I started to write this yesterday, then got sidetracked and didn't get a chance to finish. Sadly, I lost my first draft, but here's another shot at it...
Kim (and anyone else who is ready for a long read), here is the approach I've been using lately. It seems to give me a little more respect and clout as the "antique version" of this new full-stack commodity. This isn't going to be the case with the large corporations, but I'm fairly sure that your target market and mine are similar - the Mom and Pop web sites. They tend to be a brick and mortar base who are looking to expand their online presence, or they are an online business looking to hit the next level. Either way, they've got something online already, they spent a lot of money on it and they feel as if they never got any real return on that money. They have somewhere between zero and eight employees. (I'm describing them here because these tips and tactics are only really going to work with this type of company - lots of different places will have some overlap, but this is the market these tips are going to resonate with most).
Understanding The Potential Client:
These people don't understand these silly computer machines. They only have a cell phone because everyone else does. They might only have a web site because someone else told them that they needed one. The list of things they want to do is a list of things that someone else told them they needed to have, even though that list wasn't tailored to their business or exact needs, it's a broad checklist that someone, somewhere came up with. If these things weren't true about the client and their list, we wouldn't be talking to each other in the first place. If they knew and understood these things, they would either already be done, or they would be getting it done by themselves.
Ultimately, they don't know what they want because they don't know what they can have. People tend to shy away from things they don't understand. It's nearly impossible, at this point, to sell them on anything that isn't already on their list because they don't even understand the value of their list, not to mention any thing that we want to add to that list that is going to cost more money. So, for me, step one is always to:
1) Unsell Them Something on the List
There is always something on the list that you can throw away. By unselling them on something, you are (in their minds) saving them money before they've even given you a dime. You aren't necessarily talking them out of doing it altogether, though. Never come at it from the "I don't know who told you to do that, but don't bother" angle. That puts you at odds with whomever they trusted to come up with their list. (It doesn't matter if the person they trust is correct or not - their trust is with that person). I typically come at it from a different direction. "This here is something I think you might want to wait on. It costs a $500 or so to get done and it's hard to see if and how much of a return we're getting on that money. If that gets pushed back to a later date once we have a good solid foundation, then we might be able to justify it, but for now, I really don't think you want to be giving me money that we can't see a return on. We can take the money we were going to spend on that and put it into something else that WILL give us a return on it and then we can come back to this later."
This serves a lot of purposes. The first thing is that you haven't tried to get them to question their trust in whomever came up with the plan (and remember, sometimes it was them who came up with it themselves based upon reading or whatever). The idea isn't tossed out - we've just put it on lower priority. We've also started building our own trust because we've told them not to waste money on it. Only someone looking out for the client's best interests (which ultimately, we are) would say, "No, don't pay me to do that." Most would just take the money.
We've also successfully taken $500 (or whatever the cost of the thing we just unsold would be) off the table so it's sitting there for us to put back on the table at a later date.
2) Find Some "Teach To Fish" Items And Unsell The "Fish"
In other words, I'd rather teach a man to fish than to give him a fish.
It can sometimes be hard to find items like this, but when they are there, point them out. These are things that would probably be done on an ongoing basis that you COULD do, but so could anyone else with a little bit of training. I tend to go at it like this: "On this item here, you can pay me to do it, but it's really something that a $12 an hour person could do with a little training. In the long run, you'd save some money if I worked with you and/or one or two other people in your company to teach them to do this. It will cost some money up front, but over the long run, it will save you thousands - plus it reduces your dependency on outside help and gives you more control over what is happening in the long run."
This is another tactic that seems insane - I'm turning down $100 a month to get $200 for training them now. Who would do that?!?!?! Well, the answer is that I would. I know for certain that no matter how much we do and for how long, there is ALWAYS something else to be done. I'm not turning away $100 a month, I'm opening the door to thousands in the future for something that I can more easily justify my cost on. More importantly, though, this also does two things for the client. We've established more trust because, once again, we're looking at their bottom line. We haven't even talked numbers yet and I've already saved them $500 plus $100 a month. That's $1700 this year, alone. That's nice to have, but what we've also done here is address a few more issues that no one ever seems to address:
- Issue#1: We've promised them a bit of understanding. These computer machine things make no damned sense. Whether it's teaching them to backup their site and update their wordpress plugins themselves or whatever it is, that understanding goes a long way. All those links and clicky things aren't just random scary things anymore. At least some of them make sense and that builds confidence.
- Issue#2: We've promised a bit of control. To most companies like this, their web work is scary. It's not just a lack of understanding, but it's also a lack of control. They are shelling out a lot of money and trusting that things are going to get done, but they aren't even sure what is getting done and what doing it does for them in the first place. By having someone in-house doing some of these things (whether it is them or a trusted employee that they can oversee directly) it gives them some control over something that has always seemed to be totally beyond their control.
For me, anything that I see that they could be doing in-house, is something that I offer to show them how to do it in-house. Some things they will take the offer, and other things they decide that it would be better to just let me keep doing it. Ultimately, though, the more I can get them to take on, the more familiar and comfortable with these computer machines they get. The more familiar and comfortable they are, the more likely they are going to be receptive to my ideas they'll be when we start talking "Phase 2" of the project down the road.
By now, we hopefully have a bit of an understanding of the client and know some of the things they know. Are they more focused on logistics? Marketing? Margins? We may not know a lot about them, but we know a bit about the things that they DO know about. They don't know anything about what we know about though, so we need to make various analogies so they can understand what the hell we're talking about. If they are a brick and mortar retailer, we can use aisles and end-caps as analogies for site structure and navigation. If they are a shipping facility, we can use their Pulling, Packing, and Posting procedures as an analogy for UX and UI considerations in respects to the steps and process a customer needs to take to place the order that will start them on their steps and process of fulfilling it. (HINT: We "old" full-stack people are much better at this because we lived in a world where merchandising WAS aisles and end caps. A lot of these younger ones have been behind the machine their whole lives and they have no idea why the milk and eggs are at the back of the store).
The more I can explain my stuff in terms of their stuff, the more confident they become in the decisions they are going to make and in trusting me to execute those decisions.
4) Turnabout is Fair Play
For me, I try to learn as much about their industry as I can before I make contact. I don't need to know everything about it, but I need to be armed with the basics. Regardless of how much I know, though, I ask questions - and a lot of them. How do you typically do this? What is the most annoying and difficult part of doing that? etc. The fun thing here is that their answers help me give them some understanding of what I do. So, not only am I showing that I care to understand their business and make this work with their business, but I can also say, "Oh yeah, that is something I'm always having to overcome, too..." and then I can explain a bit about my job and how I need to consider the same types of things he or she does in the same situation.
I've basically taken my lack of understanding of their business and turned it around to showw them that I care to understand and get it right. I'm also not afraid to say that I don't understand it - and then ask about it. Their lack of understanding in what I do is one of their biggest obstacles with me. So I've shown how I overcome that obstacle which then turns it around so they know how to overcome it too - it's okay to not understand, and it's okay to ask me so that you can understand. (Plus, all of this info I'm getting here is ultimately important for the job to be done right anyway).
5) Don't Upsell Much More than Our Downsell
You may have noticed that I've mentioned "Phases" a few times in the above. I always think in phases because we can make everything more digestible. The $500 we took off the table in step one may not actually be something we've saved any money on - we may have just pushed it back into Phase 2. We're not worried about the specifics of Phase 2 yet, we're only worried about phase one. Ultimately, though, we're going to have some things that are on our list of "Important" things that need to that weren't on their list from the get-go. They have a specific budget in their head, and we want to stick to that as much as possible. On the services that we are trying to sell them on, we need to prioritize them the same way - both in terms of cost/return AND in overall importance and where they fit into things procedurally. It may be hard, but pushing things back to phase 2 is better than throwing it out the window altogether. Try to keep phase one on their original budget with the best lineup of things to do. Push everything else back into phase 2. (Some of the stuff you're putting there, you really do plan on doing - other stuff you're putting there just to get it off the table for now, but without saying - "No, that's just silly/worthless/wrong." If all of these steps are followed through the process, they'll eventually realize that that thing isn't worth doing on their own. )
6) Get as Many Measurable Things on Phase One as Possible
The more things that we can measure, the easier getting them to go for phase 2 will be - and the larger the budget we're likely to be able to get. Sometimes we need to come up with interesting ways to measure things, too. For sites that sell things, if we're making a new shopping system, we want to know how long it takes them to process an order now, how long it takes to deal with the shipping stuff, and so on. Measure. Measure. Measure. One good thing here is that typically with web site stuff, the known value of everything on it is exactly $0. So if the backend of the order processing system cost $400 and it saves 1 minute per order and they are getting 60 orders a week being processed by someone making $10 an hour (numbers chosen just for easy math), that investment pays for itself in 40 weeks, and they come out ahead by $120 in the first year, and the following year, it's worth $520. In itself, it's not a lot, but it's $520 a year more than the $0 they had last year - and we haven't even run the numbers on all the other stuff we've done. (Anyone who might come after us is screwed, though - because they don't have to beat $0, they have to beat $520).
The more we can measure in phase one, and the more money we can show at the end of a year or two, the easier it is to get some of the intangibles into the next phase. Even though #1 and #2 above seems to be throwing money away that we could have gotten from this client, that is the foundation for getting phases 2 through 5 in the works. We haven't thrown away quick money now, and we haven't thrown away ongoing money for the future, we've built a foundation for a long and profitable relationship for the both of us.
7) Throughout the Project, It's not just What, but Why
Once I've got the job going, I'm regularly reporting my progress - we all do that, it's part of the job. One thing I keep in mind though, is that (especially in phase 1) the client isn't really sure "why" we are doing what we are doing. They got their list from someone or created it from an article they read, or it just came from "Bob said, and Joe Said and so on". As I report what I did, I take a paragraph and tell them why we did it and what it is actually going to do. In most industries, those things are already understood. Me: "I put new brakes on your car." You: "Yeah, because my car wouldn't stop." For us, that's not always the case. This is an oft forgotten step by many. It's one of the most important for the long term relationship.
As I said at the start, this isn't going to work with every single client situation, but it does work with most of the ones I tend to go with - and this type of client is plentiful. This type of client can often have more objections than others (a good many of these types of clients feel like they really got screwed by their last web person), but that's okay. This is why we approach them as the full-stack employee (see how I got back onto top there) but we add in the "relationship" and other factors.
Most any web person - be it your designer, developer, or full-service top down holistic service provider - isn't going to hit on all the various value points that we've offered in the outline above. Most will shoot for "confidence" and stop there. All they want is for the client to be confident that they will deliver (and ultimately, it doesn't really matter if they do deliver -they just want the job and then move on to the next).
We have offered confidence, trust, knowledge, control, and the comfort in knowing that you have no plan on just moving on, never to be seen again, once the job is done. All of those things are VERY important in a good business relationship. It's also a fairly safe bet that this potential client has never had anyone even try to offer them all of those things before. If they ever spoke with a consultant who offered them two of these things, I'd be surprised.
Almost all of my clients now are people with whom I started out with a simple, one time job: fix this, improve that, help with this. I might have nudged them a bit in the way we approach the problem, but I've never pushed hard to get something else done first, or to add too much to the budget. Yes, I'm certain that something I have to offer absolutely needs to be done for them to succeed, but it can always wait if the alternative is pushing them away. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can throw away almost all of their initial stack of things they want done and then give them a measurable stack to do first that will cost roughly the same, but that's rare. By phase 2, I have much more control over what gets into that list o stuff, and typically by phase 3 a single email about what I think needs to be done now will get a nod and a green light without any real need for questions or haggling.
Pro Tip: Part of this comes from my programming background and my ability to break complex things down into simple steps, but a lot of it just comes from the types of things we talk about here at Cre8asite all the time - being able to see how things relate to and affect each other as a whole. We don't waste a lot of time looking for the magic bullet, we look for places where a nice subtle shift combined with another will eventually create a clear path. The whole-istic approach. Anyway - because of this way of looking at things, I've ended up helping a lot of companies improve their process and procedures in areas totally unrelated to the web stuff. When building a shopping system, the time we take going over the fulfillment process on their end so that I can make it fit them on the front end has caused them to rethink their process and rework it. Not to match me, but just to make it more efficient in the first place. Then my system gets built to match that, instead. This is something that they never really directly get billed for, but you can be sure I follow up during my development time to make sure it's working, and to see how it has improved efficiency. It's something they can measure, that adds value to what I'm doing, and it cost them exactly $0 (even though it was basically in the budget all along - it's just not necessarily that result that was our primary goal). When this type of thing happens, measure it. Don't rub it in their face, but make sure they are at least subconsciously aware that this is money they got because of you.
This type of approach can probably only be accomplished (successfully) by someone who really does fit into that "full-stack employee" mold. If you have a limited skill set, you really cannot afford to shuffle the money from steps 1 and 2 above to something else, because the stuff you are shuffling is all you know. You have nothing else to replace it with.
The hardest thing about this, for me anyway, is that my priorities and my primary skill set (programming and workflow) doesn't always match what the potential client wants or needs right away. And even if they need it, we need to meet their wants first. As we do that, we can use that time to develop a relationship that helps them to learn to want what they need; to help them know what and why they want it, too. Kim, I know that you often struggle with trying to explain the value of user studies and all those other elements that are hard to measure. This makes them harder to sell, and I imagine many clients have been lost because you simply can't find a way to get them to understand the value. But, since we're full-stackers, we don't need to do that right away. We can let that stuff go for a few months. While we're doing the things we DID manage to get them to see the value in (and by doing the things that we wouldn't put a lot of value in, but couldn't convince them otherwise) we are talking to them. When it comes to planning and selling phase two, our natural tendency to show a bias toward our strengths (process for me, usability as a whole for Kim, probably something else for the rest of you folks reading this) will come out in our communications (especially in step #7 above). In our efforts to inform them, build their confidence, and in helping them to make informed decisions, the stuff that we are best at and that we will naturally prioritize becomes their most knowledgeable area. It becomes important to them, too. By phase two, you aren't selling them your priorities, they are asking you for them because they are becoming their priorities..
If we push too hard to make them go with something they see no value in, we lose them before we start. If we nudge away the stuff that has no value, and nudge in some things that we both agree have value, we get the job. Now we've got time to show them value of the things they don't understand. We can say things like, "I probably would have done <something else> first, but as we do <what we are doing> I'm keeping that in mind so it's easy to hook it in later if we decide to go that way." We can say, "I'm taking <my important thing> into consideration when we do <this other thing>. It won't be perfect going at it this way, but we'll be able to see some sort of improvement over just doing it without that in mind."
Now, we're not trying to sell them something that we're telling them is in their best interest anymore. We're trying to sell them something that they now believe and understand is in their best interest because it actually IS in their best interest.
Whew - that got long, huh? Anyway - those are my thoughts. I hope Kim and maybe even a few other folks who might bother to read all of this can pull a few nuggets out of it. A cursory view of this might seem like I am trying to just come up with another way to bamboozle a customer to get lots of money out of them. I think most of you will find that if you read it closely, you'll see that one of the keys to the success of this type of approach is to actually believe it. These aren't just things I say to my clients to get them to do what I want. They are things I say to my client because I truly believe that they are in their best interest. Without that, I'm no better than the guy who just did what the client said they wanted and then vanished right before the client realized they just paid a lot of money for something they don't need. One of my most powerful things I say to my clients, and one of the things I mean more than anything else is this: "I will never charge you a dime that I don't think will bring you a return at least twenty cents in the next year or two."
I mean it, because I'm a proud full-stack kinda guy, and that's just how we roll.
P.S. I can say with no small amount of certainty that this method of approaching clients and building relationships with them was something that developed over many years. The foundation that all of this was built on came from many of the people right here at Cre8asite. Many people think of (or at one time thought of) this site as an SEO site, or a Web Design Site, or whatever. It's way more than that and it always has been. My approach and strategies above will work in many different industries and I learned much of this from the folks here like Kim, Ammon, Bill, Jill, Dave, Adrian, Barry, and the countless others who have graced these pages over the years, both the folks from the old days and those with whom I've only become familiar with over the recent months during which I've been able to be more active again. Thank you, everyone.