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by Eric Sharp on May 7, 2013

Topics: Business


Choosing a web company to plan, design, develop, market, support and continually improve your website will be one of the most critical decisions your company will make in the next few years.

The decision comes packed with repercussions, and the whole process could potentially snowball with anxiety before you know it.

Future customers, current customers, sales, marketing, IT, leadership, shareholders — they’ll all be impacted directly. I won’t sugar-coat things, this is a big deal.

However, you can feel more empowered during the interview process and better your chances in hiring the right company.

First and foremost, take your time. Don’t feel rushed. Take a minimum of 4 weeks to find, research, interview and narrow your list. During those interviews, be prepared with your own questions. Their willingness to answer and how they articulate their responses (keep an eye on body language) should be factored into your decision making process.

The following 5 questions are relationally focused, so you won’t see specifics like “What CMS will we use?” Though it’s certainly vital to discuss technology choices, deliverables, time frame to completion, billing protocol, etc. — rely on these to reveal more than just surface level traits about the company.

1. How do you approach working for non-local clients?

You are interviewing web companies outside of your local area, right? Remember that whole minimum of 4 weeks to find a company aforementioned? Though it’s completely OK to hire local, don’t be afraid to expand your reach.

If your organization already has a comfort level with hiring remotely, ask more specifics to get a feel for how collaboration would be like. How often will we touch base? What virtual meeting software do you use? Do we need face-to-face meetings? If so, in what stages of the project? Will we travel to you, or will your team travel to us? Who buys coffee for morning meetings? (If they’re hosting, they better!)

Also ask to see their non-local client list to confirm they’ve worked out the kinks. Be leery of a “We’ll figure it out” response. Rather, hope for “This has never been a problem — here’s why and here’s proof”. Comfort breeds confidence.

2. How will my website be managed during the initial build?

If they respond with “Email”, run for the door. Email certainly facilitates communication, but it’s by no means a solution for project management. Ensure they have a tool, preferably web-based (most are these days), so you can peer into tasks, conversations, files, and milestones along the way. Building a website takes research, organization, precision and many conversations. A project management tool will be the grease to those gears.

Here’s our approach to managing a website well.

3. Have you ever fired a client? Have they ever fired you?

Ooh, this is a good one. This question isn’t to solicit a response like “We’ve worked on 300 websites and only one went screwball in 10 years — we’re awesome.” Having that ratio of successful vs. unsuccessful relationships is an important metric, but the mission of this dialogue is more about how they respond.

If possible, ask this question in person so you can observe their initial reaction. If they’ve never fired a client, nor been on the receiving end, move on. The intent is to respectfully prod at the company’s transparency, conflict resolution skills and character. Don’t turn this conversation into a premonition in doing business with you. You may just scare them off.

I’ll admit, I’ve never had a prospect ask ProtoFuse this question. However, I’d be very willing to speak openly about two situations — what specifically happened and how we handled the adversity. Still to this day I’m very proud of how we navigated those two seasons.

4. What kind of legal agreements will we need to sign?

Most web companies should have a standard Master Services Agreement and/or Statement of Work. Though there’s a part of me that wishes I could look new clients in the eye, shake their hands, and have gentlemen’s agreements, I’m certainly aware that we don’t live in a utopia.

A contract doesn’t keep things from going wrong, it merely addresses what should happen when they do.

Mike Monteiro Author, Design is a Job

Contracts should address things like guarantees, intellectual property and (if the company is smart), delays from both parties. It’s part of doing business. Ensure they’re ready to do business and they’ve “been here before”.

5. What are the last three Website-related books your team has read?

Lets throw an easy one at them, shall we? The previous four questions could be formidable, so inquiring about their recent reading should provide some balance.

As with most professions, keeping a commitment to learning is important. As a Web professional, continual learning is not only important, it’s 100% critical for survival. The Web has technically only been around for 25 years. Yes, that’s a quarter of a century and we’ve come a long way since Netscape Navigator and dial-up. However, comparatively speaking to other significant and influential inventions (e.g. printing press), the Web is still fairly new and changing rapidly.

If they can’t quickly name at least one industry-related book, it could be a sign of status quo or worse — irrelevance in their beliefs of what a modern day website should offer. If you can’t get them to shut up about their recent reading, you know a commitment has been made to a vastly growing and changing medium. That insatiable appetite for Web knowledge betters your chances to building a successful website, and inevitably shifts this responsibility onto the web company. Trust me, your organization doesn’t want to carry that burden.

The bottom line here is about, your bottom line

In the book ‘The Art of Client Service’, Robert Solomon, one of America’s most knowledgeable and respected client service executives in the advertising business states:

Business is about relationships, and a great relationship allows great work to flourish.

Robert Solomon

If you want your website to impact your organization’s bottom line, positively, take time to build rapport during the interview process. The time is worth it, and your website deserves it.

Author Info

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Hey there, thanks for reading! My name is Eric Sharp and I’m the Founder of ProtoFuse. Learn more about me, follow me on Twitter or find me on Google+. Oh, and I’ll call you family if you’re a Chicago Bears fan. Daaa Bearsss.