Six Valuable Things Web Design Clients Won’t Tell You

When running a start-up web design business, unless you have some kind of incredible good luck (or no competition), you’re always working hard to acquire new business. Sales leads are valuable, regardless of where they come from. The number varies, but for every ten leads you contact, you’ll be fortunate if two or three of them turn in to paying clients. This means you have to talk to a lot of people. Still, getting a new lead is exciting because it has the potential to be your next big sale, helping you pay your bills and getting you one little step closer to start-up success.

When talking to potential clients, always keep in mind this mantra: It’s all about the client (and what you can do for the client.) That means being a good listener, gathering project requirements and doing whatever you can, (within reason), to please your client. However, there are a number of things that even the best-intentioned clients will not tell you about themselves and their project. Here are five valuable things your clients won’t tell you, and how to deal with them.

1. “We’re not prepared”

Many clients will seek one or more designers to create a proposal for them. The client often has a general idea of what they want their web site to offer, and perhaps they will mention other sites where they like the look, content or functionality. Beyond this, though, you’ll often find that the client has not really thought through what it is they want, and what would support the goals of their business. This means you may not even get a site map or features list, much less a Request for Proposal (RFP). This is more of a problem with small businesses—large companies are accustomed to a more formal process, and may be better prepared to provide meaningful input..

2. “Our deadline is unrealistic”

When asked about web site completion deadlines, clients will often say “ASAP” or “We have to have it in a month.” If you’re running a start-up, and especially if business is slow, you may think to yourself “Great, I can start tomorrow and have the work done ahead of time. I’ll really impress them.” This is the right attitude, but you’ll find that most clients move nowhere near as fast as you. Clients often say they need something yesterday, but they’re rarely ready to move fast. Factors beyond their control (a key employee is out sick, construction on a building is delayed) can turn “ASAP” in to “we’ll get back to you in a few weeks.”

3. “Getting content from us will be nearly impossible”

Extracting good text and image content from clients is perhaps the number one challenge for a web designer. If you’ve done this before, you’ll note that “extracting” is the correct word. You can have every part of the client’s web site ready ahead of schedule, but the site will not be complete without content the client must supply.

4. “We’re not very computer-savvy”

No matter how user-friendly your design process may be, some clients will be unable to perform simple computer tasks, such as converting an MS Word document to PDF or cropping and resizing a photo. They may be confused by Gmail, puzzled by Flickr. A client may be online all the time, but not skilled enough to scale down the 2300X1250 jpgs they got off their daughter’s digital camera and send them to you in a ZIP file.

5. “Our expectations are unrealistic”

When you look at a 3,000-square-foot house with a three-car garage next to a 1,000- square-foot condo, you know intuitively that their values are roughly proportional to their size and features. When it comes to web sites, it’s often hard for clients to judge the complexity or cost of certain features. They may look at a site with lots of custom Flash, AJAX, and DHTML behaviors and think “That shouldn’t be too hard to make, I see it online all the time.” They may also fail to connect their business goals with a site’s features. For example, a small gourmet restaurant probably does not need enterprise-level e-commerce, user forums, or social networking features.

6. “We’re considering many other proposals”

However enthusiastically a client may respond to your sales pitch or proposal, they may simply be being friendly. People like to be liked and don’t like to say no, so they will often sound like they’re really interested in your proposal, that you really “get” their needs. You may think that you’ve nailed the deal, but save your excitement for when they sign a contract and send you a check. Anything before that is just speculation. Be optimistic, but be realistic.

With all these hidden pitfalls, you might be thinking it’s a wonder anyone makes a sale— ever. However, with these client issues, and with many others, you can both protect yourself and add value for your client by fine-tuning your approach. There are two aspects to this:

Turn your client’s ignorance in to an opportunity

Some clients need a lot of help determining what they want and what they need (not always the same thing), and how to build a web site that supports the goals of their business. When you talk to a client, ask probing questions:

  • What is the biggest challenge in your business?
  • What do you want your web site to accomplish?
  • What kind of impression do you want your web site to make on new customers?
  • What information would help your customers make more informed decisions about purchasing your products or services?

Brainstorm with the client—share with them, in non-technical terms, different web site features that might drive their sales or improve customer communication, like email newsletters, downloadable product manuals, or FAQs. If you can show a genuine interest in helping their business succeed, you may have an advantage over other designers.

Develop a solid, detailed contract that includes terms of development, terms of payment and project timeline

A common mistake of start-up designers is to jump on business without having a firm contract in place. Most designers who do this eventually learn, the hard way, what happens when your client, well-intentioned or not, fails to complete their side of a nebulous agreement that is not explicitly spelled out and signed. Get a solid contract signed and delivered before you begin work on a project. Include language that allows for various contingencies. For example, what happens if:

  • The client is weeks or months late in supplying content.
  • The client doesn’t pay.
  • You can’t reach the client by phone or email.
  • Changes in the scope of the project change, making it necessary for you to spend more time on the work than estimated when you developed the budget.

A good contract protects both you and your client by explicitly spelling out what you will do for them and when, and what happens if something does not go according to plan. It’s worth a few hours of a lawyer’s time to create a good contract, or you can talk to a fellow designer and see if they will share theirs or let you adapt it to your needs.

Finally, clients who balk at signing a contract are probably best avoided. Contracts are part of doing business, and are necessary whether you’re taking out a car loan, building an addition to your home or creating a web site. Without a written contract for your design work, you will have little recourse if something goes wrong.

AIGA has a detailed contract you can adapt for your needs. You can also read “Web Design Contracts: Why Bother?”.

In summary, there are a number of important things clients won’t tell you that can affect your ability to run your business efficiently and make a fair profit. While most clients don’t intend to mislead you, they’re often unrealistic about their needs, goals, computer Keep these things in mind when pitching your services, and use a consultative approach to add value to clients’ projects and hopefully get the gig.

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