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Web Devs: How do you help customers figure out what they want?

One of my subscribers recently asked me a great question and I wanted to share my answer with you.

How do you guide customers into figuring out what they want?

As many newbies do I am building websites for friends and family, who simply want something built and then after spending hours and hours on it, decide they want to go a different route. In short, the trial and error method doesn’t work. Here are the other methods I’ve tried that

1. Pick three websites that you like and tell me why.
2. Pick 2 color and two pictures that you think fit your organization’s personality.
3. Pick two studio press demo sites that strike you and compare + contrast.

I know I struggled with this same scenario and I’m guessing others have, too. In this post, I’ll share what’s worked for me and how you can apply it to your freelance business.

First, consider how you think about yourself.

There are a bajillion people who can build a WordPress website. While the quality of the end product may vary, the fact is it’s a commoditized service. Clients are looking to get the best they can for the least amount of money. There’s nothing wrong with that (I do it!) but there will always be someone who’ll do what you do, but cheaper.

Don't compete on price. There will always be someone who'll do what you do, but cheaper. Share on X

What’s a freelance web developer to do?

You stand out by presenting yourself as a partner to your clients, not just another vendor. What do I mean by that?

Well, a partner is interested in helping her clients succeed in their business. A partner seeks to understand the problems of a client and how technology could help solve those problems. A partner helps her client think about outcomes instead of software. Those are the things a client wants.

Vendors simply sell. Think about a vending machine: You put money in and a product pops out. Vendors are necessary to do business, but when it comes to building a website, clients prefer a partner.

But Carrie, I’m talking about family and friends here…

I get it – if you’re new to the business you may be doing free (or low-priced) work for friends and family as you build your portfolio. There is NOTHING wrong with that. But just because they’re not “real clients” doesn’t mean you can’t practice on them as if they were. 🙂

So, if you’re at the point where you’re building a portfolio of sites to launch your web design business, treat the tips that follow as opportunities to help sharpen your skills before you move on to paid projects.

5 Tips to Help Customers Figure out What they Want

5 Tips to Help Your Website Customers Figure out What they Want Share on X

1. Ask their budget

Before you can do anything else, you need to know what sort of budget your client is working with.

This is not a rude question, so don’t be scared of asking it. If I’m going to a car lot, the salesman will ask my budget – that’s not rude, he’s simply trying to point me toward cars that are within (or just out of – ha!) my budget.

Getting this data from a (potential) customer early on helps filter clients for you. For example, if your minimum project engagement is $2000 and someone’s budget is $1000, it doesn’t matter what their requirements are – you’re not right for them.

Whatever the budget is (assuming it meets your minimum engagement), the solutions you offer need to be fit within that budget. If a client only has $750 to spend, you can point them to some off-the-shelf themes or maybe a service like StudioPress Sites. On the other hand, if your client has a $10,000 budget then you can deliver a lot of customized work.

As a partner, your job is to help your client spend their money in the best possible way and you can’t do that unless you understand the budget you’re working with.

By the way – If talking about money with clients makes your armpits go sweaty, I’ve got a free guide you can download specifically on the topic.

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Book cover for Money Talk - 5 Tips to help you speak confidentally to your clients about cash.

2. Ask Why (and then keep asking)

Vending machines don’t ask why.

You want a candy bar? Put in a dollar and you get whatever candy bar you want. If you have a peanut allergy, it won’t stop you from accidentally buying a Snickers. If you’re a diabetic, it won’t suggest the best snack option for your low blood sugar.

It’s just there to take your money in exchange for the candy bar.

But you’re not a vending machine spitting out websites in exchange for cash! You’re a partner. And partners ask why.

  • Why do you need a website?
  • Why do you need this now instead of last year or next quarter?
  • Why do you think feature X will make a difference?

Keep asking your client why to get to the root of their problems (and realize it might be a different problem than they originally thought). Once you help unearth the real problem that needs solving, you can suggest the best candy bar solutions to meet their needs.

That’s a different ballgame from asking a client to “pick three websites that you like and tell me why.” I used this tactic early in my career, but I’ve learned there’s a better way. Help focus your client on solving problems, not aesthetics.

I know that’s difficult because ultimately a website is visual and the design part is what’s sexy to a client. The design is an important part of the process, but it shouldn’t be the initial focus.

3. Understand what your client does

Let’s address the second method my subscriber has tried:

“Pick 2 colors and two pictures that you think fit your organization’s personality.”

In this approach, he’s trying to get an understanding and feel for the organization. That’s a good think, but there are more effective questions you can ask. Things like:

  • What’s your primary product or service?
  • Who’s your target market?
  • How do most of your customer’s find you?
  • What have you already tried online (what worked and what didn’t)?
  • Who are your competitors?

Those aren’t the only questions, of course, but the idea here is to ask questions that give you insight into your client’s business. This is similar to the “why”, but gives you a broader context for understanding their problems.

4. Limit the options

In my WordCamp talk about “decisions, not options” I discussed how too many choices leads to indecision (or less-confident decisions).

For example, is it easier to choose a typeface if you have a hundred to choose from or two? Can you make a quicker decision about your preferred color if you’re looking at an entire Pantone library or a handful of swatches?

My subscriber who asked the question was already on the right track in terms of trying to narrow things down, but we can do better by filtering the options.

“Pick two studio press demo sites that strike you and compare + contrast.”

By now you already have some good ideas about the options that best address both your client’s problems and their budget. In this example, instead of asking them to choose two StudioPress themes from a huge library of themes, send them links to the two you think would suit them best. Additionally, tell them why you think those two themes would work for them.

I used to take this same approach, but at one point I realized I was wasting my client’s time asking them to go look through a variety of options and pick out a couple. I learned that presenting a thoughtful, curated set of options was a more efficient way of reaching a decision point.

Your clients aren’t web developers – that’s why they hired you. Don’t ask them to make decisions based on areas that aren’t in their wheelhouse (i.e. browsing a theme shop). Lead them down a path that helps them make the best decision possible.

5. Stand your ground

I touched on it in the last tip, but people hire you because you’re a professional. Act like you are one. 🙂

You will inevitably make suggestions that your customer simply doesn’t like. That’s both expected and okay. There are times, however, you’ll want to “defend” your suggestions and decisions.

I’m not saying be argumentative, unyielding, or a know-it-all jerk. Of course not. But your suggestions are not out of thin air, they’re based on a combination of expertise in your field and what you’ve discovered about what your client needs.

If a disconnect happens along the way and your client is wanting to shift gears or maybe focus on details that don’t really matter, you can either:

  1. say “sure” and do whatever they ask (vending machine)
  2. say “okay, we can do that, but considering our conversation about _____ and what you told me about _____, I don’t think _____ is the best use your budget.” (partner)

I realize that things are not always so black and white in client relationships, but the point is to offer confident, fact-based solutions to your customer and be ready to stand behind them. Add to this a touch of grace, realizing you might not be right. 🙂

I don’t want to be a vending machine

Clients aren’t always looking for a partner. Sometimes they simply need a vending machine. Nothing wrong with that, but those are not people (or projects) I want to work with.

Do clients want you to be a vending machine but that’s not what you want? It’s your responsibility to find clients that are a better match. It takes a little soul digging, but it’s worth it.

Sometimes you have to say “yes” to projects you don’t want due to cash flow, but eventually, you should get more selective about clients. There’s tremendous satisfaction in knowing that you’ve helped make someone’s life or business better because of your work for them.

5 thoughts on “Web Devs: How do you help customers figure out what they want?”

  1. Thank you for providing a different perspective. I’m pretty good at being a partner to my long-term clients, but sometimes lean more towards vendor mode with new prospects. I’ll be rethinking my approach going forward based on your suggestions.

  2. Thanks for these tips, Carrie. I agree that standing your ground based on your expertise is important for personal and professional integrity.

  3. Thanks Carrie,

    “Stand your ground” is definitely the hardest when you know what your client should be doing online but they just don’t get it or want it. Getting better clients helps but its tough when starting out …

    1. Hey Sean, even in that case I think it’s still okay to state your professional opinion. If a client ignores that and asks you to do XYZ anyway, then you do it and finish the project. And then you know that’s probably not a client you want to continue to work with in the future. 🙂

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