Sorting Clients: How Work Begins With a Web Design / Web Development Agency

Photo is adapted from “sorting…” by prettytypewriters (Flickr, Creative Commons).

This article is meant for those curious about working with a web design / development agency. While there’s no single, industry-wide answer to how this process works, I can tell you at least my own company’s approach to this, which is something that has evolved as a best practice over many years. Based on our interactions with other agencies, this seems fairly typical of how it works out in the world, in general.

Basically, most agencies (1) handle projects, and (2) provide consulting / support. For projects, the way it all moves forward depends on the type of project the client has in mind — simple ones versus complex ones. Let’s look at each of those first.

Simple Projects: What They Are / How They Work

A “simple” web project is one for which the specs are fairly basic. For example, let’s say you have a flower shop and you just want a typical web site. For this, we can easily work up some suggested specs via a phone call or a couple of emails. Basically, the process happens like this:

  • The client calls, requesting assistance with a web project;
  • We determine that it’s straightforward and work up a scope, timeline, and budget;
  • We put that information into a development contract and send to the client for approval;
  • The client signs off and we get to work.

Complex Projects: What They Are / How They Work

Other projects clearly go beyond the basics. Maybe, for example, instead of a single flower shop, you own a large chain of them and, not only do you need a web presence, but also a custom ordering system, some inventory management screens that employees use, various custom management reporting based on all of the data going in and out, and employee training. Clearly, that’s a project that is going to require considerable planning. As such, the process happens like this:

  • The client calls, requesting assistance with a web project;
  • We determine that this is a more complex project, requiring significant planning in order to determine the full scope and optimal approach;
  • We propose to the client that they hire us do the work of developing a rock-solid plan for moving ahead. Such a plan would include a detailed scope of work;
  • The client signs off on that proposal, and we get to work planning out the scope and approach. This would generally require a good deal of interaction with the client;
  • We then deliver the plan — usually a detailed outline, sent via email;
  • From there, we of course would propose a budget and timeline and, pending client sign-off, would get to work actually building the site and delivering the services needed.

Most experienced agencies indeed charge for this planning stage (aka “discovery”), as there is considerable value in this aspect of a project. The key message here is that it takes expertise and effort to properly scope out larger web design / development projects — even if the assumption is that the agency doing the planning will do the development work when that time comes.

Consulting and Ongoing Support

If a client doesn’t have a formal project, but needs one-time or ongoing consulting / support, that’s a different matter from the above scenarios. For that, we simply have a web consulting contract that provides for as-needed and as-assigned consulting on an hourly basis.

Examples of this type of work would be web site administration, tech consulting, fixing hacked web sites, adding new functionality to sites, SEO services, online content planning, social media planning, and more.

Basically, 100% of our interaction with clients would fall into one of the three areas described above (simple projects, complex ones, and /or consulting) — and this should be fairly typical for all web development agencies.

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at]