Melody Drew began designing Web pages in 1997 and officially started her Web design business, Melody's Pages, in 1999. She works solely with small businesses and gained much of her experience in working with them in her more than 12 years as a civil litigation defense paralegal. Drew is currently a judge for the International Association of Webmasters and Designers Golden Web Award 2001-2002.

Here she answers questions about running her design business, what advice she gives her clients, and what small-business owners have learned about Web sites.

According to your site, you perform all design tasks, but you call on developers for "more advanced software applications." What does that phrase mean?
The SOHO-type businesses I serve very seldom need advanced software applications solutions such as ERP, a software application that integrates different needs from different departments in a business into one application.

I've chosen not to do this type of work. Instead, I've made an alliance with a group of expert programmers through Tiron America.

Do you have methods for distinguishing your Web design from the competition?
My clients tell me that they appreciate my attitude about their projects and the fact that I'm a small business, too. They like my clean, concise designs, and they also like getting personalized service. I take the time to learn about them and their businesses. It's what keeps them coming back. I teach them as we go and try to answer all their questions. If I don't know, I say so. They appreciate that, too.

What is the most effective marketing technique you perform for your clients?
A combination of techniques help get my clients noticed. I write content with marketing in mind and submit sites to the major search engines, but that is just a small part of it.

I encourage clients to research like-minded businesses with which to trade links, to write articles, and to participate in discussion boards. I also write press releases that tell a story rather than just make an announcement. I encourage my clients to advertise on high-quality Web sites and to begin collecting e-mail addresses immediately so they can run ad campaigns later, even if they aren't ready to do that now.

Mix-ups and duplicated work can be a problem when designing sites for clients. How do you prevent this?
Most of my clients come to me with a blueprint already in mind. If they don't have a clue about what they want, then we talk it out. I ask specific questions and then ask them to write it out on paper. I share the design process with my client by creating a private area for them on my site. I create the design and don't move forward until it's approved. Then I give them a list of what I need from them. I let my clients know that they can fax, e-mail, or instant messenger me at any time while their site is being developed. We communicate often to avoid mix-ups and duplication. If I can't get in touch with a client, I stop until I hear from them.

What are the best questions for prospective clients to ask you?
That's a tough question because my clients have different levels of Web sophistication. For the newbies, I suggest that they ask me, or any other Web designer they might be thinking of hiring, to explain the process of putting their company on the Web step by step. For both the newbie and the seasoned Webbie, I suggest the following:

  • Ask for a list of references and then follow up.
  • Ask for URLs to Web sites, not just thumbnails and not just pages within the designer's site. But keep in mind that some designers claim a Web site design after working on only one aspect of the design or even after someone else has redesigned the site.
  • Ask how long the project is going to take. Any designers worth their salt will explain that they'll need to get a lot of information from you first before giving you a time frame, and even then, there are a lot of variables.
  • Ask for a guarantee of successful results. This is where you'll find out if your designer is for real. The thing is, no Web designer can absolutely guarantee results. A well-designed and developed site is only a step in the right direction towards getting good return on your investment. A lot depends on the product and on your postdesign marketing efforts.

What is the must-have that you advise clients to put on their sites?
Today -- and the rules change frequently -- one of the most important things for a small business to include on its site is its privacy policy. It's important to establish trust with customers and to show that you're serious about your relationships with them.

The next most important thing that a small business absolutely must have is information about who it is, not just what it does. If you try to disguise your information, people wonder why.

Next, it's important that a small business clearly spell out its terms for its products and services upfront. Waiting until customers get to the checkout page to tell them that there's a $25 shipping charge is bad business.

Finally, it's essential to make contact information complete and easy to find. Nothing is more frustrating for a potential customer needing to ask a question than to be forced to dig for basic information.

How many Web sites do you typically work on at a time?
I only work on three to four sites at a time. Any more than that I have to schedule for later. I can't give clients the attention they deserve -- and the special attention my reputation is based on -- if my plate is too full. When I work on a larger project, then I only work on that one project at least initially. My projects are usually in three segments. I only need intensive client interaction at the beginning and near the end, so that allows for some overflow. Now that my son has joined me, I'll be able to increase the workload and accept more clients.

How much has the current e-commerce slump affected your business?
I know it's out there, and I sympathize with those who are affected, but I just haven't seen it in my business. If anything, I've seen an increase.

A couple of years ago, there were a lot of "Uncle Joe does Web sites" types out there, and that's who I'm cleaning up after. Small-business owners are realizing that those kinds of sites don't fly anymore. The new Web sites I'm doing are for small-business owners who have slowly realized that they need to have Web sites as tools for their existing businesses, and who might not have a huge budget. Those are the kind of small businesses that are surviving on the Internet and are the basis of my clientele.

What about your business keeps you up at night?
About the only time I get stressed is when I'm working at my limit of three sites and I get two to three estimate requests for new sites on the same day. Sometimes, if I go to bed without addressing those new requests, it worries me, because it's my personal policy to always respond on the same day.

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