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How To Drive A Web Developer Mad By Asking Why The Competition Is Cheaper

By June 3, 2010December 9th, 2014True Stories
Tales From The Trenches: How To Drive A Web Developer Mad By Asking Why The Competition Is Cheaper

This is dedicated to every web designer, programmer and SEO marketer who has ever given a client “the cost” and been told it’s way too expensive. And to those clients, who only find out what “expensive” means after they throw money away on a bad idea.

Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the guilty.

Just recently, we built a proposal for a client that included an array of services from web design to SEO and social marketing. Let’s say the project total was $5,000. Within a week, we got a phone call.

“I found a company online, did you ever hear of a company called Really Perfect Dream Company?” (And why not call it that, because in the client’s eyes, that’s exactly what it was.)

Yes, we’d heard of Really Perfect Dream Company. What about it?

“Well, RPDC,” (because Really Perfect Dream Company is going to become Really Perfectly Ponderous) “Says they’ll build a web site for fourteen-ninety-five. Can you tell me why it’s so much cheaper?”

First, we recovered from the fact that it was fourteen dot ninety five, and not $1,495. Then, we wondered how we’d failed to convey the extent and value of our services. Finally, we began to propose the “differences”. A conversation ensued.

We’re creating a custom design, and they’re giving you a template.

“Oh no, they’re also giving us a custom design.”

Then it may or may not be valid code that works in many browsers.

“Yes, they said they do that, too.”

Does it include hosting?

“Yes, and email.”

They’re not going to set up and manage your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“They do that, too.”

Well, we included SEO maintenance in our cost, plus copy and image updates when you need them.

“They do maintenance, too. That’s an extra $5.”

Line by line, we went through our proposal, only to be told “they do that too” and for the low, low cost of $14.95. Did RPDC put this in writing? No, apparently the client had simply “talked to someone” and someone had said “we do that too”. Stumped, we promised to check out RPDC’s web site and figure out why we were so damn expensive.

The first thing we found out, thanks to the oversized font on RPDC’s home page, was that they indeed offered the fabulous option of choosing from one of their 2,000 templates and working with a “design expert” to place your logo and copy into the template… exactly where you want it! Imagine putting your logo exactly where you want it for mere cents? Unable to compete on that count, we moved on.

Unfortunately there was no mention of valid code, but since RPDC was kind enough to link us to a dozen of their client sites, we went to those client sites and ran each of their home pages through the W3C validator. Site one: eighteen errors. Not perfect, but not bad. Site two: sixty three errors. A little worse, but to be fair, who defined “valid”? Site three: one hundred and eighty five errors (plus broken images in some browsers). Oof. We gave ourselves a point and moved on.

Also absent from the site was any mention whatsoever of Facebook or Twitter, with the exception that RPDC said you could insert social media icons on your site… guess where… anywhere you wanted! Pretty cool. RPDC, score two.

As for maintenance, for an extra $5 per month, they would let you update your own copy with their Really Perfect drag-and-drop editor. No mention of SEO or social media, but they do have a call center any time you have a question. Considering what we would have charged for a custom content management system, that seemed like a pretty good deal. A call center may not be a consultant, but they do answer questions. Any time you have one.

And yes, they offered hosting and email, for another $2 per month. Our hosting, with an extra zero at $20 per month and including daily offsite backups plus error monitoring was overkill, an unnecessary expense. RPDC: 3. Us: 1.

It turned into a serious beat-down. In the end, all we could do was spend another two hours of unpaid time building a spreadsheet of item-by-item comparisons and explaining how each was different.

For the web developers out there who know, and the clients who don’t, RPDC wasn’t really a web design or development company. They were a software company selling out-of-the-box web services so that people who don’t want to spend money can drag-and-drop their way to a web site.

And to be fair to RPDC, they weren’t selling themselves as web designers or consultants. Whether the person who spoke to our client was less than honest, or whether the client misunderstood “we do that too” is another issue. But RPDC’s web site was pretty clear about what they offered: a tool that you could use to build your own web site based on their templates, which they’d help you do if you really needed them to, and then host it for you as part of a bulk service. No mention of social marketing and the extent of their SEO services was doing some automated submissions.

And yet this is our competition. In a world where everyone fancies themselves a web designer because they’ve nailed “lens flare” in Photoshop, it’s tough enough to compete with people who advertise themselves as such (a rant for another post). But to compete with Generic Software Company is impossible. It’s great that there are so many DIY tools out there so people can get creative and feel in control. But there’s a tremendous difference between a web tool and a web expert.

What it’s surprisingly difficult to do, especially in a cost-conscious society at a very cost-conscious moment in history, is convince clients that building a web site is only a fraction of the equation. It’s about why you’re building a web site, and what you want that web site to do.

It’s about how to get that web site to generate revenue or perform whatever function it’s meant to perform. (It’s also about deciding what that function is, a step often overlooked in the mad rush to get the site done.)

It’s about marketing, building a social community around your business, understanding how search engines work and being able to act on analytics reports.

It’s about planning a web site around a business, and not the other way around. It’s about understanding a client’s business and being able to make suggestions and implement them effectively. It’s about making sure that a web site fits with a brand and a marketing plan, and doesn’t hover on the edges like a poorly conceived put-your-logo-here mess of bad code and worse navigational structure.

It’s about design – real design that takes into account things like SEO, usability, user expectations, target audience, and not just how simple it is to place your logo.

Building a web site isn’t just some thing you do and then cross off your list after “fold laundry” or “change oil”. Building a web site is a process, and a part of the larger process of marketing and business development.

Unfortunately, it can take three phone calls, six emails and a spreadsheet to defeat the $14.95 competition and advance to round two, where the client inevitably finds a cheaper “expert” and the challenge starts all over again. More unfortunately, many clients often opt for the cheapest option, even at the expense of their business. (If you want more on our take regarding cheap work, check out our “Stupid Ideas” series here)

It’s difficult to communicate the value of intellectual resources. Web developers and consultants know we’re not selling chairs or lamps or paintings – our art is more of the cerebral kind. If we could wrap up “project planning” in shiny paper and put a bright red bow on it called “usability testing”, we could save a lot of clients the time and money they often invest in poorly conceived and ineffectively executed web sites, and save ourselves the agony of begging them not to do it. Inevitably, they repent. But by then they often don’t have the resources left to invest in getting it done right.

For the real web developers out there: we share your pain.

For the clients out there who only look at the bottom line: take a lesson from this story and make sure you know what you’re getting for your money. Make sure you get it in writing. Make sure you understand the ramifications of “cheap”. Go ahead and negotiate to get the best cost you can, but remember that it’s always more expensive to repent later.

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Man, I loved reading this. Every designer has a few horror stories like this. You hit the nail on the head here –
    “What it’s surprisingly difficult to do, especially in a cost-conscious society at a very cost-conscious moment in history, is convince clients that building a web site is only a fraction of the equation. It’s about why you’re building a web site, and what you want that web site to do.”
    I couldn’t have said it better.
    Unfortunately we all learn the hard way, not once, but multiple times, over the course of growing as a designer. But you know what, clients learn too. Many people who opt to go for these cookie cutter websites learn the hard way when they realize how much effort and thought goes into making a website actually WORK for them and their business. Those people go to professionals when they’ve been in the trenches doing it themselves. Making a web presence work isn’t like a few nights of baby-sitting. It’s like raising a child. Two totally different things. The value clients look for changes over time. The trick is…to build in as much rigor into your design process as possible to make sure that people are getting the most value for your time as possible.
    I’ll share a few of my war stories offline with you over beers one day…and it will be gut-busting. That’s a promise ;-).

  • Steffan, I like your analogy to babysitting. We usually use the “building a house” analogy but I might have to borrow yours. Most clients do eventually learn, but it’s too bad they do it the hard way. We’d love to hear your stories, too. It’s always nice to know someone out there is coming from the same place!

  • Noel says:

    Your articles are always right on target! We’ve found that we don’t make an effort to “convince” the prospects that are only looking at $$$. We can’t make a website for $14.95 or even $1495. We’d rather get them as clients after they do that and find out it’s a lot of work, doesn’t work well, and that the customer support isn’t very supportive. After they learn that lesson, then we want them as a customer!

    • True, Noel… it’s wasted effort to try to sell based on value when all someone is looking at is price. And you know, some people are perfectly happy with that $14.95 website. It may not do much for their business, but they don’t pay attention anyway! The ones who care will learn, sometimes the hard way, and then we’ll be ready for them 🙂

  • It boils down to this:

    Dear Prospective Client,

    Do you want it done cheap or do you want it done right?

    Yours Truly,
    Professional Web Developer