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Ten Tips for Selecting a Web Design Firm

By: Pamela Cisneros at Zafari, Inc.

Submitted on Fri, Oct 26th, 2007 12:00 am

Since the web design/development field is unregulated, there is a vast continuum of levels of quality, expertise and success rates from individuals and firms that hang out a 'web designer' shingle.

At our company, we hear many sad tales and horror stories from clients and prospective clients everyday regarding their experiences working with various offerors of web design and development services. To help businesses make an informed decision when shopping for web design services, we created this checklist of ten key items to consider when comparing firms:

1. Do they show demonstrated expertise from a Marketing, Creative AND Technical perspective?
Unfortunately, even a large percentage of so-called professional designers do not possess this special blend of critical skills adequately. Successful websites require much more than just programming skills or pretty pictures.

So you might get an artistically beautiful site that doesnt function well from a user perspective or a technically functional site that doesnt effectively serve the needed marketing purpose. In either case, you lose because if the site isnt effective from all three perspectives, it will not be as profitable or useful as it should be.

2. Do they regard themselves as just a vendor or a partner in your success?
If the firm regards you and your business as just another client, this will significantly impact the amount of effort and creativity they put into your project. Many firms just pump out site after site like a factory without focusing on each unique client with the time and attention they deserve.

For this significant marketing investment youre about to make, dont you deserve to know that the company genuinely cares about the overall impact of the project on your business? We hear over and over how some firms are nowhere to be found once the initial project is completed because they operate from a client to client mentality rather than viewing their relationship with you as an ongoing partnership.

3. Do they LISTEN as much as they TALK?
While it may be tempting to assume that the ultra-confident, smooth sales pitch means a firm knows what they are doing all across the board, many times it means nothing more than that they have a good sales pitch. If the firm doesnt seem genuinely interested in YOU and YOUR BUSINESS, do you want to entrust your marketing investment to them? Do they speak to you in laymans terms or do they like to use geekspeak to impress you?

4. Do they use a proven methodology to ensure the success of all projects?
Unlike many professional areas, the website design/development field does not impose standards or certifications to ensure the level of skill required by people who call themselves web designers. Anyone can purchase software and hang out a shingle for business. Firms that have been successful for many years should have developed a standard methodology they follow so that you can benefit from their lessons learned during their years of experience. This is part of what you should be paying for, NOT just the technical ability to create HTML files and upload them to a hosting account.

5. Cutting corners to save money up front can cost you BIG down the road.
Selecting a design firm is NOT like shopping for a car. While it may be tempting to simply get quotes and go with the lowest price, its very difficult to compare apples to apples in this industry. There is a HUGE variation in the level of talent, expertise and customer support offered among designers.

Its much cheaper in the long run to choose the right firm to do the project right the first time! Everyday we meet with people who have already worked with two or three previous firms and have been let down every time. They could have saved themselves both time and money by being willing to pay a little more to have it done right the first time.

6. Does their portfolio demonstrate a wide variety of styles and levels of functionality, depending on the needs of the individual clients? Or does everything looks sort of the same, like a template was used?
Or does everything look sort of the same, like a template was used? Many firms dont have an understanding of marketing or user interface concerns, so they just pump out sites without taking into account the unique needs of your audience. Or worse they do what they think is cool or interesting for their own benefit. A cookie cutter website may cost less, but it is unlikely to succeed from a marketing standpoint if it looks like every other firm in your industry. To be as successful as possible, all of your marketing pieces must stand out from your competitors and communicate to your audience the uniqueness that only your company offers.

7. Do they depend on clients like you as their main line of business?
Is the firm well-established with a physical office and multiple ways to contact them when you need them? Is web design/development their main line of business or just a side job that might get put on the back burner when other priorities come up? If you cant get them on the phone now when youre a prospective client, imagine what it will be like when you need them after the project is over! Everyday we hear stories of people whose sites are 2 years out of date, domain name has expired or other negative impacts on their business because their web developer is nowhere to be found, their e-mails bounce back and their cell phone has been disconnected!

8. Is a flexible content management platform offered? Or is it a proprietary system that you will be hostage to if you become unhappy?
Or is it a proprietary system that will hold you hostage? Many firms make most of their money by developing a proprietary content management system for one client and then re-selling it over and over to all subsequent clients for a lower price than a custom solution. It may sound like a good idea during their sales pitch, but think hard about what will happen if your needs change or the company doesnt turn out to be as good as they sound at first. Can you pick up your site and move it to any other host of your choosing? Is the method of maintaining the content tied up in their proprietary code? What impact does their platform have on search engine rankings?

9. What do their existing clients have to say about working with them?
Any professional firm with a good reputation should have loads of happy customers willing to tell you how great they are. You should definitely contact at least two or three of these references and ask them what it was like to work with the firm. Real experiences straight from real customers tell you way more than a companys slick marketing materials. If the firm doesnt offer to let you speak to a long list of existing satisfied customers that you can contact, be very wary.

10. Are you impressed by their marketing materials and website?
While the old saying about the cobblers kids doing without shoes is often an unfortunately reality, if the firms own website is way out of date or has functionality issues, that should be a red flag for you. Did their own logo, brochure or website grab your attention and prompt you to call them above others you may have encountered? Is their image unique and eye-catching and creative? Did you find their website on the first two pages of the search engines? If so, they can probably use the same creativity and expertise to help your business stand out and get noticed as well.

About the Author

Pamela Cisneros
Zafari, Inc.
Pamela Cisneros is the owner of Zafari, Inc., an award-winning marketing, web design and graphic design firm in Charleston, South Carolina that specializes in high-impact web design, logo design, marketing collateral design and more. For more information about Zafari, visit

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