honest, kind, and transparent person is key to success.

We know this, so why when we meet with a potential client or partner do we speak so much of ourselves – our needs, our wants, and our plans – instead of listening?

And I mean listening with more than just our ears.

It could be nerves, old habits, and other factors to blame, but the fact is that we as a society are so conditioned towards interjecting others’ trains of thought and speech with our ideas, our actions, and our opinions, without fully hearing out the other person. Sure, we’re trying to help most of the time when we do, but we’re doing more damage by not genuinely, deeply, and thoughtfully listening.

Blair Enns’ “Win Without Pitching Manifesto” heavily supports this idea from a client perspective: truly listening to client needs and asking more questions – especially in the Discovery Phase where you’re trying to understand the client problem/task – won’t just help boost your win rate, but make the whole client project significantly easier and more efficient for both parties.

You’re busy, I’m busy, and this blog post won’t write itself, so I’ll sum up some of the major points of the book here:

  • Specialize your value proposition to differentiate yourself

  • Replace client presentations with conversations

  • Diagnose problems before prescribing solutions

  • Establish the four priorities of winning new business

Practical Diagnostic Application

Say for example you work in the flooring business and a client of yours needs their carpet replaced in their living room. Without hesitation, you call them, pitch them, and close them on the most expensive carpet package you have available. They’re frustrated and just want the job done, so they agree.

Besides, you need to pay rent and your work truck doesn’t pay for itself, plus the family is getting the best carpet possible, so it’s a win for everyone…right?

Wrong. Because you didn’t listen and were in a prescriptive method of thinking, you completely missed the fact that the family wanted their carpet replaced because they were suffering from terrible allergies, congestion, and respiratory problems. They, not being the experts in flooring, figured a different carpet would do the trick. You, being the expert in flooring, know that carpets generally aren’t great for anyone with the above symptoms, no matter what you get.

Alas, you didn’t listen. You gave them carpet when they would have been better off with hardwood. Had you installed that instead, their respiratory problems would have been solved and they would have been so happy they would have likely recommended you to 2-3 of their friends, generating another $2-5 K in revenue for your business.

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Instead, you installed their new carpet, the family still suffered from allergies, and they blame – guess who – you. Then they leave you a nasty review on Google, hurting you and your business in the long run.

Design has to work, art does not.
— Donald Judd

Whether you are a photographer, graphic designer, or carpenter, you are in a client facing business; therefore, your job is to solve problems and delight through genuinely understanding client problems. We’re all in the customer service business.

You can’t truly solve client problems if you don’t know what they truly, deeply are. And this happens through deep listening and more questions being asked. As a best practice, you need to stay in the “diagnostic phase” with your client for as long as humanly possible,

Diagnosing Problems vs. Prescribing Solutions

When meeting with a client – current or potential – stay in the diagnostic phase as long as possible. This is the universal key towards winning clients, building better relationships, and improving your overall work. If you take a diagnostic approach with your clients and ask more questions about the needs of their company or brand, you’ll better understand how to tackle projects.

Why stay in the diagnostic phase with clients?

  • Builds trust

  • Reinforces your nature as a professional who wants to help solve problems opposed to pitch services, sell, make money.

  • Value up front - fewer asks - builds client trust

  • Doesn’t make you seem desperate for a sale

Amateurs are quick to speak; professionals listen and suggest a fewer number of actions which are effective.

Next time you’re meeting with a potential client for a project, keep it simple, truly listen to your client and ask more questions about their needs. Take a diagnostic mindset opposed to a prescriptive one.

Trust me with this advice, and they’ll trust you.


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