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How many of your firm’s prospective clients will visit your website? Don’t be surprised if it is close to 100 percent.

For accounting firms, acquiring a new client is a complex sale. The needs can be specific. The costs can be high. And clients require a certain comfort level before they sign. It all adds up to a sale that can take months, or even longer. It is very likely that, somewhere in all that time, your client is going to prowl your firm’s website looking for specific information.

An investment in redesigning your firm’s website can be a good one, but it is also fraught with risks. As anyone who has undertaken a few technology projects can attest, there is much that can go wrong.

While the culture surrounding technology is different at every accounting firm, many website disasters have common origins:

● Too Many Chefs: Large decision-making teams have trouble with consensus and can grind a project to a stop. In contrast, a team of two to four people who are empowered to make decisions can move things along. Separate processes can be put in place to report progress and obtain feedback.

● The Torpedo: A high-ranking leader who does not have time to participate in the process but must approve the final launch is a recipe for problems. Often, the result is major changes very late in the process. In at least one case, we saw a CEO outright kill a project six months in—after it was built.

● Mission Creep: This concept is familiar to us all. But in a technology setting, it can cause an effort to collapse under its own weight. Projects get so complex, they simply never launch.

● Unrealistic Expectations: Requests for a website like Apple’s or for the heavy-duty features seen on large companies’ sites (think Amazon) are common, and they can bog down what should be a straightforward redesign.

● Inaccurate Scope: It can be tougher than expected to log all the features on your current website and all the features you want in the new one, but it’s essential to do it right. Miss something and it could cause major problems that delay a launch.

The RFP is Not Your Best Tool

The traditional Request for Proposals, while ideal for some situations, is not the best tool to identify a top-shelf web firm. While an RFP does have the benefit of forcing your firm to think through its needs, at least superficially, there’s no guarantee that you are asking the right questions in your RFP, especially if your firm has little technology experience. Ask the wrong questions, and you taint the process at the start.

An RFP can also make it difficult to see what makes a firm unique. By nature, RFPs force responding companies to answer a set of questions, rather than presenting their strengths in their own way. The result can be answers that fail to highlight major assets. Put another way, a confined process tends to produce constrained answers, making every company look similar.

Then there’s this: many capable firms simply don’t respond to RFPs. If you own a web firm, an RFP represents an expenditure of time and effort. It can take one employee a day or more to prepare just one competitive response—with no guarantee that there will be any return. In many cases, there are simply more efficient ways for these firms to secure business.

Rather than trying to attract a firm with an RFP, take a proactive approach and go hunting for the firm you want. Of course, the number of choices will almost certainly be intimidating. No matter where your firm is based, there will be many options, and many more if you consider national firms.

To narrow it down, start by looking at companies that specialize in accounting firms, or at least have served many accounting clients. Ask your colleagues for recommendations. A company that understands the industry and its needs can be a huge help when it comes to drafting a scope and creating a design.

Pick a handful of prospects and then put them through some rigor. How do they stay on budget? What is their design process? How do they avoid all the common pitfalls that can drag a project down? Talk to some references. In fact, if you can, spend some time with their personnel. As you walk through this process, a strong contender will almost certainly emerge.

Taking the time to hire the right firm means that you must move beyond the RFP.

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