This isn’t backed by any hard data, but I’ll bet that if you asked artists, makers, and small business owners what the the most dreaded items on their to-do lists are, “find someone to help me get the website my business needs” would be right up there with “ask my accountant about my taxes” (or “find an accountant to ask about my taxes”).

Picking a web designer has a lot in common with buying a car: it can be a big financial commitment, the options are overwhelming, and at the end of the deal you often aren’t sure whether you got what you wanted to buy or what the person on the other side of the deal wanted to sell you. Fortunately in both cases it’s pretty easy to pick out the good guys, because they’re the ones asking you the most questions.

In a perfect world, you’d know exactly what things you want your website to do for you, the best way to get those things done, and how to evaluate the relevant experience of all the web site builders vying for your business. The truth is even the biggest companies with the most exhaustive job descriptions don’t know all that. Neither do any of the people who you might pay to build your website.

They might have a general idea of what’s worked for other clients with needs similar to yours, but before they meet with you and get a comprehensive picture of what your business needs from a website they can’t (or shouldn’t) tell you exactly what’s going to work for you.

A good consultant knows that every job is a meeting of experts. Clients are experts at their businesses, and consultants are experts in their own domain of knowledge. That’s one of the two reasons why people hire other people to do work for them (the other is that people would rather spend money than time to get a job done). So it follows that a good consultant will spend a lot more time listening than talking during the first meeting with their client.

Questions You Want to be Asked

To make your first meeting the foundation for an amazing project, your prospective consultant is (hopefully) going to be asking you some questions about your business. If they aren’t asking you these questions, it’s probably time to go to the next consultant on your list.

As the client you need to be prepared, but don’t worry—these are questions that will be easy for you to answer, no homework required:

  • Do you have a website already? If you do, what you you see as its strengths? What do you see as its weaknesses?
  • What is going well for your business? What would you like to improve?
  • Where do you want your business to be in 12 months? How about in 5 years?
  • Who is your ideal customer?
  • Where do the majority of your sales come from? Do you want to change this?
  • In a perfect world, what percentage of your work hours would you spend managing your website?

Questions like these are a good sign that the consultant is starting from the right place: understanding your specific needs before picking out the tools they’ll use to address those needs. There are many consultants out there who work this way, but unfortunately not all of them do.

What You Don’t Want to Hear

Ironically, the question that should make you run in the other direction as quickly as you can is “what kind of website do you want?”

“But wait”, I can hear you saying, “I thought this article was about getting a good website?” And you’re right, it says as much up in the headline. But a website isn’t always the answer. You don’t want a website, you want to achieve the goals you have for your business.

A website might be a central ingredient, but what if it isn’t? What if your business is better served by a Facebook Business Page and an Etsy store? What if it turns out that the best strategy for reaching customers is to get on Instagram like it’s your job, or start a YouTube channel? You want a consultant who is going to point you in the right direction for your business, not theirs.

The Secret to Getting the Website You Need

Here’s the bottom line: the way to get the best possible website for your business is to not ask for it. Instead, when you meet with a web design, web development, SEO, or online marketing consultant, lay out your business goals and ask how he or she will help you achieve them.

These business goals will become your touchstones throughout the design process to test your ideas against to keep the project aligned with them. Whatever the end product is—a website, an online store, a podcast series—using those business goals as your compass ensures that it will help to move your business forward in the right direction.

Extra Bonus, Because Everyone Loves a Shortcut

When I prepare to meet with a prospective client, I put together a list of questions that I’m going to ask to make sure I understand their business needs and business goals. They’re questions that every business owner who wants to build or grow their business online should know the answer to, so I’m making them available here. The only thing I ask in return is your email address so I can follow up and ask you what you think and whether I’m missing something important. You’ll also get subscribed to my weekly newsletter so you’ll never miss a post or free bonus again:

    By submitting this form you agree to be added to the dbdc Newsletter email list. Please refer to our Privacy Policy for details on how we use and share your data.

    It’s not really cheating because I’m only giving you the questions, not the answers. But if you’d like to discuss the answers, too, I offer private half-hour phone consultations to anyone and everybody. If you want to talk about your own business and what it might need, sign up for a private phone consultation here.

    Photo credit: “Car Town” by Peter Romish via Flickr. CC BY 2.0