What Contacting 25 Creative Agencies Taught Me About Small Business Web Design Inquiries



by Cameron Alcorn September 4, 2014   Web Design

In the world of web design, there’s one stumbling block, one hurdle, one learning curve, that at one point or another stumps every web designer or developer in the industry: customer inquiries. Ah yes, those wonderful emails and calls from eager customers who are ready to throw money at us and let us design and develop elegant websites according to our heart’s desire… well, something like that. Usually, this is a painful experience for the designer or developer.

Needless to say, there is the flip-side. Imagine for a moment that you know nothing about web design and development (and if you really don’t know anything, just keep being you). You want a website, but you don’t know how much it will cost, you don’t know what’s a reasonable price, and, worst of all, you don’t know how to articulate your vision. You’re lost.

Well, for one week I tried to put myself in the shoes of a client.

Becoming the Client

It was time to take the plunge. I would take on a new personality, a new persona, and learn to see through the eyes of a client. But where to begin?

First, I needed to determine what my function was. Was I a business? An individual? What did I do? A freelancer seemed like the best option, since a company could easily be searched for. Next, I had to pick a field. Photography seemed simple enough. Why not?

But what about my name? It had to be generic, something common… Smith… something Smith… Carl! My name would be Carl Smith. Certainly there are ton of Carl Smiths in the world, or at least the United States.

Lastly, I just happened to have a bunch of royalty-free stock photos from San Francisco. I guess that would seem believable enough. I’d live in San Francisco.

The end result…

I was Carl Smith, a San Francisco based photographer, who just happened to need a website.

All I had to do was come up with a project idea and begin seeking professionals who could help Carl’s dreams become a reality.

My mission began.

Project Requirements

Every client, even the most uninformed, has a vision. I needed to construct my vision, and with it, a list of basic requirements. For the sake of limiting variables, I came up with the following specifications:

  • Carl would want a simple 4 page website.
  • The site would need to be responsive.
  • He would want a specific domain name.
  • He would want one custom email address.
  • He would want Google Analytics put on his site

Seems simple enough, right?

All I had left to do was provide a design. A few trips to unsplash for photos and a couple trips to Photoshop and I had my website design!

the home page

about page

gallery page

contact page

Contacting the Agencies

Now it was time to gather estimates. I put together a list of 25 different creative agencies, specializing in web design and development. Out of respect for the agencies, I will not list them here. However, to give you some context, all agencies were either based in San Francisco, CA, New York, NY, or Chicago, IL, for the sake of variety.

My cookie-cutter email went something like this…


Just to give you a brief introduction, my name is Carl. I’m a photographer from the San Francisco Bay area.

Today, I’m requesting your services in the development of a website. Here are the specifications:

  1. I need you to register the domain: carlsmithphotography.net
  2. The site will consist of 4 pages
  3. The website needs to be responsive (e.g. ready for mobile devices)
  4. I need a custom email address, along with the site
  5. Set up Google Analytics on the site (Just put the code on the site. I can handle the dashboard later)

Attached, you’ll find the designs.

Before we begin, I would like an estimate for how much this will cost, overall. In addition, if you can breakdown the cost of each item that is on my list of specifications for me, that would be amazing.


Okay, so pretty simple stuff. I’d already given way more details than the typical client would. On top of this, I was sending these guys the designs to review ahead of time. All I needed was a ballpark estimate and, preferably, a breakdown of the costs.

One would assume I could get an estimate… one would assume.

The Response

Here’s where things get interesting.

Carl’s project was certainly not a huge undertaking, but business is business. Surprisingly, only 60% of the agencies responded within the week, which included 5 business days.


Of the agencies that responded, 60% of the agencies required 2 or more emails with additional details back and forth before giving an estimate. The longest email chain was 8 painful emails long.


Only 27% of the agencies that responded actually gave me a full price breakdown, as requested. Interestingly enough, there was no correlation between the number of emails requesting more details and whether or not there was a breakdown of the various costs.


Overall, there seemed to be a lot of hesitation from the agencies – getting an estimate was like pulling teeth. When I finally did receive estimates, very few of them told me how they arrived at the estimated price.

Now, it might not seem unreasonable that most of the agencies gave me a total price without a price breakdown… until you see the estimates I received.

The Estimates

The hesitation to give me an estimate without gathering further details, I can understand. I can even sympathize with the agency that dragged out the process for 8 emails, requesting more and more details before giving me a roundabout estimate. After all, I’d hate to be the guy who gave an estimate that was too low, only to find out the project was much larger than expected.

What I really had trouble coming to grasps with was the variation in price, from one agency to another. Below, you can see the estimates I received, sorted from lowest to highest:














$2,200.00 – $2,500.00


$2,000.00 – $3,000.00








$3,500.00 – $7,000.00







The lowest estimate was $850 and the highest estimate was $15,000! That’s over a 1500% price difference. What?!

So, there’s some variation in price, if you can’t tell already. The lowest estimate was $850 and the highest estimate was $15,000! That’s over a 1500% price difference. What?! How does that even happen? I was dumbfounded by some of the incredibly high prices for this relatively simple project.

What Can We Learn?

This says something about the current state of small business web design. For a larger contract or company, I imagine there would be in-house experts to help in the process of choosing an agency. Perhaps there would be a bid for the contract. But what about smaller businesses? They’ll likely have a rough time, for a few reasons:

1. Most small businesses and individuals will not have a clear vision.

Carl knew what he wanted. In fact, he had a design ready from the get-go. Even so, I ended up sending a lot of emails, providing additional details, just to get an estimate. Most businesses and individuals will not know what responsive design is, or domain registration, or even how to describe their desired website design. I can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone more inexperienced in web design to articulate his or her vision.

The Solution: Do the heavy lifting for the client.

A good agency will help educate their clientele and help them find what they really need. Carl’s request was relatively detailed, yet, the questions I received from the agencies only got more complex. I’ll be honest, if I didn’t have a background in web design and development, I would have been lost. Articulate, educate, and be decisive when helping potential clients.

2. Most clients will be turned off by huge email chains.

To receive an estimate, I should not have had to partake in extensive email chains. In fact, some of the email chains extended beyond the week long experiment period, meaning, I probably would have gone with one of the more hassle-free agencies that answered my questions in a more timely manner. Most of the agencies would have missed the boat, so to speak.

The Solution: Create a checklist / project outline form for the client to eliminate unnecessary emails.

Whether it’s asking a client to fill out a PDF or directing a client to an online form, it’s better than having a back-and-forth discourse over a dozen emails.

3. Most small businesses and individuals will not know how much their websites should cost.

But that’s okay, right? After all, the agency a potential client is requesting an estimate from can tell that potential client how much their site should cost. Well, besides this being somewhat backwards, since an agency has the most to gain by overcharging a client, based off of the somewhat extreme variation in prices Carl received, it’s hard to believe that asking for estimates and shopping around would help much.

The Solution: Break down your services and clearly show how they are relevant to the client.

Do you want to prove you’re actually valuable and worth the few extra thousand dollars? Then show how what you have to offer is relevant. Don’t just present clients with a grand total, or sell them packages. If a specific service is totaled with the rest of the cost, then show the client why.

4. There are a lot of options, but very few stand out.

One of the replies I received to my inquiries consisted of nothing but “Budget?”. Let me tell you how much business that agency would have gotten from me. None. While that may be worse than most, you’d be surprised by how many agencies simply lack enthusiasm. The fact that I only got 60% of the agencies I contacted to actually respond, says something.

The Solution: Make a hell of a first impression.

You only get one chance. Whether it’s a phone call or an email, don’t take it for granted. You’ve gone through all the effort to generate leads and get noticed. Put in a little extra effort and convert. Get your clients excited about working with you!


One week in a client’s shoes opened up my eyes to some of the struggles clients face – struggles I was previously unaware of. All the lessons I learned I’ll be taking with me, as I work with my own digital agency, Massive Catalyst. Although, we already utilize project outline forms, have quick response times, and enough enthusiasm to take on twice as many clients, if we ever start to slip, I’ll remember the lessons I learned as a client.

At the end of the day, clients have a little knowledge and a lot of options. The only thing standing in the way of them working with you is your approach.


Written by
Business professional by day, web developer by night, when I’m not creating solutions for my clients, I’m writing or creating meaningful content for the Web.

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