How many times have you heard stories of people who hired web firms to design and develop their web sites and either got substandard sites or the developer ran off with their money? Or what about the entrepreneur who “hired” his nephew/friend/daughter to design the site for free, and the results were disasterous and this small business owner didn’t feel comfortable offering much constructive criticism on a job done for free?

As a small business consultant, I’ve heard these stories so many times. And I go back and forth between feeling heartbroken and really angry on behalf of my clients, for what they endured before finally seeking help. That is why I decided to write this series of four articles on web sites for small business. Today, in the third article in this series, I’ll share with you my best tips for hiring a web design firm.

When you hire a web firm, your job as a savvy consumer is to make sure your web firm has the right components as well as the answers to several questions before you give them your hard-earned money. Here are some things to look for and questions to ask, as well as a few red flags to watch out for:

Look For This: A Real Business

Your web design firm should be a real business. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they need a big office and overhead. What it does mean, however, is that you should probably avoid hiring your family members, friends, and “that guy you know from church” as your web developer. You need a business relationship with your web team for many reasons, including so that you can feel comfortable negotiating, providing honest and critical feedback, and being straightforward if there’s ever a time when you aren’t happy with your firm’s work.

Don’t be afraid to ask for references. You should be able to get a couple of client names and phone numbers so you can talk to real people and get a solid feel for what it’s like to work with this team.

Look For This: A Web Site

Your web firm should have a web site — a good one. It doesn’t have to be designed in a style that you like, but generally speaking, it should have the components I talked about in my last article. Don’t let any web firm tell you that they’ve been so busy working on clients’ projects that they haven’t designed their own site. If they don’t know that a strong web site is the calling card for their business, they probably shouldn’t be designing a web site for your business.

Further, you need to see a portfolio of their previous work and it should be easy to find on their web site. Most of the porfolio sites should still be live. However, if you come across some sites have changed or that are no longer live, don’t necessarily hold that against the developer. In this economy, companies are going out of business right and left. Plus, companies often re-design their sites and may or may not use the same team to do it.

Question to Ask: What are the components that my web site should include?

If your web firm starts to answer this question without asking about your business, consider that a pretty big red flag and run the other way. There are some general components that most business web sites should have (print out my last article for easy reference), however when you’re working with a web firm, they shouldn’t answer this question unless they know more about what you do, what industry you’re in, and what you want your web site to accomplish for your business.

Question to Ask: Will you design my site from scratch or use templates?

A strong web design firm will design an original site for you. They won’t send you a site design that looks generic, or that is based on a pre-fab template. Price can be a good indicator for whether your team is using templates or original designs. If the estimate for your site is under $1,000, it’s more likely that you’re not getting an original design. However, I’ve seen several firms charge what I consider a ridiculous amount of money to provide a pre-fab template site.

Why is a template bad? You want your web site to stand out as original and distinct. Your site should be designed to carefully reflect your brand. How much can a template design represent your brand, if others around the world have the exact same web site that you have? What distinguishes you from them? Smart investing in your business makes sense, and for most businesses, investing in a solid web site that incorporates at least the elements I recommend, as well as embodies your branding, makes for a strong ROI.

Question to Ask: How will you incorporate search engine optimization principles into my site?

When you ask this question, if all they do is talk about meta tags and keywords, that’s a big red flag. If a web firm is serious about their business, they should know and understand principles of SEO and how these principles apply to the code, the copy, and all of the content of your site.

If they talk to you about using Flash for your site, ask them if that will cause any problems getting your site content indexed. Take note of how they answer this question. The actual answer is murky and complex and they shouldn’t just say, “Flash isn’t a problem for Google.”

Question to Ask: Do you work with or have a business relationship with any small business consultants?

The best web firms often have business consultants on staff or have a relationship with small business consultants who can work with clients on developing business concepts that may not have been addressed previously. For example, if a client wants a web site that reflects his/her brand, but that brand hasn’t been fully developed, it helps the web team create a better site if a small business consultant is involved.

But beware: the wrong consultant can muddy the waters, while the right consultant, one who understands both sound business principles as well as technical jargon and web lingo can often bridge the gap between developer and client, making the communication smoother and providing key contributions that make the end product much stronger.

In fact, you may want to look for a small business consultant first, before you hire the web team. A good consultant should have a relationship with designers and developers s/he’s worked with before. This is a great way to get the benefit of working with someone your consultant has already vetted, and your consultant can get better pricing than you’d get on your own. Plus, if you choose the right consultant, you can have him or her working with you and your web team as an intermediary, and s/he can head off any potential disasters, keep your team accountable, and manage the project for you so you can focus on your business.

Look For This: Pricing

Just like any other industry, there are those who will overcharge and those who try to undercut the competition. Your challenge is to find the pricing balance. If you pay too little in terms of the dollar amount for your web site, you may pay more in other ways.

Several experts suggest that you can outsource your web design to overseas developers to get a fabulous web site for a very, very low price. While there are cases where this strategy can work, you must be cautious. There are many unseen costs associated with this kind of overseas outsourcing.

First, if you don’t know how to find a reliable, high quality team overseas, you risk giving your money and/or sensitive personal information to unscrupulous vendors.

Second, when you work with overseas vendors, you may experience language barriers that are difficult to overcome. This can result in disaster for your web site. Don’t get me wrong — there are some phenomenal web firms around the world, and you can get a good price, but road to finding these firms is littered with firms that will provide shoddy work or worse.

[Note: I'm frequently asked if eLance is a good place to find a web design firm. On the whole, there are both phenomenal and terrible designers on eLance. You'll find freelancers who are excellent at what they do, folks who are just average, unscrupulous people who will do poor work and run away with your money, and people who are just starting out and using eLance as a means to providing low-cost web sites in order to build their portfolio. Like eBay, you can check ratings and reviews from former clients, but in my experience, these reviews aren't always accurate indicators of future performance. Can you get a fantastic price working through eLance? Sure. But you're taking a gamble: you may ultimately pay a higher price if you don't get what you want and can't get your money back, then have to pay another designer to fix things. My best advice for working via eLance is to use the Escrow system. Don't pay more than half upfront, and don't pay for the completed design until everything is done.]

The best solution is to work with a reputable firm with references that will take your budget into account and find high quality solutions that fit what you can afford.

Question to Ask: Can you develop my site in a content management system?

If you want to manage your site yourself without learning HTML or Dreamweaver, ask your web team if they can develop your site using a content management system. Within this framework, you should be able to manage your site, including editing, adding pages, deleting pages, and more, from virtually anywhere in the world that you can access the web via a browser.

The Most Important Thing You Should Know:

Your contact at your web firm should be able to talk to you in your language, but also be able to easily converse with the programmers. You need someone who can explain things that you don’t understand without being condescending, and make web principles you should know accessible. Customer service is paramount in the web industry, and you want someone who will return your e-mails and phone calls in a timely manner.

Keep in mind that while the design responsibilities fall squarely on the shoulders of your web design firm, you have some responsibilities as well. Next week, in the last article in this four-part series, I’ll talk about how you can help your web design firm create a phenomenal web site for your business.

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