Waving Red.

I recently read an article in SMPS’s publication Marketer, about the 10 red flags to notice when hiring a web design firm. (You can download a pdf of the entire publication.) I totally agree with most of the red blags, eight of them in fact. I appreciate an article like this because it helps my firm stand out from those firms out there that are cheating clients and tempting them with low prices that only come with poor results or work change requests.

The two red flags that I have concern about are grey areas really. I understand where he is coming from, but I think the viewpoint is too much Us vs Them. When we work with a client, we use the word “we” meaning “client+us” and many times we take a partnership role with our clients. The more we help our clients succeed, the more we succeed with reoccurring business, better relationships, and referrals from clients.

  • They ask you to pay for something that has already been developed.
    I totally agree that is unethical and my firm only does custom work and we stand behind the development process. I agree that is a system or database is created for one client that they should not resell it to another client for the same costs.
    However, some web firms develop complex custom solutions to offer their clients because an off-the-shelf product does not exist. Our parent company is in the planning stages of a Content Management System (CMS), online payment and membership database system that they can offer to non-profits and associations for a low cost. The initial investment on our end is between $35,000-$50,000 of work. We are looking at offering it to our clients for $5,000 in hopes that we can get 10-15 future clients to cover our costs.
  • The procurement method is sole source. The author suggests creating an RFP to get the most bids possible for a project. I totally disagree with this method because the better companies generally do not respond to RFPs. In my 9 years at this firm, we’ve done 3 RFPS including 2 in recent months.
    I agree that you should interview 2-3 firms for your project and get their proposals, but many times an RFP does not cover everything you want, takes too long to engage, and does not allow the firm to help you. Many times I’ve met with a client that wants one thing, but after asking why and how it will be used, it is not the right system and we have a much cheaper solution. RFPs in the design & marketing arena do not allow firms to be flexible especially in the A/E/C markets because your own RFPs are so black-and-white many times. You can get disqualified from an RFP for suggesting an alternative to the work.

The red flags that I agree with include:

  • They don’t ask the most important question, “What are you trying to accomplish?” A firm with experience getting results asks more than just your favorite colors.
  • The proposal contains ambiguous language. After years of refinement, our proposals detail out the project scope without stifling our design team. This protects us and the client by making sure everyone knows the expectations and has a document to fall back on to if needed.
  • The project scope is not clearly defined. The proposal does not need to be a 10-page thesis, but it needs to cover the bases and make sure it includes your needs. If you need file upload functionality, password-protected areas or other needs. Again, this protects the client to ensure they get what they want and need, but it also protects the design firm from a client that keeps adding to the project. In the end, you own the design, not the editing capabilities. We do have exceptions to this especially when we work with internal marketing departments that maintain their own websites and marketing materials.
  • They should have done it the first time around. You can not know this until you engage, but checking references can be the telltale sign. The author states that if a design company does not do part of the contract the first time, you as the client, should not have to pay to fix the problem. I could not agree more and this again goes back to the project scope.
  • You don’t have or own the work product. This can be a complicated issue, but we try to keep it simple. Our clients own everything on the web server from code, images, and downloads. We own the working files to make the design. It is similiar to a photographer owning the negatives while you own the prints.
  • Your website is not W3C standards compliant. Wow, I’ve yet to have a prospect/client ask this one and I am impressed that he is knowledgeable about this need. We build our website with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and our websites are always standard compliant except for modifications we must make for Internet Explorer.
  • There is no content management system (CMS). One of the greatest powers of a website is that it can be updated so quickly and you should have the ability to do that. Our client’s websites are updates in many different ways from WordPress CMS to similar methods such as Adobe’s Contribute or we maintain some of our clients websites. We let our clients decide which is the best method for them.
  • They tell you, “You get what you pay for.” I have mixed feelings about this statement. In the end, if you only pay $500 for a website, you probably will not have a website that does what you want and look the way you wished it would if you would have paid more, but you do not need to spend $50,000 for a website in most cases. The budget should fit your needs and desires. Our firm only does custom design work and we specialize in the construction industry so I know we are not the cheapest, but many times I’ve heard of clients getting estimates over $15,000 for a basic brochure website. Find a design firm that you are comfortable with in regards to their experience, capabilities, price, and personality. Read more about doing work with people you like on a past blog post.

What do you think about these red flags? Do you have any of your own flags that you’ve found to be helpful?