By “the public” I mean persons representing any organisation with a website that has experienced the challenges of working with web industry people (developers/designers/consultants, etc.) to plan, design, build, support, maintain, and upgrade websites. As opposed to Bob down the pub who may have an email address and browse the 'Net but otherwise has never done business with our industry and probably never will.
My answer is - generally, yes. We do have a bad reputation. As bad as used car salesman and sub-prime mortgage sellers? Hmmm - hopefully not. Whilst no company can make all the people happy all of the time (ours being no exception), some of the horror stories I hear from “the public” about bad experiences they’ve had working with web individuals or companies are pretty, well, horrific. Examples of some of the complaints I hear (too often) are:
- Various forms of vendor-lock, e.g. the client finding out that they’re leasing the CMS not owning it (therefore can’t take it with them when they want to switch developer)
- Extremely slow delivery of sites and/or site updates, i.e. happy to take your money quickly but very, very slow on the delivery side,
- Making wild promises in a glossy sales process that can’t be delivered, e.g. guarantee of #1 or high ranking in Google; saying that the client will definitely be assigned a project manager and then being left in a room with a 17 year old graphic designer (who may be an excellent graphic designer…)
- Hidden fees and charges buried deep in the small print, i.e. getting the client in with the lure of a low price, but with every intention of slugging them later with more and bigger ones.
- Very poor after sales, i.e. the business model of the web company all revolves around the winning of new clients with much less interest in looking after existing clients.
- Lots more, I’m sure!
What’s the effect of this? Deep suspicion on the part of prospective new clients about whether or not you’re going to rip then off like the last mob did. Which makes building trust with a client around a long term relationship all the more challenging. Once burnt, twice shy! The flipside of this is, maybe, that a prospect NOW understands that $1,000 just ain’t going to deliver a quality result for his business, and perhaps now he understands that he’s going to have to pay more than peanuts unless he wants to get monkeys again…
Why does this happen?
- Zero barriers to entry (no or low cost to setup, no qualifications required). Persons with wildly different levels of skills and experiences are promoting themselves as “website developers”.
- Not much in the way of publicly recognisable professional web associations that might otherwise help to differentiate quality providers from less quality providers.
- Sales people on big commissions and little or no accountability for what they sell.
- Unethical operators who can “get away with it” for quite a while (indefinitely?) in the absence of any regulation or easily identifiable standards.
- I make this as an observation rather than a criticism: the rise of increasingly good ‘free’ open source software like Wordpress and Drupal that put a lot of power into inexperienced hands. Historically these tools didn’t exist or were crap, which left the “serious business” of designing and developing websites to more professionally trained or experienced programmers charging professional rates. This trend will no doubt continue, and I personally see it as a business challenge/opportunity (to adapt to) than a threat. But the reality is that the ability to “do” a website (irrespective of whether or not it is actually aligned to the business goals of the client) is now more accessible than ever. “A fool with a tool is still a fool”, though!
The public themselves aren’t completely “innocent” here either. For example:
- Poor quality selection criteria (e.g. via RFQs - requests for quotes) for choosing one developer’s proposal over another. Our “favourite” one (in a “makes us want to cry” way) is where the RFQ gives scant detail about what they actually want, but they demand fixed price quotes to deliver the website by a certain time, or else! Yes, I know, just walk away…
- Refusal to give budget advice. Do they want a Skoda, a Ford, or a Ferrari solution for their business needs? Yes, I know, just walk away…
What’s the answer? I wish I knew! A few suggestions/comments/predictions:
- Perhaps what we’re seeing is “simply” the normal lifecycle of a relatively new industry that has yet to properly embed and regulate itself within the more established business community. Perhaps publicly recognisable industry associations will emerge with real teeth to exercise quality control over its members? Maybe the associations will actually be based around a specific software package (e.g. Drupal) where official exams must be sat in order to be able to claim appropriate levels of official certification? This would be a good thing.
- Perhaps the public, having been let down so many times, will work out that you get what you pay for, and will improve their selection and buying practices?
So in summary I have to confess that it annoys and frustrates me that, from my observations, we’re in an industry with a relatively poor reputation, which is unfortunate for all those professionals doing a superb job day in day out and having to work hard(er) to convince the doubting public that “we’re the good guys - honest!”. Case in point: I know a prospect who is poised to sign a contract for a new website with a, shall we sell, less reputable company than ourselves (and that’s being extremely polite). In fairness this other company has engaged in a great deal of sales effort to get them to sign. Sales is something they’re extremely good at - it’s almost everything that comes after that they have a poor reputation for (amongst other developers - the public wouldn’t know this). This prospect is actually a friend of ours (long story…) who didn’t know enough in advance about our company to know to ask us for a proposal (doh!). Negative advertising is something we refuse to engage it, and so we’re biting our tongues over this issue, because we (sincerely) want to protect a friend from making quite an expensive mistake, but understand that he’s already been pretty well sold by the other company and so the investment by us in attempting to mount a serious counter-bid for his business at this late hour is likely to be large/excessive - with no guarantee that we’ll win. Hey, hope that didn’t come across too much like sour grapes! This is the free market, right?! Best we just suck it up!
What do you think? Do you consider your company “one of the good guys” and if so, what do you do to convince a doubting and ‘burnt’ public of this? Interested to hear more comments on the subject.