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How To Persuade Your Users, Boss or Clients

Whether you are getting a client to sign off on a website’s design or persuade a user to complete a call to action, we all need to know how to be convincing. Like many in the Web design industry, I have a strange job. I am part salesperson, part consultant and part user experience designer. One day I could be pitching a new idea to a board of directors, the next I might be designing an e-commerce purchasing process. There is, however, a common theme: I spend most of my time persuading people.


As Web designers, we often have to nudge people in the direction we want them to go. It is a vital skill we all have to learn. We’re not talking about manipulation. Underhanded techniques, and certainly lying, won’t get you anywhere. But you can present yourself and your arguments in ways that make people more receptive. The first and probably most important way is to empathize.

1. Empathize Link

The worst thing you can do is enter a meeting or begin designing a user interface with a personal agenda. If your goal is to push the other party into agreeing with you, it will resist. But if you seek to understand their needs and respond to them, you will find the others more cooperative.

Start by Listening
To achieve this, you must really listen. Paying lip service to the “idea” of listening is not enough. You have to hear what they’re saying and look for those “points of pain” that your ideas might actually relieve.

Tailor Presentation of Agenda
Rather than forcing the people in the room to reluctantly agree, tailor your presentation of ideas so that they see the benefit of them. This involves some creative thinking on your part but is possible if you really understand their needs.

Show Benefit to Other Party
Remember, explaining how your ideas will help you or others is not enough. You have to demonstrate how they help the actual people you are speaking to. For example, rather than saying to your client, “Users are going to love this new feature,” you could instead say, “This new feature will keep users coming back, which will dramatically improve the number of leads you receive.” Once you understand the other party and have thought about their needs, your next step is to form a relationship with them.

2. Be Personable Link

If you have a good relationship with your users, boss or client, they will be more inclined to take your suggestions. Of course, the kind of relationship you build depends on who the other person is. Your relationship with website users is different from your relationship with your boss. However, certain approaches hold true across the board.

Get Them Nodding
It’s a silly little thing, but when I give a pitch, I try to get people to nod. Nodding is a good sign and puts them in a positive mood. I normally achieve this by repeating back to them (in different words) one of their own points. They will obviously agree with what you’re saying, but it also demonstrates that you’re listening and are on the same wave length.

The same approach can be used online. For example if I am writing a post aimed at Web designers, I know that berating IE6 will get them nodding in agreement right away. I have succeeded in making a connection.


Be Enthusiastic
Enthusiasm is so important. Clients want to know you care about their project. Bosses want to know you are motivated to work, and users want to know you care about the service you deliver. However, so many people lack enthusiasm when communicating their message. They come across either as defeated before they even begin or as overly aggressive. Instead, try overwhelming enthusiasm. It is infectious, and people get caught up in it. More importantly, saying “No” to somebody who is oozing enthusiasm and excitement from ever pore is not easy. It would be like kicking a puppy. (Well, not quite.)

Mirror Them
You have probably heard how mirroring a person’s body language helps establish a positive connection. Whatever you do, do not do it! Consciously doing it just comes across as creepy! It will happen naturally, so don’t worry about it. That said, it is a useful indication of whether a face-to-face meeting is going well. If the other person is mirroring your body language, chances are they like you. What you can consciously do is mirror their language or use the same terminology.

If your boss or client talks about “return on investment” or “success criteria,” do it yourself. And if you suspect the other party is not familiar with certain terminology, make sure to avoid it. Our way of speaking associates us with a certain “tribe.” If we share the same language, we are more likely to build a rapport.

Make Them Smile
Another trick for building relationships is to inject humour into the proceedings. If you can make the other person smile, you’ve gone a long way to breaking down any barriers. Of course, this has to be done with care. Overdo it and you’ll look like the fool. But even the most miserable-looking directors on a board are human beings, too, and like to smile. Although all of these approaches are great for building relationship, one trumps them all: openness.

3. Be Open Link

You may be reading this thinking, “This guy is mad. What if his clients read this stuff. Won’t they feel manipulated?” My answer is no. I am open and honest about what I do. I would be entirely fine with any one of my clients reading this because nothing manipulative or secret is here. People hate being deceived; so if anything, the honesty in this article will build my relationship, not undermine it. Two key components help build open relationships and create a receptive audience.

Disarming Honesty
Many times, the best way to diffuse a potential conflict is with disarming honesty. For example, I regularly acknowledge in sales situations that I am there to sell and that they should take anything I say with a pinch of salt. The client obviously knows this already. But verbalizing it shows a kind of honesty that people rarely encounter.


Be Willing to Show Weakness
We can sometimes be so desperate to make a point that we become unwilling to admit even the slightest weakness in our argument. Ultimately, though, we come across as pig-headed and inflexible.

People respond well when you admit you are wrong or are unsure of an answer. Be willing to say “I don’t know” or “I’ve messed up” if necessary. People will respect you for it. One of the best examples of this is Flickr’s blog post “Sometimes We Suck1,” in which Flickr apologizes for performance problems. By taking this approach, it demonstrated its integrity and completely defused the anger of those who were complaining. Of course, being willing to show weakness takes a lot of confidence, and that trait is critical if you are to convince others.

4. Be Confident Link

As humans we are drawn to confident leaders. We follow those who have a clear vision and walk the path with confidence. Communicating your message with confidence, therefore, is important. Establish yourself as an expert, and speak with authority.

Bet Confident, Not Arrogant
Being confident also means having the strength to admit when you are wrong. A truly confident leader does not claim to have all of the answers all of the time. Being able to concede points and allow others to express their views is a key aspect of confidence. Only those who lack confidence fear opposing views.

You Do Not Always Have To Win
Pick your battles. Conceding some points to achieve the greater aim is okay. Giving ground does not undermine your position. Sometimes you have to be a little submissive to get people on board. Don’t allow your ego to get in the way. If someone feels good about having won an argument, then they will more likely be accommodating when you suggest an alternative. Compromising sometimes is okay. It is certainly better than constantly being negative and rejecting counter-proposals.


5. Be Positive Link

Whether dealing with a demanding boss, difficult client or finicky users, you have to impress them with your attitude and service. Always be helpful and keen to leave a positive impression. In customer service, that sometimes involves going the extra mile. With your boss, it means seeing the benefits of their latest mad scheme. Whatever the situation, developing a reputation for being unhelpful and negative is the worst thing that can happen.

Conclusion Link

There are no Jedi mind tricks that will help you to always convince your clients that you are right. At the end of the day, the secret to persuading others is to show respect, listen to their opinions and present your vision in language that they understand.


Footnotes Link

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Paul Boag is the author of Digital Adaptation and a leader in digital strategy with over 20 years experience. Through consultancy, speaking, writing, training and mentoring he passionately promotes digital best practice.

  1. 1

    Vitaly Friedman

    October 11, 2009 1:40 am

    Please do not post comments without any content – like “first!!!”, “thxxxx”, “GREAT!!!” etc. Instead, please leave useful and constructive feedback and respect opinions of other readers of Smashing Magazine’s articles.

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    Edward Palomo

    October 11, 2009 2:01 am

    this is really helpful! thanks!

  3. 3

    When I approach clients I make sure that we communicate what problem we are trying to solve before we even get into a pitch. I get the what and why up front and then we dive into our pitch.

    This technique really opens up the floor for conversation and allows us to get right into the work. I face opposing viewpoints all the time and since I am in more of an advertising and leadership role I am used to it. I also know that I need to keep things moving to keep appointments and to keep us profitable. We always have managers and corporate staff trying to tell us how to do our job and this is where we turn into salesmen about our decisions. More often than not we remind our clients why we were retained and to let us live up to our potential.

    I also use the silence technique where we present an idea, hear the rebuttal, and then don’t say a word. The other side will often keep talking from fear of silence and dig themselves into a hole. Then we take them down by backing up our ideas. Nothing is worse than resulting to this since it usually means that it’s turned into a hard sell.

    Like you stated honesty is key and you have to be real with clients but at the same time they need to know that you were hired for a reason. If they want to spearhead the whole project themselves they need to hire employees for that.

  4. 4

    I like the positive energy of this article. Thanks Paul for putting some nice point together. I like to add one more point which can help you lot to gain from your surroundings is “Active Listening”. It’s not easy and It takes time to learn to listen like that but most of you already know that active listening is a great way to improve your relationships and build your reputation with others.

    DKumar M.

  5. 5

    The 1 thing thats needed the most is to understand people very well.
    If you know what design/development sense they have, the colors they like etc. you have a good direction.
    These look like small things, but smallest of the details matter: both for design & clients.

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    Jewen Soyterkijns

    October 11, 2009 2:31 am

    Ugh I hate clients. Sometimes I get my hands dirty like a car mechanic, and the same people that will agree on a 400$ oil change, will suddenly demand:
    a) cheaper costs
    b) that you do it like their nephew does it
    c) that oil is unnecessary for a long road trip.
    d) a second opinion by another car mechanic

    Our industry’s clients are spoiled and misguided. Everyone that uses Facebook calls himself a car mechanic, or at least could do the same after a 4-week online dreamweaver Car mechanic course.

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    Jewen Soyterkijns

    October 11, 2009 2:33 am

    “Yeah, I call you to tell you I will be dropping by this afternoon. Then I will sit next to you and we will both finish this page in Flash. That way I can point and tell you which font and colors and animations I like, and you drag and drop that into place. I wont leave untill this site is finished!”

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    Kartlos Tchavelachvili

    October 11, 2009 5:22 am

    …Why we need a school when we have SmashingMagazine :)

  9. 9

    Thanks for the great article. Sometimes I get so impatient with my customers.
    It is important to empathize with them, but also to show them that you are really a professional who knows more than they do.
    Be careful – too much familiarizing with clients, and they’ll try to lower your price. Or get sloppy with payments.

    Plus one for that cup of Turkish coffee by the laptop. That really clears your mind. :-)
    I’m so sick with that American filtered cr*p.

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    Constantin Boiangiu

    October 11, 2009 7:30 am

    I love my clients. They are the ones that make me feel great day after day. Never had one saying “I will drop by and finish this with you”. It’s true, it would be rather difficult for them to do that. They’d have to cross the Atlantic ocean. But they didn’t even asked me to skype them to finish something. They say what they need, I ask few questions to make sure I understood correctly and deliver on deadline. That’s it. That’s all there is. And a big thank you from them when I deliver and a big thank you from me when they make payments. I simply love all my clients, everything about them and I’m damn proud they choose me out of all the people out there.

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    I re-tweeted this wonderful article because I think it makes excellent points for any professional. Although I am a successful mystery author now, I went through years of working in an office environment where I had to pitch bosses, a sales force, a team of peers. I just love your “no Jedi mind tricks” approach. This is exactly what every young professional needs to know in trying to survive the requirement of “persuasion” in any industry. Thank you.

    ~Cleo Coyle

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    Great one. This is a really useful resource for anyone making his way through the jungle of sales. When you are a designer and the salesman at the same time is imperative been informed about this techniques. Nice one!

  13. 13

    its really a great one “rather than saying to your client, “Users are going to love this new feature,” you could instead say, “This new feature will keep users coming back ” which i like the most


  14. 14

    What would those who give this advice on these abstract concepts? Once acquired all the details (make one, ten, hundred, thousand cases) will sketch out the lines of action. Ask then to users, leaders and customers to test if they are persuaded.

  15. 15

    who can not do, teach.

  16. 16

    errata corrige:
    who is not able to do, teach.

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    Emil Bonsaksen

    October 11, 2009 11:22 am

    I find myself more as an advisor than a salesperson when in meetings with possible clients. Clients seem to appretiate that more than if I sent a salesperson. It might help that I’m the CEO of the company, but I find it easier to communicate with the clients this way.

    And as you said, honesty take you a lot further than promise gold than delivering dirt (not that we do that, but alot of firms do).

    Thank you for a great article Paul, much appretiated!


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    Very well written, indeed. It’s nice to see a list of items like this written out. I think most of us that end up having to handle the customer relations side of web design–as well as the design and programming end–forget some of these finer points from time to time.

    I found myself self going back to different client meetings i’ve had in the past, and recognizing where i had implemented one point or another, and some where i could have better related to the client using the ideas you’ve laid out.

    Very cool. :)

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    A Website Designer

    October 11, 2009 12:08 pm

    A good article it made me think of counselling meets web design.

    All very good points. I do not think every web designer will take them on board, point 3 is very good, be open and be yourself.

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    “Underhanded techniques, and certainly lying, won’t get you anywhere.”

    I’m not saying this isn’t true, but you just state this out of hand as if it’s fact, when of course it is anything but. The best persuaders are often the best liars, that you dismiss this so quickly without dealing with the uncomfortable truth essentially invalidates the rest of your approach.


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