Whether you’re a small business owner or an in-house marketer, you’ve probably had the experience of managing the redesign of a corporate website or a smaller individual project. Depending on how those have gone for you, you might perhaps substitute another noun or sentence fragment for the word “experience.” “Challenging but gratifying” is one realistic description we’ve heard many times from new clients. “Nightmare” or “clusterf*ck” are, unfortunately, other descriptions we’ve heard more times than we would like. In my 14 years of guiding clients through web projects, I’ve witnessed a range of success and satisfaction. While we continually strive to refine a process of design and development for our work which seeks to minimize the possibility of less-than-optimal results, even the best conceived process can be laid to waste by a client who doesn’t buy in or sabotages. In the interest of crisis prevention, then, here are 5 quick thoughts which represent our best practices which we’ve found work well for both client and agency. Do your research on design firms. Get references. Find one whose work you admire and who seem trustworthy. Make that leap of faith and trust them, right out of the box. Assuming you’ve researched and chosen well, they’ll have a process in place which will increase the likelihood of a successful engagement. Buy in to that process. If, further along, it appears that your trust was not well-earned, start asking questions. But, usually, the process they’ve developed is in both your interest and theirs. Either before you’ve hired your design agency, or shortly after you’ve brought them on board, do a big picture assessment of tasks and roles. For instance, are you hiring out the writing or is the writing going to be done in-house? In a lot of our engagements (especially professional service clients) a fair amount of writing is being re-purposed when we take on a project. Biographies or service descriptions are a examples of this. Even if those will persist through the next version of the site you should hire your creative agency to develop positioning language and headlines. Big ideas are more important to a sale than small ideas. And the language you use to sell your product or services — in the form of headlines and introductory copy — are the Big Ideas of your site. Besides the writing, what about photography or illustration? If those are essential tasks, then line up the talent as soon as you’ve got a creative partner on board. We’ve managed jobs where a client-chosen photographer was dismissed mid-project. It did not do favorable things for the project’s timeline. While we’re talking about timelines… Make one. As soon as you’ve signed a development partner. Here’s a little secret we’ve learned: we used to think timelines were a trap for the agency and were intended to give unfair leverage to the client. We felt that way because, over the years, we’d worked with a number of clients who demanded them but then didn’t pony up on their obligations, which inevitably caused the project to skew the original timeline. We then felt blame for not delivering a project on time. But, really, that experience only proves a timeline’s worth. A good timeline is written to outline not only what each party’s obligations are in the design process but, also, what the ramifications of non-compliance are. Not just for the vendor, but for the client as well. An emerging theme in this post is that any major digital design project is necessarily a collaboration between client and agency. While it is our job to create a site which accurately depicts the uniqueness of your business’ offerings, our success is directly dependent on sifting through the input we get from you, the client.An emerging theme in this post is that any major digital design project is necessarily a collaboration between client and agency. While it is our job to create a site which accurately depicts the uniqueness of your business’ offerings, our success is directly dependent on sifting through the input we get from the client. Define stakeholders and make sure they’re at every meeting. This is probably most helpful to the agency but in the spirit of “anything that keeps a project on schedule is best for all parties” I think it’s fair to say it has advantages for the client as well. Almost any professional with a few years of toil on their resume has had the experience of the “drive by boss.” You know the one we’re talking about. Maybe he’s a small business owner or a higher-up in a larger company that has multiple responsibilities. He’s got lots of things on his plate, and your website project is only one of them. He’s very concerned that this project aligns with the company’s marketing objectives. But he’s too busy to attend the first fifty percent of the project meetings for the redesign. Things might be going swimmingly with the web project. Both client and vendor are happy with the progress. Then, on a whim, Mr. Bossypants drops in on a project meeting or finally reviews the last set of comps from the agency. A Category 4 Shit Storm follows. The only way to avoid the aforementioned Shit Storm is to define stakeholders and obligate them in advance. If a higher-up is ultimately responsible for approving work from the vendor, make sure that higher-up attends meetings where work gets reviewed and approved (see item 5…) And make sure it’s his (or her) signature on the milestone sign off. And while we’re on the topic of milestones… Make sure milestones and sign-offs are a part of your creative partner’s process. Related to point #4, this last point provides even further clarity for client and vendor. If they’re good, your agency will have milestones built into their timeline with you. Here’s a little story… When projects get delayed, a client’s mind begins to wander. Ideas which once seemed fresh and wondrous can start to seem tired and stale. Once-loved color schemes now seem wanting or, worse yet, tawdry. Loud. Suddenly the client who “knows what he likes when he sees it,” starts “knowing what he used to like when he saw it before, but doesn’t like it now.” (Yes, we’ve actually heard that one…) The value of sign-offs and milestones to the agency are that they bind the client to a decision, which can protect the agency. The value of sign-offs to a client is that they encourage self-discipline and thoughtful analysis. And they keep your job on schedule. Summary Although it doesn’t always seem this way, at the end of the day almost every agency shares the same goals of their clients. We want you to be thrilled with the work we’ve done for you. We also want that work to succeed for you. We want this job to be the first of many we perform for you. We want you to get rich. Because — even if we’re not Republicans — we believe (a little) in Trickledown Economics.