Quoting without specific requirements

Steve Wagner

How many times have you been asked to give a timescale for a job with little or no detail about the actual requirements? I suspect the majority of readers will recognise this as a fairly common occurence.

The sad truth is this is a fundamental necessity of business. You are the expert and therefore you should be able to ascertain readily not only the core requirements, but also foresee any potential pitfalls that could arise along the way given that these issues can often result in additional resource and planning. This repeated situation can be frustrating but you have to be aware that, as with any job, it is only through gaining many years of experience in your field that you are able to identify the variety of questions that need answering before producing a detailed brief and specification for a job, so it is understandable that this happens.

This is especially true for web designers and developers who, on a daily basis, encounter extreme versions of this situation because what they are creating/developing is not a physical product but a virtual product, and therefore it proves to be even more difficult for clients to give specifics. You only have to read http://www.digitalsurvivors.com/archives/000455.php to empathise with our plight.

However, don't offer us too much sympathy (if you actually were) because we have come to expect this and even plan for it a lot of the time. This is why our instant reaction is to ask questions to gain more information and pretty soon a fact find is being produced, which turns into a brief and eventually into a specification and quote.

The problem arises when the party asking for the timescale is a new potential client who is reluctant to provide any details and holds their cards close to their chest, whilst at the same time expecting not only a timescale but also, ultimately, a cost for the project.

We encountered this on a few occasions recently and it led us to ask the question "what is the best approach in this situation?"

Obviously you would initially try and gain more information, but a potential client can often choose not to invest time into meeting with you, nor want the feeling of commitment which comes from a meeting or providing more details via email. They want to know the full cost before they even decide whether to form a relationship with you, regardless of whether you actually win the tender for the project. This can be troublesome as on the one hand you are keen to take on extra work but need to ensure you are true to yourself as a production team both in terms of quality of work and also service.

Therefore it is imperative you cost accurately. If you underestimate the work involved this could result in you having to add additional costs on as more detail comes to light, which will not sit well with the client. Alternatively, cost too high and you are unlikely to secure the job and are also over-valuing your skills which undermines the service you are providing.

Therefore your choices are largely limited to the following:

  • Provide details of hourly or daily rate and continue to request more details or a meeting;
  • Suggest a large band of costing designed to capture the extremes of project cost;
  • Invest time and resource in providing detailed options and a corresponding cost for several options; or
  • Provide an example specification and cost accurately against that spec.

The first three options all bring possible problems, ranging from little accuracy (the client is no further forward) to costing you valuable time and resource providing a quote which will either come to nothing or need modification anyway.

The fourth option, however, provides what we believe to be a strong solution to the problem. Providing a brief, limited spec and costing for an example project can avoid investing too much time or resource whilst also giving the client a reasonable indication of costs and project approach. Obviously it is important to ensure the template project is applicable and therefore you may need a few of these to cater for projects varying in size, complexity or area of development (e.g. website, software app etc) but once you have prepared each of these they can be reused again and again.

You should revisit these projects/costings on a regular basis to ensure that they remain accurate to your business practises and the market.