Never Say WordPress When Selling a Web Design Project

Prior to selling my web agency, HotPress Web, last year and starting uGurus, a new venture to help web professionals become more profitable, I pitched a lot of website projects.

My proposal folder has over 950 bids in it. Of course, I didn’t win all of these, but I did close several million dollars in website deals over my tenure. Our typical project was in the ballpark of $20,000. When I started out, I had a hard time winning $3,000 deals.

Until I learned how to sell and build value, I wasn’t getting paid enough. Sometimes it would take everything I could muster to win a project for $1,200. And I would end up promising $3,000 in services.

I was also spending a lot of time pitching business that never panned out. I had a hard time winning 1 in 10 bids. The time suck was draining away my hours to be productive outside of pitching business–like actually getting project work done.

I was frustrated. I began looking for answers.

The Status Quo

The typical process for me looked something like this:

  1. A prospect calls me asking for website services
  2. I ask what they need–a little info about their business and what kind of features and functionality they are thinking about
  3. I demo what we can do (show the technology of the hour: WordPress,Drupal, Shopify,BigCommerce, LightCMS, Business Catalyst, etc)
  4. I deep dive into the different functionality they need on their project and show them how it can be done
  5. I send a proposal
  6. I start following up

Inevitably I would get into some follow up conversations with the prospective customer about my platform of choice. Every time we would spend countless hours deep diving into the technology.

“Can it do this? What about…?”

Eventually the customer would tell me that the other company bidding on the project is using a different technology, usually something similar to what I was pushing.

Then it would happen: the technology debate.

  • Is WordPress better than Drupal?
  • Is Opensource better than Software as a Service?
  • Who has control over the site?
  • How is it backed up?
  • Where will it be hosted?
  • etc etc etc

The worst part about it was that most of this software we were debating was free and open. There was no cost associated with the platform. We were spending all of this energy debating something that really had no bearing on my expertise and the value I brought to the table.

Before I knew it, the customer was choosing between software platforms and not which company was going to provide the best solution.

As WordPress became more popular, it got worse. The technology debate softened, but then all of my competition was offering the same technology solution that I was. Instead of debating about the technology, I lost differentiation.

An Epiphany

As I sold more projects, worked with more businesses, visited more offices, I started to see patterns. I began thinking about what I was really doing.

Was web design just that? Designing web pages and loading content? Was it programming and open source and PHP this and .NET that? Or were we doing something much bigger for our customers?

I always assumed that when a customer called me for a website, that the problem they are trying to solve was: getting a new website. But it’s not.

Businesses are looking to solve sales, marketing, logistics, customer service, or public relations problems. Websites just happen to be a great solution to problems in those areas (and many others).

Zap! (Lightning strike.)

When business owners call and ask about getting a website, they are trying to solve an issue that goes beyond their request for some design and HTML. They couldn’t actually care less what platform you use. No matter how great WordPress is.

The #1 Problem

So I changed my approach. At first it was subtle adjustments.

I started listening more intently. I asked a lot of questions to try and get to the root problem that the customer faced in their business.

Let me provide some examples:

Old Approach:

  • Customer: “We need to be able to update the content on our website.”
  • Me: “Content management is what WordPress is all about.”
  • Outcome: Sell a WordPress solution and compete with everyone else doing the same thing.

New Approach:

  • Customer: “We need to be able to update the content on our website.”
  • Me: “What kind of content do you plan on updating?”
  • Customer: “Our products change quarterly. We also want to blog.”
  • Me: “Why do your products change quarterly? And who is responsible for blogging?”
  • Customer: “That is when our catalog gets updated. We haven’t thought about who will blog, we just know we need one.”
  • Me: “Is it necessary for anyone to be aware of your catalog being updated, or do you just need the content changed? And besides knowing you need a blog, what is the problem that needs solving?”
  • Customer: “Yes! We’d love our customers to get an email for a promotion each time our catalog is updated. We’d like to attract more customers through our blog – you know, let people know what we are up to.”
  • Etc.
  • Outcome: Eventually create a compelling solution for a dynamic website project, content management training, ghostwriter with SEO strategy for blog content, email marketing template creation, email marketing training, and some custom content development.

Instead of taking my prospects “stated needs” as absolute, I question all of them. Eventually they will fess up to the real problem they are most likely trying to solve: getting more customers.

The more I practiced this technique, the higher priced my proposals got (and the more I won).

My clients ate it up. No one else I was competing against talked like this. Everyone sold to the technology.

The Challenge

So I started to give myself challenges. I would see how long I could go with a client without ever mentioning the technology we planned to build on.

At first it was a meeting. Then two. By the time I sold my agency, on most deals I would go through seven or eight interactions in the sales cycle without ever talking about a lick of technology.

If you are having a hard time building value for your website services, then I have a challenge for you: stop selling the technology.

See how long you can go without mentioning WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Shopify, or whatever your technology poison is.

(4 Posts)

Brent is currently CEO of uGurus.com, a knowledge-hub to help web professionals become more profitable. For the last sixteen years he has dedicated himself to selling websites and online marketing solutions. You can follow him on twitter @brentweaver or connect with him on Google+ or LinkedIn.

Comments

  • Steveo

    I agree this is a normal standard for web design, we are selling business tools not designs.

  • I’m in the exact position you describe you were in. Thanks for the tips. Will definitely try it out!

  • robinkristianparker

    Completely agree. Most end users won’t give a damn what the platform is, as long as it works and lets them do what they need to, as easily and quickly as possible

  • Bob Burg

    Terrific post. THAT is what the selling process is all about. A perfect example of providing the prospect with time, attention, counsel, education, empathy and, ultimately, exceptional value. You listened for the information you needed in order to provide the the value they needed, and repositioned (differentiated) yourself from commodity to value-provider. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us in this excellent article.

  • vironmedia

    Thanks for the tips. I think there’s a lot of weight in selling the service/experience rather than purely the product itself.

  • Hi Brent. Thanks for the excellent post. I’ve been heading down this path for the last year.

    As you went through this process if selling value and end results, did you find it also affected your design of the sites themselves? I find so many sites are designed with ego-stroking filler that adds little to the ultimate goal of getting more customers.

    Thanks again.

  • ahmedtaaw

    but what after going to a deep conversation about the process of his business and his problems, and he asked the question of “what about the technology , do you will use opensource or licensed, does the technology you will use will affect the cost, i need to know about the technology you will use because technology means cost”,

    what if he asked such questions at the end, i need some awesome answers like these articles.

  • InterwebsCat

    Great tips! I was having hard time when clients keep pestering me about WordPress being free and all.

  • Jr Dawkins

    WOW! Thank you so much for sharing! This is a simple but tragic problem that many of us face. The change in approach makes so much sense!

  • Grat post. 9 times out of 10 when I speak with a client/prospective client for Marketing Press they do not care about the technology used — they care about what problem we can solve for them. It’s our rule that we don’t talk about WordPress Development, Themes, Color Palettes or anything design related until we totally uncover why they need a new site.

    We ask questions like: What’s going on in your industry? What’s not working for you currently? What are the GOALS of the site?

    Once the client can articulate what they want the site to do — we know how to start a successful engagement.

    I totally agree — don’t talk WordPress, talk solutions. Great post.

  • Butler

    The thing is, you’re no longer just selling design & development of websites, you’re starting to sell digital/performance marketing. And you’re not alone. Pretty much every web design agency offers bolt-on (usually awful) SEO services, “social media management”, etc. that they insist on cross selling to clients, often those that don’t really want or understand it.

    It’s certainly a value add – perceived or otherwise – but I’m surprised this was the “lightening strike” you described.

  • vickytnz

    So, basically you’re doing a proper brief before you offer a solution.

  • I think this is an important distinction. If the website developer actually is good at email marketing, a content strategy, and SEO, then there’s no problem selling it. But if he’s adding it all on to make the sale, that’s not good for the customer. But he could make the sale and outsource the work he’s not good at as well.

  • I think this quote gets to the crux of the matter:

    “I always assumed that when a customer called me for a website, that the problem they are trying to solve was: getting a new website. But it’s not.”

    Whether you’re talking about building web sites or applying any other technology, it’s about understanding the problem your client is trying to solve. If we start there, we’ll always be more successful.

  • Glad you enjoyed them!

  • Alysha

    Thanks for sharing – this information has really got me thinking now, I appreciate it!

  • wazoo

    great insight and thanks for the share, I’m going to definitely keep these in mind! I’m a developer / technologist at heart, but I’m finding that the sooner I bring up technology, the quicker the prospect is whittling down the estimate…

  • Alex

    We do the opposite approach – we use all the insecure, slow, unscalable open source solutions that everyone else is selling on top of (as examples) to help us because we do NOT use them and the majority of our cusotmers do NOT want them.

  • Joel

    I work for a large, publicly held company. One major problem I have experienced is that security concerns outweigh any of the marketing or sales concerns because the IT departments are always the ones responsible for the technology piece. When outsourcing projects to 3rd party marketing agencies, the first question corp IT asks is “what platform will it be in”… and is X platform secure?” It becomes impossible for 3rd party agencies to ignore that question as it becomes the critical issue as to whether or not that agency will have the ability to perform on the contract (i.e. built a site in a platform they know how to develop for).

  • orclev

    ^ This. One of the most critical things I ever learned as a developer is to start questioning everything a client asks. It’s not enough to know what the customer thinks they want, you need to find out what the customer is trying to achieve, otherwise you end up solving the wrong problem even though you’ve done exactly what the customer asked you to do.

    It’s a useful approach any time you’re trying to figure out how to do something, even internally to your code base. A lot of time and effort can often be saved by first clearly defining *what* you’re trying to accomplish and *why*, and then figuring out how you’re going to do it. If someone comes to you and say “I’m trying to figure out how…” the very first question should be “Why do you need to do that?”.

  • Great advice and applicable to almost any product or service.

  • I’ve got a meeting with a potential client later today. I’m going to try this technique.

    Also, can you happen to share your proposal for a WordPress website? I’m curious to see what it looks like.

  • Roy

    This is a great article! Thanks for sharing!

  • Adal

    I went through the exact same story! Thanks for sharing in such fine style.

  • IIRC the quote is “People don’t want a drill, they want a hole” Sell the solution. But don’t stop with the hole; ask questions and reveal that what they really want is a new deck to host a family BBQ

  • Fantastic post! It’s natural for developers to think in terms of implementation but businesses think in terms of needs. Speaking their language and then suggesting the right solution when it is entirely understood seems to be optimal for them.

    Most businesses haven’t thought through WHY they want what they want. So forcing that conversation can only help you to really address their needs which nobody else, unless they ask those questions, can.

  • So basically, you pulled a Steve Jobs.

  • Hmmm…

  • Good connection. I think finding that deep sense of purpose in what we’re doing is important. Like, “why websites?” Sometimes we confuse demand for websites as demand for web design. At the root we are trying to help our customers get more customers. That realization for me helped me grow a very successful agency. Jobs might have been a little better at that than myself, but that method is effective.

  • Hi Aaron, Thanks a lot of the book recommendations. SPIN actually sat on the ledge of my bathroom at home and got a daily read for probably two years. Solution selling is something I learned, but I think it took me a few years to fully understand how I would implement it. My solution for a long time was, “let me build you this great website! or solution!” It took a lot of practice before I realized how deep I needed to go in the sales process. For a while I was even charging for consulting on the front side of projects because I would get so involved in a business prior to working together a project bid. That is a whole other post!

  • Great feedback Naysawn. A lot of businesses just want to check “the website box” off their todo list. But at the same time, they are upset when their website isn’t delivering the promise of new clients that they read about. Many times they come back saying things like, “I need SEO!” or “I need to be on page 1 of Google!” In reality that might not even be the right solution. Being able to assess need and find true pain is a skill, art, and mindset. It is more important than any of the technology or fashionable buzzwords.

  • And make sure you have the team in place to build that deck :)

  • No problem Adal! Excited that you were able to connect with the post.

  • My pleasure Roy – happy to inspire!

  • You are right. However, us web designers aren’t a very developed market. We’ve been around for only about 15 – 20 years at best. Most markets with sales forces that understand these concepts are very developed. Most web designers start doing web out of a passion. Many of us aren’t formally trained in selling. I have found a recent calling in trying to help web pros understand how these techniques: solution selling, etc. apply to our craft. Thanks for the feedback!

  • Brent! I loved this! This is so true and it gives me a totally new look upon sales. I have been doing sales for a Video Marketing website and I can see now what should change. We ran into the problem of offering 3000 dollars worth of product for a product that pays only 1200 as you mention above. Anyway, loved your explanation about what you ran into… It sounded very familiar and it gave me some great ideas.

  • Ben Rees

    Thanks Brent – some really great advice!

  • alexanderous

    Love how you break it down. Users would rather you take care of their problem, not have another problem (drupal vs. wordpress? how do i know?) to take care of. Thanks Brent!

  • well as far as I know it is a rule of thumb to don’t let the clients know what technical steps you’ll be doing with their project (that includes technology to use) unless they make it specific to you and say “i want that…”.

  • awesome post!

  • Awesome point Brent! Even I have had similar experience … the minute the CMS is mentioned. It becomes a CMS FAQ session!!

  • Erik Pantzar

    Good read, gonna embrace the concept and recommend ur article for others!

  • this is a great post and an excellent scripted example of dialogue. I work with hundreds of inbound agencies and my book sales sjift – how inbound marketing turned sales upside down ….. gives examples of these techniques as well, Great Job!

  • levis

    You just described a customer true need:
    “A secure website is really really important for me – to the point that I would pay more for increased security”. Just sell to that – you don’t want to tell them “it’s wordpress”, you want to tell them “I’ll meet your security needs”.

    (we’re used to think security is important for everyone, but in fact most often than not for the client it’s a “nice-to-have”, the security for them only needs to be “good enough”, and with a bar that is set pretty low).

  • I see it differently, and very much so.

    You’re correct, agency can be a burden. Like it or not, agency includes being transparent. Technology selection *is* an important decision, especially for the non-technical. You should be transparent. You should be able to help the client make the best decision for them – for today and many many days going forward. If that means you “lose” then that’s the way it is. If that bothers you, then perhaps agency isn’t the game for you?

    But to say that a lack of transparency is in the best interest of the client is an obvious violation of agency. Potentially, a better solution would have been to sell a layer of consulting services first. That is, “We start with discovery and then develop a recommendation from there.” Granted, that doesn’t work on lower budget projects. Perhaps those should be passed on anyway?

    Don’t get me wrong, I feel your pain. But weakness and lack of clarity
    in my marketing efforts would not be WP’s fault. Someone won the project for some reason. I need to figure that out. I also need to focus on finding the right clients and the best projects. Yes, I have a hammer. But not every thing is a nail. It’s OK to say, “No thanks.”

  • So you mean to say that nobody gives a rat’s patootie about how smart a geek you are, they want solutions Welcome to the real world.

  • Neil Link

    Great article! Definitely going to try this!

  • slapstickj

    An interesting post. However, at the place I work (an eCommerce web agency) people actually come to us because of the platform we build eCommerce sites on. So the strategy can work either way. You can position yourself as the premier company for building sites on “insert platform here” and you can get the same amount of sales.

  • Brett Jones

    My father is a successful medical device salesman, and he always says that the first key to great sales is being a great listener.

  • Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your comments and insights – much appreciated.

    I’m not quite sure what I am saying here is to not be transparent to your prospective customer. I don’t avoid questions when asked directly or try to cover up what kind of technology I like to build on.

    But what I keep focused on is understanding them and their customer. I agree that technology is an important decision…but kind of. I have seen really crappy solutions and really great solutions on almost every platform out there. Not only that, but I have seen great solutions on great technology squandered because there was no training or long term solution to help the business succeed.

    So yes, technology is important, but in my world it isn’t the most important thing. It isn’t even on my top 5 list. Maybe top 10 things to discuss, but not for the first few meetings.

    Sometimes I work with a customer and realize that they have bigger problems than a website can even solve (the case for many startup businesses).

    I don’t think I’m blaming WordPress for anything here. The cautionary red light I’m flashing is you need to be careful not to get distracted with the technology. WordPress has so much press that it can easily become the focal point of everything you speak with your customer about. Add on top of that the fact it is free with the proliferation of cheap templates and you will begin to strap yourself to a low-value project.

  • Thanks! Really happy that I might be able to help you earn more money on your next project bid. That is what it is all about – getting more profit for you!

  • I think my approach here works for any solution (open source, proprietary, SaaS, etc). Great to show differentiation between you and the other guys, but differentiation is a very small piece of any sale.

    You must always deliver two main ideas to a prospective customer:

    1) Quantification of benefit

    Provide real numbers to what your benefits will deliver. How many $$$, how many leads, etc.

    2) Mitigation of risk
    What are you going to do to minimize their risk. How are you going to make sure their investment in their website is not squandered.

  • I have had projects where the customer trusts me so much that we get through the entire bid without having to demo technology. But that usually is because of our reputation, portfolio, and they are looking for us to solve their problems (in a very high trust environment). Usually you will eventually have to address the tech. But what I am urging you to do, is to see how long you can push that off. Not to be evasive or misleading, but to spend your first several interactions focused 100% on who they are and who their customers are. There is a time and a place to discuss the technology, but it is not until a lot later than many of us do in the sales process.

  • Yes. Selling through this process ultimately changed our product. Surprisingly it was rather small changes. Like for instance, we stopped doing design up front in our project process. Once we had a deal, our projects kicked off with business surveys and content development. We created customer avatars, did market research, keyword research, and learned as much as we could about the business prior to starting design. Then, once we had some content developed and understood what was actually going to be on the site, who our ideal target customer was, we would start design. Getting into this type of project mindset does add more project to your jobs, but generally you are charging a lot more for your services.

  • Spot on! I think there are great looking / functioning sites on almost every platform out there. You never know what your customer knows about WP or another technology. They might have a crazy bad story about the system and immediately have some kind of unfounded discrimination against it.

  • Great! this is very good for us, we need stop talking about technology and ask more questions to get more jobs done, thanks for sharing this experience with all of us.

  • Great feedback!

    I always suggest that web pros find a platform and stick to it. So yes, even in the case where you live and breathe a specific technology, it is extremely important to downplay the tech and focus on the customers needs for your first several interactions. When you spend too much time on the tech (especially when you are a specialist), you might overlook the fact that their pain shouldn’t even be solved with the technology you are so good at, even if they are asking for that solution. I have at least a couple cases in my early days where I built a customer exactly what they asked for on the exact platform they asked for and it was a mistake. If I would have spent more time up front with them I might have avoided the debacle.

  • Great Post and not confined to web-business.

    We happen to analyse data using technologies X,Y, Z – This is irrelevant to our clients. They want to know how the outcome maps onto their motivation (needs, opportunities, risks, threats). If you can align what you provide with something on their (often undisclosed) SWOT table, you are building a strategic partnership and not staffing a shop.

  • Zack

    In most of these cases, you probably jargoned the client to death. They don’t care if you use a Dewalt drill or a Makitia….as long the the product is outstanding! I usually avoid all technology talk unless they specficily ask. And the key to great sales is beign an Asshole.

  • Hey Brent

    Pardon but I think you wrote the wrong article. What Brent meant to say was…

    1) I believe you’re saying – which I say all the time – technology is not an ends, it is only a means. A means that is only as good as your understanding of the business needs. A means that is only as effective as the overall solution being provided. If this is the case, then yes I agree, WordPress in and of itself will not cure (business) cancer.

    1.5) A twist of this, as I also like to say, “A fool with a tool is still a fool.” I agree, too many designers / developers believe that the technology is the solution. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps a better title to this post could have been: “WordPress: It’s a means, not an ends.”

    2) Re: “Instead of taking my prospects “stated needs” as absolute, I question all of them”

    There’s a best practice in consulting and sales known simply as The Five Whys. Google it. It’s also mentioned in both “Made to Stick” and “To Sell is Human”. If you’re trying to change hearts and minds then this – the idea of delivering appropriate solutions and not just technology – IS the crux of your article.

    IMHO, of course ;)

    Cheers Brent.

  • etiennes

    Business want to get more customers (and sales) was a revelation for you? How so? How stupid can you be?

  • Great Article! Was recently talking to a mentor and he was telling me things along the same lines. Become a business partner not so much a designer, developer, writer.

  • Great article thanks, we are shifting from offering small business websites to doing more work as a corporate digital marketing agency, and in doing so we are shifting our conversation more to client goals and needs and our points of differentiation, rather than the technology.

  • That’s more like it! Great post, short, to the point and sensible! heading over to uGurus now

  • These days it is definitely about selling a multi-pronged solution. It is not just about publishing a new website, it is about creating a hub for a brand that can be used as a powerful sales tool and a community space for their audience or fans.

  • That’s more or less why i stopped doing websites for others. Awesome tips though. I book marked it. I’m sure this approach can be used for practially anything you are selling.

  • Nick Venables

    Wow, this is a fantastic article. We’ve actually learned much of this through our own experience already, but what I really loved about reading this is that it strongly reinforced that we are doing it “right”. The TRUE value of a website really is the benefits…not the features. Thanks for writing this!

  • Thanks James :)

  • Definitely required in that space where more formal sales processes or prevalent. However, in the SMB space, it is highly effective.

  • Hmm…I think it was bridging the gap between clients calling for “websites” but realizing that in reality they were trying to solve a “get more customers” problem. Moving the conversation from web design to, how do we help you acquire more leads. Based on the reaction to this post, I think it is pretty common in the web space that we focus a lot of our attention on the craft and technology over what is really important to our customers. But thanks anyhow for the very condescending rhetorical. Perhaps you are a web design business savant…

  • Two ears, one mouth.

  • Jen Rieger

    i thought this really was an excellent post! thanks for the insight. i think you managed to articulate something that many of us have sensed or unconsciously realized – but having it in words allows us to share and put into practice. much appreciated.

  • Love it! Nice job Brent on getting our community focused off of widgets and onto what really matters… the customer. Cheers!

  • Kasia Świderska

    WOW. You really open my eyes now.
    I definitely have to try this approach. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Always great to see you around the internet :) Can’t wait until our shoot this coming Tuesday all about helping web designers understand pricing!

  • Great insight, stop selling technology, start selling customer attraction after all you need a customer and their business needs the same

  • Thanks for the tips.. helped a lot..

  • Web Goals matters!

    Great article … But it is very difficult to talk with my clients about setting web goals (in terms of more sales, reducing costs or build brand) instead of menus vertical or horizontal, fonts, logos left or rigtht and other things that really doens’t matter … Often people out there even don’t know how to set web goals … and you can’t even explain them, because they don’t want to listen … A lot of my clients just want to satisfy their personal needs … So I forced to move logos some pixels left, enlarge fonts, change colors, chenge apparently bad photos (all of this after a great webdesigner did an excellent work)…. The market is really ignorant … :)

  • I’m the founder of E Design Services LLC, a complete digital marketing and cloud computing company offering design, development and marketing services specially in the areas of Enterprise Mobility and Enterprise Gamification. Somehow, I use the same approach – it’s more of a business consultation where I try to dig deeper into the problem the customers are trying to solve and then provide suggestions on how to solve the problem, website being just one of the solutions, besides implementation of a back end cloud based CRM system, or a mobile business application e.t.c.

    I’ve been able to close big business using this approach – almost no one in the market does that and this is the advantage you could lean on.

    Stop “SELLING” and Start “SOLVING” and you would see the difference!

  • Ali Ghoul

    Thanks Brent for sharing this. Today I was setting up my business plan and all those questions came up to my mind. I found the needed answers. Thx again and good luck in uGurus :)

  • Vijay SR

    Stumbled upon this just now. Truth has been put up here. I face just this same problem and have been trying to figure out a solution. Thank you so much for the write up. But I have a question. What is the chance that the prospect you are talking to will buy the extra services that you are selling? The higher the estimates/quotes go up, the lesser the chance that he will buy the service, isnt it? I know it isnt always that but in most of the cases that I’ve encountered the prospects back off when the quote go beyond their budget. How did you deal with this?

  • in the end it’s all about the money. what every business wants is either to increase revenue or reduce cost. unless you’re speaking with someone from PR or marketing, they mostly spend money for the more “fluffy” stuff like awareness or experience.

    anyway, if you’re still planning to sell a specific technology, at least tell them how to achieve those things with the tech you’re offering.

  • Totally agree with your new approach!

  • Sudha

    I truly agree with this approach and it did work for me earlier. The way we show interest in clients business always attracts them and also makes us to dwell into actual requirements leading to less changes later on.

  • Marcia Coffey

    Really brilliant stuff, Brent. I read the whole thing! While it all may seem obvious, it is not because customers haven’t a clue about the internet, never mind websites which many I’ve met call it a “web page”. It’s all about communication and marketing. Always has been, in every medium.