Professional services firms’ websites matter
Prospects use your website to check you out before phoning or emailing to see if your site matches the claims made by your own staff and referrers, and whether you have the depth of expertise they need.
Prospects also use search engines to find you (or more specifically your articles) and clients use your website as a phone book, deal room, news source, billing interface and for other transactional reasons.
So if you’re going to rebuild your website and move away from your current website designer it’s a non-trivial decision.
We don’t do external web development so don’t have an axe to grind – and we gain good insights from the website analytics work we do on best practice on prof services websites – so it’s something we’re often asked about by clients and other contacts.
Because website rebuilds are complex projects here’s five things to think about in choosing a website designer
- Website redesign goals
- Your developer’s experience with professional services firms
- Lock-in issues
- Launch and maintenance costs
- Doing due diligence on your website designer
1. What are your website redesign goals?
Trite as it sounds, having a good understanding of a professional services website’s broader goals is critical. And just with respect to designers:
- are you looking to retain your current content management system (WordPress, Kentico etc) and just transition to a new website design company?
- are you looking for a completely new website and content management system (CMS) and maybe don’t care that you’ll lose some visitors in getting there?
- are you merging with another professional services firm?
Retention of your existing content management system (with a new website builder)
Nine times out of ten, CMS retention is the best option unless your CMS is proprietary to your current developer, or largely non-existent (so you’re in the position of having to ask them to perform the majority of content updates).
Don’t confuse problems with your developer or your website with problems with your content management system: CMSs like WordPress are specifically designed to separate a presentation layer (in WordPress’s terminology a Theme) from underlying operations (like adding a new page) and in turn the database that contains your content. If your site’s slow, maybe a plain old caching plugin will help more than a new website and it will be much cheaper!
The chances of losing traffic to your website after the revamp are also lower if you’re retaining the same CMS and if you’re careful not to change your urls or to redirect urls if you do change them (read this for the big six standard revamp pitfalls in prof services website projects).
Naturally you’ll need your prospective web designer to have had significant experience in developing with your existing content management system – if they try to get you to move to a different CMS and then, only after you dig your heels in, reluctantly concede they’ll work with your existing CMS, that’s generally not a good sign.
Re-doing your website from scratch
If your current website developer is using an obscure proprietary content management system or worse you have to go to them to make nearly all content updates, then you likely need a new CMS as well as a new website. You should choose your CMS first and then your developer and not the other way around.
As urls will likely change and you’ll want to preserve visitors coming to your website, you’ll need to carefully manage redirects and verify your developer is staffed up to handle a large scale content migration. Consider how many articles you write annually and multiply by the number of years you’ve had a website (15+ years) and that’s the minimum ballpark size of the migration (to which you can add fee earner profiles and practice group pages).
As much as you want your website to stand out by looking different from competitors, there are critical conventions professional services firm clients expect, and also features that should be on every site such as:
- a Contact Us top level menu item
- consistent hyperlinking conventions (if you asked someone who’d never used your website before what was a link and what was static text would they be right 90% of the time?)
- 30% to 40% of users will be coming from mobile devices with all that means for site navigation, copy length and structure and font size
- there’s a right way and wrong way to structure things like fee-earner profile urls or publication urls for SEO and other purposes
- there are standard pieces of functionality relating to things like printing, sharing, or language translation that are often left out of new rebuilds even though our website analytics work shows each is heavily used or important for tracking high value outcomes
Finally if you’re the senior or junior merger partner in a merger of two separate professional services firms your website traffic goal should be sum-of-parts and not to lose all the traffic that was going to the junior merger partner firm’s website.
Whether or not you’re sticking with your existing CMS, don’t forget that your website’s analytics is actually your biggest source of information about your market (and just because it’s a new website doesn’t mean you need a new Google Analytics account).
In this article we’re assuming that you are an existing firm with several fee earners (say 5+) and likely with existing content as well.
If you are a brand new firm setting up with just a couple of fee-earners and no pre-existing content you could consider a point and click website builder such as Wix or Squarespace which bundles hosting and other functionality together in a monthly fee. We don’t recommend these systems for existing firms because of the lock-in involved, the higher costs over longer periods, and also because of the inherent limitations of these platforms – but for a startup firm it may be a way to get up and running relatively quickly at lower cost and lower risk (the most common platform we see professional services firms use is Wix which has several specific law firm templates).
2. Has your prospective website builder ever done work for a professional services firm?
What works for consumer goods websites doesn’t necessarily work for professional services firms.
A developer who has previously worked on a professional services firm website should need less of a cost margin in quoting for the work and have familiarity with the database structure a prof services firm needs.
For example, for WordPress, they’ll likely add custom post types for fee-earners, practice groups and articles. And practice groups will be the glue that holds everything together (so that you can automatically show the most recent articles matching a practice group or fee-earner who is a member of multiple practice groups, or show related articles against an article covering the same practice group).
A designer with familiarity with professional services firms will better understand:
- what it means if one of your firm’s partners asks for something
- the differences in internal opinion in general practice firms who do both private client and corporate work
- have experienced the perennial discussions about whether to show all fee-earners on the site or just partners (if you think there’s a risk of junior fee earners being poached it’s worth having a look at a website out there called LinkedIn and it’s also worth considering the message you’re sending to senior associates if you don’t have them on your website) and whether navigation should show industries as well as practice groups
- have some knowledge of any professional rules / ethics rules in your jurisdiction and how they impact your site
There are often significant tensions inside website development companies just as there are in your firm that it also pays to be aware of.
So for example a web design company makes more money by reusing components they’ve already put into other websites, but individual developers in the company can be more interested in doing something new and groovy which furthers their personal programming career. Some red flags might be if a developer says to you that:
- ‘such and such open source CMS platform has all sorts of security issues‘ (and therefore that you need a very niche CMS) or
- ‘you need a single page continuous scrolling application‘ or
- ‘printing is passé and you don’t need a print tool in the page‘ or
- ‘you need inverted text to stand out‘ (light coloured text on a dark coloured background)
Let us know your personal favourites if we’ve missed any…
3. Lock-in issues
One of the principal advantages of using very common content management systems like WordPress is that you should be able to change website design companies without much trouble.
However, because of the high cost of acquiring new clients for web development projects, your website designer may want to achieve the opposite.
A common method of tying you in will be to offer combined hosting and development packages with the principal selling point being ‘a single point of contact for all problems’. It’s superficially appealing but there are also some downsides:
- Support: your support for anything has to come through your designer (say if the site is down) as you have no direct relationship with your host. An example of where this can go wrong is when your site goes down, is hacked, or has other issues going into a public holiday (hackers will specifically target something like a Friday night for just this reason). Professional hosting companies have 24×7 support that deals with this scenario where your web developer might just be away camping on the coast.
- Cost: many website developers will outsource the hosting and charge you a margin on top of what the host is charging them. Secondly support is part of the contract with the host so the host typically won’t charge them for simple support requests. Whereas a developer can charge their normal chargeout rate to you for tasks that the host is doing for them for free as part of the hosting contract (and somewhere in the numbers you’re being charged an hourly rate for the work they do in simply moving your site to the new host).
- Control of the website: if there’s a dispute with your developer they can simply turn the website off even though you own it. And it’s more difficult to move to a different developer as you’ve got to go through a move to a new host at the same time (you can’t just remove their credentials if you decide to go to a new developer).
- Hosting quality: with a direct relationship with a host you get the host you choose rather than just getting your designer’s choice of host. For example the cheapest form of hosting may stack too many sites on to the web or database server instances so that response for users of the website is slow.
If your site is based on custom apps written by your designer then you’re going to have to go back to them to get them changed, and you’re also relying on your developer to patch them when security issues arise, or simply when the content management system platform is upgraded or patched which is not infrequent (software development companies typically attribute around 80% of their own costs to maintenance and 20% to development).
The advantage of broadly adopted CMS systems like WordPress is that there are thousands of add-ins or plugins (58,403 at the time of writing) which in turn are used across thousands or even hundreds of thousands of websites, versus apps being solely maintained for you by your developer. A good history of revisions and patches on a publicly available app and thousands of websites using it are all good signs that a plugin is going to maintained and upgraded (see also the discussion in the Costs section below).
For things that are unique to your site such as the Theme (visual design) for your website in WordPress, that should ideally be a child theme of a commercial theme where the commercial version is regularly patched and updated.
4. Launch and maintenance costs of your site
There are of course a range of factors that influence the cost of your site, including the overall ambitiousness of the project. However it’s worth highlighting some other factors which are actually independent of your site’s ambitions.
More proprietary content management systems like those sitting on Microsoft web platforms such as Umbraco or Kentico may have subscription costs so you need to both purchase them initially and upgrade them over time. With more niche CMS’s there may even be some level of risk they won’t continue to be supported (and will be orphaned). Open source CMSs like WordPress do not have subscription costs and patches are issued for free.
You’ll also likely benefit from basic caching or using a content delivery network (CDN) which caches your site both locally and across your region (or even internationally) to improve the response speed for users. CDNs also have some ongoing cost component.
Onshore vs offshore or hybrid
With major content management systems like WordPress there’s a deep global pool of developers versus narrower competition (and therefore higher costs) for more niche CMSs like Umbraco.
So a widely used CMS creates options to take advantage of lower cost offshore development. Think $40 per hour versus $150 per hour.
In many cases, even if you think you’re using a local website builder, your developer themselves may be acting as a middleman and outsourcing part of the development offshore, unbeknown to you the client.
In talking to lawfirms, offshore development models do sometimes raise concerns, but perhaps overblown concerns in our view.
Lawfirms assume there is less accountability if the development is offshore and that there will be higher communication overheads. But local web development companies have little in the way of physical assets in litigation situations anyway (and can just rebrand). In addition, with decent project management/bug tracking software and conferencing tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams it may not matter whether the developers are in the same city versus just a similar timezone and different country.
There are also good hybrid models where for example you can launch with an onshore website designer but use an offshore team to iterate and maintain. If there is a high probability of project variations (of course the later in a project you make changes the higher the cost of the variation) an offshore website designer can represent huge savings and/or a much better website for the same budget.
5. Due diligence and your developer
Having chosen your platform and interviewed a prospective website design firm you like the look of, how can you carry out some level of due diligence?
If your website builder is on marketplace websites like Upwork or other similar sites they will have reviews and scores just like you would find if you bought from a vendor on Ebay. Arguably, aggregated scores will actually give you a better and more objective idea of whether your developer is good (or not) than you would get by asking us or industry colleagues for recommendations.
If the developer is not on marketplace sites they will still have had other clients. Talk to their clients. Many website designers will use backlinking schemes that inadvertently identify clients they have previously worked for that they are not listing on their website. This might enable you to talk to someone other than reference clients.
Look at the source code of pages on their website
Have someone with a little web experience look at the HTML source on the developer’s own site or their client’s websites (it’s visible to any website user). You can often see what plugins they use, what the SEO implementation is like, and even whether the code is well structured.
Connect on LinkedIn
By connecting to staff at your prospective developers you can see their connections and there will be ex-client contacts amongst their connections. Match these people against the developer’s showcase and consider if you might reach out to them.
Got a question about any of the above, or features you’re thinking about for your new website, or want to understand what’s working (and not) on your current website via the site’s analytics before you commit to the next iteration (you should) – get in touch. If you’ve made it this far through this article we definitely want to hear from you.
Photo by hnnbz