When the moment to close a deal finally arrives, you’ve usually spent hours, if not days, negotiating—pitching your experience to the prospective client, matching their needs with your team’s skills, talking resources and timetables.
Together, you’ve come from nearly adversarial positions to a promise of collaboration. Now it’s time to verbally summarize your terms before issuing the all-important written contract. You don’t want to let this moment slip away.
But in spite of how firm and clear that summarizing should be, getting there can be surprisingly . . . well, slippery.
I’ve seen this happen in the creative professions in particular, since a dazzling number of details go into making a project everything it can be. In my opinion, creative projects thrive on a certain degree of spontaneity and innovation, and that's something to be encouraged. But I’m still convinced that closing with as much check-in as possible is best for everyone in the long run. You need to balance your excitement for digging into all the creative minutia with an ability to see the larger purpose and final outcome of the work.
Setting the stage for a solid close also sometimes demands that we make hard calls and say them out loud to clients who might not be ready to hear them—especially after a long negotiating process.
But it doesn't need to be difficult. In fact, wrapping up a complicated deal can be pretty simple. Here's how to do it.
It was 3 a.m. when Mark woke with a start. After a month of much back and forth with a new client about producing a promotional film, today was the day he expected to close the agreement on the final parameters for the project. This was new territory for Mark, who was just setting up his own shop after years as an employee of larger creative agencies.
The client-to-be, Ed, led a small health care nonprofit. He wanted an article he’d written transformed into a short fictional film. In their negotiations, Mark and Ed had spent most of the time brainstorming aspects of filmmaking, and Mark’s primary focus had been on what marvels he’d be able to create on Ed’s behalf. But deep in the back of his mind, something else was bothering him. In the wee hours, he suddenly realized what it was.
"Ed wants to go on location and have the actors improv," he thought to himself.
That sounds like a blast, but how could a tiny nonprofit afford that, and would it best serve the message? I have to figure out a way to tell him that’ll blow up his costs and maybe not even get the job done. We need to get his article first turned into a treatment, then a tight script. I have to get him to buy into a new concept in order for us to seal the deal and come together with a common goal. How do I do that and still close out our negotiations with a shared feeling of resolution?
Mark grabbed his pad and wrote, "higher purpose." As he poured the first cup of predawn coffee, he asked himself, "What is Ed’s purpose here? And what is mine?"
After a time-consuming, complex negotiation, that can sometimes get lost—as Mark was coming to understand. But as he began to make notes, the bigger picture emerged:
Ed’s trying to improve health, even save lives. That’s awesome. I need to let him know I believe in what he’s doing. And I need to remember that something I do all the time—making a film—is quite a departure for him. If I believe in his purpose, I have a responsibility to keep costs in line while delivering a worthwhile product. How do I do that while keeping Ed excited about what we can produce? What will it take to close this deal today?
Their meeting was set for 8 a.m. Amped by his morning of thinking and planning, Mark launched right in.
Ed, you’re really doing a great service with this project. I know you love improv and it can be very effective. I’ve also heard you say you want to shoot on location. You’re spot-on with location, but I’ve got to level with you: We haven’t nailed down a budget yet, but improv on location will drive costs way up. I’m sure you can find an agency that’ll do that for you, but I’m advocating for keeping this project affordable.
Then Mark took a deep breath: "If you want to go forward with my team, I think we need to talk about how to deliver this film at a reasonable rate so your other work doesn’t suffer."
There was a moment of awkward silence before Ed responded. "Mark, we’ve had three other agencies pitching us on what a fantastic film they could make. You’re the only one who’s taken into consideration our larger goals and well-being. I think that means you’re the right team for us."
As Mark breathed a subtle sigh of relief, Ed explained what he wanted to accomplish. Picking up on Ed’s remarks, Mark summarized a project plan:
"I have a writer who will take your story and turn it into a tight screenplay," Mark said. "Once we have that, we can plan the casting, locations, sound, and lighting. Based on my reading of your article and what you’ve said today, I think we can make real impact with a 20-minute film. At $1,000 a minute, we should budget $25,000 to be safe, and have the work ready in six weeks. How’s that sound?"
He knew this was the crucial moment, and by reiterating what he and Ed had aligned on already, he was establishing a foundation for an agreement on the project as a whole. When Ed got up from the table, Mark knew they had a successful close.
As they shook hands, Mark said, "I’ll have a contract for you to sign in the morning."
Negotiations can be complicated. Usually plenty of ideas get thrown out on the table, and it's easier—and even practical—to leave some details indistinct. Retracing your steps and nailing down exactly what both sides want out of a project isn't always easy. But closing the deal can be simpler than you might think if you keep these rules in mind:
- Balance your excitement about the work with your responsibility to yourself, your team, and your client.
- Focus on your client’s higher purpose and how you align with it.
- Use a summary close, touching on the project, the schedule, and the budget. If necessary, ask for verbal revisions and restate your description.
- Shake hands. Then follow up with a contract for signature—before you dive into all those juicy creative details.
Ted Leonhardt is a designer and illustrator, and former global creative director of Fitch Worldwide. His specialized approach to negotiation helps creative workers build on their strengths and own their value in the marketplace. Follow Ted on Twitter at @tedleonhardt.