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9 Things You Need to Know Before Hiring a Web Design Agency

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

Choosing a web design agency to build your website is a daunting choice.

A new website is a big investment, and if you get it wrong, it can be thousands of dollars in your marketing budget gone to waste.

It’s difficult to discern between all the different choices — there’s so many web agencies out there!

In Sacramento alone, there are over 150 consultants, agencies, and freelancers who can build your website, and this is a mid-sized market. Large cities have even more choices.

But you aren’t even limited to selecting a web agency from your local area. There are tens of thousands of digital agencies all over the world.

How do you choose between them and find someone who can deliver good work that has a positive impact on your business?

To help you filter the quality agencies from the junk, I’ve put together a list of nine things you should know about hiring a web agency.

1. You get what you pay for.

Many small business owners think they can get the same quality from a big agency, a college kid who just started learning web design courses, and the “affordable” agency overseas. The truth? Not all web design firms are the same.

Price isn’t always a 100% guarantee that you’ll get a quality website. However, most web agencies that can deliver positive results will charge accordingly.

The best web agencies understand the value that they bring to the table. They have a track record of getting results. The money that you invest with them is returned several times over. The ROI that you lose by going with a cheaper alternative soon becomes apparent.

By saving a couple thousand dollars today, you’re potentially giving up a ROI of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions over the next few years. Don’t be the company obsessed with saving a buck because you believe all web design is the same.

Web designers who compete on price do so because they have nothing else to compete on.

They have no other things that they can compete on. And they often use stock off-the-shelf teams that they pay that 50 bucks for, and then play junior developers and interns to build your site. The fact matter is you don’t get on the expertise when you’re trying to save a few bucks or present your business I with something you fished out the bargain bin.

You won’t get the expertise with design, development, marketing, content, or branding when you hire out of the bargain bin versus paying for experience and a track record of results.

Spending a bit extra up front yields huge gains. The people who don’t grasp this usually keep struggling for years and years.

2. Launching your website is the only the beginning of the relationship. Or at least it should be.

In the digital age, you’re invisible without a professional website. But your website is only one piece of your overall marketing plan. Between social media, third-party marketing, press releases, SEO, and content marketing, there’s a lot you’ll need guidance with over the next few years.

Take a look at Google search, the biggest marketing opportunity of all. The world of search engine optimization (SEO) changes on a continual basis. You’re too busy running your own business to keep up with those changes. That’s why you need a digital agency partner — to help keep you at the top of Google search. The agency spends all their time keeping up with changes in online marketing, social media, SEO, conversion rates, and driving traffic to your site.

Establishing an ongoing relationship with an intelligent web agency will pay dividends for you in the long run.

Some web companies are satisfied to build you a website and move on once they get the final check. That’s not a relationship, it’s a one night stand.

Look for a web design company that will continue to look out for your best interests for years to come.

That’s how you will succeed with your online marketing efforts.

3. Don’t be fooled by web design companies that care more about their awards than your results.

Very few people know this, but the vast majority of web design awards are paid for. Does that surprise you to hear?

Almost all the design awards are a pay to play system. They generate revenue by hitting up every web agency in the world to submit their designs for a fee. Some of the smaller design awards websites will straight up give web agencies a “design award” for a set fee.

Now, many web agencies are obsessed with collecting as many awards as possible. They feel it makes them look more impressive. This is a form of social proof they use to convince clients do business with them.

There’s only one thing that should be the measure of design agency success — the success of their clients.

If the design, development, and marketing helps an agency’s clients reach their goals, that is the best award that they could possibly receive.

When selecting a web agency, choose one that cares about fulfilling your goals, not impressing their peers.

4. Be wary of any web design company that doesn’t do some type of discovery process.

There is a concerning trend in web design lately. Many web design firms have become the equivalent of a short order cook, offering up à la carte offerings, without getting to know about their client’s goals.

Commodified services are usually offered at a discount rate, because price is the only thing that they can compete on, not quality.

The biggest red flag: when an agency doesn’t even ask why you’re even reaching out to do a web project in the first place.

Website redesigns usually cost of a fair amount of money. People don’t usually spend money unless they have a problem that need solving. Are the people you’re talking to asking you why you’re reaching out to get a website in the first place?

Like a doctor doing a diagnosis on a patient, the exceptional web agency will do a discovery process to discover the pain that you’re experiencing in your business, and what problem you are trying to solve.

By understanding the underlying problems you’re trying to solve, the professional web agency can make recommendations that will help your overall business. This approach is preferable to rushing blindly into a project.

5. You should understand if you’re getting a quote or an estimate from your web agency.

Remember in the paragraph above I where I was talking about the discovery process?

Another thing discovery does is establish the scope of work, and give the agency a much better understanding of what needs to be done from a technical perspective.

The price that most web agencies initially give you is not a “set in stone” price. Most agencies give you an estimate of how long it’s going to take multiplied by their hourly rate.

What’s the problem with estimates vs flat prices? According to McKinsey, over 45% of software projects go over budget, delivering about 56% less value than anticipated. Most of these over budget projects are over 90% over budget.

Meaning, almost half of the software project estimates end up costing double what the original estimate was.

It’s very important to understand the difference between an estimate and a price.

An estimate means the more hours it takes to finish the project, the more your project is likely to cost. This makes for a terrible client experience, which will leave you unhappy, even if the project meets its overall goals.

A quote, on the other hand, is a finalized price. After going through a discovery or roadmapping stage, the accuracy of that quote will be much greater than an agency taking a wild guess at the scope of work.

6. Find out who is actually doing the work on your project.

Most agencies charge in the neighborhood of $125 an hour to $200 an hour. But how they stay profitable is by hiring as many junior developers as possible. Junior developers get paid much less than more experienced developers, so their profit margin is much higher for agencies. This is the dirty secret many agencies don’t want you to know.

I know this in part because this was how I started my career, as many other people I know also did.

There are many projects that I did for Fortune 500 companies where I was hired by an agency, who was hired by another agency, who was hired by the client. (There may have been more layers than that). Ultimately, people who are just starting their web development career are doing the lion’s share of web development work for many mid-sized and large agencies.

Other places may outsource the work to white-label or offshore agencies that specialize in low-cost work. Sometimes the work is good, sometimes it is acceptable, sometimes it is substandard.

Having transparency about who is going to actually do the work on your website is a critical factor.

Find out who is going to be on the team that works on your site, and what their track record is for getting things done.

7. Most web design companies are no longer in business after five years.

Like any other small business, most web agencies don’t make the five-year mark. There are a handful of reputable web design companies that have been around for ten or more years. Many web design companies, especially at the lower end of the pricing spectrum, aren’t going to make that five-year mark. Many agency owners end up quitting web design because it gets difficult to make a living. Running any business is not easy, and many retired web agency principals go to work for larger agencies. Lots of agencies that I know personally end with the owners selling their book of business and going to work for a “bigger fish”.

Where does this leave their clients? For those that sell their clients to a larger agency, it means that new agency takes over. Some people don’t want to work with someone new. For other clients, whose web designer disappears or retires silently, they must find a new web agency to work with. This is an arduous process of researching agencies, talking to agency owners and account managers, and trying to make a choice. All in all, it’s a lot of work for the client.

Most business owners don’t understand web development, so it’s difficult to judge which web agency will be a good fit or not.

It’s critical for web agencies to stay in business, not just for themselves, but as a service to their customers. So they don’t have to go through the pain of having to find a new web design partner.

It makes sense to partner with a web design firm that will be there years from now.

8. Not all WordPress agencies are created equal.

WordPress is a web publishing platform that powers about 37% of all websites on the planet right now.

Many web agencies and consultants are offering WordPress development and WordPress websites as core services.

Here’s the problem.

Some web agencies are simply are buying a $50 WordPress theme, adding a little text and images to it, and selling it to you at a ridiculously high price. Custom WordPress development is almost always better for user experience, site speed, and SEO versus a “Swiss army knife” theme from ThemeForest. How do you, as a business owner and consumer, discern whether you are getting a “fast-food” website or a “three star Michelin restaurant” website?

Because here’s what will happen if you go with a “low skills” web agency. If there’s ever a issue with your website, or if there’s an error, those low skills agencies will not be able to fix your site.

Modern websites have a lot of moving parts that have to interact with each other. If a piece of code is out of place, it can cause errors with the rest of the mechanism.

I’ve personally heard many horror stories about web developers who disappeared when problems arose. Or websites crashing or having critical functionality not work correctly, costing the client business thousands of dollars in revenue.

Many of the top-tier web agencies may not be the first names you run across in your local market. The quality web development shops will rarely be the cheapest. And it is difficult for a business owner to figure out who is legit and who is not when it comes to WordPress development.

You should find out whether your site is just going to be a “tricked out” $50 WordPress theme, or an actual custom-built WordPress website that has performance and functionality built in without the “code bloat”.

9. The best web agencies teach people everything they know.

One way to discern who to hire: Is the web agency continually sharing the knowledge that they have?

Precious few people in the web design space take the time to a share what they know about marketing, technology, business, design, and SEO.

Chances are, even in your local city, many companies on page one of Google aren’t sharing what they know via a blog, YouTube channel, or podcast. They are not teachers.

Web design, online marketing, SEO, and social media are continually changing. How do you know that your web agency is actually keeping up with that stuff? How do you know that they actually a study their craft?

One thing that proves they are well-equipped to help you with your business is if they are teaching other people. The smartest people I know in digital marketing are constantly publishing blogs, videos, podcasts, seminars, workshops, and more.

Agencies that are always out there sharing knowledge are the ones that rise to the top over time. Those are the digital agencies clarifying their knowledge, and teaching future clients how to succeed.

One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard said is that when you teach others are you teach yourself, and you learn the information more deeply. That is something that I found to be true. When you take the time to clarify your thoughts and teach somebody else, it it fortifies that information in yourself.

Agencies that have a culture of teaching and sharing information are the ones I most highly respect.

Final Thoughts

It isn’t easy to figure out who to hire to build your website. There are good, average, and bad companies, just like in any business. By applying these nine questions to the web agencies on your shortlist, you can make a well-informed selection, and maximize your chances of having a successful web project.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

2 comments on “9 Things You Need to Know Before Hiring a Web Design Agency

  1. Hi John, great ‘food for thought’ in this post. Unfortunately there are also quite a few minor typos throughout (such as “Remember in the paragraph above I where I was talking about discovery process?” and “One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard said is that when you teach others are you teach yourself, and you learn I the information more deeply. “). Obviously the result of editing during the course of creating the post.
    Might have been an idea to have a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ give it the final once-over before posting?
    Other than that, as I said before, well-researched and informative post!

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