By Ryan Boog
Congratulations, you're about to embark on getting a new website! This is a crucial time for your business which makes this is a big decision. If there's one thing you've got to get right, it is choosing your website development agency. If you choose the wrong one, you could miss the boat completely.
However, there aren’t any good guides for people to use for choosing their website agency. And any guides that are out there could be filled with biased information or just be "salesy" in general. What you’re going to find in this blog post is some information that we have collected from our clients on us, their previous developers, and what their experiences have been like.
When you’re doing a website project with a company there are two basic components to look at: The project and the company. And for each component, there are four crucial questions to get answered.
Unfortunately, the cost is the most important factor for almost every client we’ve talked to in the last five years. I say unfortunately because there are so many other important things to consider.
Now, this doesn't mean that you should throw cost out the window. We’ve seen many agencies mark their prices up to extraordinarily high numbers, even when they aren't writing half of the code themselves. An agency that writes its own code is most likely talented, experienced, and giving you the best product possible. Coding the website is the most costly part of any project because creating quality custom code takes time.
Paying \$50,000 for a website that doesn’t do much dynamically isn’t unheard of, but there better be more involved than just creating a website and putting it online for that kind of price tag. For example, a price tag that high should include copywriting, user testing, conversion testing, etc.
If you get a really low bid that typically means either the agency is starving for work, which isn’t a good sign, or that they will use some shortcut methods to complete your project. Low price tags can be beneficial, but they often are an indicator that something may be amiss.
Make sure that you're not getting ripped off by a company that asks for a big chunk of change but doesn’t promise a dynamic, high-functioning site.
Make sure that you are getting great value and performance for your site.
Of course, you don't want this project to bankrupt your business. But, investing in a strong digital presence with the right agency can pay off big time … I mean BIG TIME!
This is a pretty critical question. By touching this nerve, you potentially can flush out an agency that is purely smoke and mirrors. There are agencies out there that opt to take the easy path when developing a website. They will lean on templates or premade software to make their job easier. Your agency should be able to handle any task without relying on something else.
Keep in mind that sometimes doing these things makes sense. The best example I can think of is to save on budget. Sure someone could develop their own catalog software, or they could use something out of the box. The out of the box solution will certainly be more cost effective.
But, if your company is healthy enough to have at least a few thousand of dollars to throw in the design and development phase of your project, shouldn't the agency be able to competently take your company and its vision to custom create a layout and design? Yes. They most definitely should.
Think about the future, too. If you get a surplus in your marketing budget and want to add that custom widget, portal or website, can that agency provide that by themselves?
Yes, some prewritten software can actually be a great thing to implement on your website. But we've seen instances where agencies were leaning on it too much and as a result, don’t offer the flexibility or the customization that the client needed.
To be fair and transparent, we started our business out by really leaning on one CMS because it was the only thing we knew. It took four to five years of seminars, weekly research and on-the-job experience for us to get us comfortable in any CMS. The best solution for you and the best solution for the agency aren’t mutually exclusive. Make sure the agency can accommodate for you.
Make sure that your agency doesn't always lean on one piece of software or use a templated design all of the time. And, your website solutions provider should provide the best solution for you, not them.
Let's face it. On any large project these days a small amount of scope creep will make its way in. What’s scope creep? Scope creep refers to the surprise changes or extra work that may be added to a project’s scope. Scope creep is a common issue in the web industry. The real question is how will the agency mitigate this potential ugly facet of the project? You don’t want your budget to get completely off course.
The answer is through discovery and defining things clearly. How thorough is the discovery phase of your project? Discovery is crucial for making sure that everyone is on the same page for the project. If you see the discovery phase as being a few emails with you and the potential agency, there is an issue. Your discovery phase should include kickoff meetings, shareholder meetings, going over customer data and personas, sitemaps, art direction, user scenarios, and more.
Make sure that the agency is dedicated to getting the project right away and through any means necessary, and make sure the discovery process is comprehensive. The question to ask is: “Do they really get to know us and our industry?”
This is something that really isn't discussed often, or at least as often as it should be. If you’re ready to invest tens of thousands of dollars into your next website development project, but you don't know if you're even going to legally own it when it’s completed, you have some things to think about. This is what’s called intellectual property.
The first thing that I want to make very clear is that I am not a legal expert, I have a legal team for that. But I can give some sound advice, albeit brief, about intellectual property and your website.
One thing to look for in your website project is the licensing. As referenced in the section above, if your project requires pre-made or prewritten software, chances are you can't legally own that portion of your website, or your entire website. It would probably require using it on an open source model, which typically is licensed under a GPL license. If you are using a content management system, such as WordPress or Joomla!, you are not going to be able to own that code. You can use it, but you can't own it.
However, if you have a custom solution built for you, and it is licensed in a way that passes intellectual property ownership directly to you upon completion, then you will own the project once the intellectual property and copyright pass and your investment will be a direct investment right back into your company. These custom solutions typically have a little bit higher of a price tag, but the direct ownership is one of the greatest benefits to getting a custom solution built it just for you.
To sum it all up: Make sure that's you and your agency are clear on who gets to own what after the project is completed.
The Internet is a fast moving target and it requires skill to keep up with. A young website agency that can keep up with everything and perform at a high level is the exception, not the rule.
To clarify, when I say “young”, I'm saying 3 years or younger in existence. The reason that I chose 3 as the magical number is that it takes a few years of solid experience to learn how to interact with clients, how to handle complex projects, how to handle scope and scope creep, legal portions of website development, marketing trends and analysis, SEO, and more. There are just so many things to learn that it really is the exception not the rule for an agency three years or younger to be exceptional at developing a high-end custom website.
So one of the first things you should find out is when the web agency became an S corp or LLC. We've seen agencies try to hide their experience with a person's freelance background to make it look like they were more experienced than they really were. Really try to get a sense of experience that the company has so that you can feel more comfortable with what is very delicate to you, your website development project.
To sum up the experience factor, just ask the question because it's very important. An experienced web firm can give you that “Oooh. Aaah.” feeling in your stomach. And who doesn't like that feeling before you start a project?
This is another area of website development projects that doesn't get talked about as much. But it is very important, just ask anyone who has been burned by an agency before.
An agency that has insurance on the work offers you two things. The first one is obvious--their work is insured. It’s insured typically through Errors and Omissions insurance. The agency should have at least $500,000 dollars of coverage for errors and omission insurance. That way, if they really screw something up for you and you lose a lot of money because of it, they have the means to cover you legally because of their insurance.
The other thing insurance offers you is not directly said at all. Any agency that invests in insurance shows you subtly that they care about having things done properly and being a sound and legit firm. Nobody would or should drive their car without insurance, so why would a business owner run a business without some form of insurance on his or her work?
All that said, the bottom line is that this is a good question to ask and it also gives you peace of mind when you get the right answer.
This is a biggie. This can help you in so many ways while weeding out some of those smoke and mirrors agencies I mentioned earlier. I'm going to show you the two angles of addressing references:
You can get this information directly from the agency’s website. If the agency has satisfied customers they will usually have a customer reviews or testimonials section on their site. Look at the quality of the reference and also look at the relationship of the reference with the agency. You earn bonus points if you find references from clients who are in similar industries as yours. You earn even more bonus points if the reference is specific, well thought out, and most definitely not influenced by the agency and original.
Look for legitimate negative reviews. Now, you should not let one negative review for an agency that has had hundreds of clients swing you in one direction or another, but do look out for the red flags. Consistent patterns in awful reviews is a bad thing.
In addition, do some research on the CEO of the company, too. Try to see if there have been any complaints about that person. If you see a common thread with negative reviews, such as missed deadlines, long time to respond, poor quality, or bugs in the project, they’re probably a lousy company. A good place to see how they run business is Glassdoor. Doing a bit Googling could save you potentially lots of headaches in the future.
All in all, make sure that you look at the obvious parts first. Look on the company's website for testimonials and products that they have worked on. Also, do a little digging for yourself besides having the company spoon feed you a few of their favorite clients. Lastly, check that there is nothing bad being said about that company. Hearing what other clients say about an agency is a great predictor of how your potential outcome may be with that company.
This is a question you specifically want to ask if the agency is inexperienced or has a smaller staff. When I say smaller staff I mean three people or less. Why should you know who will be working on your project? Let me explain:
When a project is being proposed, work has to be done on both ends. It’s crucial and vital to figure out exactly who is going to be working on the project and what their roles are. This will allow you to flush out smoke and mirrors companies. The reason I say this is that some agencies try to look large and powerful but really they subcontract out a lot of their work to third party vendors, sometimes overseas, and the quality is just not there. If that's the case the agency won't like to admit this and you might find out that agency is not an agency that you want to work with.
You should want to know who you're going to be interacting with and who is working on your site. It gives you peace of mind. You can do some investigating yourself on the staff members of this company. For example, if you find out the same person does design, development, and copywriting, then you have a problem. I would take a specialist in each field 10 times out of 10 versus having somebody who is decently good in every area. Plus, you want to work with an agency that is fully transparent--it makes you feel like you are part of their team.
At the end of the day, you want to make sure the company you choose keeps its work in-house (unless there is an extraordinary circumstance which benefits you and said company). This ensures that they are honest with you, and they will or at least should respect the fact that you are asking. Another huge reason for this question is to make sure that you're all in this together, as a team.
It's not just us, you can ask almost any web development agency, and they will give you story after story about someone who made a decision to go with somebody that was subpar and ultimately it affected their business.
The goal of this post was to give you the tools you need to choose the right web development firm for your business--beyond looking at the price or how good the company appears to be on the surface.
This is a pretty thorough post, but I would love to hear what you have to say about this topic. Do you have any other pointers for people when choosing a web development agency? To any of these points hit home for you? I truly appreciate you reading this long post.
If you'd like Hoist to put their money where their mouth is, connect with us; you now have eight questions to get the conversation started.