How do I educate clients on the value of the thing I've specialized in?

I just had the oil changed on my car. If the mechanic had insisted that I stand on one foot 3 feet to the left of the car and repeat a mantra while he did the oil change and furthermore insisted that what he was asking me to do would cause the oil change to work 70% better, how do you think I would have responded? How would you respond to this proposal from the mechanic?

Most of us would think this was nuts. Why?

We would think it is nuts because we have a commoditized idea of what it takes to successfully change the oil on an internal combustion engine:

  1. Remove the drain plug; drain the old oil.
  2. Change the oil filter.
  3. Replace the drain plug; make darn sure it's secured.
  4. Add fresh oil; avoid underfilling or overfilling.

That's pretty much it, as far as cars go. Mechanics have a more detailed understanding of this process in terms of how much oil to use, what viscosity, what brand, etc. But the buy side of the market -- the people paying for mechanics to perform an oil change -- has a very standardized understanding of what goes into a successful oil change.

So if a mechanic insists that I stand on one foot 3 feet to the left of the car and repeat a mantra while they perform the oil change, this contradicts my understanding of what it takes to perform a successful oil change. The one-foot-standing and mantra-repeating part seems unnecessary, and possibly ridiculous to me.

When the buy side of a market thinks they know what goes into a job, it applies commoditization pressure to the work. It doesn't completely commoditize it[1], but it applies pressure that pushes it towards commoditization.

A new email list member recently said this was their number one question about their business:
"Having to do two jobs: educate buyers on the importance of website strategy and then helping them develop one."

I'd like to respond to a somewhat broader variation of this question, which often goes like this: "I want to do websites AND website strategy. How do I sell the strategy?"

Website work is starting to commoditize, both on the buy and sell side of the market for websites. The buy-side commoditization means that some folks who want to buy a custom website think they know what goes into building a good custom website.

  • Group A: A few of those people will be disastrously wrong, because they're grossly misinformed or using magical thinking.
  • Group B: Many will think of building a custom website the same way they think of buying a new car where you get to customize the trim package, color, etc. They will understand that the custom car takes longer to deliver than one already sitting on the lot, but they'll see the work using a factory/assembly-line mental model.
  • Group C: Some will think of building a custom website like building a Formula 1 racecar. They recognize they don't really know what goes into building it, but they do recognize that it's the fully customized work of specialized experts, and they recognize that the design and engineering part of the work is just as important as the building part.

If you want to sell custom websites AND website strategy, then you want buyers who think about websites like groups B and C above.

Here are 7 ideas about filtering for group B and C buyers:

Idea 1: Your process for delivering a website includes strategy+delivery, and your process simply is. You treat your process like a fact of nature, like gravity.

Make sure you tell your clients about your process early and if they push back against the strategy phase of your process, hold firm, don't negotiate, and walk away quickly but kindly if they continue to resist.

Idea 2: Don't offer website builds at all on your list of available services. Sell website strategy only. (This is a bit of me provoking you, hopefully to productive effect. "If you think website strategy is so important why don't you just sell that?")

Of course you would actually build websites too, but only for those who have recognized the value of strategy and responded to your strategy-only offer. Of course, from the wording of the question it seems that our questioner is already having some trouble selling website strategy, so I can't imagine this approach appealing to them, but who knows!?!?

Idea 3: Change the market's thinking about the role and necessity of website strategy. I realize this is sort of like saying you should invent ARM processors in order to be able to sell smartphones. It's a LOT of investment.

Idea 4: Use how you price things as a way to signal the value of the strategy phase. Ex: strategy+implementation = $30k, implementation alone = $28k + hourly overage. This signals that strategy is a risk reducer and filters for prospects who are willing to pay for risk reduction.

Idea 5: Specialize in the kind of websites where the value of strategy is self-evident to your clients. In other words, specialize in "Formula 1 racecar websites".

Idea 6: Call the strategy phase something else that has self-evident value to your prospects (ex: on content-rich websites it's the Information Architecture phase, for example).

Idea 7: From a naming perspective, absorb the strategy phase into the implementation phase so you never really talk to your prospects about a separate strategy phase. From a "what-you-actually-do" perspective, change nothing. Price the now-bundled strategy+implementation significantly higher than you'd price implementation alone.

I don't know if any of these will work for you, or which ones are most likely to, but hopefully the list of ideas gives you some stuff to experiment with.

It's generally easier to run experiments like I've suggested if you have a nice volume of leads to work with. Hopefully you do.

I hope that this article has helped you think about how you can sell more website strategy work. If you’re looking for more context and detail on specialization and positioning, then read my free guide to specialization for indie consultants.


1: For work to be completely commoditized, the buy side of the market needs to see it as highly standardized work, and the sell side needs to have scalable production and business models that allow the production of said work at high levels of quality and consistency at reasonable prices. The buy side pressure and the sell side business model availability work together to establish an equilibrium that looks like a completely commoditized market.