A little while back I had a bit of a discussion about a certain profession that I won't mention here in case someone from the industry in question takes it the wrong way.
Don't get me wrong, every major profession is there for a reason and adds a tremendous amount of value to society. The fact of the matter is that every industry and profession has good aspects and bad. When you think of a doctor, lawyer, architect, accountant, etc, you tend to have a personal frame of reference, as well as a more widely held stereotype. There are usually some aspects of that profession that irritate you, or that you think could do with some improvement. Perhaps you don't make use of certain professional services because of these perceptions, whether or not they are commonly held or based on fact.
That got me thinking about my own industry, and what it is about the internet consulting and web design and development industry that drives people nuts, and that if things were different, people would utilize these services more often. What would people change about the industry if they had a magic wand? What would you do differently if you were, for example, a web developer, to differentiate yourself?
These are some of the things I've been told hold people back when discussing this topic with some small businesses:
- Web design and development is too expensive for the average small business
- Apprehension over how qualified an internet professional really is
- There is too much jargon in the industry, which makes it confusing to assess as a non-technical business person
- There is a shortage of internet programming skills relative to visual design skills in the industry
Personally, my big wish is that a certain level of qualification (a degree combining computer science, design and business) was a requirement to practice, the same way that older professions are required to, like accountants, doctors, lawyers, etc. The low barrier to entry makes it difficult for businesses to distinguish experts from hobbyists. Imagine having to choose your doctor based on what he tells you he knows how to do for you!
So, how then does one assess a potential internet partner, who can and should be a long-time partner in the online success of your business? Here are some things to look at carefully when choosing a web designer, web developer, internet business consultant, or related service provider, from my experience:
- Technical and business qualifications and experience. Is the business comprised of an inexperienced person with a web design hobby, or has the business got people with tertiary level business, programming and design skills in-house? Make sure they have real-world business experience in developing e-commercei solutions, and look into how far back that goes.
- What online business applications has the business developed previously, and how does this match your requirements? Some web design businesses will give you a very nice looking static brochure site, while others will be able to offer advanced functionality, such as a database and content management capabilities, e-commerce functionality, internet business consulting services, site promotion, site management, hosting, domain registration, design, application development, site optimization, newsletter systems, form processing capabilities, logging of user activity, online surveys and polls, user registration and authentication, advertising management, content syndication, and the like. Check how many of these are optional extras an how many are included in the price you are quoted up front. You should always get a detailed proposal up front, and compare apples for apples rather than being too subjective initially. Codevelopment, for example, differentiates by bundling over 250 enterprise-level applications into our small business package, at a lower price than most web designers will charge just for the design and some basic functionality.
- Long term cost/benefit. What is it going to cost you the next time you need to make a modification? I've never yet come across a successful website that was designed and left as it was created on day one. Your site needs to change with your business, so make sure you know how you will be billed for those changes, and what the time frame for them will be. Every site also has hosting, bandwidth and maintenance costs that most people don't think of when first creating a site. Look into what these will be, and what you get for them, so that you can budget for them when starting your project. Also keep in mind that a cheap solution with one or two features will probably not serve you as well as a slightly more expensive one with extensive built-in capabilities.
- Personal style and preference. Different businesses will bring different styles and methodologies to the party. Make sure that the one you go with suits your personal preferences. If your internet specialist loves graphic-intensive Flash-based sites, they will probably develop your informative content-based solution, just not as well as someone who specializes in your preferred style.
- Online promotion. Make sure that the business you choose is good at promoting their own online presence. Google, Yahoo, and MSN are the three most popular search engines, so make use of them when choosing a provider. If you are looking for a web developer in your local area, search for the terms you find most important and include the name of your area. For example, I optimize my services for the Joondalup area north of Perth, Western Australia, so a search for "web design Perth" or "web design Joondalup", "web development Perth"or "web development Joondalup", helps people find what they are looking for when searching for local website development service providers. An internet business that is no good at promoting itself online will be worse at helping you get yours up to full potential.
- Satisfaction guarantees. No website can make a flawed business model work, but an online expert should be able to help you make it everything it can be over time, much the same way a personal trainer can't make you fit overnight, but they can help you become a top athlete with focused ongoing attention. Find out what guarantees, if any, are provided. This is a real differentiator, because, understandably, many web design businesses won't do this. Those that do are at least serious and confident in their abilities to ensure that their clients are happy and successful.
- Management of expectations. Any internet business that claims excessive short term success rates is probably overselling themselves. Make sure that they (and you) are realistic about the time frames in which your online presence will start producing results.
- Consulting skills. Make sure that you are dealing with an internet consultancy, not just a web design house. Experienced internet consultants have the business experience to help you make your business successful online in ways a web designer will probably not.
- Find successful web sites online. Many will have the site developer's details in the footer, or in a credits section of the site.