Money is one of the more uncomfortable topics in business.  On the agency side, we’re often left to guess the client’s budget when responding to an RFP or pitching new work to existing clients.  Even if the client doesn’t have a set budget, they usually have an expectation.

Why does the client budget conversation have to be awkward?

I have a few theories:

  1. Some clients are fearful of getting ripped off or making a bad decision.  Humans are generally fearful of being sold something.  That’s why we impulsively respond to any car or clothes salesperson “I’m just looking!”
  2. Humans have a hard time separating business and personal budgets.  If you had to write a personal check to your ad agency, you would never spend six figures on a website.  We have a hard time comprehending the scale of business budgets compared to personal budgets, so it adds anxiety to the process.
  3. Account executives and new business directors at ad agencies are fearful of scaring away the client or prospect.  Unlike theories 1 and 2, this one is real – we’ve all done it before.

How do you flip the budget conversation in your favor?

Against my will, I watch a lot of HGTV’s Love It or List It.  Realtor David Visentin and designer Hilary Farr begin every show by asking for the couple’s must-have list and budget.  In real estate, budget is the first thing the realtor asks you.  Why even shop for a million dollar home when you can’t afford the payment?

The same is true in car shopping – consumers start with a vehicle category and a budget.  I recently needed a new family sedan and my budget dictated that I look at Ford, Honda, VW, and Nissan – not Audi, BMW or Volvo.  (That will have to wait until the kids are grown.)

When you look outside of the ad agency, you quickly realize that the client budget conversation doesn’t have to be awkward.  If you understand your client’s fears, you can flip the conversation and become – or continue to be – their trusted advisor with one simple question:

“Would you like my help understanding how far your budget will stretch?”

With one simple question, we go from asking how much money they have to being on their side and helping them make a smart decision.  Who wouldn’t want to tell their CFO, “I really stretched our dollars on this one!”

Even if you start with the classic “Do you have a budget range in mind?”, the client immediately becomes fearful of quoting a number that is too high.  Their imaginations run wild and they picture the account executive being paraded through the office giving high-fives to the accountants.

The next time you’re in a pitch or writing a proposal, take the time to ask that one simple question.  Let me know if it works.