How to screw yourself when buying web development services

As a solver of marketing problems, I see more than my fair share of projects gone bad. But in terms of percentages, web projects rule the stinking pile by a vast majority. I’ve lost count of how many clients come to me with tales of wasted money, disappointment and angst because they were led down a primrose path and wound up with a site that was a digital car crash.

In almost every case, they relied on a vendor (or internal person) to advise them because they didn’t really have much expertise in this area. But to be fair, that’s why they were reaching out to someone else in the first place. I’m not saying that developers are evil bastards – they mean well but many simply don’t have the broad knowledge required to pull off a successful project. It takes more than I.T. chops to make a site that sings.

Before my development buddies show up with pitch forks and torches, let me be clear. There are people and teams who have experience in design, interfaces, content, programming, marketing, sales and business in general but they are few and far between. (You know who you are). But the reality is that these individuals are as rare as they are in demand.

The absolute worst way to find and evaluate a developer (or any service provider) is to create an RFP. Just don’t do it. If you knew everything you needed to know to create a complete RFP, you wouldn’t need a developer. I’ve never seen an RFP that wasn’t significantly ambiguous. RFP’s also reduce the conversation to price. And in the web business price is endlessly elastic. But quality is not. If ever the adage that “you get what you pay for” rings true it is in web development.

Basing a decision on price also opens you up to manipulation. Web sites are complex animals. A scope of work can be many pages long. Even small changes and request can have significant impact on fees. But many developers are experts at limiting the scope to submit a low ball bid. They know that the job will require more work and they are ready with a change order at the drop of a hat.

Bidding out web projects also doesn’t allow you to personally meet and vet candidates. In fact, the best firms will simply toss your RFP in the round file. Your gut will tell you more about a partner than any polished proposal.

A better way is to first determine what you want to accomplish with the site. Be specific. If you need some help in this area, engage a consultant to assist you in a strategic analysis of the problems, resources and opportunities. Then, reach out to your network to find out who they recommend. Ask about their experiences – did they have a strategic approach? Did they meet deadlines? Did they stick to budgets? Did they offer ideas?

Make your short list of companies and then check who their clients are. Ask for references. Talk to the references. Before you ask “how much” share with the developer your ball park budget. You don’t have to lift your skirt – just give them a sense of what you are thinking in terms of investment. I’ve had people go on and on about the site they want to build and then I find out their budget is $500.00. Great. You wasted your time and mine.

In many cases, however, you may not know what a reasonable budget is. The solution is to choose the best candidate from your short list and have them create a functional specification and a creative brief. If they don’t know what you are talking about, move to the next name on the list. Pay them for these documents – not only will they require much time and expertise, they will be invaluable to you as you implement your new site. Part of these specifications is determining the right budget for production. Exactly.

Approaching the process as outlined above will save you significant money and headaches. Even better, you’ll get what you want: an effective web site that will serve your business for a number of years. Even better than that, you’ll be among the proud few who didn’t screw themselves.

If you are thinking of revamping your web site, first contact me. I’ll help you navigate the process, find the right people and ensure you have a fantastic experience and ROI.


2 Responses to “How to screw yourself when buying web development services”

  1. August 26, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    RFPs are a great way to find vendors for your web development projects, and I say that as the owner of the boutique web development firm and as a firm that has helped organizations through the RFP process (oh, and we also own the RFP Database at http://www.rfpdb.com).

    The problem that I think you are running into is that you are taking poorly written RFPs as the de facto, when they are in fact the minority. And yes, it’s true that some organizations treat their web development project as a commodity and only judge it on price but again, that’s the small minority. I’d actually say that MOST are about as interested in your design work as they are in your pricing (so long as they can afford it).

    Issuing a decent RFP for web development isn’t all that hard and for your readers here are a few quick articles:

    “How to select the right web design and web development firm”

    “6 steps to writing a better Request for Proposals, a primer”

    and two for the author…

    “Don’t squander a great opportunity in the form of a bad RFP”

    “Not all Requests for Proposals are worth a proposal”



  2. 2 pmonfre
    September 7, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Thanks for the comment. My issue is that RFP’s attempt to level the playing field by eliminating input on the solution. I don’t want a level playing field. It’s like going to the doctor and saying “I have a headache. I want you to cut off my leg, remove my spleen and give me a gastic bypass – how much?” If clients knew the answers, they wouldn’t need us. Now, this might not apply if you are just doing development – building to the client’s spec. In that case, you might not care if the solution is the RIGHT one for the client.

    Over my couple of decades, the vast majority of RFP’s were ill conceived, incomplete and incoherent. The good ones were obviously created by a competing firm and were rigged so that firm wins. Not just in web dev but in construction and any industry that uses an RFP process. I think it works great if you are buying office furniture, computer chips, paper clips or other standardized products. But if I compare the amount of time and resources RFP’s require (do they really need my financials for the last five years?) to the win rate, I’ll take a well thought out sales process, strong relationships based on trust and personal interaction over an RFP any day. Even design work is a commodity. Clients know they can get pretty pictures anywhere.

    A better approach would be to issue a Request for Qualifications. Anyone can game an RFP – but qualifications are hard to fake. And a point of clarifications – I don’t take RFP’s anymore and haven’t for years. I file them in the round file.

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Who is Pete Monfre

CLICK HERE to visit my web site

I'm a serial entrepreneur, marketing and media guy, raconteur, writer, producer and consultant. I write this little blog to help you unravel the mysteries of marketing and selling, to expose the silliness that masquerades as marketing and help you make better decisions that will grow your business. And I have fun with it. Why not comment? That way we can have a conversation. Or better yet, hop on over to my web site and drop me a line.

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