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Part 1: Vetting Vendors
For small and mid-sized businesses, it is hard to stay on top of website development thanks to the accelerating pace of change. If your company’s website has not been updated in the last three years, it is archaic. If it doesn’t track traffic and interact with customers in a timely way, it is antiquated. And if it doesn’t capture and merge customer data into a sophisticated CRM system, it is obsolete. It’s as simple — and as painful — as that. If this is true of your company’s website, it is time for a website makeover.
Unfortunately, most businesses don’t have employees qualified to overhaul the design and coding of a website. And, most businesses do not have an in-house team of programmers capable of creating the type of software applications needed to solve business problems. In fact, they often don’t have the staff to even modify a templated site on WordPress. That means most companies must hire a digital agency to create or update its website. But, beware. It is the ‘wild west’ when it comes to website development projects. It is imperative to vet firms carefully and thoroughly since there are no guidelines, supervision or accreditation from any governing agency or entity that oversees the tech industry… an industry that broadly includes website design, mobile apps, Sharepoint development, enterprise applications, software development, hardware and more. Anyone – literally any person — can hang out a shingle (or in 2020 lingo…. print a business card and create a LinkedIn page) and call him or herself an expert in website development. There is virtually no legal or regulatory oversight to stop pretenders and wannabes from doing so.
In fact, hiring a firm to develop technology today could be compared to hiring a doctor to treat an ailment in 1820. Anything could happen. It was the luck of the draw if a so-called “doctor” had any knowledge or was a total quack. That’s because, in the early 1800s, there were no medical schools, accreditation process, or even a deep understanding of human biology. Doctors still used leeches to bleed patients. They performed surgery, including amputations and removal of an appendix or tonsils, on fully-awake patients. And, to fix mental problems, they did lobotomies on patients by inserting ice picks into the brain through the eye socket. Being treated by a doctor back then could just as likely result in a cure as a death sentence.
While not as lethal, hiring a digital agency for a technology solution today could just as likely result in a completed project as in a complete failure. In fact, a report issued by The Standish Group in 2014 titled “Chaos Report” by Project Smart indicated that “In the United States, we spend more than $250 billion each year on IT application development of approximately 175,000 projects. The average cost of a development project for a large company is $2,322,000; for a medium company, it is $1,331,000; and for a small company, it is $434,000. A great many of these projects will fail. … In fact, a staggering 31.1% of technology development projects will be cancelled before they ever get completed. Further results indicate 52.7% of projects will cost 189% of their original estimates.”
And, according to an article in CIO in May 2014, “A survey by cloud portfolio management provider Innotas in 2013 revealed that 50% of businesses surveyed had experienced an IT project failure within the previous 12 months. And, the most recent Innotas annual Project and Portfolio Management Survey indicated that 55% of the 126 IT professionals surveyed between January and March 2015 reported they had a project fail, up from 32% in 2014.
Of course, these statistics reflect on a wide range of complex technology projects, not just website development. Then again, many companies today need websites that are more complex and sophisticated than the simple ones that just delivered information to customers a decade ago. With the rise of E-commerce, compliance, reporting and data tracking — as well as the need for web applications to deal with everything from sales and customer service to operations and finance — finding a digital agency capable of handling the development and delivery of a sophisticated website can definitely be a challenge.
Why Scrutinize Digital Agencies
It is imperative to do a deep analysis of any digital agency. Here are some things to ask.
1. Can this digital firm be trusted?
Consider what information a web developer is given access to. A web developer or programmer is able to access a business’ internal workflows, financial data and any proprietary information. They know the business inside and out. And, they often have access to customer data, including non-public information and potentially confidential details. Consider the information from customers that is captured online. A digital agency must be trusted with access to all of this information in order to build applications that can handle such data. Given the value of data in today’s world, a company’s ability to gather, track and process data is invaluable to the business, but also highly sensitive.
2. Can this digital firm really do what they say they can do?
It is very hard to evaluate the knowledge and training of tech experts. When it comes to programming and coding, their educational credentials may be real or may not even exist. There really is no other professional service that has that level of risk. Attorneys, CPAs, physicians, nurses, phlebotomists, general contractors, and even estheticians require licensing or accreditation. But when it comes to coding and programming, anyone with a computer can call him/herself a web designer, developer or programmer. And, because development is such a technically-dense topic, how would even a highly-educated person be able to tell apart a tech phony from an expert? Will they be able to complete the project correctly and completely?
3. Will this digital agency be able to solve problems and provide ongoing support?
For companies that rely on their website for business, being online is tantamount to being “open for business.” Hiring a web agency to design and develop the site is only half the battle. That firm must also be trusted to solve problems in the event of a server crash, a cyber attack, or even something great like a spike in business that requires load balancing. An E-commerce business risks the source of its income on the ability of an agency to scale, manage, and maintain the website and all of its applications. Will they know what to do when (not if) things go awry. For those businesses, downtime is tantamount to being closed for business. Therefore, it is important to determine what the company is not only able to do, but also willing to do, after the site is live.
4. What projects have this agency done that are like mine?
Building a website is not like building a house. There is very little cost related to materials. Yes, there are offices, equipment, software licenses, etc. but individual projects rarely have costs related to materials except perhaps a server, and these days everyone is using the cloud. What differentiates one digital agency from another is talent. The actual skill and approach to solving problems is what distinguishes an amateur from a professional from a top-of-the-line expert. Because of that, costs can vary wildly based on how a firm approaches a project and how skilled they are at doing it versus another. Evaluating skill levels of any professional service provider is difficult, and with a web developer this is especially true. The only real way to assess a digital agency’s skill level is by evaluating similar past projects.
- How was that project like mine?
- How was it different?
- What challenges did producing the product present?
- What unknowns arose during the project?
- Was there scope creep?
- What was the initial budget?
- What was the client’s total spend?
- Was the project profitable for your firm?
5. Who will be working on my project?
There is little correlation between price and talent when it comes to tech projects. Pricing is often based on overhead and target profitability; not on the hard costs of the labor. That’s because many firms will use off-site talent. And that talent might be very experienced and also very affordable. A moderately experienced developer working remotely in Detroit, or offshore in Kiev, is going to cost much less than a senior-level developer in a Silicon Valley agency being billed out at 4x the price. Even if the expert can work faster and more efficiently, the mid-level-skilled worker will cost less overall. So it is important to ask who will be working on the project, where they are located, and what experience do they have. Remember that paying more does not necessarily mean better quality when it comes to website development. Focus on the output – what are the results and how did they get there?
A Few More Tips
- Identify a digital agency through a trusted source; preferably a referral or highly reliable review. Past experience is the best indicator of future performance.
- Start small. Dip a toe in the water. Do a small project, like a blog. If that goes well, then try a bigger engagement.
- Set milestones for deliverables, and attach payments to deliverables. This ensures results.
- Identify a process to handle changes so it doesn’t stall momentum.
- Deal with the owner/leader of a firm to ensure top service. But make sure the firm is not a party of one with no one else.
Remember, your website is the center of your digital eco-system, like a physical location. A store. An office. The experience matters once a customer enters, just as much as the perception they have of your company before they walk through the door. So find a digital agency that is able to build a powerful website on time and on budget. Next week, we’ll look at the dos and don’ts for updating a website. Stay tuned.
Quote of the Week
“Getting a quality website is not an expense but rather an investment.”
Dr. Christopher Dayagdag
© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.