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How To Sell The Value Of The Web To Small-Town Clients

Selling your services as a freelancer or a small shop is tough enough as it is. Selling to a small-town business that might not even see the need for a website adds an extra level of difficulty in turning a profit.

I’ve provided web design services to small-town businesses for the past few years, having had many happy outcomes, but also a lot of negative experiences from which I’ve learned hard lessons. One of the most important things I’ve learned is how to sell the value of the web. Many of my clients needed to be convinced that a website would actually be good for their business. A lot of them were almost naive about the web and about the impact and reach that a professional website and online strategy would have for their small business, even one whose target market lies within a 15-kilometer radius.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

My experience with selling to small-town clients comes from running my tiny web design shop, Hetzel Creative, for three years now in rural Iowa. I started from a blank canvas after having moved to this town and building a clientele that now includes over 80 small businesses, mostly in southwest Iowa. I’ve gotten to the point that most new businesses around here are referred to my company, on the strength of my successful track record and portfolio.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume you live in a rural town like mine, with a population of about 5,000. You’re a great designer and developer, and the compelling idea of breaking out on your own drives you to look for your first client. You’ve landed a meeting with Ned’s Remodeling. Ned heard about you through mutual friends and is interested in a website for his small construction company.

After your initial meeting, in which you gathered information, you hit Ned with the numbers.

That much to build me a website?!” Ned is shocked. “Forget it! I have a nephew who could give it a shot for free.”

Now’s your chance to sell the value of the web.

A Website Is An Investment Link

Cash flow is often tight for small businesses, and you don’t have the luxury of dealing with department heads who aren’t closely tied to the money they’re spending. When a small-business owner writes a check, that money is very dear to them. So, Ned is obviously going to be put back when he hears a realistic estimate of what a properly designed and developed website should cost. Still, the only thing more important to him than his bank account (and his family, friends, etc.) is the future and growth of his company. The trick, then, is to sell Ned on a website’s return on investment.

Educating clients on the ROI a website can bring is a great first step to closing deals.5
Educating clients on the potential return on investment of a website is a great first step to closing the deal. (Image credit: Philip Taylor6)

Aside from the popular “Your business will be open 24/7” argument, you can sell Ned on a professionally designed and strategic website in many ways. Listed below are just a few, but you can easily get creative and tailor your responses to different clients, whose understanding of the web will probably vary.

Everything Is Trackable Link

With just a free Google Analytics7 account, you can track so many more metrics for a website than you can with print ads and other traditional advertising channels. This is a wonderful selling point, because it will reassure Ned that he can always look at the metrics and visualize whether his investment in the website is paying dividends. And if the results are not ideal, then those metrics will tell you what to tweak.

Your Image, The Way You Want It Link

A website serves as a central online destination for the whole brand. Ned needs to know that without a website (or with one that is poorly designed or that lacks compelling content), his online image will stretch as far as Google reviews or the Better Business Bureau. That might not give potential customers enough information for them to pick up the phone, especially if a competitor is dominating local search results for home remodeling and has a website that projects a compelling, trustworthy image.

Effective Advertising Link

The money spent on online advertising to drive prospective clients to a website is much more manageable and trackable than money spent on traditional advertising like newspaper ads, flyers and phone book listings. Online ads and listings, SEO and web content are in a unique category of advertising. Not getting as many hits as you would like? Adjust! Change your content and experiment. Not on the first page of Google for a particular term? Optimize! Rewrite some content and change some keywords.

Spend your advertising dollars to get your website into a high-traffic area that your target audience will see. Spending as much as, if not more than, an offline budget for online advertising is a no-brainer because you get so many metrics and insights on how an online campaign is performing. Ned wouldn’t have such control and accuracy with his advertising if he didn’t have a website, so this is a great point to sell him on the investment.

Productivity Enhancement Link

This is probably the last thing Ned expects from a website, but if properly thought out, a website can certainly enhance a small business’ overall productivity and free up time that is used for manual tasks. Take a simple contact form. More people are willing to submit a form online than to pick up the phone. It’s just easier and a lower barrier. Not only will Ned gain more leads, but now he has more time to research thoughtful answers than he would have had he gotten questions over the phone. And he can set aside a certain time of the day for written questions, which is better than being distracted by a phone call while drawing a blueprint or repairing a roof.

You Get What You Pay For Link

If you’ve convinced Ned that he needs a website for his business, then his most pressing concern will still be the wad of cash he’ll have to drop to pay for it. Even if he does view a website as an investment, investing in anything without some disposable income is still tough. At this point, he’s probably thinking of ways to spend the absolute least that he can, which is most easily done by pushing you to the backburner to find someone cheaper.

Educating your client on why they need a website and why you’re the right person to deliver it is all that’s standing between you and that money.8
Educating your client on the importance of a website and why you’re the right person to deliver it is all that’s standing between you and the money they’re willing to spend. (Image credit: Tax Credits9)

The key here is to make absolutely sure that Ned understands he will get what he pays for. You could remind him that he would advise his own potential clients not to trust just anyone to remodel their home; likewise, he should be willing to do the same for the online face of his business. Clients should trust experts to perform the services that they’re good at. Sure, he could get a free WordPress theme or use some cookie-cutter website-building service, but that’s like using duct tape and cardboard to fix a broken window. It might work, but you wouldn’t get the efficiency and beauty that a professional would provide.

Explain The Possibilities Link

Many people like Ned simply don’t know what they can achieve with a website: bill payments, sales, content management, newsletter registration, customer portal, email drip campaigns, subscriptions — the list goes on. If Ned is clear on what can be done, he’ll understand that an expert is needed to pull it all off.

Make sure, however, that you’re not just selling a list of features. You want him to see you as a partner who will share in the joy of the success that your services will bring. The features are only part of what a client wants. After all, thousands of freelancers can design and code as well as you can. Ned has to trust that the other guys don’t care as much about him and his success as you do.

The Importance Of Design Link

Even in a small town, where your reputation hangs almost solely on word of mouth, having a professional image is still critical. You understand this because you’re a designer, but Ned probably doesn’t. Without getting too deep into research on brand recognition, make sure you can back up your claim that good design is important to Ned’s small business. Here’s a great quote from a Razorfish’s report on branding that you can have ready (it’s five years old but still makes a great point):

According to our findings, 65% of consumers report that a digital brand experience has changed their opinion (either positively or negatively) about a brand or the products and services a brand offers… For those brand marketers still neglecting (or underestimating) digital, it’s as if they showed up to a cocktail party in sweatpants.

Break Out A Statistics Sheet Link

If Ned still needs convincing on why he needs you, show him some statistics. I’ve prepared a document for new clients that lists statistics on the number of Americans online, the number of people browsing on mobile devices (for selling a responsive solution), figures on how consumers are persuaded by a brand’s online image, and more.

Plenty of statistics are available for you to refer to in your sheet, like this one from a September 2013 report by BIA Kelsey:

94& of the consumers surveyed have gone online for local shopping purposes within the last six months. Among those surveyed, 59.5% have completed a local purchase of merchandise or services online, within the last six months.

Or this one, from a September 2013 survey by and Toluna10:

83% of surveyed US consumers reported that having a website and using social media was a factor considered of high importance when choosing small businesses.

Or this one, from a June 2012 survey by 99designs (a great one to show Ned that others in his position think professional design is important):

80% of small business owners consider the design of their logos, websites, marketing materials and other branding tools either “very important” or “important” to the success of their companies.

Analyze Competitors Link

Another great way to convince Ned of the need for a website is simply to do a Google search right in front of him. If “glenwood iowa remodeling” brings up a list of all of his competitors, then he’ll see that he’s missing out. Even if you don’t offer SEO, Ned has to have a website in order to optimize it. If you do offer some SEO (or even include basic optimization in your service), then Google some of your current clients in front of him to show how you have helped companies get to the top of search results. Just don’t lead the client on if you don’t have the results to show for it — especially if they can so easily check how capable you really are.

Aside from search rankings, analyze some of Ned’s competitors’ in front of him. Point out what’s good and not so good about them. I always like to tell clients what I would do differently with their competitors’ websites because that helps them understand our expertise in a context they’re familiar with.

Bring Social Into The Mix Link

Several clients have come to me looking for the whole online package: website, Facebook page, Twitter account and branding, etc. Other clients had to be sold on these “extra” services. If you’re looking for extra angles to hook clients, offer a broad range of services, because — let’s face it — Facebook and Twitter are highly visible these days (Ned probably has a Facebook account already). The average client already has (or at least should have) an active Facebook page for interacting with customers and marketing to the public. So, offering a social strategy, or at the very least designing a nice profile and cover photo, is usually an easy sell.

Facebook for Business.11
Facebook strategies and promotional designs are good services for clients who are looking for the full package. (Image: Sean MacEntee12)

Beware of working with clients who solely want to use Facebook or Twitter, though. Many small businesses start with Facebook as their only online presence. While it’s a cheap way to get online, clients need to understand that their social pages should ultimately drive people to their “home”: their website.

How Did We Meet Ned In The First Place? Link

Contact with a prospective client can come from many different sources. The things that have always landed me contracts are word of mouth and a strong portfolio. Of course, I had to build my reputation for people to refer me, and that can be done in various ways.

The single most important thing that I did for my small business was to join the local Chamber of Commerce. I got leads simply from being listed on its website as a trusted local service provider, but the more important leads came from attending its events and talking to people. I never went to an event (coffee nights, banquets, golf outings, etc.) to land a contract that day. Rather, I went to become more acquainted with other business owners and to build their trust so that, when they did need a website, they would call me first.

Other ways to get your name out there include joining a committee (I was on the Chamber of Commerce’s marketing committee), attending events for entrepreneurs (who are your target market, after all), doing some pro bono work if you’re starting out, and giving current clients 10% off their next invoice if they refer you to someone. Just being around other business owners and making friendships in their circles should be enough to get you at least one contract; if you do a great job with them, the referrals will start coming in.

I’ve definitely tried things that don’t work, too. For instance, don’t waste your time on newspaper ads, cold calling, phone book listings or mass emails. You’re in the business of selling value, not just a service. Your best clients will arise from trusted relationships and from their belief in your ability to increase their bottom line.

Above all, make sure that your own website is killer. Experiment with different content until you’re at the top of search results for local web design and development. Of course, make sure to show off all of your latest and greatest projects. Case studies do a great job of selling (especially if the website visitor is in the same industry being profiled). Plenty of resources are out there to help with your online strategy, so don’t skimp on the quality of your website.

The Sky’s The Limit Link

Hopefully, this article serves as inspiration for those of you with the same target demographic. Keep in mind that working in a small town is not necessarily your best bet to raking in a ton of money and designing glamorous websites. But you’ll sleep well knowing that you’re benefiting the community by providing expert services. And keep your eye out for other markets to get into. With the number of fully distributed companies on the rise, you can do business with just about anyone from the comfort of your home.

Remember that selling to small-town businesses is a lot about education. Ned doesn’t know just how much value a website can provide. Educating him on the possibilities and the state of the web might just convince him to go with you, without your even having to explain “why me.”

(ml, al)

Footnotes Link

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Trevan Hetzel is a visual design engineer for appendTo and front-end/design freelancer. He When he's not goofing off with his son or tackling home projects with his wife, Trevan gets his mind out of the code editor by firing up his dirt bike and hitting the motocross track.

  1. 1

    Great article Trevan, I think the main point in absolutely every industry is that people buy from people; and any sort of trust built between you and a client (prospective or existing) will pay back dividends when it comes to referrals, future contracts and building a positive reputation for your business.

    Lots of great tips here too, I’ll be sure to include a lot of these.

  2. 3

    Great article! I was searching the web for something like this! Thanks.

  3. 4

    CAREFUL: when I tried to see the author’s website (which he advertises so nicely “make sure that your own website is killer”) my antivirus went haywire with TROJAN warnings!
    Is that a new way to have a “killer website”? :p

    • 5

      Apart from that I like the statements and approaches described in the article. Word of moth is always the best way to create follow up business.

    • 6

      Juergen, I’m sorry your antivirus is going haywire on my site. I’ve never had any problems with it (it’s built on the Ghost platform) testing on PCs (I’m assuming you’re on a PC), but I’m definitely going to look into it. Thanks for pointing it out :)

  4. 7

    Thanks! Very useful post. It was written just for me.

  5. 8

    Matthew Trow

    July 29, 2014 7:17 pm

    Great article.

    Over the years, I’ve built around 30 websites for small companies. I’ve since stopped, for various reasons, mostly because I don’t need the extra income (and the associated hassle)

    The lessons I’ve taken home from this are:

    * Hosting

    If you want to keep your overheads low, point your small client in the direction of a trusted hosting company that offers domain registrations. Let *them* sign up (with guidance) for the hosting and domain and ask them to send over the login details.
    Believe me, this saves *tons* of issues further down the line. There’s zero money in hosting for the client and invoicing monthly – your money is made by updating the site. When you can get monthly hosting *with* email for a few dollars a month, it’s not worth managing this aspect yourself *unless* you have enough clients to warrant the work load.

    * CMS

    Ultimately, the CMS choice is for *you*, the freelancer. I never once met a small business client who had the time & inclination to update their website via a CMS. That’s why they are hiring you ‘on the cheap’. It’s a win-win – you do an hours work adding a new page and charge according to your rates.

    * Lay down the rules – honesty.

    Be completely upfront about what you will charge. Your biggest losses will come from picky clients who keep rejecting the initial design/content ideas. Don’t be afraid to part company – and this is where the hosting angle comes in. If it’s their account, there’s no associated admin in parting company. From the outset, very clearly lay out your deliverables for design. “I will provide X amount of design layouts, after which, there will be a charge for additional.”

    * Content

    One of the worst nightmares for a freelancer working for small clients, is content. This relates to laying down the rules. If they want you to research their business in order to provide content – unless you are willing to invest the time and energy and the client is willing to pay accordingly, walk away. By all means, advise on content – give them a solid structure to work from – but if they expect you to create the content with no input? Your on a hiding to nowhere … *unless* you charge a percentage upfront.
    This can lead to headaches further down the line.

    * Revenue streams – existing clients

    With enough clients, a good revenue stream is going to be additional work. Adding new content, new features. For small clients, this can be one of the most difficult challenges you face. Some clients with be proactive, others will be happy to just sit on what they have.

    * Revenue streams – referrals

    As the article points out, of the biggest revenue streams is referrals – word of mouth.
    The leg work is up to you. Your happy client will say “Hey, my buddy Jim has a small business & he’s not happy with his website.”. Don’t expect your client to contact Jim for you.

    * Revenue streams – partnerships

    Some of my most lucrative work was via freelance designers or small web agencies. You don’t have the overhead of having to deal directly with the client. It’s possible to set yourself up very comfortably with ‘middle men’, just make sure you have enough work through external third parties to pay the bills!

    I freelanced for about two years in total – it was tough, but rewarding. For me, the biggest drawback was not having interaction with fellow developers/designers. Ultimately, however, I didn’t have what it took to cultivate a good client base. You have to be an excellent people person to make freelancing lucrative.

    • 9

      Wow, great response Matthew! Thanks for sharing your experiences as well. The hosting/domain name registration is something I learned the hard way, too. I’m been “in the process” of migrating sites that I registered/hosted myself for about a year now. If you don’t need the extra residual income (which isn’t all that much anyway), point your clients to their own hosts and let them register their domains!

    • 10

      @Matthew Trow = Wow! :) Couldn’t have written it better myself, since I’ve had the same exact working experience, and also decided years ago to freelance for other larger agencies and providers. The “content” paragraph was extremely relevant!

  6. 11

    Good post. We have this conversation with prospects sometimes and you hit the key issues very well. Thanks.

  7. 12

    Sean Lee-Amies

    July 29, 2014 11:37 pm

    I am in the business of targeting small to medium sized businesses in a town with a population of 100k and I believe that even though the population size is vastly different, most of what you said still applies. I am from the UK so may be slightly different, but I wholeheartedly agree that establishing trust with clients is the key to success.

    It shouldn’t be about just giving the client what they want, but showing them what they ‘need’ and why – without taking advantage!

  8. 13

    Great artice, Trevan. Have been working for two years in a small town in Germany (25,000 inhabitants) as a freelancer and mostly made the same experiences. What I would mention as a real benefit: Clients often become friends and so work is much more fun and relaxed than working with big companies with the need to study large specifications whereas a chat ending with a handshake leads to the same result.

  9. 14

    Perfect article – just what I need right now. I’m just about to go freelance and I’ll be pitching mostly for small town clients so these points will help me get my worth across. Thanks a lot!

  10. 15

    Nice post. You mentioned “The things that have always landed me contracts are word of mouth” – but how do you do the pricing? If it’s word of mouth then your old client might share the pricing information and your new client will want the same pricing but their requirements might be different.

  11. 16

    Great Article Trevan! I too have a small web design business by the name of KloudSeven in Toronto which I know is a much larger city than yours but the same rules still apply. Some of the information you mentioned here is new to me and I will be using it to attract future clients. Thanks for the tips and check out my website because I would love to get feedback from you.

  12. 17

    Andres Ramirez

    July 31, 2014 4:08 am

    Great article!

    I am less than a year into the web service industry, and that little time has served me to know how important it is to focus on selling the VALUE of your services… Not just a product.

    Keep ’em coming!

  13. 18

    Thanks for sharing this post. Education is certainly the main theme with all things web-related. Another selling point for creating a website is the ROI you’d get from practicing inbound marketing. A blog, a CTA, some forms, a mix of social media and email automation will make for a formidable business.

  14. 19

    Hemanth malli

    August 4, 2014 11:09 am

    Great article this information is very useful for me.

  15. 20

    Wow! What a great article. Thank you so much. You bring up a lot of really compelling points.

  16. 21

    Good advice! One thought to share with comment-readers, though.

    Educating people is one thing, but be careful you’re not doing so just to manipulate them into hiring you. In my current work, I talk to a lot of small business owners who get pitched by local devs who sell them on responsive redesigns they don’t need (or SEO stuff, or AdWords management, or … ).

    While I’m sure the web pros would say they’re “educating” the client, they’re doing so selectively, sensationally. It might be 100% unintentional, who knows. The small business owners have never heard of this stuff, so they panic and get really insecure. They are made to feel like they’ve been irresponsible or ignorant — not because the seller comes right out and says that, but because digital is framed as magical earning potential they’ve been missing out on for all these years. While they might end up paying for the work, they never really feel good about it when it comes out of that sense of uncertainty.

    That’s a crappy way to start a relationship. Instead, be realistic about your goals and theirs. Maybe they need a website *less* than the average small business, or maybe they could grow significantly because of it. Either way, don’t only teach them the things that’ll get them to hire you or spend more money with you; give them a balanced picture of their options and the risks/benefits involved.

    So, not trying to accuse anyone of this … I like to think Smashing readers are all well-intentioned, decent people. :) Just be mindful of it.

  17. 22

    Francis Lecompte

    August 11, 2014 4:09 pm

    Good advice !

    Thanks for sharing it!

  18. 23

    For such clients buy templates or use squarespace. People wouldn’t care if they have seen very similar page elsewhere and 99% chance are they haven’t. Making custom websites for small companies for 1000$ in 2014 is waste of time and money. Make it simple, focus on content.

  19. 24

    Great post Trevan. Me and my friend run a Web Development & Consulting company in Mysore, India. We come across the same major issues that you have mentioned in your article in a City like ours. Handling such clients & educating them about the advantages of modern web design & the cost associated with it a big challenge that we come across.
    Your experiences would definitely help us in dealing with clients better.

    Thanks :)

  20. 25

    Very nice post, Trevan. I learn a lot from it. But I really want to know what you think about my problem. My prospects mostly said that they don’t need a website that I offer to them because they are happy with their page in Facebook. Why the earth do I have to pay for a website while I can get what I want with their Facebook page, for free? That’s how they argue. Sometimes they just made me speechless.

    I live in Indonesia where businesses, especially the small one, think that having their own website is not relevant for their business. They’d prefer to use free online directories, which are blooming in Indonesia, and even Facebook, instead of thinking about building their own website

    What should I say to such prospects so they realize the benefits of having their own website, in easy-to-understand way for them. Please help. Thanks in advance

  21. 26

    Convincing is not my job. I only work with clients that appreciate and pay well for the work involved. You can never teach an old dog a new trick, that goes with cheap clients.

  22. 27

    Great article Trevan! However, I also expected a good response to what the client in your example said. He has a nephew who is willing to give it a shot for free :-)

    You’ve convinced him for having a website, but not for hiring a professional instead of trying it on his own or through some naive staff member or relative. What are your thoughts on that?

  23. 28

    I am a small business in a small town and wanted a website…my problem is this, Not one person I contacted could tell me how much my keywords were being searched in my area…one guy said the term was too small and his search tool wouldnt display anything….Why would I want a site if we cant even count how many are searching to begin with? I need to know my possible ROI. He said under a 1000 usually wont show…are we talking 3,30, 300 or 999 searches is important to me…..if its 3…not worth it….if it 30…still dont see the return…but if he could show that 300 or more are looking…. Im in! Too many concentrate on selling sites but fall short on what matters to the buyer. You can sell more sites if you can show in small areas how many are searching for just a few “key” keywords. Im a cheap client IF I have a cheap salesman. Do the homework…the web is your area of expertise not the one you’re doing a site for.

    Good day!


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