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Issue № 114

Cheaper Over Better: Why Web Clients Settle for Less

by Published in Business, Industry, Project Management

We’ve all been there. A client comes to you looking for a website. They know what they want and you know what you can deliver. You work on a proposal. You spend a few late nights and several pots of coffee writing the bid and designing what you think is a great website. You proudly fax off your proposal (w/ screenshots of the design) and settle down to wait for the inevitable phone call.

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But it never comes.

Several weeks go by until, out of curiosity, you look up their domain name. To your horrified surprise, an ugly, cheap website slowly forms on your monitor. The alert icon flashes in the lower left as JavaScript errors compound on each other. The chunky, hard-edged banner GIF painfully loads on the top of the page as the multi-colored navigation buttons pop into view one by one on the side of the page. Quickly you scroll to the bottom of the page, hoping that this is their old site and they are still looking for a new design. Your fears come to a head when it says the most recent update was last week!

But why? Your page was beautiful! It was functional! It had everything they wanted and more! What could have driven them to settle on this monstrosity of a website? Why?

Small market – big problems

If you’re lucky, you’ve never seen this. Maybe the company went with somebody better. As a designer, I would not be offended if I was honestly out-shined. If one of my prospective clients ended up going with someone like Kioken, I’d feel a tremendous amount of pride for being on the same list. Unfortunately, the market that I work in doesn’t reach out into Kioken’s domain. My market is South Dakota and I’ve seen more than my fair share of websites end up on the wrong end of FrontPage ’97.

In Issue 100, Chris McGregor wrote about fifth-graders with websites. Well, out here, a fifth-grader who knows HTML constitutes a real web designer and, worse, constitutes competition. But why would any businesses even consider this?

Money is always an object

I don’t think there is a designer out there who hasn’t heard or danced around the word budget. Everybody’s got one. None as prominent, however, as the small business looking to get their face on the web. The employee they nominated as their “tech guy” has spent enough time surfing the web and making notes on what’s “cool” or “useful” so they know what they want - they just don’t know what it is.

When they come to you, they’ve got a list of stuff and several examples to show you. However, the sites they show you for “ideas” are entities like Sony.com or VW.com. These companies had the budget and resources to make spectacular websites. Bill’s Beef Business does not.

Still, you attempt to stay within the confines of their budget. You may even cut them a deal by skimping on your hourly rate. You sacrifice personal time to create an awe-inspiring layout. You do all you can to get the bid and keep everyone happy. However, everything isn’t always enough.

Sometimes the client will fall victim to sticker-shock no matter what you do. They will get your faxed proposal and skip right to the bottom line. If it’s more than what they expected, they probably won’t even read the rest of the proposal. Those long unpaid hours of work will make the three-second trip to the shredder and that will be the end of it. There is a famous adage used in the military: “Remember, the plane you’re flying was made by the lowest bidder.” The military may be able to go with the cheapest bidder they can find but businesses on the web should not.

Of course, money is not the only problem for smaller, less sophisticated web clients. Your proposal could be well within their means, yet still end up in the same pile of shredded paper. If money is not the problem, what is?

Fear of the unknown

When you start tossing around words like “ColdFusion”, “Flash”, “accessibility”, “interactivity”, and “database integration”, it can sometimes overwhelm the client. Bill, of Bill’s Beef Business, knows beef and little else. He doesn’t know a lick about what drives the web or what any of it means. He might know email and he might know a few websites the “tech-guy” showed him, but anything beyond that intimidates him, and intimidation usually equates to fear. If you scare your prospective client, it would have the same effect as sticker-shock (see above).

How do you avoid scaring the client? Well, sometimes it is just safer to keep the big words to yourself. Don’t try to impress anyone with your vocabulary. In all honesty, they don’t need to know that the animation is achieved via Flash ActionScript, nor do they need to know the difference between HTML and CFM pages. You know the difference and that is all that matters.

If they ask, however, you need to explain it to them as carefully as possible as to avoid scaring them or making them feel stupid. It’s a fine line. You don’t want to leave them in the dark, but you don’t want to overwhelm them.

Okay, but what if your budget was well under the limit and you didn’t use any of those fancy tech-words and they still went with the inferior bid? What happened there?

Unbeatable odds

Sometimes you just can’t win. Bill’s Beef Business might come across a friend of a friend who says, “Yeah, I’ll do your website if you give me some free sausage!” Bill can’t refuse that, especially after seeing your bid slide through the fax machine. (You’d be surprised how often this actually happens.) Or Bill’s fifth-grader might get the green light to design the site. When you work in a small market with even smaller businesses, anything can happen.

A few web design companies out there have set-in-stone formulas for websites. One such formula was “4 pages for $600”. Well, when you pay $600 for a website, you get a $600 website. So-called “design companies” like this are the ones who only perpetuate the downward spiral of cheaper over better. They are your competition and the ones with the ever-increasing list of clients that pepper the web with poor design and quality.

There are, however, ways to beat them at their own game.

The heart of the beast

So what can you do to win out? Well, there are a few things to keep in mind when working in a small market. You may have to under-cut your hours or do some number crunching to stay under budget.

You may have to simplify your vocabulary and the verbiage of your proposal so as not to scare the client.

You may even have to under-promise and over-deliver (a method that usually works in your favor).

Whatever you do, don’t compromise your business ideals or your personal scruples when it comes to getting the client. Never take a job if you know you will be losing money. That’s just bad business.

If you manage to get the bid with your well-designed, functional, accessible website proposal, you’ve done more good than you know. Every business that settles for a poorly built badly managed website is doing nothing more than pulling the web down with them.

The future of the web lies with the web developers and designers; but what happens when the jobs go to the developers and designers who don’t care about the future of the web? The web remains stagnant or, worse, travels downward.

Web developers and designers who only care about adding to their client list are just as dangerous as the clients who hire them. Sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team and sacrifice a little time, effort, and money in order to keep the web moving in a forward direction.

The responsibility doesn’t rest solely with you. It is up to the businesses to push the web forward. If Bill’s Beef Business wasn’t willing to settle for cheaper, and went with your well designed, super-functional, easily-managed site design, Bill might end up raising the bar for web development in the area. Then it becomes your responsibility to make sure the bar stays raised.

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