The Quandary of the Web Development Sales Process

By Deane Barker

I often give thought to the really unfortunate sales process involved with Web development. There’s so many variables involved with building a Web site, and so much of it is buried in the creative process, that it’s hard to really paint a picture in a prospect’s mind as to what you plan to do.

Consequently, you often get clients who want more and more information and more and more planning before they sign a sales agreement, until you find yourself putting far too much work into a sale which you haven’t gotten yet and might not end up getting.

Consider this scenario –

Customer wants a Web site, but they don’t have too many plans beyond that general need. So you meet with them, and discuss some options. You go away and survey their competition, and send them an initial analysis of what other companies are doing and what they should do.

They kind of want to develop a site map to know what they’re getting, so you put something like that together. Along the way you have some great ideas, so you include them. Finally the customer wants some technology recommendations on platforms and such, so you provide those as well.

Then they turn you down. Too much money or something.

The problem – aside from you putting in hours and not getting the work – is that you’ve already provided them something of distinct value: the proposal.

When they came to you, they had no idea what they wanted. By the time they turn you down, they have several hours of consulting along with a complete written plan of what they need to do to maximize the value of their Web site.

If you’re lucky, they decide to do nothing. If they suck, they take your proposal and shop it around to other developers, who use the roadmap in it to bid lower and get the job off your hard work.

So, in a perfect world, Web development gigs would be split into two pieces:

  1. Consulting and planning: You come in, determine what they need, survey the marketplace, and provide them with a written plan of what they need to do. The final work product here is that plan, for which you get paid. (This is the part you already do, but don’t get paid for.)

  2. Production: Using the plan you provided in the first phase, the client can get the job bid. They can ask you for a bid, and they can take your plan and get bids from other companies. You’d like to get the job, sure, but remember that even if you don’t, you’ve already been paid for your consulting work.

This system would actually open the door for marketing types to do Web development planning. Someone could build a business consulting for Web development projects, but the proposal would simply be their final work product. They would then point the customer to several qualified development houses and send an invoice. This actually might result in better Web sites, since what they recommend wouldn’t be biased by what they could deliver in production.

(I’m sure a variation of this happens all the time – someone who plans a Web site with a client, then subcontracts out all the development. I’ve been on the tail end of this scenario a couple of times. This is essentially what an ad agency without Web department does.)

Wouldn’t this system be great? It’s never going to happen, because there are too many competitors out there who are willing to throw proposals around willy-nilly. But it’s nice to think about, and it crosses my mind every time I have a prospect who’s on the fence and wants more and more information and planning before they commit.

There’s a point where you just have to cut them off, and I hate doing this. I wish there was an established custom for being paid for pre-sales work, but I don’t see it happening in this industry anytime soon.

This is item #246 in a sequence of 354 items.

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