The Quandary of the Web Development Sales Process

By Deane Barker on January 19, 2006

I often give thought to the really unfortunate sales process involved with Web development. There’s so many variables involved with building a Web site, and so much of it is buried in the creative process, that it’s hard to really paint a picture in a prospect’s mind as to what you plan to do.

Consequently, you often get clients who want more and more information and more and more planning before they sign a sales agreement, until you find yourself putting far too much work into a sale which you haven’t gotten yet and might not end up getting.

Consider this scenario —

Customer wants a Web site, but they don’t have too many plans beyond that general need. So you meet with them, and discuss some options. You go away and survey their competition, and send them an initial analysis of what other companies are doing and what they should do.

They kind of want to develop a site map to know what they’re getting, so you put something like that together. Along the way you have some great ideas, so you include them. Finally the customer wants some technology recommendations on platforms and such, so you provide those as well.

Then they turn you down. Too much money or something.

The problem – aside from you putting in hours and not getting the work – is that you’ve already provided them something of distinct value: the proposal.

When they came to you, they had no idea what they wanted. By the time they turn you down, they have several hours of consulting along with a complete written plan of what they need to do to maximize the value of their Web site.

If you’re lucky, they decide to do nothing. If they suck, they take your proposal and shop it around to other developers, who use the roadmap in it to bid lower and get the job off your hard work.

So, in a perfect world, Web development gigs would be split into two pieces:


Consulting and planning You come in, determine what they need, survey the marketplace, and provide them with a written plan of what they need to do. The final work product here is that plan, for which you get paid. (This is the part you already do, but don’t get paid for.)


Production Using the plan you provided in the first phase, the client can get the job bid. They can ask you for a bid, and they can take your plan and get bids from other companies. You’d like to get the job, sure, but remember that even if you don’t, you’ve already been paid for your consulting work.

This system would actually open the door for marketing types to do Web development planning. Someone could build a business consulting for Web development projects, but the proposal would simply be their final work product. They would then point the customer to several qualified development houses and send an invoice. This actually might result in better Web sites, since what they recommend wouldn’t be biased by what they could deliver in production.

(I’m sure a variation of this happens all the time – someone who plans a Web site with a client, then subcontracts out all the development. I’ve been on the tail end of this scenario a couple of times. This is essentially what an ad agency without Web department does.)

Wouldn’t this system be great? It’s never going to happen, because there are too many competitors out there who are willing to throw proposals around willy-nilly. But it’s nice to think about, and it crosses my mind every time I have a prospect who’s on the fence and wants more and more information and planning before they commit.

There’s a point where you just have to cut them off, and I hate doing this. I wish there was an established custom for being paid for pre-sales work, but I don’t see it happening in this industry anytime soon.

Comments (6)

Jordan Brock says:

I’ve run into the same problem with my business. I had a business coach who convinced me that what I was doing was basically giving away a large portion of my knowledge. So, in conjunction with him, we worked out a way around it.

Basically, the contact/prospect/client would ring up and say they wanted a site. We’d meet for a coffee and my sales pitch then would be talking about the process that I use to develop the site. And the first part of that process was a consulting phase, where we worked out exactly what the site was to achieve. I would write out the “story” for the site, mapping out the functionality. Then I would provide a quote to build that site. And all of that work is charged for. That way, the client knows exactly what they are getting (well, mostly) and I don’t feel too “used” if they don’t go ahead.

There are two great benefits of this approach. Firstly, at most you spend an hour having a coffee with the client so if they don’t go ahead, you can get back to work. Secondly, you actually get money for something that requires knowledge to create. Which is always a good thing.

Greg says:

Deane, I actually do not think this is a bad idea at all. Here is what I would recommend...try it on the next client you think is really on the fence or teetering to fall away from your side of the fence; or a client that you guys do not care if you service or not.

Give them your reasoning,,,in fact, let them know your proposal will contain complete details for them to shop the project if they so please. If they sign up with you, offer a full “proposal” credit back or maybe just half or possibly as it goes, none...for it is time spent.

This will keep window shoppers at bay while providing valuable consulting to those who are serious yet still browsing or determining which direction to go.

I do not think, especially in a localized marketplace, you are far off with this. I like the 1-hour coffee, show them your capabilities, example of what you will deliver in the proposal, actual client list, referrals, etc...then take it or for your own shopping as well is here is our BID.

Nice piece, I think doable more so than you believe.

Jonathan Peterson says:

We did exactly this split at IBM global services back in the day. The key is to have a very impressive packed, fixed price offering for the front-end work. We charged $100,000 – did two days of facilitated meetings, turned out a slick 60 or so page ICE (interactive consulting engagement) document – executive overview, industry trends and drivers, description of functional components with high-level technology architecture and 3 different eye-candy design studies and a contract for construction with a pricetag.

That document could then be shopped all over the place, or we could jump straight into production (usually we dropped/tweaked features to get a pricetag/timeline that the customer liked and THEN hit production).

The nice thing is that you build a library of ICE documents and can then extract out big hunks, shortening your production time, but still giving value to the customer.

With this model, you walk into that coffee/lunch meeting with a couple sample deliverables to wow the customer, a fixed pricetag, and a pretty brochure that has the process and deliverables defined and some reference accounts. You look slick, dependable and professional, while the iterations of freebie stuff from the competition looks like two guys and a dog. And THEY actually are doing more work during the bid that you are. You won’t get every peice of business, but you WILL stop investing in jobs you’ll never get.

While at IBM I had a boss who told me in his previous position as a CIO of a large organization, me managed to save the cost of 2 full-time system architects by using the bid process from professional services firms. He wasn’t big on doing work for free.

I’ve used exactly the same process, shrunken drastically, for my own work.

Boyink says:

I’ve been involved in several projects that used this approach. Obviously it works better the bigger and more complex the site and the business.

Jordan Brock says:


Wow. I charge $1000. Then again, the client only gets a Word doc and a free coffee.

Jonathan Peterson says:

The $100K was back in the pre-dotbomb days and was the result of 400 hours of work. But it was for projects of,, scale.