Seven Ways a Website Pitch Can Go Disastrously Wrong
By Marc Carson · Thursday November 13, 2014
[Above: Fishing boat photo by Danish Wikipedia photographer Slaunger]
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The Story I hung up the phone and realized I had just lost. I had given a potential client an exact price for a new website without even discussing the details. I had caved to his demand to finish his website within two weeks, and the second of those weeks was the Christmas holiday week. Then, in a final act of complete stupidity, I had offered him a discount on my rush pricing for no reason other than that he sounded dissatisfied.
I was a rookie, through and through. I had just tried to negotiate with a calculating negotiator, and failed. A couple months later, after many discussions, I had to let the client go. This all started with my first big win-lose negotiation, which happened during a website pitch.
Below I’ve listed some common website pitch disaster situations and their solutions. And, no BS: Even the first item, below, and its solutions could have saved me hundreds of hours of trouble.
Potential Disaster 1: Nailing yourself to a price without getting enough information
“How much is this going to cost me?” is a very common question that you may hear during a website pitch. The question usually comes up without warning. And you can’t really blame anybody for asking: While some people may just be really stingy, many people just don’t think a thing like a website would fit their budget.
Here are some responses to consider:
Bad Response: Give the client (or person you’re pitching to) an exact number without establishing the scope of the work. In my experience, the people who can give an exact number after being asked, “how much is this gonna cost me” during a pitch are usually inexperienced. They are committing a sort of negotiation suicide by pegging a bundle of unknown services to a specific number. And if they are pegging a bundle of known services to a specific number, they are probably missing out on the opportunity to let the client determine what they are willing to pay.
Slightly Better Response: Give a number range rather than a number. Still a bit risky perhaps since you are anchoring yourself and picking a weaker negotiating stance by naming a number first. If you’re confident about the general cost parameters though, that’s not always a big deal. And most people will understand that you are giving a wide estimate. If you get more information later that would change the price, just tell the client about it.
Much Better Response: Give a number of ranges. The most simple example would be, “Simple barebones websites start at $. Normal business websites start at $$. Premium websites with [current hot item] features start at $$$.”
Witty Response: You can say something like “How much does a business loan cost?” or “How much does a car cost?” (Then give a ballpark or use the “no idea” method below.) One advantage to this method is that you can sometimes get an instant reaction from the client that tells you whether they really see value in what you are doing. If they say they just want a really small car, for example, there’s a good chance that they don’t know why they’d need a more costly car. If they don’t see value in what you are doing, and you are really good at what you do, it may not be a good fit. For freelancers, these are usually the “I just did it for the money” projects that you tend to regret later.
No Idea Response: Don’t reply with a number. Repeat back to the client the things you know about the project. “So, you said it was going to be a communications platform for your business, a way to communicate with your existing clients and sell them on new services, and a way to attract new clients? And it should be mobile friendly. Right?” From there, you can simply say, “I’ll build you an estimate. Did you want these other features too?” or follow up with a price range.
Potential Disaster 2: Not listening to the client’s feedback during the pitch
When a client asks a question, the question can 1) stop everything and 2) change everything. Allow that to happen. If your pitch forces you to stay rigid even when the client has given you game-changing information, your pitch was too focused.
Sometimes questions can mean, “I don’t really like what you’re proposing,” sure. So I can understand why some people really want to just finish their pitch. But many times questions mean, “I’m intrigued, and perhaps there is even more business here for you if you can help me get the answers I need.”
Before delivering your pitch, try to see how your pitch addresses the big picture. If the prospect of game-changing questions really bothers you, ask someone to roleplay the pitch with you. Ask them to give you some big-picture questions while you are delivering your pitch.
Potential Disaster 3: Giving too many answers, without stopping to think
If you are really good at what you do, you should stop to think about things. That is one of the signs of a professional—they consider every angle, think things through, and offer a solution. Practice deflecting ridiculous questions in order to give yourself breathing space. Some people will offer to pay you “right now” because they just need to fill a business requirement, and they think they get a better deal through quick, decisive negotiations. This can lead to a poorly-scoped project, a bad business relationship, or both.
Some common questions the client might ask are, “what are our options for solving this problem,” “how do we beat the competition,” or “how much time would it take us to build that new feature?”
Each of these questions demands a well-thought-out approach. If you have not thought about the answers ahead of time, do not offer best-guess answers while talking to the client in person.
If you feel like you are basically giving a response pitch without having prepared for it, stop everything. Back away from the need to fix problems immediately. Even if you have to pause and say, “I just realized I have to make a phone call,” do not let somebody walk you down the path of quick, decisive negotiation without preparation.
Potential Disaster 4: Going overboard with generosity
Here are some generous pre-pitch thoughts that can lead to disasters:
“This organization does amazing things, and people would probably say that I should do this job at a heavy discount. They might even be offended if I don’t. So I’ll give them a 50% discount.”
“This person is important to my career growth. They know it. I know it. I’m going to do the work for free.”
“This job would look incredible in my portfolio. I would do this for free, but I’ll just charge a super-low rate and I’ll be sure to get the job. The money will be nice, but it’s not necessary.”
“I’m afraid that I won’t get this job and I’ll be sad about it.”
Each one of these thoughts will lead to a pitch that is probably 1) based around cost rather than solutions to problems, and 2) very surprising, maybe even awkward, for the client.
A client once told me that after I submitted my bid for their new website, a competitor offered to do the work for 5% of the cost I had submitted. The client told this competitor they weren’t interested, and later told me that the offer seemed desperate and abnormal.
Every client deserves your best work. When you go overboard with generosity, you risk confusing the client, sending the wrong message, or possibly overworking yourself. When I talk to people who are putting themselves out of business, they all think that cheap prices were somehow supposed to keep them in business longer. These are people who have not done much research on the purposes and effects of pricing.
If you do decide to be extra-generous, you should always communicate the value you are providing to the client. Let the client know specifically how you were generous, why you were generous, and how much value your generosity represents.
If you decide to be anonymously generous, be prepared for your act of generosity to sail right over your client’s head. They probably won’t even know you did something out of the ordinary.
Potential Disaster 5: Focusing on “what the industry does” rather than “what the client needs”
This might be suprising to you, but sometimes after I win a bid, the new client will offer to let me look at all of my competitors’ proposals. Typically I’ll receive a stack of proposals, bound with various types of office supply store bindings, handed over with the idea that they might be useful to me.
They key thing I learn from reading all these proposals is this: You win if you tie your solution to the client’s problems. You lose if you tie your solution to whatever everybody else in the industry is doing. There are even bigger factors, like, “do you know the client?” but it’s always to your advantage to speak to the client’s problems.
If you base your solution on the client’s actual problems, not only does this help the client, but it also deprives your competitors (who may get to read your proposal at some point) of information that you would likely apply to other website projects. And while I generally think that your competitors are not the sharks you expect them to be, it may be helpful to understand that if you offer the same technological solution that your competitors do, your client may struggle to understand what kind of value you provide that your competitors don’t.
Getting more specific, “I offer responsive WordPress websites” is a good example of a dumb thing to say to a client that is worth working for. First, you have an opportunity to position yourself as a consultant when you choose to select technology only after considering all of the project details. Selecting a technology up front is risky—you may sound like just another junior web designer.
Second, instead of outlining your technology choices, why not spend the time telling the client what their particular organization needs to do to be successful on the web, and why? Tell them how Google PageRank can work in their favor. Tell them how design—both visual and interactive—will send marketing cues to their visitors. Explain why the web is much different now than it was five years ago, or whenever their last website project took place.
Potential Disaster 6: Being dishonest
Never, ever, lie to a client during a pitch, or at any other time. Even veteran negotiators will tell you this. It’s risky behavior that could hurt you. You will probably see these people again, even after many years pass. When you lie, you are making those relationships disposable, and you are avoiding important life experiences that help you become a happier person.
If you mess up and tell a lie, correct it as soon as possible. If you don’t know how to correct the problem without causing more problems, ask the advice of a neutral third party.
The most embarrassing part about lies is that they can be called out by anyone, at any time. If you’ve never sat with a group of annoyed colleagues and grilled an adult professional about lies that they told the group, believe me, you don’t want to see how it makes a person feel. It’s a difficult experience for everybody.
Potential Disaster 7: Not addressing disasters after they’ve occurred
If any of this has happened to you, just remember: You can still sort things out. Your disaster can still become a win-win situation.
Nothing you said to the client or boss or colleagues has to be your final word on the matter. Normal people will appreciate fairness and honesty. If you go back to a client and say, “look, I messed up, I can’t deliver this within the stated parameters—I offered too much,” what can they really say to that? Remember that clients can’t—and don’t want to—force you to do anything. If you need to renegotiate, do it. Keep in mind, of course, that your client should still benefit from the result.
50% of win-win negotiation is (surprise!) learning how to make it a win for yourself. If you are one of those people who is really hard on yourself by being overgenerous, remember that nobody benefits when you put yourself out of business. Take care of yourself, and make sure that you are benefiting from your work as much as your client is.