5 smart systems for creative businesses

Manchester cranes

A lot of people would say creativity is always messy. From Mark Twain to Steve Jobs, you can find pictures of famously disorganised desks all over the internet, often used as proof that creative thinking and untidiness go hand in hand.

After Francis Bacon died in 1992, the Hugh Lane Gallery preserved his chaotic Dublin studio for the public to see, cataloguing more than 7,000 items altogether. With paint-splattered walls, piles of paint tins, brushes, cardboard boxes and newspapers scattered around, it’s easy to see the room as a kind of insight into the artist’s mind.

There’s even research on the subject of clutter and creativity, with a study from 2013 suggesting a disorderly environment could lead people to think in innovative, unconventional ways.

Maybe there’s some truth to it, and some people do feel more inspired by messy surroundings, but I think it’s a bit of a stereotype. It plays into the idea that creativity is the opposite of logic, that artists can’t think like scientists and vice versa – something I don’t think is all that clear-cut these days. And it definitely shouldn’t be the case when you’re running a larger creative business.

Whatever your creative process is – and whatever your desk looks like – your clients and potential clients will want to see evidence of a measured, rigorous process behind your agency’s work.

They’ll want to know you’re not just dazzling them with fancy visuals and marketing-speak, and that you have a reason for everything you do.

Basically, they want to know they’re working with professionals and that their money has been well spent.

Here are five ways you can improve your business’s systems and processes to send the right messages.

Embrace the cloud for storage and more

Gone are the days when you had to copy large files over to a disk or USB stick to back them up, share them with your colleagues, and show them to your clients. Nowadays, you can do all of that in the cloud.

Using cloud storage like Google Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox means your files are saved on remote servers, rather than on your own device, so they can be accessed from anywhere and are secure in the event of any hardware issues.

A graphic designer could draw up a design on their tablet and switch over to a desktop to refine it, for example, without having to wait to transfer the file. Or using cloud-based collaboration tools, a copywriter could share a document for the rest of their team to edit, without worrying about version control.

It’s also useful if you want to share a work in progress with a client – just put the file in ‘view only’ or ‘comment only’ mode and share the link, giving them instant access to a preview that doesn’t allow them to make any unwanted changes.

This way of working just makes sense to me, which is why I use cloud software for accounting. It’s so much quicker and neater than having multiple versions of the same files floating around, and it makes working with clients a lot easier.

Use software to track client relationships

It sounds strange to systematise your client relationships – after all, you want to establish a personal connection so your clients will enjoy working with you, and buy from you again.

But the more clients you acquire, the harder it becomes to keep track of their stage in the sales journey and manage all their details.

A customer relationship management (CRM) system can be really useful for this. This lets you store all the important information about your clients, like their contact details, the interactions you’ve had with them, and any notes from the conversations you’ve had, all in one place.

Having more information on record also makes it easier to identify and deal with any problems in your sales funnel.

Perhaps you’re getting a lot of website visitors and plenty of people who seem interested in your service, but no new leads. Or maybe you’ve got a lot of leads on record but few of them are actually converting. Either way, knowing exactly where people are in the funnel and the interactions they’ve had with your team will make it easier to understand why people are taking certain actions, or why they aren’t.

Even better, a good CRM will help to automate various parts of your business. It could integrate with your website, for example, so that if someone fills out a form their details pull through into the system. Or it could connect with your accounting software and generate invoices when they’re needed, with no manual input from you.

Tighten up your invoicing process

Speaking of which, your invoicing system is another important area to look at. Your invoices should be smart, clear and promptly delivered, and followed up with polite but firm reminders if they’re not paid by the deadline.

Improving your invoicing should help to make the payment process easy for your clients, as well as getting you paid quickly and minimising any cashflow problems.

And using software to automate the process means you hardly even have to think about it. Xero and Freeagent both offer automated invoicing, with customisable templates, scheduled reminders, and online payment options.

Set up a system for quotes and estimates

Pricing can be a particularly tricky topic for creative industry businesses. Compared to more tangible products, it’s harder to point to the cost of materials to justify your fee. That’s not to mention the unfortunately common belief that creative professionals should be happy to work for next to nothing, because they’re following their passion.

One way around this is to establish a consistent pricing system, based on the resources and time you expect to put into a project. You don’t have to make this public, or even put a specific price tag on your work, but it’s useful to fall back on if someone asks about your fee.

This is another thing software can help you with. Xero’s project tracking tools, for example, allow you to prepare budgets and quotes based on estimates you set, as well as tracking the time you actually spend on the work and monitoring its profitability.

Manage your team online

Online project management tools are invaluable for anyone managing a team’s work, and they’ve been particularly useful in the past year with so many people working from home.

While this is more of an internal process than a client-facing one, it can make a big difference to client experience, ensuring deadlines are met and information is shared effectively.

Depending on the software you use, you might also be able to share your project plan with your clients, giving them visibility on your project as it moves along.

Get in touch for more advice on using a process-driven approach in your creative business.

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