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June 24, 2010

How to Satisfy Small Business Clients

A lot of us web business gurus tend to miss something important: Most money changes hands in the real world, not online. Depending on who you ask, U.S. online sales total $200-400 billion annually. Not bad, right? Sure, but the total of all transactions in the economy works out to $14 trillion or so. Online sales, impressive as they are, only account for two to three percent of the total economy at best.

Most of my clients are small businesses with fewer than 100 employees. One thing the proprietors have in common is that they do not spend much time online. Whether the client is a dentist or a pet groomer, the only thing they care about is that their online presence brings warm bodies in their doors, preferably warm bodies with credit or insurance cards at the ready.

Those of us who spend a good portion of our lives tilting the plane of cyberspace in favor of our clients’ businesses tend to lose sight of the real world. You know the one – the one you can actually smell. Conversely, our clients tend to regard cyberspace as a distraction or a frivolity because they are caught up in the day-to-day drama of running their businesses.

My clients and I live in different worlds. I actually have paying customers whom I’ve never met in person and, quite frankly, I don’t care to meet them. All I care about is that their checks clear and that they are pleased with the results of my efforts. For their part, all they care about is the influx of business that occurs after I “do my thing.”

So what is my “thing” and how do I do it? There are elements of the secret sauce that I simply will not reveal without being paid a handsome sum, but I will give you a basic sketch. In fact, I’ll give it to you step-by-step.

  1. Listen to what the client wants in the real world but tune out what they say about the web because they generally don’t know what they’re talking about. I always bring the conversation back to the real world. “So Fred, the flashy website with all the nifty widgets and gizmos sounds cool, but the ultimate goal is for the phone to ring, or perhaps I’ve misunderstood…” They know what they need in the real world, but you are the expert when it comes to web design, SEO, social media, PPC, video marketing or whatever else you’re going to do for them. The only exception to this rule is when they have a very specific business need for a web application that will streamline their operations. If a physician tells me she wants patients to be able to schedule appointments and pay their co-pays through the website, that is precisely what I give them.
  2. Talk turkey early in the game. Ask straight-away about their budget, and tell them what to expect within those constraints. If their budget is $500 a month, show them how you will generate an extra $2,000 in sales for them each month. The worst thing you can possibly do is promise them the moon if their budget will barely buy a dead Soviet satellite. A lot of times, I gain clients by offering to do a small project on a small budget so that they can get a taste of the potential before committing to a bigger campaign.
  3. Design a custom plan and never – ever – use a cookie cutter. Small business people are often visionaries. Learn as much as you can about their philosophy, their customers, their products, and their plans for the future. Build a web campaign around that. Make it about them, not you.
  4. Execute the plan. You’ve done this a thousand times. You know it will work. Now do it.
  5. Track the results. This one can be difficult. I can say with total honesty that every single client I have ever worked with has seen an increase in business within a very short time of my efforts. I can also say with honesty that they often chalk it up to coincidence. That is to their detriment when the contract period is up. It feels awful, like you’re pulling the rug out from under them. The funny thing is that they do not chalk the resulting decline in business up to coincidence and often come begging at that point. Best to avoid this, however. Track results. Show them how their increased website traffic or video views correspond to increased sales. It makes the renewal process much more pleasant for everyone involved.

This deserves an article of its own, but it needs to be said: Getting warm bodies in the door is not the same as gaining maximum exposure. SEO does no good if the site tells the wrong story. Viral content can be effective, but only if the message is clear and the target market reached. Helping small businesses is all about delivering the message that the business owner wants to deliver to the people that want to hear it.

Remember that while you and your client inhabit different worlds, one thing you do have in common is that you want the same end result. Focus on achieving that, and everyone will be happy.

Charles Linart has been helping small to medium-sized businesses optimize their web properties since 1997. His company, Evolution Media, provides full-spectrum new media markting services. He also writes a nerdy blog.