Once you decide you need a Web site, it’s time to decide who will build it. If you have the technical know-how or the money to hire a full-time Web staff, you can develop the site yourself. But if you’re like most small businesses, you’ll want to outsource the work. Be careful who you hire, though. A poorly designed Web site can cost you money, drive away customers, and hurt your reputation. Follow a few basic steps to increase your odds of hiring a creative, technically savvy, and cost-effective design firm.

? Think ahead

Over the past year, hundreds of Web design firms of all sizes have merged, cut back their operations, or simply closed. Although it’s impossible to know for sure whether or not a firm will be around in the future, you have a right to ask questions if you expect to build a long-term relationship. You should also ask whether a design firm will accept payment in stages or whether they’ll demand most of their payment up front. Firms that aren’t willing to link payment to their own ability to deliver might not be worth the risk you’ll take to deal with them.

? Check references

Browsing a company’s work is helpful, but you also want to know how they work. A Web design firm can be the most creative in the world, but if it never finishes your site, it won’t do you much good. Call past clients and ask if the design firm:

  • Adhered to deadlines
  • Met their requests
  • Was responsive to suggestions and questions
  • Fixed problems promptly
  • Worked within the original budget

? Meet face-to-face

Your Web design firm, whether a one-person shop or a multinational company, is going to present your Web persona to the world. You must be able to work collaboratively. Ask yourself these questions and rely on your gut reaction:

  • Do they listen to my needs?
  • Do they explain issues in ways I can understand?
  • Do they know my industry?
  • Do they share my vision for the site?

? Evaluate their services

Decide if the developer meets your needs. If you want to sell your products online, look for proven e-commerce experience. If you’re considering a one-person firm, does the developer have the skills necessary to create everything you need? On the other hand, will you get lost in the shuffle at a larger firm with lots of other clients? Determine what extras the firms offer, such as copywriting, marketing, and other services.

? Research each candidate’s work.

It’s essential that you research a Web developer’s work so you can evaluate their potential. Once you’ve found a few developers you like — through recommendations, Web directories or competitors’ sites — evaluate their online portfolios and fees. A site doesn’t have to be flashy to do its job, but you must appreciate the developer’s design sense. Also, consider hiring a firm familiar with your particular industry

? Assess your needs.

You can hire contractors to create, implement and maintain your site. If your site will serve only as an online brochure, consider outsourcing the creation and implementation, while handling future maintenance — like fixing broken links — in-house. Be realistic about your own goals and growth plans so you know whether to hire a long-term or a short-term contractor.

? Evaluate the proposals

Time spent reviewing and comparing each proposal will help you decide which design service is best suited to your business requirements.

  • Examine each proposal individually.
  • Evaluate how well the Web design firm presents its proposal.
  • Keep a checklist for each proposal; look for strengths and weaknesses.
  • Compare each proposal — compare the presentation and the content and check if they satisfy your business needs and goals.
  • Contact the successful design firm and tell them the good news. But make sure to negotiate a favorable contract.
  • Once you have made your decision, advise the design firms that did not succeed and let them know why you decided not to choose their proposal.

? Secure quotes from each design service

Obtain quotes from the remaining design services so you can compare the quality of design and service to make an informed decision.

  • Select the Web designers you feel offer the best Web design options and services.
  • Supply the same information to each Web design firm and ask for a quote.
  • Make sure their quote includes an overview of your requirements, a description of their development process and their Web solutions for your business. That way, you can determine if they understand your requirements.
  • Ask for a breakdown of costs so you can compare cost against other proposals.

? Create a shortlist

From your initial list, determine which Web design service is best suited to your requirements and your project. The following guide will help you to choose three to six designers:

  • Examine their work: survey the projects in the portfolio and check for consistent quality.
  • Ask who is responsible for the portfolio pieces you like the most, and check that these designers are still available.
  • Ask if the Web design service has created solutions for businesses similar to yours.
  • Learn about their design process.
  • Find out if the Web design service offers a standard process for developing Web sites.
  • Notice whether they take the time to understand your Web site goals and offer a solid planning proposal.
  • Find out what other products/services the firm can offer.
  • Look for added-value products or extra services.
  • Make contact with the Web design firms that are on your shortlist.

? Compile a list of web developers

Creating a list of web developers will allow you to view a range of different designs and find the styles you like. Here are some techniques to help you in your search:

  • Search for web developers on the Internet. Browse through Web sites specifically devoted to online design. Choose and compare at least three Web developers to get an overall picture of what is available.
  • Check out a range of industry related Web sites. Spend some time looking at other Web sites that may be related or similar to your industry, choose a few different Web sites that you admire and look for the Web design firm in the list of credits or contact the organization and ask for information about the designer. You could also find out if that organization is happy with the level of service they received.
  • Referrals: Ask friends, family and co-workers whom they used to design their Web site. Ask them if they were satisfied with the service they received and if the completed designs were what they expected. Ask if they feel they received value for money.

? Planning

While searching for the right web designer, it is important to have a clear idea what role your new Web site will fill. Will it provide information to your customers? Will it serve the needs of your employees? Or will it include an online shopping section so that you can sell your products to visitors?

Most Web designers will need to know the following:

  • The role of your new Web site.
  • The intended market or audience of your Web site.
  • Your budget.
    Take time to consider what you expect from your Web site and the type of information you want to communicate to your potential clients before you approach your designer. This will save you and the designer a considerable amount of time and effort.

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