Simply put, I wish The Admin Bar was around while I was running my agency. It has been fantastic to connect with fellow agency owners and provide each other with insights and best practices. The Standard Operating Procedure that I have provided below is a collection of processes and questions I personally developed and used with my web agency team. I hope this provides you with insights and perspectives that help you run a more profitable business with happier customers!
The goal of this document is to provide web agencies owners a sense of how I use to charge my clients for the Discovery phase process (back when I was running my 12 person web agency). I’ve come to appreciate the Discovery phase and in many ways consider it to be the most important phase in the web design process.
This document should not be considered the answer to all of life’s problems. I’m passionate about this topic, but that doesn’t mean there are perfectly fantastic alternative solutions to addressing the Discovery phase. Remember, I ran an agency in a silo; I did not have peers to bounce ideas off of. Had I been a TAB member in 2012, I may have started earlier in my career focused on value based sales (see post by Kyle), and that would have led to many other great solutions as well. This is a long winded message to simply state that there are many ways to go about solving challenges within web design. This document outlines how I personally solved the challenge for me, and I hope you get some solid takeaways to improve your operational efficiency, increase client satisfaction, and get paid for your time!
This outlook I have on Discovery may look intense, but I strongly believe that agencies are performing everything I discuss below, whether or not they are getting paid for it. The turning point for me and my agency was when I finally realized “Hey I’m doing a lot more for my clients than they even know. It’s important they understand what goes into the websites I build and I should be compensated for this!” <<< Seems simple enough, but the fact is that there is a LOT that goes into building a great website!
This article is undoubtedly set up to help you make more money within the Discovery phase. This is because most agency owners do not realize they put a lot more time into this part of the project, whether upfront (like I recommend) or later on in the project (when it becomes more expensive because you have more iterations).
If you are not charging for Discovery currently, I will just about guarantee that your pricing will increase if you implement the steps below. That may be good for you, but your future clients may be surprised when they receive your quote.
You can address client concerns with a simple fact: your objective is to build websites on time and within budget. You want to develop (and charge for) a blueprint before any design or development work starts. This means an upfront cost, but it also means way less risk in the future of something going wrong. You may not be the cheapest web design service provider out there, but you also are able to clearly communicate exactly what each part of the web design process will cost. In other words, your focus is on risk management; ensuring the project moves along the process as smoothly as possible.
Prospects coming to you that have been burned in the past will often find this messaging relieving and will be more inclined to work with you!
If you are sitting here, thinking ‘my clients are too small for this level of service’, then my return question is “are you targeting the right market?”. The fact is, if a prospect goes through this level of preliminary questions and also respects your Discovery phase, you have just about solidified the fact that this client respects the insights and opinions of third party service providers, which can be a huge way to remove red flags from your own pipeline. Something to consider!
I found myself branding my agency as ‘on time, within budget’. This messaging aligns with this fairly extensive Discovery phase, and it naturally selects clients that have gone through the pains of poor web development experiences.
What I can definitely say is for the projects that were $20k+, we had no issue at all having clients pay for Discovery. Motorola, for example, was a six figure per year client that expected this level of care (it took 5+ years to close accounts like Motorola).
Even if you don’t implement this method into your business operations, there is still one clear takeaway from this document: reduce project scope creep by getting answers upfront rather than after you started coding.
Some secret sauce: record calls with your prospects.
With permission, record calls with prospects sharing their vision for a new website. Then take notes after listening to the call recording. This allows you to pause, take notes, and reflect on their objectives. Yes it takes more time, but it is astonishing just how much prospects appreciate how diligent you are at understanding what they are trying to achieve.
Recording calls is extremely valuable because:
You can reiterate everything they are seeking in their new website, basically verbatim. People like to know that they've been heard. This does very well with converting prospects to clients.
You pick up on things you didn't originally fully comprehend when first talking with them
As painful as it may be, you listen to yourself communicating with the client. This will give you the ability to constantly improve your own personal communication skills.
Whether you choose to use the Discovery Deliverables below or create your own version, it is important to note that you should first start there before defining your sales process (and preliminary questions to see if they’re a good fit).
Below are the phases I had for a website project.
Identify client objectives, what they have (ie content or imagery), and their budget. Your objective here is to complete the ‘pre discovery document’ so that you can generate a quote for the discovery phase.
This is where you identify all aspects of the website. From user flows to sitemap to content to seo to image sources to functionality, you want to define as much as you possibly can to reduce any unknowns when moving into additional phases. This is also a good time to have a ‘future upgrades’ bucket to identify things to quote after you launch initial website.
Providing mockups. Do not move forward until mockups are signed off. Not discussed in this document.
Developing website. Not discussed in this document.
Deploying website to live server. Not discussed in this document.
If you have a team, take time to discuss the ups and downs of the project. What can you do to improve your SOPs so that future clients have an even better experience. Not discussed in this document but a critical component to constant improvement. If you don’t have a team, set aside an hour in your calendar to decompress on a project and figure out how you can improve your SOPs for the next project.
WOM so hard. Wish I had this when running my agency! Not discussed in this document.
Before jumping into the Discovery phase, it’s important to note what you (and your client) will be bringing to kickstart the Discovery phase. I would call it a ‘Pre-discovery doc’, meaning a document that you fill out and complete to provide a quote to perform the Discovery phase.
Yes, I believe charging for only Discovery is appropriate for most (not all) websites, and because this is probably a major new concept for readers, I am going to assume this flow for the remainder of this document so that there’s no confusion.
Have you ever found yourself working on a project and right before site launch the client asks you about SEO even though they’ve never brought up SEO as a goal? How about when clients all of a sudden have a rogue subdomain with a whole bunch of other features they thought was included in your original post? Or the client asks something like ‘where do my distributors go?” when you had no idea that the website was even intended to be usable for distributors?
These are just a few examples of how easy it is for a client to be disconnected from a web agency owner when it comes to a new website project. Having a formalized Discovery process can massively reduce these risks from popping up.
You are charging for Discovery to manage risk for a project. You are preventing scope creep.
Deliverables. You need to showcase what the deliverables of the Discovery phase are. We discuss this later, but high level, you are providing a blueprint for a project. Who builds a skyscraper without a blueprint? Or a house for that matter? Or even a shed? If you are building a campsite, then sure a blueprint isn’t needed. But if your building something more long term, you need to make sure as many questions are answered as possible before proceeding into additional parts of the project.
The goal of your sales questionnaire is to understand roles and responsibilities of the Discovery phase and to give you an understanding of what it will take (cost) to provide the Deliverables at the end of the discovery phase.
Keep in mind: It’s been over 2 years since I sold my agency and everything below is from memory.
Understand your Discovery deliverables and work backwards. What will get you to the point where you can provide the final deliverables? Do you need to hire contractors? Interview customers of the client? Define all pages?
Remember: your job is to reduce the risk from going out of scope/budget. Do all you can to give your project the best chance possible of success.
Upon getting all your sales questions answered, you should be in a position to provide a quote for the Discovery Phase. Find the parts of the project that they don’t have answers for, and provide a quote to get that answered for them. Be prepared to bring in contractors for ‘stuff you don’t do’, like copywriting, media production (photos, videos), SEO, extensive functionalities, etc.
As time goes on, you’ll be able to get a good idea of what each part of a project costs in terms of your time commitment as it relates to Discovery. By not designing nor developing, you are reducing risk for yourself and your client, saving yourself from making assumptions that lead to wasted time.
Also, there are some basics to any website project, setting up your tech stack, installing themes, plugins, etc, and making sure you’re paid for scheduled meetings (Kickoff call, content review, etc).
I found the most success defining all pages (or at least an idea of number of pages) before going into Discovery.
Client signed contract to only do Discovery. Fantastic! You’ve helped manage project risk. Now, your objective is straightforward: provide the deliverables of the Discovery phase to the client (along with a quote to execute the design/development/deployment phases).
I personally worked towards completing these deliverables by:
This phase will consist of you getting a lot of ‘stuff’ from your client, as well as through vendors for stuff like copy, functionality needs, etc.
This is what customers pay for when purchasing Discovery from you. This should be a
Client must sign off that the Discovery phase is completed before the Design phase can begin. This allows both you and the client to come back to this document in case either party goes out of scope later on. After Discovery signoff, all new ideas will be added to the ‘future addons’ document.
I am not the first and I certainly will not be the last to say this: there is a lot to go into building a website. The final product of a newly launched website is truly a ‘tip of the iceberg’ when compared to just how much time and effort went into all aspects of the project itself.
What you can control as an experienced agency owner is the potential risk of scope creep, and having a comprehensive Discovery phase can be the primary phase the manage scope to the best of your ability.
I also want to note that I was tinkering around with a ‘same day website’ program, where I charged $2900 and built a website for the client in a single day. In many ways, SameDayDev was the opposite to this hardcore sales/discovery program in that we were volume focused and worked with smaller clients with smaller budgets. This was right at the end of my career as an agency owner, and it showed tremendous potential. I think I did about a dozen of these “Same day websites” and the results were very promising.
With same day websites:
Wondering how to explain to your client why you charge for discovery? Here's a great article on that very subject from UGurus