Keep clients and foster trust by downselling

A few days ago, I met with a prospective client, and during the course of our discussion I found myself repeatedly trying to convince them to abandon many of the plans they had for their new website.

The client had some interesting ideas: a new e-commerce system, a custom video upload tool, and a mobile app, among others. But due to their needs and circumstances, these ideas would have been profitable only to my company, without much benefit to them. I explained this, and advised them that we should focus on what they really need: A redesign, a better CMS, and some important SEO improvements.

Although upselling is a proven strategy for maximizing sales, I have found that in many cases, “downselling” leads to a better long-term relationship between the designer and the client. This holds true especially with small businesses who are more likely to have limited resources, in terms of both money and time. The features that I most often advise clients against implementing are the ones that require a lot of one or both; these typically include:

  • Blogs. When a client asks about adding a blog to their site, it’s usually wise to ask them what they plan to write about, how often the blog will be updated, and whether they have someone on staff who is able and willing to set aside the time necessary to do the writing. I’ve seen too many blogs go dormant, usually because the client was too busy to take on such a significant new responsibility.
  • Shopping carts. For companies that sell products at a physical location, it usually makes sense to sell online as well. For those that don’t, it’s not always as simple. Many organizations are better off with a simple order form rather than a complete shopping cart, while others can benefit from partnering with a distributor or manufacturer for order fulfillment. When a client inquires about a shopping cart, I try to find out what their expected sales volume will be, whether they have a plan and budget for advertising and SEO, and if they are capable of actually fulfilling the orders they receive. In many cases, it’s best to start small and expand as sales grow.
  • Content management systems. I have a rule of thumb: If a website (or a particular part of it) isn’t getting updated at least twice a year, a content management tool is probably not necessary. It’s usually cheaper and easier for the client to have you (or a trained employee) update the site manually.
  • Social media marketing. If a client doesn’t understand Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, or does not have the time to actively participate in social media, it might not be worthwhile to have anything more than a basic presence on those sites—for now.

It’s important to point out that there’s nothing inherently wrong with blogs, social media, or anything else mentioned above. They are incredibly useful tools, but they’re not for everyone, and part of your job as a designer is to assist clients in determining whether a particular marketing investment is right for them. In addition to the moral obligation of being honest, this can have a variety of benefits:

  • Trust. By showing clients that you are willing to give up an easy sale for their benefit, you are demonstrating that you have their best interests in mind. It’s a simple but effective way to set yourself apart from other designers, especially those who could potentially lead the client astray.
  • Client satisfaction. If a client develops buyer’s remorse because they spent money on something they didn’t need, it probably won’t matter whether you did a good job for them. In many cases, they will seek a new approach or perspective, and that often starts with a new designer. On the other hand, if you help a client avoid wasting their money, they will appreciate you all the more.
  • A more productive relationship. If you implement a solution that isn’t fully utilized, understood, and necessary, expect to spend more time discussing the client’s questions and complaints, as opposed to talking about the next step in their marketing plan or website expansion.
  • Greater long-term profit. By helping clients avoid bad spending decisions, they’re more likely to continue working with you, and they’re also more likely to be in a position to pay your future invoices promptly.

Of course, there’s a difference between steering your client in the right direction, and simply shooting down ideas with little explanation or courtesy. Although some clients are stubborn, and others know exactly what they want and why, the majority will appreciate (and perhaps expect) some occasional negative feedback, regardless of their final decision.