Selling UX to Small Business

March 16th, 2010
Published on
March 16th, 2010

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.