Open Sesame! Selling UX Services

By Maura Schreier-Fleming and Janet M. Six

Published: March 20, 2006

“If you introduce yourself using industry jargon, you quickly create confusion instead of rapport.”

For some UX professionals, selling consulting services is as difficult as opening a magic door without a secret password. There is no simple password that can magically open prospective customers’ minds so they can see what you can do for them. However, there are a few strategies you can use when opening a dialogue with new customers that will lead to your sales success.

Open Customers’ Ears by Opening Their Minds

How many times have you called a prospect and introduced yourself by saying something like, “I’m a user experience designer—or interaction designer, user experience strategist, or whatever other job title you use—with XYZ Company”? Do you actually believe most people understand what any of these titles mean or, more importantly, what someone with such a title does? When you call a prospect, you must quickly create rapport. If you introduce yourself using industry jargon, you quickly create confusion instead of rapport.

Joshua Seiden, President of 36 Partners, always tries to avoid talking about his services in the abstract. He told us, “I never tell a customer, ‘I’m an interaction designer,’ or ‘I’m a user experience professional,’ until we’ve had a chance to work together for awhile. Instead, I talk about the project and talk specifically about what I’ll do to solve the problem.”

“Build your brand so people call you rather than you calling them. Attend industry events, write articles, and generally get your name out there.”—Kim Goodwin

An introduction that explains what you can do for your customers is definitely a better strategy. You might say, “I work with companies who create [products of some type] who need [what you can do for them].” An opening like this clearly states how you can help a customer and provides an introduction that makes it easier for a prospect to listen to you.

Dirk Knemeyer, of Involution Studios, introduces himself in a way that helps prospects understand who he is and the range of services his company provides. He says, “Hi, I’m Dirk Knemeyer, a principal with Involution Studios in Silicon Valley. We are a digital product design firm, working with established companies and startups to help them bring their new or redesigned products to market.”

Kim Goodwin, VP Design and General Manager at Cooper, offers an alternative: “Build your brand so people call you rather than you calling them. Attend industry events, write articles, and generally get your name out there. Think of your customers as—what else?—personas who have concerns and goals that might differ from yours, and target your marketing at those.”

Why Should They Buy?

“If prospects have not previously worked with UX professionals and are unfamiliar with what you do, you will first have to demonstrate why your services are worth their investment and how they will make a difference to their companies’ bottom line.”

If prospects have not previously worked with UX professionals and are unfamiliar with what you do, you will first have to demonstrate why your services are worth their investment and how they will make a difference to their companies’ bottom line. Kim Goodwin cautions UX professionals, saying “We designers are idealists who think everyone should just want to make better products, but that’s not good enough for the people buying our services.” One way to show the value of your services is to quantify the value of the work you have done for other clients. Dirk Knemeyer has done just that. He told us, “We have built in proprietary methods for evaluating and validating our work, in a business sense, that has greatly increased the confidence and comfort level with business decision makers.”

Describing how he works with clients, Luke Wroblewski, Principal of LukeW Interface Designs, told us, “Designers need to explain how their solutions address business and user needs as well as how they address technical opportunities and limitations.” In his Web application design project proposals, he always includes the following statement when outlining project deliverables: “Accompanying text will be included with each set of screen designs to provide a high-level overview of the design decisions made.” By including this information in his project deliverables, Luke gives his clients an understanding of the research and the rationale behind his designs. It also forces him to rationalize and clearly explain the decisions he’s made.

“We first spend a while probing their needs and goals. We then respond to those needs and goals with a set of methods whose benefits address those needs and goals.”—Peter Merholz

It’s important to understand a prospective customers’ needs when discussing a potential consulting engagement. Peter Merholz, Director of Practice Development at Adaptive Path, described their approach: “We first spend a while probing their needs and goals. We then respond to those needs and goals with a set of methods whose benefits address those needs and goals.”

Make It Easy to Work With You

Above all, clients should find you easy to do business with. Today, being easy to work with means having quick response times to all client communications, including both voice-mail and email messages. Find out which method of communication your clients prefer. Some clients prefer that you contact them by telephone; others prefer email. Making it easy to purchase your services also includes helping your customers make the buying decision. You can illustrate selling points and increase a customer’s confidence in buying from you by showing examples of your company’s past work. When selling, Dirk Knemeyer also uses letters of reference to build confidence in his company’s work.

Luke Wroblewski makes it easy for his customers to buy by making his proposals easy to understand. His proposals are brief and use a minimum of legalese. Luke accommodates his customers’ needs by being flexible in the services he provides, so customers get to decide what services they need. He also offers flexible payment options. Customers can pay either hourly or on a project basis. He told us, “I don’t push packages on them.”

“If a customer is talking about a little problem, I offer them a little engagement—even if I can see that there might be a big problem in the wings. I figure that we’ll get to the big problem one way or another.”—Josh Seiden

Another way to make it easy for customers to buy is to offer services that fit within their financial, time, and technical constraints. Josh Seiden said, “If a customer is talking about a little problem, I offer them a little engagement—even if I can see that there might be a big problem in the wings. I figure that we’ll get to the big problem one way or another. I also try to keep my contracts very simple. But the most important thing is to do a great job and finish the project with clients who are delighted with the work. This makes it easy to be rehired and makes it easy for clients to refer work to you.”

To gain customer’s confidence and make it easy to buy, be honest about what you can and cannot do for customers. Whitney Quesenbery, Principal Consultant of Whitney Interactive Design LLC, told us, “I’m always willing to tell them when I may not be the right person or to address any seeming problems up front. Once, this led to my getting a project because they liked the forthrightness.” Making it easy to buy also means adapting to customers’ processes. Whitney added, “I’m willing to adjust how we construct a contract so that it fits into their business better. Examples include setting a fixed price (when I can) or being willing to invoice in a certain way.”

As a consultant providing UX professional services, you can shorten your sales cycles by being clear about what you can do for customers and why they should engage you. Apply your creativity to selling and close more sales.

7 Comments

Had I known my replies would have been quoted verbatim, I would have done more to copy edit them! I sound like a representative of the Department of Redundancy Department with my phrase “needs and goals.”

What’s important about our approach is that, when we first engage with a potential client, we try to talk as little as possible. It’s very easy, in a sales process, to want to demonstrate your brilliance. Don’t. Ask probing questions, uncover their underlying needs and goals, and do everything you can to avoid proposing a solution (at least, on this first call). Instead, demonstrate your appreciation of their needs by paraphrasing what you’ve heard to make sure you’ve understood them correctly.

Hi Peter — You have demonstrated that understanding clients’ needs and goals is really important to you. :-) Point well taken. You’ve also made an excellent point about the importance of reflective listening. Jumping in with a solution too soon would seem to trivialize the problem a product team is trying to solve. Usually it takes a lot of probing and listening to come to a complete understanding of a design problem.

In the past, our company has been very precise when describing our services. User testing, expert reviews, information architecture, design, etc. are all easy to explain with clear steps and clear deliverables. This makes these services easier to sell.

These days, clients are demanding more strategic, almost management-consulting type services. We are doing more and more work at the ethereal end of user experience.

This poses a quandary—how can we continue to describe what we do in an easy-to-sell way when what we do is becoming more and more “waffly”. Thoughts?

That’s a good question, Trent.

In my experience, selling something successfully means really understanding the context thoroughly. I would go through some internal exploration exercises from the standpoint of both trying to clearly understand the pain points that customers are looking to heal, and then designing a specific, productized solution that endeavours to address it. This sort of systematic approach will enable you to clearly see the problem in a strategic way and solve it. What you’ll find is that what seems ethereal and waffly now will become more concrete and clear as you begin to identify and define it with specificity. The sort of things I imagine your clients want you to help them with are every bit as concrete as the things your company has historically produced. You just need to understand them better, be more comfortable with them, then figure out a simple way to explain and sell them. Good luck!

Trent, I would encourage you to think of these other services in terms of what they do for your clients. Instead of describing the “what the service is,” which can get as you describe “waffly” for a non-expert, you should think about what the service does for your clients. What are the results you achieve? I would state the service and follow with “and what it does for clients is…” That reduces confusion and creates interest. Remember, people want to know the time. They don’t want to know how to build a watch.

Trent,

My approach is to begin an engagement with concrete tasks that can be well defined. In most cases, these are small-scale, non-strategic engagements with easy to grok outcomes. These types of initial projects begin the relationship from which more loosely defined strategic work blossoms. Once you have shared success between you and your client, they are much more open to strategic, open-ended engagements, because they have a clear picture of what success with you looks like.

So I guess my answer is use tasks that are easy to define to build enough trust so you don’t have to define the complex stuff :)

Even out of the business context, it would be better to tell someone what you do without using industry jargon or even your official job title. When someone asks me what I do, I always make the mistake by answering, “user interface designer.” To my surprise, they usually do not understand what this is. I forget that not everyone is IT-oriented or understands all the various terms common in the industry. They actually understand better when I just say “Web designer.” I need to get into the habit of just saying something like “I help to establish a growing business’s Web presence” or “I help make software easier to use through design.” Something like that…

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