Have you ever been approached by a new client or received a Marketplace referral from someone who can’t tell you what they want? Someone who thinks they need a website—because it’s 2020 and that’s what people do? Someone whose hunch is right but can’t find the way to express their goals for the new website clearly, nor describe their business in simple, accurate terms to you, the potential designer, and to the customers, they plan to attract? I suspect your answer is yes—this has happened to each of us professionally at least once or twice. It happens to me all the time.
My business—Web Design by Dena Testa Bray—specializes in working with small businesses ready to grow. The clients I work with tend to be people who are brilliant at their craft. Whether she's a tailor who’s worked from home but now is planning to open a shop, or an acupuncturist who’s decided to expand his practice by adding a new office, or an interior designer who needs a portfolio to show potential clients—these people tend to have one thing in common. They don’t have a clear way of describing their business, telling their story to me in order to create the website, let alone envisioning how their story will translate into what is a new medium, a new language to them. Creating a website and using it effectively is as foreign to them as traveling to a new country without a map or being lost in the woods.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my job is to be more than a designer. My job is to help people tell their stories and to show them how that story can best be told through their web presence. To do this, I bring some skills to the project from two former careers that are part of my story. I was a psychotherapist for many years and I also ran a cooking school for home cooks. (There are more, but I won’t bore you with the rest. These are the ones that count.) As a therapist, people came to me hoping to solve a problem. I had to work to gain their trust enough for them to be able to clearly define what it was that was causing their distress, and put their problem in the context of a fuller life-story. For a number of reasons, many clients found this difficult to do. As a cooking instructor, some of my students came to class out of a sense of failure. What I viewed as a creative way to nurture oneself and one’s family, others saw as a performance each day. They thought their cooking was no good. The reviews of their food were poor, and they were mortified. Again, I had to work to gain these peoples’ trust—to assure them that there would be no failures in my classes. We would work together to hone their skills to create food that was unique to their tastes, sensibilities, and often cultural background— food that would tell their story.
So, how do you accomplish this if you're not a trained therapist or experienced teacher? How do you move away from your computer and all the skills you’ve developed on the web over the years, to engage clients, to help them tell their story? Here are ten tips that have worked for me:
Listen. While this may seem obvious, it can be difficult to do when you have a busy day and you want to get on with things. Listen not only to what it is people say they want but also listen to how they say it. If they're faltering at answering your questions via email or on an intake form you have on your website, ask them how they feel most comfortable getting their ideas across. Set up a phone call or a Zoom session if that will make it easier.
Speak their language. We’re all accustomed to terms like custom domain and hosting service. It’s easy to forget that some people don’t know what those words mean. Break the terms down into everyday-language like the address for their website or the place (Wix) where their website will live on the internet.
Acknowledge their ideas even if they seem off base. Take the tailor for instance; she may not know how much she wants to charge for her services yet, but she leaps into the idea of creating videos on her website to show her talents. Suggest that this might be something we want to add later after she’s become more comfortable with the notion of having to know and express the basics of her business. She can become a YouTube star another time.
Turn what they perceive as failures into successes. This is especially important for new clients who have tried to build a website on their own but realized this was not in their skill set. Ask to see what they’ve done. Talk about what they like about what they’ve done, what they hope will be better when you work together. Find something you like and praise them for it. As a cooking instructor, I would have people bring me food they made—dishes they thought turned out poorly. While this required certain bravery on their part and mine, we’d break things down together. We’d see and taste what was good about their jello mold filled with pistachio nuts, maraschino cherries, and cottage cheese (often just the green color) and then explore how to make things better, or even different. Perhaps skipping the jello and using freshly squeezed lime juice over ricotta cheese tossed with a bit of pure honey, could be a better way to get compliments on their dessert. And simpler to make.
Set up clear expectations, limitations, and boundaries. Start with a contract, be clear about your own limitations, and always set out a clear work plan that shows what is expected of the client and what you will do. It’s ok to let clients know you are not available during certain times of the day or even on your vacation (where you cleverly have made sure you didn’t have access to high-speed internet. That part can be your little secret).
Include training and support as part of your work and make sure clients know this from the outset, even if they didn’t specifically request it. This is especially important to clients who want to manage their sites on their own but are new to the internet.
Show genuine interest in their work even if it is not something you would have ever thought you’d want to know about. People will tell their stories, collaborate with, and give information to a designer who shows genuine interest in who they are and what they want to offer. I never thought I could genuinely be interested in foot surgeries or cardiology techniques, but these physicians have become some of my favorite clients.
While your work is personal, along with theirs, don’t take things personally and be willing to accept feedback without letting your ego get in the way. This is one thing that I’ve found the most difficult challenge from time to time. I know what a good website looks like, I know how it is supposed to function, but if the client wants me to change the color scheme to hot pink and orange from the muted greys and golden hues I selected, the color scheme changes. If the client wants her contact information in a place hard to find, I suggest differently, but she’s the boss. The information goes where she wants it on the website. (And, there’s the chance that after the site’s been live for a while, she’ll come back to you to say you were right. Please put things in their proper place.)
Create your own recipe for success. Know what tools and ingredients you can bring to the project that other designers might not be able to do and tell your client about them. By being able to explain your business, who you are professionally, and certain choices you’ve made, you’re modeling what you need from the client. People often want to know why I gave my business my name instead of something catchier. It’s because I want people to know from the outset that I’m a solo entrepreneur and what they get is me. I live in a small town. People here are more likely to find me by my name since they heard it at the PTO or yoga class, rather than a business name they don’t recognize out of context. And be sure to let people know what you can’t do. If you’re not a coder, like me, make sure people know that if that’s what they’re looking for. Refer them to a designer better suited to their needs or subcontract with their permission.
Bring joy and humor to the process. Again, this may seem obvious. But if clients see how much you enjoy what you do, how invested you are in their success, they’ll know that you’re the one to help tell their story. And humor is always a key ingredient to get people to relax and enjoy your work together.
While this may seem like a lot in addition to everything else you do, most of my suggestions are a part of your everyday life. You build successful, trusting relationships all the time. You listen to your children and colleagues. You say yes when you can and no when it’s appropriate. You love your work. This is all a part of who you are.
On my website I let people know some things that serve me well in this process. You can find this is on my About Page:
“Building a business is hard work. Creating a website to represent your business can be overwhelming. It takes a clear vision and willingness to put yourself and your products online.
Web design is more than building the perfect website. It's a fluid and personal way to express the individuality and goals of a business. Whether you choose to keep it simple or make a splash, your website should tell the story of your business, who you are, and what you have to offer.
My favorite part of the process is collaborating with you.
There's a moment during the project when you will move from anxious to excited. This is the moment I look forward to the most.”
This is part of my story, part of my success. I hope my thoughts here contribute to your recipes for success, as well.
Be in touch. Find me. I look forward to hearing from you. I want to hear your story.