Establishing a Working Relationship

Getting to know a potential business partner in an unfamiliar industry can be a daunting task. For business’ looking to hire a web design or technology fim they are often faced with trying to evaluate the skills of people who essentially speak a foriegn language and perform magic. Intelligent business people are left wondering what the hell programmers are talking about as soon as the try to delve into the details of a web designers skills or the work they did on past projects. Generally, business people won’t have the slightest idea what questions to ask to discern if a potential firm will be able to help. This is of course not their fault, they should not be expected to understand the arcane knowledge that fills a programmers mind or have the years of experience and training of a skilled visual designer.

So how can a business person go about finding and working with programmers and designers if they don’t understand what these skilled professionals do? They can look for ones that know how to interact with business people. Every web site or design is unique and should be, in order to meet the unique needs of the client. Good programmers and designers will take time before launching into building something to understand what you do and explain what they will do. If that isn’t a part of your project then you are taking one hell of a risk that your project will be off target and the results disappointing.

We always plan for some time at the start of working with a new client to get to know their business and understand how what we are doing fits in with the rest of what the company is up to. Often we find opportunities that nobody had noticed to tie together disparate projects and activities to increase productivity, reduce costs, or increase sales during this time. Clients sometimes wonder why they should pay us to learn about their business when we could be busily writing them code or creating cool graphics for customers to see. However, after we have started to point out new ways to improve how their web site can help their business that they hadn’t thought of, ways to tie their site into their existing software and business processes to reduce costs and increase productivity, they begin to see why it is so important that we gain that understanding.

We are not unique in this approach, but by no means will everyone do this. Some people prefer to build or buy now and plan later. We’ve worked with clients that signed up for a “turn-key” solution that stuck their logo on a pre-built template and found that it cost them alot and gained them nothing. No increased sales, no reduced costs. Learning and planning takes longer but pays off in the end.

However, good things are often best in moderation. Extensive planning can lead to missed opportunities and at some point things must get built. After a short introductory period building should commence. If you are planning for more than a month or two for most projects you are probably going too long (note this may not apply if you build space shuttles or software for the New York Stock Exchange). Then it’s time to start building and releasing your web site or web application. Early, frequent releases and updates based on user and client feedback are the way to go at this point. Don’t let a firm write a 400 page plan for what they will do over 9 months and then deliver the first version of the project a year later. By this point your business has changed, your customers have changed, and you have been missing out on the incremental gains you could have been realizing during that time.

When you talk to potential design firms ask them about how they plan to learn about your business, how long it will take, and how they will go about planning and completing your project. If they can give you firm dates and clear plans before they have learned how you work and what you really need, they probably won’t give you what you need in the end but rather what they made up their mind to do before they started.

Kevin Hall
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