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What would you get if you ordered your food the same way you commissioned your website?

Menu boardWhen it comes to commissioning a website, finding a web developer is just the start. If you want a brilliant website, you're going to have to put some serious thought into it yourself, says internet marketing consultant, Nigel Packer

A while ago I was visiting a new client's office. I was meeting with the managing director but his assistant asked me if I'd mind waiting as he was still in a meeting.

The door to his office was slightly open and I couldn't help but overhear the conversation taking place inside: "That sounds excellent and I like the price. When can you start?" asked the MD. "Next week - what do you want in the website?" came the reply. "You're the expert, you tell me!" said the MD.

The developer left the office thanking the assistant as he passed. I was ushered into the MD's office and as it was close to lunchtime, I suggested that we had our meeting over lunch. After settling into our seats we ordered a couple of glasses of wine and were left to study the menus. I made a point of not looking at mine; my companion appeared to notice this but did not comment. Presently, the waiter returned and turning to me, said, "What would you like to order?"

I immediately responded in an enthusiastic but slightly indignant tone, "Bring us food!" The waiter looked a little perplexed, "Um, what food would you like?" he said. "You're the expert, bring us food," I asserted. A rather confused waiter left the table and returned to the kitchen.

How not to order a meal - or a website

"This should be an interesting meal," I commented to my companion, who while remaining polite, was looking more than a little bemused.

Shortly the waiter returned with a platter of the finest seafood. It looked fantastic and was no doubt the best they had. The table was prepared and the waiter left us to enjoy our meal. However, after a short while of picking on his bread roll the MD - who looked a little embarrassed - announced that he was allergic to seafood and could not eat anything on the plate.

It was then that I took the opportunity to point out that my instructions to the waiter were the same as that which he had given to the web developer not an hour earlier. I repeated what he had said: "You're the expert, build me a website."

I posed the question to him, "What sort of website can you expect to get from a person who knows nothing about your business or its customers?" The MD immediately realised what he had done. The waiter was called back and another meal was ordered. We proceeded to discuss the new website project; he was very interested in what I had to say and said that he was going to call the web developer for another meeting the moment he returned to his office.

Too many web development projects start with "We need a website", and then quickly move on to contracting a web developer and instructing them to build the site - all without any research, setting of business objectives or consideration for customers.

Run of the mill websites

The result of this is seen everywhere. Many business websites consist of the run of the mill pages: a home page; about us page; products and services page; contact us page; and a few other pages thrown into the mix. The site gets built by the developer and is eventually published on the internet.

To the inexperienced eye of the commissioning client, the site looks good and the company happily signs off and pays the invoice. A few months down the line they may start to notice that the site is not performing as they expected. This often results in a second stage of web development: search engine optimisation, banner or other paid advertising; email marketing campaigns and so on, are all employed to drive new visitors to the site. The visitors come to the website but they do not stay long, nobody contacts the company and nobody places an order. Finally when all that has failed they call someone like me as a last resort.

Focusing on the customer

A review of the website quickly reveals that it is focused on the business and not the user. All the online paid promotion in the world will not be effective in generating sales or enquiries because the site does not engage the visitor. Their experience of the site is poor, it may be confusing to use or they cannot find what they are looking for. So they quickly leave and go elsewhere -­ often straight to a competitor who has paid more consideration to them in the process of developing their website and consequently produces better experiences for the user and therefore better results for that company.

So if you want your website to work for your business, while it is in the process of development you cannot abdicate responsibility. You may be relying on a website expert to build the site but you are the expert on your business so you need to be heavily involved in the development of your website. Your website represents your company to anyone who looks at it. Above all, remember who it is for: not you or your company, but your customers.

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You can also find advice and resources on building your website on the IT Donut.