It's the day after a launch and your client calls you in a sheer panic. Traffic is not as high as they'd like! Why aren't their new social media features paying off? Don't you know what you're doing? And to top it all off the site is slow! You need to fix this now.
As you listen to your client yell, you drift back in time to that first meeting where you both are posturing and laying down the ground rules for each other. Business as usual planning out the new details with excitement and anticipation.
And then the moment comes back to you. The moment when you said nonchalantly, "We can do that feature, but it may cause the site to slow down. Why is this feature so important?" And the client, also nonchalantly said, "We just need it, our competitors all have it." And you both went back to going over the other features on the list, not realizing that you had just wasted thousands of your client's dollars and hours of your life on something that most users don't give a flying flip about bringing almost zero value to the world, all because everybody's doing it. This is how the business just works, and hardly anyone ever questions it.
The entire way that most web-consulting is done is broken. We treat it like plumbing, or building a house as if the code we build on is as common as using the same 2x4s over and over, which in some cases is true. I've even written about the comparisons. But in reality web consulting is much much more like space travel, things that are simple in Earth's physics are impossible in Space and vise versa.
What has been simple in print for infinity can take hundreds of lines of code to recreate on the web, and in some cases may be impossible.
But most clients don't care and/or don't understand what they are asking well enough to realize that their request for proposal stating "put custom membership workflow into Drupal" is actually impossible.
It will drive them into double overages on their budget as they add all the things they forgot to include in the original RFP. And thanks to industry standards like hourly billing, people think they order features like they would ask a sink to be installed and they just pay the time. They pick out the sink and everything before you even meet, either on their own or with a design firm.
There's not a check and balance for asking WHY, and the typical discovery takes a long time to even drill down to what works best. The worst part for everyone is that this process hides how badly things are going to go, all because as soon as that feature list hit the RFP site the project was doomed.
So web-consulting's dirty little secret is this; those that know what they are doing on the web often get into the process too late, when no one is ready to listen, leaving no one to ask "why."
But this is fixable. If we change the way we approach the process, bringing in a little research and humility it can change everything.
So hang on to your hats, this is a long, but meaty post with actions you can take today to revolutionize not just your business but the web as a whole.
As a consultancy
Position yourself as more than just a code monkey early on in the engagement.
Find ways to make a consistent repeatable discovery process a required element in your consulting. In discovery learn about the client's business, how they make money, what they're users need, and what your client needs in relation to their industry. The web is a highly under utilized tool, but it doesn't have to stay that way.
Do not work on assumptions. "People don't read email" is a common lie, "no one ever reads the blog" what do the numbers say. Go by analytics whenever possible, and encourage your clients to hire good copy writers.
Find good marketing people and if you can afford to, hire them. If you can't hire them directly, affiliate with them and send each other work. And by good I mean someone who knows what a purple cow is. Someone who knows that a few people who are really helped by what you do is worth way more than 1,000s who barely care what you do.
This is why most marketing departments fail so spectacularly, because the focus (intentional or not) is on what numbers on a piece of paper look good to management at the end of the quarter, not building a long term viable plan for growth and sustainability.
On a micro code level this means leaving time for research, planning, and things like mapping your data to make it all make sense before you start typing. Mike even wrote a book about how to do this with Drupal, because knowing you should map your data and learning how to do it in an industry that values the shiny over the complete can be difficult.
In my experience about 75% of website decisions are made because of one of two things (on all size projects mind you.)
1) What makes the stakeholder(s) look good (i.e. Quarterly goals, friends, buzz words)
2) What their competitors are doing
What websites SHOULD be based on:
1) What benefits users most
2) What meets long-term goals
What this means as a consultant is that if you can solve the first set while still being able to keep the second set of reasons as top priority, you can accomplish so much more with your time on this planet.
Giving detailed pretty reports that are easy for non-techie's to follow the value of what they are getting keeps everyone happier. Having excellent, well paid, client managers who only manage the client, and a separate Project Manager who's job is to protect the dev team gives that check and balance within your own company making it easier for everyone to relax and make better decisions. (At Shomeya I wear both hats as Client and Project Manager, but I have very intentional ways I split those two sets of tasks.)
Side note VPs/CEOs, your developers know far more than anyone gives them credit for. Stop saying yes to every single thing the client wants when they call you up and promise more money. Let your Account and Project manager's do their job, and make sure when you find good management you pay to keep them. You'll know their good because you'll be listening to your developers, right?
As a consultant is the money worth the stress if you are always building things that bring zero value to anyone other than to get that person through their job review? I believe whole heartedly we are better than this.
The truth is you probably don't really know what your company's website needs, web marketing is still forming even those who use it day in an day out are still learning. Also it's a red flag if most of the sites your design firm shows you look like print ads.
At Shomeya we wear a lot of hats and so we learn a lot more than most out of necessity. Because of that we've learned the hard way that marketing, and the web, and your business, they all connect in ways that go over the heads of most humans.
But up until now we haven't been in the position to correct a lot of that folly, because we've always done things in an you order X and I code it workflow. By the time we try to correct things the decisions are already made.
The best web consultancy firms don't just write code or build things, they also help you make the best decisions, you know your business but they know the web.
Work with them, take a deep sigh of relief and be thankful that it's impossible for you to know everything. If your boss is having a hard time with this and your quarterly meeting date is making you nervous, be up front with your account manager. Ask them if there is a report or anything they can give you that explains in layman terms what is happening with the site.
What we are doing about it
As for us Shomeya we are no longer going to be part of the problem. Mike and I are working on consulting packages that make the process of getting what you really need out of the web easier, and will be premiering those in the upcoming months. If you want to know more signup at the mailing list below.
Yes, we'll have some kind of market rate, but it won't be hourly and it most certainly will not be building to spec all the time without questions. If we can't answer why in terms of value we won't be building it. Period.
We all need to be building things that matter in the long term, because the web is here to stay and we need to treat it that way. What are you doing to change the tide of the web-consulting workflow?
Also, checkout my quick-start guide on Transforming Foundation 5 to a Drupal theme Design frameworks can be a great way to help clients stay happy and have the time you need in projects to focus on the "why." The Bootstrap CSS version is coming up in the next few weeks so make sure you're on the mailing list to get the best pre-sale price.