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Building a winning campaign infrastructure is like painting a masterpiece. In the same way artists have to use contrast, focus, light, and movement, consultants must assemble a cohesive team of vendors and staff that can work to make the candidate’s vision come to life.

The issue is that most candidates want Van Gogh results on a high-school-art-competition budget. In other words, their expectation doesn’t match reality.

If you work in the campaign industry, you’ve probably made the mistake of investing time, money and, possibly, sweat into landing a campaign only to discover the gap between the candidate’s expectations and their budget resembles the Grand Canyon.

If we’re honest, many of us have even signed candidates when we knew the money wouldn’t be there, hoping the client would allocate more personal resources down the road.

The end result is frustration on both sides, a missed opportunity and often, burned bridges - none of which are good for business.

As a result, avoiding the expectation gap is key to keeping your clients happy and growing your firm. Here is a five step process to help you identify and avoid unrealistic budget expectations.

Determine your hard numbers early on

This is the low-hanging fruit we’ve all looked past at one point or another. When discussing opportunities with prospects, do not assume a budget based on the services desired. While you know the cost of your service because you deal with it everyday, your prospect only knows the perceived value. 

Writing an in-depth proposal without a budget is premature. Press your prospect to determine a general budget range upfront before continuing with the process. Ensure it’s based on reality of what similar candidates in similar races in the same area have spent before.

Define success

Once you have a budget, you need to determine what the prospect actually wants to accomplish. Many times, there’s a disparity between the prospect’s goals and what can be accomplished within budget parameters.

This is also an opportunity gain insight into what strategies you’ll need to use to meet expectations.

Yes, everyone wants to win on Election Day, but setting milestones along the way is a smarter strategy.

Set realistic goals.
When a prospect’s budget puts the end goal out of reach, it’s your responsibility to refocus the conversation and provide alternatives - not just nod your head and ask the prospect to sign a contract.

Many times, an alternative approach to a prospect's problem can lead to reaching the goal while staying in budget.

When offering an alternative strategy, it’s extremely important to explain why the different approach is necessary. Always emphasize value.

Identify weaknesses

Great is often the enemy of good. Although alternative strategies offer value within your prospect's budget, they can be met with apprehension.

Inevitably, your prospect will ask: “Should we be doing X?” Address this question by framing your prospect’s budget, highlighting your strategy’s strength, acknowledging its weakness, and focusing on value.

You can only be knocked for the weaknesses you ignore.

Screen your clients

In campaigns, reputation is everything. It takes years to build one and seconds to destroy it. Nothing will ruin your firm’s reputation faster than a string of former clients dissatisfied with your services.

Be selective about the prospects you sign as clients - especially if they have high expectations and a shoestring budget. More clients may equal more revenue today, but a respectable reputation is priceless. Sometimes you make more by taking less.

If you decide not to pursue a candidate, leverage your network to help them find a firm that’s a better fit. Connecting candidate and partners will pay dividends for your firm in the long run with reciprocal networking.

Unmet or unexpressed expectations are the root of every relational conflict in business. Bridging the gap between expectations and budget shouldn’t be a secondary priority to signing a new client.

Matt Hubbard is the VP, Digital at Cygnal, a GOP research, communication and digital firm.