Selling Web Design

This is a guest post Wes McDowell, graphic & web designer, The Deep End

When I think of the single biggest mistake a lot of designers make, it makes me cringe for two reasons. The first being that it opens them up to so many risks, including the prospect of never getting paid for their work. The second reason is because it is so easy to avoid.

Having worked without a contract in my early years, I got burned by several clients.

There were the ones who would gradually increase the scope of the project, while not fairly compensating me for it, and then there were those who just never paid me.

I learned on my own, the hard way, that a contract is a must. And I am here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be hard.

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Do you know why some clients consider you too expensive? Sure, it’s easy to chalk it up to them not having enough money or being too “cheap,” but that’s not what’s happening in many cases. Sometimes the number a prospective client gives you isn’t set in stone and will change for the right company.

You see, many times this number was set by one of your competitors; one that will “design” an entire website and host it for them for a ludicrously low price. What you’re experiencing here is the outcome of something Dan Ariely calls “arbitrary coherence.”

Arbitrary Coherence

This basically means that the act of making a decision (or simply considering it) will influence the way similar decisions are made in the future. Being aware of this while keeping in mind how the decision-making process works will go along way towards helping you avoid becoming a victim of low-balling competitors.

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What’s the best way to turn a bland proposal into something people will actually read?

You inject emotion into it.

Let’s see how that works. We’ll learn the simple steps you can take to put emotion to work for improved sales.

Why People Buy

People buy on emotion, they don’t buy based on facts and figures. If we bought based on stats, the only thing we ask for would be a spec sheet. We don’t. We need pictures (or videos) to look at. We ask for demos to see software in action, and demand to see prior work as proof of skill.

So while your proposal needs to let clients know you understand their problem and can solve it, you need to engage them with your words. You want to get your point across while being tactful about replacing rational words with emotional ones.

Emotion in Action

That’s great and all, but let’s make this concrete by throwing out several examples to see what this looks like.

A few rational words:

  • combat
  • sufficient
  • notion
  • construct
  • allow
  • purchase
  • excellent

And some emotional ones:

  • fight
  • idea
  • powerful
  • unique
  • successful
  • amazing
  • intense

This is a small example that I’ve lifted from the excellent book titled Web Copy That Sells. This is a very simple tactic that’ll breathe life into your proposals. I highly recommend that you read the book to improve copy on your sales website, as well as your proposals. Be warned though, what works on your sales website may not work on proposals.

Also, check out a nifty app created by Paul Galloway that can help you with those emotional words:

Get started now by filling out this example SEO proposal worksheet. Remember to include as many emotional words as possible.



“Someone who buys a commodity or a service.”

“Someone who’s under the care and the protection of another.”

There’s a huge difference here in how you treat each of these. If you’re selling a product, you typically refer to the people that make a purchase as your customers. If you provide a service, you’ll typically call them clients.

Web and Graphic Design Clients

One thing that I notice with web and graphic design companies is that while many talk about clients, very few treat them the way a client should be treated. There’s a lot of bitching and complaining about clients, and their “stupid” expectations. From what I’ve seen and heard, most of these client relationships seem more adversarial than anything else. There’s a reason why websites that bitch and complain about clients are popular.

So while many shops claim to have “clients”, few treat them as such.

What would happen if they were treated as someone “who’s under the care and protection” of the companies they’ve hired?

What if you genuinely looked out for the well being of each and every one of your clients?



Do you know how people make decisions?

Imagine you’re shopping for a new car. Now say you’re at the dealer and they tell you they have two cars within your budget that have the features you’re looking for.

“We have a Honda and a Swirt. Which one do you want to look at first?”

Chances are you’re looking at the Honda. The Swirt won’t get a test drive, much less bought. This is a very simple example of one of the tactics humans use to help make decisions.

I’ll be going over what you need to know about the decision making process and how you can use that your advantage in your proposals.

Pain saving shortcuts

It’s said the people spend almost 3/4 of their day making decisions. This process takes a large amount of mental resources. To deal with the easy ones we develop habits and routines. For others we use shortcuts that we learned early on in life to help us through the process; we tend to stick with these methods throughout our life.

There are three common techniques for making business decisions:

  • Recognition (the simplest)
  • Single-factor decision making
  • Estimating the Rate of Return


The opening to this post was a demonstration of recognition. Recognition is the easiest to explain. It basically means that the more recognizable you are to the prospect, the more likely they are to choose you.

This is part of the reason why large corporations spend millions of dollars making commercials that don’t sell you anything (think about major brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi). It’s about brand recognition.

Building your own online brand will certainly help here but let’s be realistic about things. The internet is a huge place; you’ll be lucky to make your brand recognizable to a small fraction of your target audience. So while you want to work on developing your own brand, you also want to supplement this with things people will recognize.

An effective way of doing this is by mentioning any partners or technologies that your customers will recognize in a way that helps them build that association.

Single-factor decision making

Single-factor decision making is about using one key condition the person has in mind. So for a design related project, this means a prospect may be heavily biased in a single direction. Maybe it’s the pricing they’re most concerned with. Or perhaps it’s the timeline.

This isn’t to say that if they’re worried about pricing, timeline doesn’t matter. This just means that it’s the absolute most important factor for them, everything else is secondary and negotiable.

Keep in mind that projects aren’t always driven so heavily by a single component. In that situation the person usually falls back to using a condition that worked for them in the past. So you’ll want to ask two questions to help you get inside their decision making process:

What’s the biggest concern you have with this project?
What do you typically look for in a firm for a project like this?

Rate of Return

The last one involves calculating the rate of return for their efforts. People quickly (many times unconsciously) calculate the rate of return when making a decision. If you can show that they will receive a higher rate of return with you versus your competition, you’re on the right path.

Don’t confuse this with telling them that you’re the cheapest. You want them to understand that even if you’re more expensive, their investment will pay itself back many times over. Try not to give a broad statement, be as specific as you can.

Putting it all together

While people are typically heavily weighed in one direction, they tend to use all three factors (to some degree) when making these types of decisions. Your best strategy will be to find out which one they favor the most, focus on that one, and make sure you cover the other two

Remember, the intent isn’t to be dishonest here. You simply want to present yourself and your services in a way that flows with how the person on the other end takes it all in.

Now that you’re armed with all this decision making knowledge, you’re ready to read up on the art of proposal writing.