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How to buy your website, part IV – from shortlist to supplier

Part IV of the series I am now ashamed to be calling “H2BYW”. It’s easier for Twitter, you see. Anyway – you can go back to part I to find out about whether you need a website or not, and what it should do; to part II for a quick guide to how websites actually work; or to part III to find out who’s involved in making a website and how to hire them. Today, we’ll be taking the shortlist you made last time and picking your final supplier from it.

So, by now you’ve annoyed everyone you know by grilling them all about potential web designers, developers, project managers and agencies, and you’ve got a shortlist of people who might be able to do it. It might be a long shortlist, or it might be a very very short shortlist.

If you’ve only got one name on the list, then you’re either home & dry (if it’s someone good!) or in trouble (if it’s someone you’d rather not work with). If you want to add to this list, now is the time to go beyond your circle of contacts and do some Googling. Start with a specific, local search and check out the websites you find – take time to look through portfolios, and make sure they’ve got some up-to-date examples. Go through more than just the first page of results. You could also check out design portfolio sites like CSSMania if you’re less worried about working with someone local.

Remember what we talked about before – trust your gut, and don’t assume anything about prices from the quality of work or past clients.

One more little caveat: if anyone on your reccomendation list is a friend or they have another job but offer to do your site on the side… be careful. It could mean a project which drags on for months, with no-one prepared to properly manage it. It might not even be as cheap as you think – a side project like this can mean someone working with a technology or technique they’ve not used before and taking a long time learning. Always check that portfolio. In future articles, I’ll talk about ways to protect all parties in the process using contracts and basic project management techniques.

And now… let’s get trimming

To trim your shortlist down, we’re going to pinch some techniques from public sector procurement.

“Oh no”, I hear you say. “Public sector procurement is always expensive and gets it wrong”. Well, sometimes that’s true, but we’re not going to be as dogmatic in our process. What we are going to do is take some of the best aspects of the process and apply them in a flexible way.

The best thing about the procurement process is that the principle is to protect both buyers and sellers. It gives suppliers a chance to get the work based on their merits and not their sales patter, and it gives buyers a way to compare like with like.

Step 1: the PQQ

In public sector procurement, the PQQ – pre-qualification questionnaire – is designed to rule out anyone who’s completely unsuited. They’re normally just checks that companies have the right insurance, policies and legal status to be able to tender for government work. You don’t have to send out forms to your shortlist, but you can do some quick checks yourself just by visiting their website and/or sending a quick email. You might want to use the below, or think of your own:

  1. Do they have a website themselves, and is it any good?
  2. Are there any obvious signs that this is someone’s side project not day job?
  3. Are there lots of typos, errors and glitches on their website which suggest a lack of attention to detail?
  4. Does a Google search of their name reveal any complaints or past legal issues?

Hopefully – because everyone on your list should be recommended – you’ll not rule anyone out yet, but we can’t be too careful.

Step 2: the tender

Now, in the public sector process, everyone is given a long list of questions about past experience, capabilities, size of company, response to a hypothetical brief, day rate, that kind of thing… and these each have a certain number of points awarded to them. The person with the most points gets the job. This, of course, can sometimes mean the wrong person gets appointed, because they’re cheap and tick all the boxes with regard size of company, even though someone else showed real spark in their response and just felt right.

For your site, though, you’ll not be getting any FOI requests about spending public money, so you can be a bit more flexible, but we’ll still use the same techniques.

  1. Email your shortlisted companies and see if they’d be happy to answer a couple of questions and give a response to a brief. It might be that some companies are too busy. Explain a little about the sort of thing you’re after – big site build, little static site, a bit of design, etc.
  2. Now, for the ones who are happy to do this (hopefully all of them!), put together one email you can re-use for them all. Remember: you’re trying to create the most level playing field you can so that you can compare like for like. In that email, ask things like the following:
    1. What their hourly rate is. If they give a day rate, divide by 7 unless told otherwise.
    2. If they’re VAT registered.
    3. Ask if they’ll show you their last web project, and to give a brief (two paragraph) overview of the process.
    4. Do they use an out of the box or bespoke content management system?
    5. Do they have ongoing licensing costs?
    6. If you need hosting, ask who they use and what the costs are.
    7. Do they have a support package? How much is it?
    8. How quickly can they respond to changes?
    9. How many rounds of changes are included in a design cost? How many initial concepts?
  3. Also in your email, set an indicative brief. This means you give all the companies exactly the same brief and ask them how they’d do it and how much it would cost. Make it clear that this isn’t your final brief but try to get it as close to what you want as possible. Include things like:
    1. The features of the site – relate them to existing sites if possible (i.e. “I want an event booking system like”).
    2. Whether you have a design, or will be working with another designer, or want design included.
    3. How many visitors you expect.
    4. When you’d like to launch.
    5. Ask for a project rate with each feature costed separately and a rough timescale.
  4. Keep it short and fairly simple, and ask for responses of no longer than a couple of pages. This way, you’ll not be asking people to put in loads of work that they’re not getting paid for, and you won’t have to read through loads of pages in response.
  5. Set a realistic timescale for this… two weeks, for example.
  6. Send this off… make sure you BCC rather than CC all the companies you email… and wait for responses.
  7. If someone asks a question, consider sending the question and response (anonymised) to everyone so you’re not giving anyone more info than anyone else. Give kudos for good questions, though.
  8. You don’t have to say how much your budget is, but if you do it does help. Big agencies might decide it’s too small for them and pass you on to someone they know, or there could be an expensive enterprise solution OR a cheaper small business solution you could have, so a budget helps us suppliers understand how to pitch it to you. Be realistic. Too low and no-one will touch it. Too high and people might take advantage. Stick to your actual budget – what you really can afford, with a little contingency money.

Step 3: Score!

You could get the responses back and immediately know who you want to go for from the quality of what they send. Good – that’s ideal. If not, you’ll need a scoring system.

  1. Write the scoring system before you look at any responses.
  2. Weight things sensibly. Price might be the most important thing, in which case they could score a possible 10 points in that category, while you might not care how quickly they get back to you on issues, in which case they could score up to 3 points for that.
  3. You might want to score them on how easy it is to understand the brief. If it’s full of jargon they’ve not thought about how technical you might be.
  4. Look out for obviously templated responses. Look for direct references to the brief you gave.
  5. Now read through and score all the responses you get, and maybe get someone else to do the same so you can take averages.
  6. If you want, ignore the scores and go with your gut. Your gut might pick the people ranked second.
  7. Don’t take too long over this. If an agency doesn’t hear anything for a while, things could change. Let people know when you think you’ll have  a decision and stick to it.
  8. Don’t expect original design concepts in a response. No-one should be expected to do a load of the work without getting paid for it. Also, at this stage the client won’t know enough about you… if they send designs now, consider the fact that you might be stuck with them (or variations!).

Step 4: relationship issues

Now you can tell the winner that you’ll be working with them. Yay! But don’t forget the others who put in a brief. Us agencies put a lot of work in to winning work. We really care about it and it sucks not to get a job. What we’d really like after this process is some honest feedback – were we too expensive? Did we miss something? What did we do right?

Make sure you thank everyone who responded. You never know when you might need someone else so every supplier you talk to – whether you hire them or not – is a really useful person to keep sweet.

And a final thought… we’re not done yet. The person you choose is probably right. But what happens if you start working with them and they come back with a ridiculous new cost for the full brief, or suddenly say some work has come in and they can’t do your project for another month? It might be time to consider number 2, so be nice…

OK – now you’ve found your supplier. Yay! Drinks all round. Next time, we’ll get in to the nitty-gritty of getting some protection and project management in place, and writing your first brief.

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