The Objective Blog

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Why We Want to Know Your Budget

January 15th, 2010 - by Brett Derricott - Salt Lake City, Utah

Anyone know a home builder who will give me a firm price for a home, based on the following specifications?

  • Probably between 4-6 rooms
  • A kitchen
  • One or two bathrooms
  • A garage

If I took this to a builder, I’d first expect a strange look and then, if the builder didn’t laugh me away, a long list of questions including stuff like:

  • You don’t have a clue what you’re doing, do you?
  • Where are your blueprints?
  • How many square feet?
  • Where is the lot and what is the terrain like?
  • Is it brick, siding, etc?
  • What materials are we using throughout? Granite or formica? Tile or laminate?

I’m no home builder so those probably aren’t exactly the questions the builder would ask but you get the drift.

We frequently receive the web-equivalent of this request and it baffles us. And, as usual, stuff that baffles us ends up on my blog. If you have thoughts from either the client or the vendor side of this, I’d love to have you comment below!

A Too-Common Request

Here’s an example of the kind of thing we’re often asked to price:

  • 15-20 pages, editable by the client
  • login area
  • e-commerce
  • newsletter sign-up

Sure, we can provide a range for a request like this, but the range is going to be something like $5-100k. Just like the home builder needs some details, it’s very difficult for us to accurately estimate a project with such vague parameters.

You Can’t Tell Us What You Don’t Know

Now that I’ve complained about the problem, let me tell you why I think it happens: lack of experience/knowledge. Most people haven’t ever requested an e-commerce site so they don’t really know what’s involved. With brochure sites, lack of experience isn’t a huge problem. But when a client is requesting something like e-commerce, the lack of detail provided to us becomes problematic.

It’s Custom, Not Boxed on a Shelf

If you want to buy an off-the-shelf website you can easily get a price. Why? Because it’s all boxed up, sitting on a shelf ready for purchase. You buy what’s in the box and that’s all you get. When you open the box you might discover that it doesn’t offer the shipping options or the product display options you need, but that’s too bad. You didn’t pay for a custom site, you paid for whatever was in the box.

When you buy custom development, like that offered by my Utah web development firm, there isn’t a box. Custom web development isn’t packaged, ready for purchase. The price depends on what you want and “e-commerce” isn’t an adequate description of what you want. It’s like walking into a restaurant and asking how much “food” costs.

Why is the Budget a Secret?

Clients seem to be afraid that revealing their budget will result in being swindled out of all of their money. When people ask me how to choose a designer, a developer, or an agency, I tell them to start with “trust”. Unless the client is experienced, in the end they’ll have to trust someone, and choosing the lowest-priced option doesn’t always mean they’ve chosen the most trustworthy option.

The “secret budget” may also result from feeling that announcing the price limit automatically means they’ll have to spend 100% of that budget, when they’re really hoping that someone will bid much below the budget. Trouble is, what are they going to get for that low bid?

If you tell me that you have $10k to spend, I’m going to tell you how to get as much as possible for that price. If you’re keeping that number a secret because you hope to only spend $5k, then you should just say that $5k is your budget.

Again, this all comes down to trust. If you trust me, you’ll know that I’m going to do what’s best for you within the budget you’ve outlined.

Risk Mitigation = Estimate Padding

When you’re unwilling to reveal your budget, our only option is pad the estimated price to account for risk. What risk is there, you ask? the risk is that you want more than what you’ve stated. Or, more accurately, that you’re expecting more than what you’ve stated. You said you want simple e-commerce. But in your mind, simple e-commerce is like Amazon. In our mind, simple is like a PayPal button.

In truth, a client who doesn’t understand the ins and outs of the web design and development process isn’t really qualified to define the scope of their project at the level we require. We’re always going to get imperfect requirements from the client, and absent a budget, we’ll have to make assumptions and guesses as to what the project will really involve and pad the price to account for the unknown.

This is a bit of a rant, I know. And I realize that things probably aren’t going to change anytime soon. But, if you have suggestions for how to deal with this issue, please post a comment for those of us who are still searching for the answer!