I should probably start this post off with why you should even listen to me in the first place.
I’m not a developer. I’m not a designer. Without a solid template to start with, I’m basically dead in the water. So this is an advanced request for forgiveness if I use any terminology wrong.
I am though, a client.
- I’ve worked with developers to build and improve everything from a basic WordPress template to a Drupal shopping site (built from the ground up) that allowed individual merchants to log in and manage their own accounts.
- I’ve spent thousands on my own sites.
- One of my favorite indie business buddies is a web designer I’ve loved working with and talking business with for years.
- I’ve been scammed.
- I talk web development and design with almost all my clients since my work as a content strategist folds into it.
- I’ve been sold design and development services really badly for quite a few years.
Alright…so here’s the thing. I think web designers and developers have one of the worst up-hill battles of any freelance skill set.
From MDs to CPAs, to PMPs and Six Sigma Blackbelts, lots of other freelancers have certifications and credentials that most people get at some level. Even writers and content marketers, while we might not have a ton of standardized certifications, people generally understand what writing is and have probably done a little of it themselves.
The world of design and dev is different.
Not only do most people not understand what you do, they’re also super-familiar with their own web experiences. That means they can have a ton of ideas, and none at the same time.
Then you’ve got the wide range of skill levels, specializations, languages…and that doesn’t even touch on the fact that quite a few clients have been, or feel like they’ve been dealt with unfairly in the past.
You have a LONG way to go to build trust, so I want to spend a little time sharing my perspective on what I’ve seen swing the trust pendulum.
Ask Good Questions…a LOT of them
One of my first web business ideas involved a site that made shopping easier for martial artists. I thought it would make me a ton of money. (Spoiler. It didn’t.)
After being ghosted (after paying of course) by a shady company out of I-don’t-even-know-where, and quotes ranging from $500 to $50K, I ended up with a developer who ran a firm pretty close to where I live.
I will never forget that our first official call lasted almost 2 hours, and it was basically him vetting my business idea inside and out. (Hey Steven! …yes, he reads this blog and we still talk about our projects and businesses.)
The thing is, he interviewed me to see if I were worth his time, whether I’d thought my idea out, and so he could better understand what I was trying to do.
The questions were painful, but they made me think out things in my business that I’d never considered. You know what else though? After that interview, he’d won my trust hands down. Nobody else, not even the dude with the $50K quote had done that, and it was one of the main reasons I moved forward with him (after he decided to move forward with me.)
I suggest everyone work with a client interview template. BlackFreelance has a simple one here and I suggest using this, or one specific to web design to build out your own as you grow.
Do Your Research
So like I mentioned, I get designers and developers approaching me via social and email all…the time about making improvements to the BlackFreelance site. Most though, miss the absolute basics of what goes on here.
I’ve only recently removed the name of the platform this site is built on (Rainmaker), but even when it was up, not once did anyone approach me and say, “Hey, I noticed you’re using Rainmaker.”
This site is also obviously content heavy. It also only takes a click or two to see that it involves digital products and that it’s a membership site. Even a quick trip through BuiltWith would provide a conversation-starter that says “hey, I get something about your site.”
I’ve never had anyone approach me referencing any of those things. I’ve also never replied to anyone who’s cold contacted me, and that’s exactly why.
This is one of those basic rules of cold contacting or even warm email prospecting. Just one little piece of information that says “Hey, I took a second to consider how I might be able to help you” can go miles in establishing trust, so don’t skip this step.
Focus on Business
Alright…so that two-hour interview I mentioned. Do you think we talked languages, or platforms, or plugins?
Nope. We talked business.
I knew way less about websites than I do now (which still isn’t a lot), and aside from explaining why he recommended Drupal, I don’t remember coming across one term that I didn’t understand. That sold me.
That’s because I, like most clients, didn’t care.
A site, whether it’s just a couple pages or a fully functional patient portal that integrates with an EHR, is a business tool. Most clients aren’t concerned with what’s going on behind the scenes as long as the tool serves its business function.
Know that this isn’t just my opinion though. I just downloaded an e-book from a business coach who focuses on consultants. When it came to discussing websites, this was their advice…
“If you choose to outsource, look for a web developer that has digital marketing, design, and analytical expertise, not just programming.”
Your programming and design skills are great, but they ultimately won’t be why most people choose to work with you.
This really goes back to the value conversation because skills aren’t what clients value, results are. If you think I’m telling you to study something else, I kinda am.
Whoever your clients are, you need to have an understanding of their business. That might mean you need to spend more time with Shopify vendors, or internet entrepreneurs, or even barbershop owners. You might need to add some new podcasts to your mix or jump on a couple of business books. Whatever you do, never underestimate how far simply understanding a few terms and challenges can go to build trust.
Specialize in Something (Other Than a Language)
Speaking of understanding, it’s a lot easier if you’re focused on a niche.
Developers have skill set-specific challenges to navigate here. Especially for back end devs, employment background matters. A few years (5-10) experience can go a long way in building trust and getting your foot in the door with companies who pay better. (Check out this Twitter convo for more insight.)
But in general, the business that your work is going to be a part of — the marketing, design, UX, the analytics — all will end up bumping up against the concerns that are particular to a certain corner of the business world.
I spend a lot of time around here telling people to focus on a niche. A big reason for that is that it just makes life easier. Sure, you can try to learn the ins-and-outs of 27 different niches. That’s a lot of work though, and it’s easier to specialize in a way that builds trust if you focus yourself and your skill development.
Developers have some really interesting options here.
Specializing in specific business challenges can help you stand out and sell yourself as an expert freelancer who can guide individuals and organizations through some of the toughest times in their work. For example, you can focus on
- Content marketing platforms
- Membership sites
- Distributed teams
Any of these, on top of the usual niche dimensions, can work. From what I’ve seen (and again, I’m not a developer, I just work with people who tend to hire designers and developers), specializing in a language only seems to come into play when you’re coming on as part of an existing team. That’s important for freelancers to understand too but know which perspective you’re dealing with.
Educate Your Clients
I need to say this again. Clients don’t get what you do. They don’t get why you do it. For the most part, they don’t get how your work is different than a free WordPress template or Wix site. That’s frustrating, but it’s also an opportunity.
You don’t need to teach your potential clients how to build a site, but you do need to be able to educate them on how their design and development choices impact their business decisions.
Website design and functionality can make a MASSIVE difference in the effectiveness of content marketing and e-commerce efforts. Still, if we’re honest, most people don’t get why, how, or how they can turn that dynamic in their favor.
You know though, and taking the time to explain, even in short, client-centered blogs, can do a ton of heavy lifting in getting over that trust hurdle.
On a side note, if you don’t already, this is a good chance to partner with content marketers. They’ll be in close touch with the buyer perspectives you’re looking for and are a good freelance referral relationship to have in general.
I usually keep things pretty skill-agnostic around here, so if you’re looking for a developer-centric freelance site, check out Brennan Dunn’s work. Stick around though. I’m going to be talking more about value, mindset, and understanding where your work actually fits in the world of business, so if you haven’t already, sign up for the free newsletter.