About The Author

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 … More about Trevan

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.

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.

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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

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.
Educating clients on the potential return on investment of a website is a great first step to closing the deal. (Image credit: Philip Taylor)

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

With just a free Google Analytics 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

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

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

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

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.
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 Credits)

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

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

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

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 Web.com and Toluna:

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

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

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

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?

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

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.”

Smashing Editorial (ml, al)