Things to Consider When Estimating for a Website Development Project

Do you sell website development services? If so, then you are well aware how difficult it is to keep projects in scope during the website development process. Oftentimes website designers price website development jobs according to the specs initially presented by their client. Unfortunately, the client doesn’t always know everything that he needs/wants until after the project has already been scoped. This leads to website development companies either eating costs or having to have very difficult conversations with customers in order to get paid for the additional functionality and features that clients request during the development phase. I like to refer to this as “scope creep”. This article is going to talk about how we can avoid scope creep OR be prepared to deal with it effectively when it inevitably occurs. After you’re finished reading this article my hope is that you will be better prepared to estimate your website development projects.

Website Development is a Tough Business

Building a website takes a lot of time and effort. The client doesn’t always realize just how much work goes into it. If you don’t properly set expectations and price things accordingly up front, inevitably there will be scope creep. The client will keep requesting things that weren’t scoped for during the proposal process. The client will also continue to put in requests long after the website has launched, which again, if not scoped for up front, will lead to some uncomfortable conversations or even worse, you eating costs. We don’t want that. Here are a few reasons why it’s so tough to estimate costs for website development projects:

  • Customers aren’t comfortable with what goes into building a website. This lack of knowledge leads them to think things are easier than they may actually be.
  • Customers can’t visualize a website prior to it being built therefore their needs change throughout the project
  • Oftentimes customers ask for more rounds of revisions than were scoped for because as the process unfolds they are continuing to look at other websites for ideas
  • Customers think that if they see something on another website that it can easily be incorporated into their website
  • Customers don’t realize that they will need additional support after the website launches. They don’t like to pay for that up front, but then they ALWAYS come back with email requests asking for changes once you’ve completed your end of the agreement.

5 Steps for Making Estimating Website Development Projects Easier

website project proposal

Now that we know the reasons why scope creep occurs during website development projects, we can start to focus on how to do everything possible up front to avoid it. Here are 5 steps for making website development estimating easier. Start step 1 after you receive a request to build a website.

  1. Create a standard list of questions that can be semi-customized for each customer. Customize those questions for your current proposal and send them over to your prospect before you even have a phone call with them.
  2. Meet with the customer to review their responses to your questions and to dig deeper into their needs.
  3. Create your initial proposal and submit it to the customer. Schedule a meeting immediately to walk the customer through the proposal.
  4. Set customer expectations based on the initial proposal. Collect changes to the scope of the project based on the initial proposal and your expectations setting conversation.
  5. Finalize the proposal and begin work.

Great, so we have a plan for how we are going to go about estimating for a website development project, but the steps above lack critical details in order for you to actually follow them. So let’s dig into each step in more detail.

Create a Standard List of Website Development Questions

Having a standard list of questions that you can send off to a prospect who’s asking for a website development proposal from you will help you get answers to important elements of building a website. It also forces the person requesting the proposal to think through the project up front. You can always refer back to their answers throughout the process if there is ever a need to do so. This critical first step also allows you to make step 2 much more effective. If you skip step 1 and go right into a meeting with the customer then that conversation is going to take much longer than it needs to. Be prepared for step 2, complete step 1 first!

Some initial questions might include the following:

  • How many web pages do you need for your website?
  • Who is responsible for creating the website design, architecture, and content?
  • How many decision makers will have to approve the website before it launches?
  • What’s your timeline for the project?
  • Who will be hosting the website?
  • Do you have an internal IT person who can update the website after it has launched?

There are a lot of other questions that would probably be valuable to ask up front, but this list will definitely get you started. Once you have these answers you can move on to step 2.

Have a Face-to-Face Meeting with the Customer

Having a face-to-face meeting with the person or people who are going to be decision makers for this website development project is critical to the success of the project. They must get to know you, and you must get to know them. Website development can become contentious at times, when you have a better understanding of the players involved, and have taken the time to build a relationship with them, most of the issues that come up can more easily be resolved.

website estimate

Now, just because you must have a face-to-face conversation with your customer doesn’t mean you have to be there in person. Use tools like Skype, FaceTime, etc. to facilitate these meetings if you’re not in close proximity to your customers. A side benefit is that your use of technology will probably impress them. It may be that you must have more than one meeting. If that’s the case then doing so via Skype will be much easier. Once you’re satisfied that you have as much information as possible about the project it’s time to create your initial proposal.

Create an Initial Website Development Proposal

It’s time to create your initial website development proposal. I say “initial” because proposals for website development almost always change once you’ve had a chance to review them with your customer and set expectations. Basically what you need to do is take all of the information they have given you, match that with your recommendations, create a long list of assumptions, break it down into a few areas of focus, and put pricing behind each area of focus. Areas of focus might include:

  • Design, architecture, and content development
  • Website Build
  • SEO
  • Hosting
  • Post-Launch support

The key here is to give your customer enough information so that they understand just how much work is involved, but not so much that it overwhelms them or provides them with too much to nitpick. I usually like to pad hours for website development projects as customers inevitably ask for a reduction of costs, without cutting down on the tasks. Once you’ve put the proposal together, reviewed it, and are OK with it, go ahead and send it off to your contact. Be sure to request a meeting ASAP. Don’t let too much time go by without walking the customer through it.

Set Customer Expectations

During your proposal review meeting, you absolutely have to start setting customer expectations. You do so by explaining each area of the proposal, explaining what it includes and also what it does not include. You want to make sure that everyone is clear as to what is covered and what is not. I even recommend that in some areas where you did not include something, but you can foresee it becoming an issue future-forward, that you bring it up during the call. Explain to them that although it’s not covered in the proposal, you think they should consider including it OR simply remember that if they request it after you’ve started work, you will have to submit a change order to the project costs.

Another thing to be sure to openly discuss during this meeting is change orders. You can be honest with them. Explain to them that in your experience website builds often have scope creep. Cover the reasons why that is. Let them know that it’s OK to change the scope as long as they are all comfortable with the fact that when the scope changes, they should expect your budget to change as well. If you get your customer comfortable with this process up front, then they will be prepared when you send them an updated budget or change order.

Setting customer expectations is the single biggest step in this entire website development proposal process. Those who do it well will experience much less pain moving through the website development process.

Finalize the Website Development Proposal

Here it is… the final step in winning a new website development job. Finalize your proposal. Take everything that was discussed during your initial proposal review meeting, incorporate it into your proposal and finalize it. Be sure to put in a list of “assumptions” based on what was discussed at the meeting. If your customer said they are providing all of the content, be sure to state that. If they said they do not need post-launch support, include end dates for the work. The biggest thing during this step is to just be smart and think it through before you finalize your bid. If you do that, then you should make things much easier on yourself once you start work.

Website development is a tough business. We all know it far too well. Things can go South quickly and people can lose money even quicker. If you follow the steps we’ve outlined in this article you will be doing everything possible to minimize that risk. Start your website development projects off right, follow the steps above, set customer expectations, keep open lines of communication, and you should be just fine.

What do you think? What’s been your experience when it comes to estimating website development projects? Do you have any other tips that might help all of us when we are scoping work? Please leave your comments below. We can’t wait to hear them.

Ryan Taft

Ryan Taft is a twenty-something entrepreneur with a passion for helping small businesses use online marketing tools to reach more customers and prospects, build relationships with those folks, and ultimately grow sales.

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Comments

  1. says

    Brilliant and a truly enjoyable read!

    You hit on multiple key areas but I agree, the trick is to manage expectations from the get-go and not be shy about clearly stating what the estimate includes. If you run the mistake of being “cool” you’ll be stuck with an unhappy client that is nagging and distracting you months after the job was completed. Interesting how the developer/designer team always defines “completed” as one thing and the client as another – very important to make the deliverables clear so there’s no confusion as to what “completed” means.

    We do a pretty good job at addressing most of these concerns with our pricing tool, but no matter how eloquent we may be, “Scope Creep” is one of the best terms we’ve heard!

  2. Morgan says

    A face to face meeting is a must! It gives you the opportunity to interact, observe as well as ask all the relevant questions that you can think of to size up a project. Throughout the meeting, present certain ‘pre-assembled’ solutions and features you are confident in terms of price and work it into the conversation. This way, you can slowly pick the client’s brains on whether you’re either too expensive or way too cheap to be working for them.

    However, do not be to desperate for a sale and end up selling yourself short if you feel you’re worth it.
    Keep your integrity.

  3. says

    I think these are great tips for the virgin web designer. As time goes on and you get more experience, you will ask these questions like you have been doing this for years. The better organized you are on the front end, the better relationship you will have at the end of the project. Our goal is just not to build a website, but to manage and market a client’s website. To do this, you must have a solid plan and keep the communication lines open. Most upset clients could have been avoided by upfront and detailed plans of action.

  4. David Williams says

    A fantastic article, Ryan! I’m at once relieved to see that my agency is already doing most of the steps you mentioned and motivated to refine the process further to become even more proactive in educating our clients up front on not only HOW a website is born (i.e., the process), but also WHY the project costs as much as it does (i.e., the labor).

    There are a lot of misconceptions out there about how much a good website should cost, and yet every client understands the value of having one. Managing expectations absolutely is the number one weapon against “scope creep.” Every client has a wish list, and as with any product or service out there, adding more features inevitably requires more time and, therefore, money. Strange how some think websites are the exception to that rule!

    It’s somewhat comforting to know the challenges of estimating for website design and development are “universal.”

  5. Edgar says

    This article definitely points multiple flaws I’ve crossed with my first project.

    Thanks,
    Ryan Taft.

  6. Kelvin Lee says

    It’s all too often that clients just want to have a quick estimate so that they could compare with others they have enquired from other agencies (it happens 9 out of 10 in Hong Kong). Apparently it may simply be pre-mature spending too much time to estimate the project and prepare proposal right off the bet.

    What I normally do would be to provide a STANDARD RATE for a particular type of website with limited information from a few of the most critical area, including the type of website and no. of languages involved. Client can compare all they want at this stage, our effort is no more than just back and forth with a few emails anyway (so be it and good luck with client if they could find anyone cheaper yet can deliver a successful project lol). If client does come back with more question or interest, than that’s the time to begin with the proposal estimation as Ryan suggested :)

  7. Michael says

    I have problems almost always start a project because the client tends to look for options that go against usability and design, sometimes the great model that requires the client does not work and makes it hard to let them know

  8. Rajesh Menon says

    Good one Ryan. The book ‘Creating a Website’ by Mathew McDonald is also a good reference.