10 Questions NOT to Ask Your Next Web Vendor

Posted at April 27, 2011

“The customer is always right.”  Heard that one before?  It sounds like a great truism, one that has been taught for years, to thousands of customer service reps everywhere. 

It turns out that “always” is a strong word.  We’ve all witnessed a situation at an airport, restaurant, electronics store, etc. where a customer wasn’t necessarily creating an opportunity for great service.  In fact there are entire Websites and even apps devoted to documenting such stories.

At SiteOrganic we’ve heard a lot of interesting questions and requests over the years. Some of them were more productive than others.  Below, we have compiled a list of things that probably don’t belong in a conversation between you and your Web vendor. 

Please understand, we’re not telling you to not say or ask something. No vendor should ever be so brazen as to refuse a question; if they are, don’t hire them.  Our purpose here is really to help you steer your thoughts and questions toward things that are productive, and not counterproductive or disrespectful.

As we mentioned in yesterday’s post, Good clients help a vendor produce good results!

1. How many sites have you done for our exact type of organization?

Why not ask this? It doesn’t matter that the designer has never done a site for your exact type of organization. It matters more whether they have done a project that solves similar challenges as yours.  Opening your mind to considering a vendor with similar experience—but maybe in a different industry—will allow great things to happen.  A classic example of this is the prospective client who asked a Web designer, “please provide at least 3 examples of Websites have you created for manufacturers of nesting Russian tea dolls.” Really?

A better question to ask: Can you describe a couple projects you have done with similar challenges to ours?

2. Can you do a few mockups first, and then we’ll decide if we want to hire you?

Why not ask this? For the same reason you wouldn’t ask a painter, “can you go ahead and paint my house, and then I’ll decide if I’m going to pay you?” Remember that Web designers are selling ideas, and they get paid for their time. Asking them to produce work for you with no guarantee of payment is considered disrespectful.

Better questions to ask: What is your process for handling revisions? Can I talk to a few other clients for whom you’ve done custom design? How do you plan your steps so that we minimize as much risk as possible in the design process?

3. Can we come to your studio and sit next to the designer while he/she is working?

Why not ask this? Most people don’t thrive on micro-management. The creative process is complex, and each designer has his or her own style. Not only do many designers work at odd hours of the day and night, but they might generate some of their best ideas while cycling, rock climbing, or showering.  While you may believe that sitting next to the designer will just cut down on the back-and-forth revisions process, it typically will limit their ability to freely create.  They can’t explore all possible ideas with the client looming overhead.  We recommend that you respect the designer’s preferred process for creating and presenting their ideas to you.  If, after a few rounds of revisions, you find that signals are still getting crossed, then it may be time to consider a rare “war room” session with the client and designer working shoulder-to-shoulder.

Hint: If you find yourself uttering the words, “I’ll know it when I see it,” it’s time for you to do a bit more research into your desired outcome. 

A better question to ask: How collaborative is your design process? What do you feel is the best way for us to see the progress, and offer feedback along the way?  If you know that you are a very detail-oriented client with strong opinions, you might also ask the designer if they would consider doing mood boards or another similar type of incremental mockup first.

4. How much will you charge to get us #1 on Google?

Why not ask this? First of all, be clear whether you are hiring this vendor to design your Website, optimize it for search engine optimization (SEO), or both. The world of SEO is complicated, fluid, and full of imposters. One thing is certain: nobody can guarantee you placement on Google. Nobody. Only Google knows its algorithm for organizing results and sometimes they change the rules without warning.

A better question to ask: What do you do when designing our site so that it is optimized for SEO?

5. We really like the look of <some other Website>. Can we just get a discount if you copy that design for us?

Why not ask this? Never ask your designer to copy another site. That’s plagiarism. In our shop, if a client insists on copying another church verbatim (and yes, it has happened multiple times), we give the client a permission form.  They must take it to the original owner of the site, and get that organization’s OK to copy the design. (For the record, we’ve never had one of these forms returned with a signature.)

A better question to ask: Here is a list of 3 or 4 sites that are really close to what we envision.  We like <this one> the best. Can your team create something in the same vein, but that has a unique flair for our organization and audience? (The preceding paragraph is a welcome gift to any designer!)

6. Will it be a problem if we have 10 to 15+ people on our Website committee?

Why not ask this? Because yes, it will be a problem! Design is a highly subjective discipline, and normally doesn’t work well as a team sport. When you show a design concept to a board room of 10 people, you’ll get 11 or 12 opinions. Smaller is better, every time.

A better question to ask: We have a lot of stakeholders. What do you recommend so that we can make them all feel heard, and yet not jeopardize the creative process through groupthink?

7. We’d like something that works just like Facebook. Can you build that for us?

Why not ask this? This is really just a model question for all of the clients who see something really snazzy on a major-label, million-dollar Website, and then want to replicate it for pennies.  While it’s true that some ideas do eventually trickle down to the masses, there’s a reason why Facebook, ESPN, and Martha Stewart spend lots of money on their Websites.  If you think you can build the Taj Mahal on a townhouse budget, then you might need to hold a few bake sales! Or lower your expectations.

We once had a church (with no full-time Web staff) ask us to build a streaming video network that had the same capabilities as foxnews.com and cbs.com. Real-time encoding, 24/7 uptime guarantee, low latency, multiple points of redundancy, etc. This was is not a realistic request for a church!

Better questions to ask: Is there a way we can integrate Facebook into our site? Or, we like some of the features on <name of really big site here>. What could we do to emulate it, understanding that our budget is much more modest than theirs?

8. We are a nonprofit. Can we get a free Website?

Why not ask this? Any responsible for-profit company should be generously sharing its time and talents with those in need. And there are always times when a gift-in-kind is appropriate for everyone involved.  That’s not what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about the organization who plays the “nonprofit card” to get service at a reduced rate (or more troubling, the for-profit company who isn’t making any profit, asking for nonprofit pricing!).

The main concern with this approach is that it doesn’t consider the vendor’s cost structure. Even though your organization may have an inability to pay for a service, it doesn’t change the cost for the vendor to provide you with that service.  They set their price for a reason. The folks at 37 Signals, a well-known international software firm, have some great thoughts on this.

Another salient point: if you’re getting a discounted service from the vendor, you may also be getting a reduced quality of service. Fewer features, lower priority for bug-fixing, older servers, or whatever. If you want the best for your nonprofit, then you need to be prepared to pay market rates.

Better questions ask: Our budget is tight, but we really admire your work. If we’re willing to compromise on a longer timeframe, or a phased approach, could we have you work for us at a reduced fee? Or a staggered payment structure? Or perhaps in exchange for some sponsorship opportunities within our community?

9. We only are available late at night, or on the weekends. Will it be a problem for us to schedule all of our meetings after hours?

Why not ask this? The good news is that some Web designer do work crazy hours.  If you’re a really-early-morning person in Portland and they’re a really-late night-person in Atlanta, you might get lucky. But the bigger point is that your Web vendor is running a business, and they have set hours just like you do.  True emergencies and weekend server outages are one thing, but it is often unrealistic to expect them to cut into their personal/family time to do work for you.

A better question to ask: Since we have a time zone difference, could we come up with a regular meeting schedule that works for everyone? We want to be respectful of everyone’s time throughout the project.

10. Is there any way we can get a high-quality Website, one that aligns perfectly with our vision and reaches our target audience, but not really invest much time or money to get it?

Why not ask this? This is the summary of many sub-points above. It should go without saying by now, but you really do get what you pay for.

A better question to ask: Our budget is only <$x,xxx>. Honest. What can we do that is realistic today, and would position us to go to the next step later without starting over?

We hope that this list is helpful to you. Each of these is borne out of real life. While there is a respect factor at work here, we think the bigger point is that you want the best finished product from your Web vendor. Knowing how to ask the right questions—and approach the relationship from the right perspective—will go a long way to producing fruit with your investment.

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