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Selling UX to Small Business

It’s 2010 and everyone loves usability, right? It may may look that way from our comfortable perches atop the blogosphere, but if you’ve tried to sell usability services to small businesses, you know that it can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience.

UX Comic

Illustration provided by Rachel Nabors

Usability has come a long way in the past few years—small and medium businesses (SMBs) are finally beginning to "get it," and the tools of the trade are cheaper and more accessible than ever. This should be good news for companies and consultants selling services to small businesses, but if you’ve ever tried to sell to the SMB market, you know that it’s not quite that simple. Selling entry-level services often takes a lot of education and legwork, and by the time it’s done, you may have spent so much time (and money) selling that even a "yes" ends up being a loss. It isn’t just about making the sale—it’s about finding the right projects that can lead to long-term relationships and steady work.

I. Getting the lead

Finding the right projects starts with getting the right leads. When you start out selling to small businesses, it’s easy to think of it as a numbers game. The inevitable self-delusion goes something like this:

If I can just manage to sell 100 reports this year, and I charge $750 each, I’ll make $75,000. That’s only 2 reports per week. It’ll be easy!

Your math may be right, but leads are hard to find and you can’t afford to invidually hunt down every $750 project. You also can’t waste time with prospects who string you along for months. Here are a couple of tips for getting started.

Educate the Masses

Every prospect requires some convincing, so how do you educate potential clients without eating up all of your time? Think big—there’s no reason to spend hours on the phone reciting the same message over and over when you can educate on a larger scale. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Blog on small-business topics and case studies.
  • Write a free resource, such as an e-book.
  • Speak at local events or run a free seminar.
  • Answer questions on forums, LinkedIn Q&A, etc.

Not only can you communicate to dozens or hundreds of prospects this way, but when someone finally does knock on your door, they’ll already understand what you can do for them.

Skip the Doubters

When you’re selling an entry-level product, you have to weed out bad prospects quickly. Let’s say that your $750 report takes you 10 hours to complete, on average. If you’re just getting started, making $75/hour probably sounds pretty good. What if that report takes you 20 hours to sell, though? Your paycheck just went down to $25/hour.

To put it bluntly: don’t waste your time on people who don’t get it. Most sites, even small ones, can see real benefit from usability, but consulting work is like therapy—people who don’t buy into the process probably won’t see results. They’ll fight you on price, they’ll fight you on implementation, they’ll eat up your time, and they’ll never be a long-term prospect. It’s hard to say no to cash-in-hand, but try to take a long-term view. If you smell a bad prospect, move on.

II. Closing the deal

You’ve got your foot in the door—now you’ve got to decide whether this project is a good fit (for both you and the client) and convince them to pull the trigger.

Do the Math

Let’s get something out in the open that none of us like to talk about. We UX folks like to think that there’s a certain altruism to what we do, and that’s great, but we don’t do our clients any favors when we start ignoring their financial reality. Let’s pretend that you sell a usability audit geared at small businesses for a one-time fee of $750. Now, let’s say that your prospect has a total budget of $1,000. You’ve got room to spare, right? Not so fast. After paying for your report, your client is only going to have $250 left for implementation (design and coding).

The best advice in the world is worthless if you can’t act on it. Make sure your potential client has the budget to implement and get results.

Show, Don’t Tell

When you’ve found a prospect worth putting real effort into and you’re trying to convince them of the value of usability, reciting passages from your favorite Jakob Nielsen tome probably won’t do the trick. Why not let your customer’s own users do the convincing? Seeing real users at work on a website can be eye-opening, so give them a sample:

All of these tools are either cheap or free, and they can be run without any back-end access to your prospect’s site (simply using the URL or a screenshot).

III. Starting off right

Too many people believe that the sales process ends when you sign the contract. Selling to SMBs is all about generating repeat business and word-of-mouth—doing your job well and making the client happy is critical to your future sales efforts.

Set Clear Goals

Make sure from the beginning (and even before you sign on the dotted line) that your objectives are clear. Business owners understand results, and if you can set clear goals and deliver on them, you’ll not only increase satisfaction, but you’ll save yourself time and hassle and boost the chances of turning a one-up project into a long-term customer.

Answer these questions as early as possible:

  • When will the project officially start?
  • When do you expect the project to finish?
  • What kind of deliverables will the client receive?
  • How will you communicate with the client (email, phone, in person)?
  • Are you available for follow-up after the project?

It’s natural to avoid questions you don’t want to hear the answer to, but avoiding answers that you and your new client might butt heads on only delays an inevitable problem (and usually compounds it). Make sure both sides have realistic expectations about the scope of the project from the beginning.

Stay In Touch

The conversation with any new client shouldn’t end just because you collected the check. Reach out to former clients on occasion, whether it’s a one-up message or a mass communication, like an email newsletter. Let them know what you’re working on, what new services you have to offer, and what you’ve discovered that might be useful to them. Stay relevant, and they’ll remember you when they need follow-up work or a friend asks them for a recommendation. Finally, assuming that you’ve done your job well, don’t be afraid to ask a former client for feedback or even leads. SMB owners understand that sales is difficult, and they’re usually happy to help out a fellow businessperson.

About the Author

Dr. Peter J. Meyers (AKA “Dr. Pete”) is the President of User Effect and a cognitive psychologist. For the past 12 years, Dr. Pete has harangued, harassed, and cajoled small business owners to get them to understand the benefits of usabilility.

About the Author

Dr. Peter Meyers

Dr. Peter J. Meyers (AKA "Dr. Pete") is the President of User Effect and a cognitive psychologist. For the past 12 years, Dr. Pete has harangued, harassed, and cajoled small business owners to get them to understand the benefits of usabilility.


  • Dan London Reply

    “Set Clear Goals”

    This is essential on both sides. So many people will say they want X sales from a marketing campaign, but often, the goal is not realistic. By setting realistic goals from the start, you won’t run into potentially bad situations and you get an idea of a “bad prospect” quickly if their goals are way out of line.

  • Jamie, Baymard Institute Reply

    Nice article. Saying “no” to some potential clients (the bad/annoying ones) is one of the best business decisions you can make.

    One correction to your math though: 20 hours of work to sell a $750 report doesn’t give you a $25/hour rate, it’s a $37,5/hour rate :)


    • MikeTek Reply

      “report takes you 10 hours to complete”

    • Dr. Peter Meyers Reply

      @Jamie – Sorry, that wasn’t very clear. I was saying 20 hours of sales + 10 hours to do the work = 30 hours total. Sometimes, the legwork takes longer than the project, in my experience.

  • Dr. Peter Meyers Reply

    Thanks for the comic, Rachel, and double-thanks for not making me a character in it :)

    • Rachel Nabors Reply

      You’re welcome! I actually have a cast of characters I like to use, usually with names and roles like Sabine the Creative Director, Trent the Marketing Manager, etc.

  • Maciej Reply

    Peter, these one is good. Skipping doubters is hard part of the job.

    And there can be one more case apart. SMB teams tend to make anything in-house, thus independent consultant is treated as alien invasion working against existing team and their product/site.

    The result is; personal issues takes place often in such companies.

  • MikeTek Reply

    Excellent post, Pete. This approach applies to much more than UX. Even scumbag SEO guys like me can use it!

    • Dr. Peter Meyers Reply

      Shhh… my usability friends and my SEO friends aren’t supposed to know about each other :)

      I think there are definitely similarities in selling just about any service (especially internet services) to small business. They need just as much educating about SEO as they do UX – sometimes more, if the snake-oil crowd arrived on the scene before the white-hats.

    • Andrea Reply

      I whole-heartedly agree with both you and MikeTek. Working with SMBs is a tough business and this approach can help with any sales aspect to this market.

      I think the part you mentioned about showing them a sample is also key. Small business owners want to know what they are paying for and that they are making a great investment. Education does not help if they cannot see what it is you are providing in addition to outcomes.

      Something the companies I’ve worked for in the past is allow prospects to speak with current and past customers about our services and the clients’ experiences. This has helped enhance the education factor and close deals.

      Great read!

  • Craig Tomlin Reply

    Great article Dr. Pete, as usual!

    The only thing I think might be worth noting is getting a percentage of the payment up-front. For small businesses, usability can be “out of sight, out of mind.” After delivering your results to the client, the client may “forget” to remit payment.

    Also, if they don’t want to pay a percentage up-front for you work and effort, they may fall into the “Doubter” category and potentially not be such a good prospect / client after all. Just a thought!

    • Dr. Peter Meyers Reply

      That’s a good point, Craig. We techie types tend to procrastinate on accounting, and every once in a while that ends badly. I’m guilty of it myself, so I really do my best to document payment terms, usually monthly or split into some sort of up-front/on-delivery schedule. I lay it out in the contract to avoid any surprises.

  • Jacob Reply

    Good article, but you forgot the newest, coolest usability tool

    I think the benefit of using tools like ours is that involves the clients in the usability testing process so they can see the value of the testing, and see how poor design can impact on the value of their designs.

  • Lorraine Chisholm Reply

    Great article. The 5 second tests and skip the doubters are two great directives. And as we all know, it’s pretty easy to make someone feel the pain if you show them someone else’s pain. Selling UX is all about activating those mirror neurons!

    • Jacob Reply

      Oh, and check the video on this page to see why usability testing is so important!

      Show them the pain indeed :-/

  • Pixel Air Web Design Cheshire Reply

    Great stuff. This is the kind of approach I’m constantly trying to educate clients on. Some get it but most don’t. It’s all about budget and timescales and a true UX approach undoubtedly has an impact on both these things.

  • Evan LaPointe Reply

    Am I the only one who’s disturbed by the starfish arms in the comic?

    Great post – remembering to spend time on the people who get it is tough to stick to.

  • Andy Davies Reply

    Great post Pete, really enjoyed it.

    I think setting clear realistic goals is probably one of the most important things. Over expectation from either party can lead to a real headache later down the line.

  • Brett Widmann Reply

    This is a great article. I have found it very helpful. Sometimes doing small projects with small businesses could be worth it!

  • David Brown Reply

    Thanks for sharing this amazing tutorial, really amazing and awesome.

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