In today’s commoditized web development industry, choosing the cheapest vendor is not necessarily the most financially responsible decision.

You may have heard the expression “Nobody Ever Got Fired For Buying IBM”. Fear tactics aside, I believe this statement is rooted in some sort of reality.

At the risk of oversimplifying, when comparing vendors, customers tend to create an imaginary group of suppliers that conform to a minimum set of requirements or “must haves”. For example, someone buying a smartphone may want to absolutely have a Near Field Communication feature, ruling out a few contenders at the outset. Or when buying a laptop, one may want it to sport a retina display, leaving, at the time of writing, Apple’s MacBook Pro as the sole product that meets criteria. This is how brands enter the customer’s mind and close the door behind them.

Once a product or brand is considered as a possible vendor of choice, another process begins. One where the customer weighs the pros and cons of the features of the products they’re considering. Tradeoffs take place, where features are given more or less value in the context of the purchase requirements. Durability can outweigh style, security can take precedence over performance, and so on. Once all features are weighted, a decision is made and a vendor is chosen.

In this blog post series, I want to bring to your attention some of the features that we, at 76design, think should be considered when choosing a vendor to develop a website. Not just any website, but one that is aligned with defined business objectives and that is expected to materially add value to an organization’s bottom line.

To illustrate these features, I chose to group them by risk and the hidden costs these risks may impose on customers. Then for each, I offer advice to help make better decisions.


Risk 1: Choosing the wrong vendor

Costs: Wasted vendor research time, cancellation of failed projects, and need to rework.

A customer may choose the wrong vendor because there is not enough information available. Other causes may include the lack of enough research time and of verifiable references.

Solution: When evaluating vendors, make sure you can talk to their current clients so you can verify self-made claims.


Risk 2: Being guided by the wrong set of requirements

Costs: Expensive rework and scope creep.

In complex solutions such as website development, customers benefit from the vendor’s expertise in anticipating the needs, both current and future, that the website must meet. Customers don’t know what they don’t know and it is our obligation as suppliers to work with customers to scope a sustainable solution, not just one that “will do” for now and fall short after the contract is over.

Solution: Look for signs of vendors proposing solutions you weren’t expecting. Value suppliers that go “above and beyond” what you’re asking them to do.


Risk 3: Getting locked into a service agreement

Cost: Inability to switch to more convenient solutions.

Most of us experience this when choosing a cellphone plan. We’re locked into a two year commitment from which we cannot get out unless we pay a penalty. There are also less obvious vendor locks lurking in the fine print of contracts for services that otherwise appear to be convenient.

Solution: Make sure you own your data and that you can move it anywhere you want, whenever you want.


Risk 4: Hidden fees and hidden terms

Costs: Incurring unforeseen expenses and expensive legal fees to review complex contracts.

What seems to be a great deal ends up costing us more in the long run. Consider the infamous home office printer; you can buy one for next to nothing, but the cost of operating it (buying ink cartridges) exceeds the printer cost on the first replacement. Or your phone land line; basic phone is $20-$30 a month, but the basic plan is missing key features that you consider must haves, so really the cost is closer to $50.

Solution: Ask for a final price that includes all operating cost for at least one year. Make sure you ask for the same features and cost from all providers so you compare apples to apples.


Risk 5: Losing data when deploying the website

Costs: Expensive rework, downtime and brand damage.

Your web developer spent months building your site. You went back and forth several times adjusting the copy, graphics, layout, and even the basic requirements. The site is ready to be pushed live and you can’t afford anything but a smooth deployment. As you know, prolonged website outages have a negative impact on your customers’ perception of your brand.

Solution: Work with an experienced supplier that offers a robust and fail-safe deployment process.


In subsequent instalments of this series, we will look at more risks and costs you should consider when evaluating companies to develop your website.

This series is inspired by Niraj Dawar’s Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers. If the subject interests you, I urge you to read the book.