Challenging the client over their specification

Paul Boag

When a client comes to us asking for a particular solution, it is important that we have the confidence to suggest an alternative if what they are proposing is wrong.

I recently read a post that Gary Marshall wrote for .net magazine. In his post he challenged us as web designers to be more honest with our clients, even if that loses us business.

Let’s be Frank

In the post Gary introduced us to a client called Frank who runs a local business selling materials to the building trade. Gary suggests that many web designers would sell Frank an ecommerce site when he simply doesn’t need one. He argues that Frank sells off of convenience, expertise and going the extra mile, rather than price. He cannot compete with other ecommerce sites that swap low margins for bulk.

Gary argues that Frank doesn’t need an expensive ecommerce website and I agree with him. He also implies that web designers would sell him one, just because it is an expensive solution.

I think Gary does us a disservice as web designers. In my experience few web designers would sell a client on an idea they didn’t need. However, what I have seen web designers do is agree to build something for a client that they knew would be useless.

Often clients have an idea in their head about what they need, which really isn’t the right solution. Take Frank for example, I could imagine Frank coming to a web designer thinking he needed an ecommerce site when he didn’t. Would you build his ecommerce website, or would you suggest an alternative?

What we should be offering Frank

Personally, if I was approached by Frank I would encourage him to consider a blog, rather than a traditional ecommerce site. This would give him a platform for demonstrating his expertise and a chance to go the extra mile for customers by sharing great advice. This would not only reinforce his reputation but help his search engine position.

If he found that this attracted an audience (which it may well do especially when supported by an email newsletter), he might want to invest further by adding stock levels to the site. It would be great for Frank’s customers if they could check to see if what they wanted was available before driving to Frank’s place. This would further reinforce his reputation for convenience.

If all of this proved successful, only then would I start discussing an ecommerce site with him. By then he would have a loyal audience that was willing to pay a premium for his products because of the service they receive. However, if he was going to go down the ecommerce route and couldn’t compete on price he would have to compete on service with things like next day delivery and unconditional return policies.

The right solution for Frank, not us

In other words I don’t necessarily agree with Gary’s assertion that ecommerce isn’t right for Frank, its just a matter of implementation. What I do agree with is that we as web designers have an obligation to offer Frank the right solution for him, not just the one he asks for or the one that makes us the most money.

“Busy tradesman posing with his building materials” image courtesy of