David Gilroy, managing director at website and e-marketing supplier Conscious, outlines how to select the right supplier for your website. (Updated 18 November 2020)
Comparing potential suppliers can seem daunting, particularly if you lack the technical expertise to fully assess what they are proposing. You run the risk of choosing a supplier who is good at pitching for business, rather than one who will deliver a successful outcome.
Supplier selection relies on writing a brief that clearly sets out what you are trying to achieve. It means checking that potential suppliers have the right capabilities. And it means making sure that the supplier you choose will manage the website project effectively.
"Saying 'We need a website, how much would it cost?' is just like saying 'I need a car, how much will it cost?' Having even an outline brief gives a clear message about what you want and will save you wasted time"
David Opie, director of marketing and strategy, Solve Legal
Specialist or digital agency?
From the outset, you'll probably have a reasonable idea of what kind of supplier you want. The choice is often between specialists – for example, web designers – and more broadly-based digital agencies.
If you know exactly what you want, a specialist may be the right choice. For example, you might choose a designer if you are only looking for some updated imagery, or a copywriter for website content. A specialist – particularly a freelance – can be a cost-effective way of getting a high degree of expertise.
Of course, a specialist can only provide a limited range of services, and may not always have the full expertise you expect. For example, individual web designers tend to be strong either in the visual elements or more technical aspects of the website build – but a website needs both to perform well.
Working with a larger digital agency can be a safer option, particularly if you are looking for a long-term partner who can work across your whole digital strategy. Agencies can provide a full package of services, find it easier to keep up with changing technology, and are in a better position to throw resources at a large or urgent project. Against this, costs tend to be higher and an agency may push for a full-service solution even if your specific requirements are relatively narrow.
"Check which individuals will be involved. If a supplier plans to outsource part of the project, how will this be managed and what quality guarantees are there?"
Ian Gandy, head of digital, Travelers
Experience and expertise
You are likely to feel more comfortable if a supplier has previous experience in the legal sector. In practical terms, this should mean that they have a better understanding of how the legal market works and what the implications are for your website.
If that is what you are looking for, be specific about the kind of experience you are looking for. Experience of working on a consumer-facing website for a personal injury firm may not be much help if your website is aimed at mid-sized corporates.
You may not want to rule out suppliers for lack of legal sector experience. Experience working on websites for other professional services – or just targeting the same audience – can also be valuable.
The supplier portfolio
Potential suppliers should be able to provide samples of their work or websites you can look at as concrete evidence of their suitability. If you know you want a particular skill or feature – eg logo design or multimedia content – ask for examples that include this. If their solution includes a particular content management system, ask to see this in action.
For each sample, ask what their role was in the project, who the website was targeted at and what the objectives were. Try to look at the site with the eyes of the target audience. Does it convey the right image? Is it easy to navigate the site? What actions does it encourage you to take?
If a supplier cannot provide examples that really match your requirements, think about asking for some form of demonstration prototype. For example, you could ask copywriters to prepare a draft piece of content in your house style. This can be a useful starting point in refining your ideas and clarifying detailed requirements.
You might solicit formal bids in reply to a request for proposal, or simply meet potential suppliers to discuss your requirements. In either case, you want to understand the approach they take – and whether this will work for you.
Good suppliers understand the importance of getting a real understanding of what your firm is about, who your website is aimed at and what you want to achieve. They take the opportunity to ask intelligent questions in these areas – and make notes of your answers. Their proposed approach to project management will include a substantial discovery phase – making sure they have all this nailed down – at the outset.
Everything in their proposal should clearly relate their solution to your audiences and your objectives. They should also build in opportunities for feedback throughout the project. That will certainly include feedback from your project team, but may also include suggestions for testing the new site with your clients or the general public.
Be clear about how they approach the end of the project too. What do they think they are required to deliver? How many revisions can you go through? How long a period of 'snagging' will there be for dealing with any minor issues that crop up after delivery? If they are providing any continuing service, what service level agreement do they commit to? Establish exactly what is included, avoiding assumptions.
"Does the supplier understand your internal decision-making process – and how the partners should be kept involved in the project?"
Trevor Sather, WordPress consultant, Square Eye
Project management and personal skills
When clients complain about website suppliers, it's not usually technical issues that are the problem. It's usually relatively easy to identify and address issues where a supplier fails to provide the necessary functionality. More commonly, problems centre on weak project management, poor communication, missed deadlines and a lack of support when you have difficulties.
References and recommendations are an ideal way to assess potential suppliers on this basis. Ask how easy the supplier was to work with and how well they managed the project. Ask what the biggest problem or disappointment was during the project and how it was handled.
At the same time, check that the project achieved the desired outcomes. Ask if there is any hard data to show results – for example, a measurable increase in website visitors. Is the law firm in question comparable to yours?
"Ask potential suppliers to explain any project management tools they use. If they don't use any, why not?"
Chris Davidson, business development director, Moore Legal Technology
It's impossible to cover everything in written documents, particularly if you don't have previous experience of choosing technology suppliers and managing website projects. Armed with a good brief, take the time to meet potential suppliers – if necessary, on multiple occasions. Useful questions can include:
- What similar clients do you have? Are there any conflicts and will you sign an appropriate confidentiality agreement?
- Can you explain the key technical features of the solution you are proposing? How will these help us achieve our objectives?
- Are there any relevant standards you comply with or tools that you use? How will these improve the outcome?
- What have we left out of the brief that we should have included? How would these extra requirements help us achieve our objectives?
- How do you think we should measure results? What results can we realistically expect, how quickly?
- Which individuals will work on the project and can we meet them? Will any of the work be outsourced?
- What will make our website better than all our competitors' sites?
"If you don't understand something, simply ask. A good agency will explain the process and not confuse you with digital jargon"
Becky Simms, managing director, Reflect Digital
As the old business adage advises, "Cheap, Fast, or Good … you can have any two of these, but not all three".
Aim for quality first rather than a low price. Your website is too important to cut corners. If your budget will not cover a supplier who you are confident can do a good job, look at cutting back your requirements instead.
That said, look for a supplier who offers a competitive price and can justify it. Make sure you understand exactly what is – and is not – included in the price. Be clear about how additional charges will be calculated if your requirements change, as most projects lead to new ideas and requests. If you are committing to a continuing service (for example, website hosting or digital marketing support) what does your payment cover and under what circumstances might costs increase?
In practical terms, you'll want to be careful about any upfront payments they ask for. If they are asking for stage payments during a larger project, what will they deliver to justify each payment – and will it be any use to you if for some reason they don't go on to complete the whole project?
These days it is normal to buy software products on a 'pay-as-you-go' monthly subscription model, rather than paying up front. Many website suppliers also use this model. You knowingly commit your firm to using that supplier until you have an alternative website ready to switch over to.
But some suppliers are able to tie you in for the life of the website without you necessarily realising it. You may have agreed the contract duration and termination conditions only to find yourself trapped by the way their service is provided, or other details of the arrangement.
- Will you have the necessary intellectual property rights for any text, images, design and software used in your website? Is any intellectual property owned by third parties properly licensed for your use?
- Do you own and control your internet domain name(s)?
- If your supplier is providing marketing services, who owns and controls essential information? For example, keywords used in search and PPC marketing, and analytics from the website.
- What platform does the website run on – open source (eg WordPress or Drupal), commercial software or a custom platform controlled by the supplier? How does this limit the pool of potential alternative suppliers? What would be the likely costs of migrating to an alternative platform? This is where you weigh up security versus flexibility versus support.
- How easy is it to update or change website content yourselves, without using the supplier? Do you have full access to the 'back end' administrative tools used by the website content management system?
“When comparing suppliers, see who listens and understands (and can deliver) your firm’s ethos and what you want the website to achieve”
Angie Gurdon, practice manager, HPJV Solicitors
Website supplier top ten
- Use a written brief to help define the skills and experience the supplier must have.
- Consider freelances for one-off, narrowly-defined projects, and digital agencies for broader or long-term requirements.
- Look for relevant experience with law firms or other professional services.
- Ask to see examples of similar projects that have achieved the goals set.
- Prefer suppliers with a clear focus on your target audience and your objectives.
- Take up references; ask for comments on the supplier's project management and communication skills.
- Arrange face-to-face meetings where you can find out more and assess personal chemistry.
- Check which individuals will work on the project and ask to meet them.
- Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you can expect and what it will cost.
- Be wary of technologies and contracts that tie you in to the supplier.