Our responsibility as business owners is to make purchasing easy for our dream clients. If buying our services frustrates them, they will turn to someone else who offers them a more rewarding client experience. Of course we want our clients to be happy and give us a five-star rating, even just in their minds.
On the other hand, you don’t want to make it too easy for people to hire you, because you want to make sure that only the right clients get through your sales process. There’s a lot of bad clients out there, and you need to protect your business from folks who are simply not the right fit for you.
I call these two concepts—making things easier, or purposely more difficult on prospective clients—the Ramp and the Ladder. Here’s how they both work, and how to improve your client process using these methods.
A ramp is a sloped path that provides access to everyone: able-bodied people, people in wheelchairs, those using canes or walkers, or pushing prams, luggage, or gurneys... They take up a larger area, but they provide a benefit that stairs don't.
A ramp is a feature that helps your clients move forward with ease. If you find that lots of people struggle with a particular step in your process, try to come up with a way to remove barriers. This can look like implementing a particular technology, or changing your process so that you take on more work to offload your clients.
An obvious example is an appointment booking feature on your website. If you have meetings or calls with your clients, it’s much easier for both of you if you just had an availability calendar that they could click on to choose a slot, than exchanging several emails trying to find a time that works for both of you (especially if you live in different time zones). There are so many free and cheap solutions, that there’s no good reason why you wouldn’t want to do this.
Accepting credit card payments instead of cash is another way businesses make it easier on their clients, though there are fees involved so small business owners tend to avoid it. If accepting cards would result in more clients than you’re currently getting, the extra fees might be worth it. (Of course you could, and should, raise your overall prices a bit to accommodate this cost.)
Another is an example that requires a bit more effort on my part so I resisted it for a long time, but ultimately decided that having a more pleasant client experience was important enough for me to suck it up. Until last year, I used to send any prospect who inquired about my services a lengthy questionnaire that helped me learn about their business, and their branding and design needs. This was super useful, but it required a lot of time from the clients before they even settled on working with me. It worked great when we did sign a contract, but the prospects who didn’t accept my proposals must have felt it was a huge waste of time.
I listened to a podcast episode of Logo Geek where designer Melissa Yeager explained how she was doing the same thing, but then reworked her process so that she didn’t ask for so much information in advance. I already had essentially the same pieces of the process, I just had to shift things around so that I could get all the information from the clients at the most appropriate time, instead of all at once.
The result of this was a smoother process for clients where I’m more engaged in asking them questions directly, instead of sending off long questionnaires and leaving them to struggle alone. This also gave me the opportunity to recognize whether the client is the right fit, because verbal conversations offer more subtle cues than written communication alone.
How to know if you need to install a ramp?
Some signs that your client process is too challenging for your clients include:
- You’re sending too many emails back and forth that could be avoided by using an app.
- Good clients complain that a task was difficult for them.
- Clients take more time than you expect to get back to you after you give them an assignment.
- Clients you’ve done great work for, and who you wanted to keep serving, switch to different consultants.
A ladder enables people to climb against a vertical wall, which requires using all of their limbs and a degree of physical fitness. Ladders are often used in spaces with restricted access, and are not meant to be used by the general public.
In your process, a ladder is a feature that filters out clients who are not the right fit, by making them invest effort or give up. Intentionally placing obstacles that you know many people won't be willing to overcome will result in fewer, but more motivated clients.
I have a fairly easy-to-fill project inquiry form that is different from my general contact form. (I won’t link them here because I don’t want more spammers to pick up the scent, but you can easily find them yourself.) Most prospects do the correct thing, and this shows me that they both a) know exactly what kind of services I offer, and b) are aware of the general price range for my services.
However, I still get random “inquiries” via my contact form that ask for a proposal, and offer no information for me to base it on. When I get those emails, I reply asking them to fill my project inquiry form instead. So far, none of the people I’ve sent the link to had done it. It was my correct assumption that they were not the right fit, and I would’ve wasted my time if I tried to engage with them. If you're getting overwhelmed with too many inquiries from prospects that don't become paying clients, you probably need a ladder.
Last time I taught my “Design Your Client Experience” workshop, one of the participants—a business owner who manufactures custom furniture—presented a problem. People came for free consultations and the participant made detailed plans and specifications for their interior, but then these people took the specs and had the furniture manufactured by cheaper providers. So many hours wasted on onboarding, when only a fraction of those prospects become paying clients!
I suggested a solution: charging for the initial consultation and specification document. I didn’t invent this concept. There’s more useful information in this article: 3 Reasons You Should Be Roadmapping.
People who ended up buying the manufacturing service would be deducted that amount, so that the consultation was essentially “free” for them. Others could take the spec to a different provider, and everyone still received value from that arrangement. This ladder effectively prevents any tire-kickers from wasting your time, and encourages serious buyers to realize that the value you provide is not only in the “making”, but also in the “thinking”.
How to know if you need to install a ladder?
Use ladders sparingly! You don’t want to make it too hard for folks to work with you, or for great clients to fall through the cracks because they don’t fit what you think your “ideal client” should look like.
One big ladder at the very beginning of the onboarding process is usually enough to take care of your problems, such as:
- You get many inquiries and requests for free help from prospects, but very few of them accept your paid offers.
- You get many more inquiries for paid work than you can handle. (Good problem to have!)
- You find out too late that the clients who hired you were not actually ready to work with you. (Type #1 in this article.)
- Certain types of clients disrupt your process, and force you to adapt to them in ways that hurts the project outcomes. (Type #3 in this article.)
Using a ladder is not “mean”. You as an individual consultant/helping or medical professional/artist are not obligated to be there at literally everyone’s beck and call. You’re allowed to put boundaries around who you want to work with, and decide for yourself how you want to work. There’s thousands of other service providers who might be happy to take on the clients you don’t want, so the sooner you send them on their way, the better it is for everyone.
That said, be mindful of ladders that can backfire and leave you with less clients than you need.
It’s not a “one and done” thing—ramps and ladders can evolve over time
Experiment with ramps and ladders until you arrive at those that work great both for you and your dream clients. You can even ask people for their feedback on your process after you’ve completed a project, so you can improve it for your new clients. Review your client experience regularly and look for ways to improve it—the time you’ll save is totally worth the effort.
If you have any examples of ramps and ladders you’ve implemented in your business, feel free to share them in the comments. I’d love to hear how that worked for you.