"I was wondering if you could give me a rough idea of..."
"Could you just give me a ballpark estimate on..."
"I'd like to get a sense of what's involved..."
At some point in my first conversation with a prospective client, I hear one of those sentences. It's natural -- before embarking on a new project, any one who signs the checks is going to want to know roughly how much it's going to cost. We all have an idea in our heads of the rough cost of a sweater, a toothbrush, or a bunch of bananas, but it's harder to estimate the price of something amorphous like a web site which -- ideally -- you don't have to buy all that often.
Jen Kramer, a wonderful resource in the Joomla community and writer of the best Joomla training manuals out there, has a chapter in one of her books entitled "I Want a Web Site and I Want It Blue -- How Much Will That Cost?" It's a great chapter for any new web consultant to read no matter what technology they're using. I met Jen at a conference when she talked about this chapter, and as she talked, all the nagging doubts I had about offering these estimates to my clients coalesced in my head into a strong ethical decision not to offer them anymore. This chapter illustrates perfectly why a "rough estimate" of price is really a disservice to your clients, even if they ask for it.
Let me step back a moment. Imagine approaching a general contractor and saying "I want a new house and I want it made of bricks -- how much will that cost?" The contractor would never answer that question with a number. It's just too vague a question, and we all know that. The contractor would want to know how many rooms you wanted, how many stories, how high the ceilings should be, how many windows, how many doors, what material you wanted for the floors, how fast you wanted it built, what the zoning and permit laws of your town are, and a whole lot of other things before an estimate was even possible. Otherwise, you might be imagining this house:
but be looking at a price estimate for this one:
(Both are made of bricks, after all.)
Therefore, when a prospective client approaches me and asks for an estimate, I always recommend that we talk about some of the details of what they want, either on the phone or in person. How many pages will be on the site? What kind of content will be in those pages? Does the site need an online calendar? Does it need to integrate social media? Does the site's owner want to be able to make changes to the site without my help after it launches? Does it need a contact form? Does the client already have a domain name and web hosting set up? Does the site need marble countertops? How soon does this site need to be live? It is always worth taking the time to answer those questions or, if necessary, thinking about them a little while and getting back to me.
There are developers out there who will tell you that a web site costs $2,500. I always wonder how they know that, and what their contracts look like, because I've built web sites for much less and much more than that price, all depending on the specific requirements of the client. If I charged the same price for every site, there would be someone getting a bad deal almost every time -- sometimes me and sometimes my client. I'm big on clear expectations and carefully detailed lists of deliverables, and not a big fan of rough ballpark general-senses. For most of my clients, outlaying the money for a new web site or an upgrade/redesign is a very serious decision. I believe it deserves my serious attention, too.