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How to work with a Web developer

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Communication, commitment, mutual goals and understanding. A marriage? Of sorts. These are elements that form the basis of a good Web developer-client relationship. And as e-commerce becomes an integral part of many companies' business plans, this symbiotic union has become crucial. Here is some advice from those in the field on how to make this interactive partnership work.

Pick a partner.

Which Web developer or interactive agency a company chooses can determine how well and how far the partnership will progress. Yet selection may involve choosing more than just one mate.

For example, FedEx.com, the main Web site for Memphis-based Federal Express Corp., employs a combination of outside interactive agencies and internal developers.

"While most agencies try to be full-service providers, few, if any, reach excellence in all areas," said Claire Ruddy, manager of FedEx.com marketing.

Almost all of FedEx.com's design work, as well as a majority of its HTML, is outsourced. However, more complex projects, such as applications, are developed internally. FedEx also handles daily site maintenance in-house.

But the task of managing several Web developers with different initiatives, project managers and methodologies can be overwhelming for companies with limited resources and staff, said Chris Wilson, business unit leader for the interactive marketing group of Answerthink Inc., Miami. "Multiple vendors work differently. . .The pieces don't fit together very well."

Some, such as OfficeMax.com, the Web site for OfficeMax Inc., Shaker Heights, Ohio, have turned primarily to internal developers. The company did so a couple of years ago, although certain elements, such as the creation of an investor relations Web site, are farmed out.

"There are always going to be those pieces that are not really value-add for you to operate in-house," said Ryan Vero, president of OfficeMax.com/direct. "Yet it's important that we own some of the key value-add development in-house," he said. "The way the site functions and operates is really key to our business itself, so we would rather have our destiny in our own hands than somebody else's."

Define your expectations.

Whether a company is working with an external or internal Web developer, making expectations clear is crucial. "I expect the same thing from [our developers] that FedEx's customers expect: I expect them to deliver what I asked for and to do it on time," Ruddy said.

Yet both client and developer should be held accountable, Wilson said. "Clients have to maintain and control their expectations--about what the original vision was, how it was priced and how it was timed," he said. "Our end is bringing it in on time and on budget based on whatever we agreed to at the beginning of the project and making sure it upholds the end vision. So it's not necessarily always just about 'on time' and 'on budget,' it's also 'on strategy.'"

Clients should expect "true consulting honesty," Wilson said. "There are a lot of clients that have a lot of great ideas, but their visions don't match their budgets or their time lines," he said. "And as a Web partner, I need to be able to tell them what is accomplishable and what isn't, given those three factors. A good client will allow me to provide that information to them. And a good client should take that advice. Because it will mean the success or failure ultimately of the project."

Communicate.

FedEx develops long-term, close-working relations with its agencies, Ruddy said. Even so, "There are always challenges when two companies with different cultures work together," she said. "It takes communication to be mutually successful."

OfficeMax.com has found that it is easier to communicate its interactive needs with internal developers. "The benefit with our own people is that they understand our end customers better than any third party could," Vero said. "And we instill that in them not only by making sure all our developers and technical people are very involved in business discussions and business process development, but also that they go out to our call center and they answer the phones, and spend time talking to customers. That's not easy to do with a third party."

Internal or external, "It's a very collaborative process," Wilson said. As such, Answerthink tries to engage all of a client's different business arms-from marketing to financial to recruiting and human resources-that potentially will be affected by the company Web site. "We try to get all those people in on the project to some degree," he said, "even if it's just for interviews and for knowledge picking."

To keep communication lines humming, 3M.com and its e-business partner, Agency.com, have both made efforts. Kim Beach, manager of Internet services, corporate marketing in the e-business department at 3M, meets weekly with Agency.com project and account managers. "He is sort of our 3M executive steward," said Kevin Rowe, president of North American operations for Agen-cy.com Ltd., New York. "[Kim] coaches us, because 3M is not just one entity. There are a lot of individuals, groups, agendas and objectives. A lot of our bigger clients don't do that … and we struggle because they haven't appointed [a point man] and it's unclear who it is."

Agency.com, for its part, built a Web site early on that filters all Agency.com/3M.com project work and communication.

Secure a host.

A key question in any Web development partnership is: Who will host the Web site? Many large companies, such as Federal Express and 3M, own their own servers. Office-Max.com uses an outside source, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Exodus Communications Inc., which is responsible for the hosting hardware as well as the bandwidth that allows access to the Internet.

Neither Answerthink nor Agency.com hosts Web sites themselves, but both will recommend host partners to clients. Neither agency is responsible for negotiating the contract or taking care of server problems, but they may troubleshoot when there is a question as to whether the problem is at the server or in the development process. Security is also negotiated independently between client and server.

Face the challenges.

As with any relationship, there are stumbling blocks.

"Most of our problems are the result of inadequate communication," Ruddy said. "In team environments, it is possible to have 10 people in a room listen to an explanation of a business requirement for a technical product and each person in the room hears something different. We try to involve development from the outset of a project when possible. We also document our business requirements and then review technical specifications before coding is scheduled to begin."

Wilson stresses the need to stay focused, reminding clients: "If your business objectives change, then it changes where you are in the development cycle of the site. The Web partner needs to understand those changes and help the client look at the cause and effect that those changes might have on the end result: the site itself."

A big complaint 3M has had with many of the 70-plus interactive agencies its 54 units have worked with is "revolving faces, revolving people," Beach said. This lack of consistency in representation lends an inconsistency to the client-partner relationship, he said.

But he admits that 3M has not made the job easy for its yearlong partner, Agency.com. "From our side, we don't let them do their job," Beach said. "We ask them to do something and then we sort of handcuff them. Very early on I kept on saying: 'You know, we bought a thoroughbred, and what have we done? We've hitched it up to the 3M plow to make it plow the 3M way.' My job is to keep walking around and saying, 'Unhitch them.'"

What to do before you hire the developer
Before hiring any Web development team to create your Web site, you might want to consider the following points as a way to streamline your launch:

Ballpark your budget. Have a reasonable idea of what you can afford, taking into account the cost of the continued resources that will be required once the site launches. A Web site should never be considered "finished"; it requires frequent updating to ensure optimal customer retention. Web development can be an expensive proposition. Remember, in most cases, you get what you pay for, though there can be exceptions to the rule.

Write a preliminary project mission statement. A mission statement will focus your efforts by identifying the project's objectives and your desired customers. While companies have experience with defining desired business goals, they may not have similar experience identifying the breadth of the customer base. User scenarios can be very helpful in determining who your customers might be. You'll be surprised.

Identify your primary contact. This individual within your company will be the bridge between both parties. Ideally, this person should have the author-ization to approve low-level decisions. You should also identify the individuals who will sign off on the project and educate them about their roles and responsibilities. Time lost waiting for review and approval is one of the greatest causes of project delay and budget breakdown.

• Spend some time thinking about words or phrases, other than "make it cool," for the Web development team. Cool is just so 1996. Draw up a list of adjectives that come to mind when you describe your site. Words such as "traditional," "cutting edge," "multimedia," "minimalist," or "content-rich" can communicate your expectations to the Web development team. It can also be helpful to create a list of sites you admire-and those you don't. It's not necessary that they represent the same market sector.

• Chat up the project within your company. Educate yourself and your people. Some may feel threatened by the unknown and, for many, the Web is a very big unknown. An understanding of the benefits and growth potential of an online presence will warm those colleagues to supporting the endeavor.--Heather Champ.

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