Requesting References and Other Mistakes When Hiring a Web Developer

Recently, a potential client asked a question that we get from time to time – “do you have a few references I could call?”. I politely informed this person that out of respect for the privacy of our clients, we don’t. What I really wanted to say, though, was “look out!” This warning popped into my mind based on my experiences hiring a Realtor last year – just as many of our clients have never hired a web development firm or web developer before, I had never hired a Realtor before. So, what did I do? I talked to other people (many of which, it turns out, had also never hired a Realtor before) and I searched on Google for things like “How to hire a Realtor” or “How to select a Realtor”, just as you might’ve searched for “how to hire a web developer” or “how to select an ecommerce developer” to find this article. Everyone I spoke with and every article I read included one piece of advice in common – ask for references! So, I asked for references, just as many of our potential clients might ask us for references when considering hiring us. And I called these references, and they all gave glowing, rave reviews for the Realtor who had given me their contact info. Until one Realtor I interviewed balked at my question when I asked him for references – he laughed, actually. He explained that he would give references if I absolutely wanted them, but that he didn’t normally give references. He returned my question about why he didn’t disclose references with a question of his own – “Have you ever called a reference who gave anything less than a perfect review?”. I stopped and thought about it, and realized that no, no reference I have ever called for a Realtor or another professional service provider has ever given a bad review; then I realized – of course, no one gives you the contact information for their worst experience or, even, for anyone who will give less than a glowing review. Asking the professional service provider you’re about to contract with for a reference is no different than asking a chef if his restaurant gets good reviews – of course he’s only going to point you to the most glowing reviews he’s received! That’s when I realized that giving references accomplishes little to help a potential client determine if they’re a good fit for our services or not, and only serves to put a burden on a few of our previous clients who we had previously given as references. So, here at Creatuity, we no longer provide a list of references for potential clients to call – instead, I’d encourage you to consider the following alternatives to requesting references when looking to hire an ecommerce development firm:
  1. Make sure the firm has a published portfolio with sites based on the same or similar technologies as your project will be based on. Realize that not every project is listed in a firm’s portfolio because of NDA’s and other restrictions, but every firm has at least a basic portfolio online.
  2. Instead of requesting references, search for the principals of the firm on LinkedIn – they should be there; if not, you may be dealing with someone who is merely moonlighting as a web developer. This can also help you understand more about the firm’s background and focus areas by seeing what their principals are interested in.
  3. While it’s still rare, see if the firm posts any sort of values online – finding a good fit for your personality, values and working style can be just as important as the technical skills the firm possess. You’ll be working with these people for at least a few months, so find someone you can work with well.
  4. Make sure you can find a phone number and physical address on the firm’s website – not publishing these are another sign of someone who is merely freelancing part-time, which can cause problems with your project’s schedule among other things. Even if you plan to work purely virtually with your new web development firm, there’s always that time in every project where you say “this would be much simpler if I just called them!” – when that moment arrives, you want to make sure you have a phone number that someone answers!
  5. Finally, ask if ongoing support is available – many ecommerce development firms don’t like to provide ongoing support, which means you’ll need to find someone to provide support and updates for your site after it launches.
Look for an upcoming article on the Creatuity e-commerce blog that discusses a few more questions you should ask your ecommerce developer before you hire them! In the meantime, do you ask for references? Have you ever had anyone give a bad reference? Let us know in the comments!

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