Finding the right web development partner is essential, especially for small businesses.  Oftentimes, the task of finding and interviewing web companies is scary territory – especially for those who do not consider themselves overly technical.  How, then, should a web firm be selected?

I’m often surprised to find small businesses sending out RFPs when they are embarking on having their websites redeveloped. While an RFP  seems like a logical approach, there are many important facets of the process which are missed when strictly using RFPs for choosing a web development firm. One of the  most important of  these is assessing each prospective vendor’s ability to ask questions What to consider when hiring a web design firmand form a solution, explain why that solution is the way to go, and provide the client company the opportunity to evaluate each vendor’s problem-solving skills.

It’s important to remember that the relationship a company has with its web development firm goes beyond the initial site development, and will include the web vendor providing availability of technical support, hosting, search engine optimization, online marketing and social media (either providing the strategy and training or the services themselves) among others. In addition, as you expand your site’s functionality over time, your web vendor will need to be your trusted partner for this work and any other web-related need you may have. A critical element in this relationship is your ability to rely on the web firm to keep you apprised of current technologies, help you identify opportunities for continuously improving your Web site and the results it gets, and to propose solutions that fit your needs and budget.  Since RFPs usually detail what functionality should be quoted, the opportunity to evaluate each Web firm’s questioning process, listening skills, and solution-crafting is missed when RFPs are used.

It’s worth noting, too, that RFPs have a tendency to reflect the input of a variety of people, and may have been assembled by a group.  This is especially true of RFPs developed by non-profits and small businesses. Inevitably, there are items designated as ‘required’ which are either counter-functional to each other, or (worse, yet) include  terms which were used based on things someone heard are ‘important’ but which actually make no sense for the project at hand. That is, jargon has been used that is not thoroughly understood  and may be incorrect or not relevant.   So what the prospective vendors may be quoting could be either unnecessary or completely wrong  – either way, resulting in the need to re-quote later when the detailed discussion of the functionality is finally able to occur.

Another essential factor to evaluate is the candidate  firms’ ability (and competence) in providing Web site lifecycle services – hosting, SEO, online marketing and social media – as these are usually services you will use the web firm to provide.  RFPs may include questions about some of these services, but rarely involve enough questions to clearly ascertain the scope of capabilities a firm may have with regard to these. For example:

  • Which of these services are provided by in-house, full-time staff?
  • What credentials do those staff have for the specific services they are rendering?
  •  If any of those services are outsourced, how long  has the firm worked with the outsource partner and who would your  (ongoing) contact be? The web firm or the vendor?
  • How are the individual services priced/billed and what type of reporting and regular follow-up will you have for these additional services?
  • For hosting and technical support, is there a person who answers phone calls when there is an issue, or is help only available through email and ticketing systems? What is the agreement with regard to turnaround time? (What you believe to be an acceptable turnaround time may or may not be what the firm will be willing or able to provide.) Are  there additional fees for emergency support? Are there tiered response times and if so, are these based on additional service contracts? (For example, some firms charge a premium for guaranteed service times – 1 hour guaranteed service time, 4 hours, etc.)
  • If one of the candidate Web firms or agencies doesn’t have a team of web developers on staff (a growing number outsource to freelancers), who provides you with technical support and how does the firm assure the reliability and availability of this essential long-term service?

Of course, the obvious is also that if you have a problem –  maybe an employee makes a huge mistake using your content management system, maybe your database has become corrupted, you’ve been the victim of a hacking or some other tragedy – the web development vendor is your lifeline.  The importance of understanding what their support commitment, staffing and availability is cannot be overemphasized.

In summary,  RFPs, in an effort to help compare ‘apples’ to ‘apples’,  often removes the ability to evaluate the most important factors you will need from a Web development vendor. After all, the core components of the project are the ultimate deliverable, but far from the ONLY deliverable. You’re not just putting a short-term project in the vendor’s hands, you’re entrusting a key component of your business to them on an ongoing basis.