Dear Client: Stop Asking For A Ballpark Estimate

I like you, client, you’re what makes it possible to do what I love for a living. But I also respect you; you either own a business or occupy a high-enough managerial position within a business to have the authority to hire my team and I, which means you’re all grown up and are way past the point of needing to be handled with kid gloves. So, allow me to indulge in some tough love:

Please, for the sake of your business, stop asking me to give you a ballpark estimate.

It happens to consultants just like me, every day – at some point during a (usually light-on-details) conversation with a very excited client like you, about a new website or custom software that you’ve dreamed up to help you run your business, you’ll ask The Question.

“So, what’s a ballpark estimate of what that would cost?”

I understand why this seems like a perfectly reasonable question, I really do. You have a business to run, and getting a broad sense of what something costs is probably a handy proxy for quickly deciding if it’s something you can handle, or not. I get that – business life often boils down to making decisions quickly, based on broad or even vague information.  Remember, I run a small business, too, so I share a lot of the same concerns you do.

That said, as a fellow small business owner with deep experience bringing technical projects to life, that question translates to: “So, can you guess exactly what’s required to make this thing we haven’t even fully-defined yet?”.  Frankly, a request for a ballpark estimate puts me in a tough spot and makes it less likely that I’ll be able to help you.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m in this line of business because I love helping people just like you solve business problems, and my eagerness to please makes me want to answer the question; however, experience tells me that it’s bad for both of us if I do.

This probably seems bewildering to you. After all, if you need new lobby furniture, a new truck, a new computer, or a replacement for your worn-out office A/C unit, you can jump on the internet and find price ranges for replacements, easily. So why, after discussing this website or app you want and hearing an appliance-like description of what it does, can’t I give you a reliable price range?

Well, dear client, there are 3 big reasons why:

Only the person building a thing can give a real estimate.

Now, my company may be small, but it’s not just-one-person small. I have a small team of designers and coders who are going to be involved in your project, and my 20 years of experience has taught me something important – only the person who is actually going to build a thing can estimate it, ballpark estimate or otherwise.

If my database administrator John is going to do part of the work, and my systems guy Scott another part, and my designer Felipe another part, it makes no sense for me to quote you what it would take for me to do the whole project; I need to talk to my team to give you accurate figures. And I want to give you accurate figures, because I want to help you solve your problem and bring your project to life.  But I can’t talk to my team just yet, because…

We need more details – LOTS more.

I know, I’m raining on your parade.  We were having a fun, wide-eyed, excited conversation about the possibility of building this custom software or website that you think can help your business – and then I have to go and start demanding boring things like “details”.  Bah humbug.  But I promise, it’s for your own good.  Here’s why we need details:

When you price out a new truck, for example, you’re pricing out a mass-produced item whose creation has been systemized and iterated down to a literal science. Building a new website or custom software is the very opposite of that; you’re asking me to figure out what it will cost to build something that, by definition, has never existed before.

The “ballpark estimate” question is less like asking how much it would cost to buy a truck, and more like asking how much it would cost to manufacture a truck from scratch, with little more than “I want it to carry me around” as a requirement. Any spur-of-the-moment number I give you is likely to be wrong, and that’s bad for both of us, particularly because…

You’re focused on the wrong thing.

Even worse, you’re asking me to help you focus on the wrong thing. How so?

Look at it this way – you’re in business; you understand the value of investment & return. But by asking me for a ballpark estimate, you’ve already framed the project we’re discussing as a cost. At the very least, we need to talk about what you stand to get from the project in terms of ROI before we talk about what it’s going to cost.  To a very large degree, one will dictate the other.  Here’s an easy example:

If I charge you $10,000 to build a web app that saves or generate $50,000 of revenue, that project effectively cost you $0. But when you ask about cost up front, any answer I give you will just boil down to whether or not you feel like spending $10,000 today, so both you and I end up being robbed of what could be a profitable project.

If there’s one thing that almost 20 years of doing this has taught me, dear client, it’s that a preliminary discussion about a potential project is not the time to ask me to be glib.  I’m not here to foul you up, I’m here to help you do better.

So, if you can’t ask for a ballpark estimate, what should you be asking instead?

In an extremely preliminary, light-on-details conversation like this, you shouldn’t be asking anything other than “is this possible?“. If the answer to that question is yes, then instead of trying to hastily figure out a large fictional dollar figure based on no details, it’s far better to allocate a small sum of money to doing a concrete bit of planning, known as a project discovery session (sometimes known as “requirements gathering” or “roadmapping”).

Project discovery is the first phase of every project, big or small; it’s how we figure out the important details of your project, including whether or not the project should be done at all! Since the project discovery phase has to happen anyway, it’s to your advantage to commit to just that phase up front, and then only commit to the larger project if discovery indicates that the project idea offers a high likelihood of bringing you profit.

Otherwise, you’re committing to the entire multi-thousand-dollar project before we’ve even looked at it together in enough depth to know if you should do the project. Plenty of bad $50,000 “ballpark estimate” projects have been avoided for the cost of a $1000 discovery session.

During project discovery, we’ll talk about:

  • what business problem you’re trying to solve
  • why you think this business problem exists in your business
  • what this problem is costing you (if we’re talking about a new venture, we’ll talk opportunity cost)
  • what the potential upside the project offers for your business

We’ll also talk about what forces may work against the project, dear client, including regulatory issues, the degree of buy-in required from your employees, what requirements the project will make on your IT infrastructure, and more. And of course, we’ll discuss nuts-and-bolts particulars of how to actually get the work done.

It’s important to note here that there’s no technical jargon during a discovery session.

We’re just two businesspeople, discussing the particulars of something that can improve your business, writing on a whiteboard, and sharing coffee (which I will gladly spring for).

At the end of project discovery, you’ll find that 3 exciting things will happen:

  1. Now you’re allowed to ask how much the project will cost! You thought I had forgotten about that, didn’t you? It’s OK – I know you’ve been dying to know when you can ask, and the answer is, “now”.  And the best part is, I’ll be able to give you a real answer, not a ballpark estimate.
  2. You’ll have a more in-depth understanding of your project. From pros & cons to potential profitability, you’ll have a newfound sense of x-ray vision for how your business is currently operating vs. how the new project will enable it to operate.  You’ll have a rock-solid grasp of why you want to do this project and what you’ll get from it.
  3. I will hand you a complete project plan.  This project plan covers all the particulars we uncovered during discovery; this plan is yours, bought and paid for. If you want, you can use this plan to execute the project yourself, or even shop the plan to other consultants for an estimate.

You’ll receive a proposal along with the project plan, and even though you’re not obligated to do so, my team and I would be thrilled if you decided to hire us to build the project for you! After all, by now we’ve been through so much together, don’t you think?

It sounds like a lot, I know, dear client.

But I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m good at it, and I can help you. You’d be amazed at how much of this we can nail down in just a single 2-hour project discovery meeting, and even more amazed at how quickly my team can become an expert on how your business operates.

So, instead of asking me questions whose answers are likely to rob you of great opportunities to improve your business, just ask me if the project you’re envisioning is possible, and then ask me when we can sit down together to do a discovery session on your idea.  I’ll be happy to help you develop your project vision, and if the project turns out to be a bad idea for your business, I’ll be happy to tell you that, too.

And if I don’t remember to offer, ask me to bring the coffee!

39 thoughts on “Dear Client: Stop Asking For A Ballpark Estimate

  1. Totally agree. I always answer this question with the analogy of building a house. “Can you tell me how much it is to build a house?” There’s a lot of unknowns. Bedrooms. Bathrooms. Garage. Paint. Wallpaper. Flooring. Big details. Little details. All unknown until other decisions have been made.

  2. christopher.hawkins

    Yep, agree. It’s not always super-difficult, but it’s never truly easy. Thanks for commenting, Steve.

  3. Hi Chris, I read this post & chuckled all the way through. Boy have I been there. After consulting for a couple of decades the question really does get old.

    What I learned though is this doesn’t go away. Customers will always act like customers. If you can sell a discovery session, more power to you. I’ve never had much luck with that.

    Unfortunately at the beginning it’s a bit of a dance. One thing I’ve found is framing the engagement as time & materials on a day rate or week rate. Then estimating the project may take 4, 8 or 16 weeks. The customer then understands that as details emerge, things may change. And you can keep them apprised of progress as you go.

    Here you get some of the billing & accounting simplicity of a fixed fee project, but the flexibility to not know the scope in advance.

    After all we both know the scope is never fully understood until completion. 🙂

    • christopher.hawkins

      Agreed on all points, Sean. I sure wouldn’t expect this to ever go away, and that’s OK. Heck, I don’t even expect to never issue a ballpark estimate – some clients really and truly can’t move forward without one. But I do hope to keep on pointing out the downsides of the practice, and offering alternatives.

  4. IMHO its absolutely comprehensible that a client wants to have an *idea* about how much money he has to expect. And I believe that when you’re long enough in a business, you *can* tell him numbers.
    I’m self-employed in the field of web-stuff and app development since 17 years (and before employed at a big agency), and I could (and would) give an answer. Something like “websites like yours typically cost 4000 €” or “You want some illustration and animation? At this point I’d expect 10 comic-style illustrations and their simple 2D-animation to be enough. That could be 15.000 €.” is always possible.
    The client will know that these numbers just shall give him an idea and he will not nail you.

    • Yes. Exactly what I do.

      Also, now that people are more tech and internet-savvy, I also ask them if they have noticed any particular website that most resembles their requirement in terms of content, structure and general features. If they do, we base our estimate on that and slip in the disclaimer that costs and scope of work will be reviewed at the end of each stage of the project.

      • christopher.hawkins

        Anchoring against an existing asset is a smart idea, Aditya. I can’t say it completely avoids the various downsides of giving ballpark estimates, but it’s always better to be more concrete than less, and using another site is a sensible move, I’ve done it myself from time to time.

    • christopher.hawkins

      “IMHO its absolutely comprehensible that a client wants to have an *idea* about how much money he has to expect. And I believe that when you’re long enough in a business, you *can* tell him numbers.”

      Agreed on both points, Tom. Bear in mind that I never claimed otherwise; mainly I’m speaking to the low level of usefulness of glib estimates, and pointing out a useful alternative.

      “The client will know that these numbers just shall give him an idea and he will not nail you.”

      I’m very glad to hear that this has been your experience; however, I talk to freelancers every day who suffer from clients treating loose estimates as hard bids. It’s a real problem, and I think that devoting just a small amount of money & time to developing an actual project plan is a great alternative for a lot of those situations.

  5. Yes, agree with much of this. But: this is a very dev-centric view of a world which is much more complex than that.

    I’m on the receiving end of this all the time and as someone who project manages tech stuff for a living as part of running a small digital agency, it is obviously frustrating. Obviously, the devs we use are the first to look uncomfortable when asked about timings and pricing for things that they don’t yet know or understand.

    Projects come from budgets and budgets come from business needs. You can’t expect CEO or the guy in charge of budgets to understand or even vaguely want to understand the gnarly details. You don’t want to know anything about the way he runs payroll, right?

    Those tech details aren’t known – of course they aren’t – they aren’t REALLY known until you put a thing in front of customers and run it for a year and see how users receive whatever it is you’ve built. They aren’t known even if you write the most detailed spec in the world – stuff will still change.

    So at the end of the day it comes down to being really, really clear that:

    1) People need to know costs, and devs really need to accept that. People won’t be “more tech savvy” – why should they be? They have their areas of expertise and don’t expect you to understand those..

    2) “Ballpark” might be annoying, but it’s still what you’re going to use if you’re taking this to the board, or bidding for cash / staff or whatever. Normal people (non-geeks) need to know a rough sense of budget – of course they do! Really the better question is – “how ELSE could they do this”…?

    3) As a freelancer / agency you just have to cushion it in the correct terms. So a) “This really could be anywhere between X and Y” where X and Y are separated by a bunch of noughts and b) building in a large cushion for when the thing mushrooms into something totally different.

    tt

    Mike

    • christopher.hawkins

      Thanks for commenting Mike.

      It definitely is a dev-centric view, seeing as it was written by a dev! 🙂

      “1) People need to know costs, and devs really need to accept that. People won’t be “more tech savvy” – why should they be? They have their areas of expertise and don’t expect you to understand those..”

      Bear in mind that I never made any claims regarding anyone needing to be more tech savvy, nor did I advocate not accepting that people need to know costs. In fact, I agree with you on this point, it’s very important to discover what the costs of a project will be. My only real claim is that discovery is a _more useful_ way to do this than off-the-cuff numbers based on a preliminary conversation are. I realize it’ll never be a flawless process – there’s a reason it’s called a consulting “practice” and not a consulting “perfect”, right? 🙂

      “2) “Ballpark” might be annoying, but it’s still what you’re going to use if you’re taking this to the board, or bidding for cash / staff or whatever. Normal people (non-geeks) need to know a rough sense of budget – of course they do! Really the better question is – “how ELSE could they do this”…?”

      Oh, it’s not about annoyance. There’s no annoyance involved. It’s a question of giving the client the best, most appropriate help possible.

      “3) As a freelancer / agency you just have to cushion it in the correct terms. So a) “This really could be anywhere between X and Y” where X and Y are separated by a bunch of noughts and b) building in a large cushion for when the thing mushrooms into something totally different.”

      Now we’re getting somewhere! I agree, if you’re going to issue a glib estimate, it should be expressed as a range. That still isn’t as useful as the degree of detail that a discovery session can provide, and it still doesn’t do anything about the framing of the project discussion as pure cost, either. That said, when I do give loose estimated, I do so as a (fairly wide!) range.

      I’m guessing that’s pretty common, really. It’s the best way to implement what is fundamentally a bad practice.

      Thanks for stopping by to participate in the discussion, Mike, I appreciate it!

  6. Sorry, but I always give a price. Not a ballpark, but THE PRICE, upfront, day one. I opened my web/software business in 1993 and have always did this. If the price goes over 5k I’ll do contract, if lower then not.

    • christopher.hawkins

      More power to you, I’m glad to hear you’re able to do that. That’s a pretty rare ability, being able to forsee all the unforseens and have a perfect understanding of the scope on day one, based on what is presumably an imperfect explanation from the client.

      Unfortunately, most freelancers – and I talk to them every day – don’t have the ability of that kind of perfect foresight. And for those freelancers, discovery sessions are vital.

      Thanks for stopping by to participate in the discussion, Tim!

  7. You probably lose quite a few clients….plenty of experienced companies out there that can give ‘ballpark’ figures, based on previous expeience of how long things take and allowing for mods and changes to the brief. We do it all the time; and whenever I use outside companies, I always want to know up front, what its going to cost.

    As for the house building analogy……its common knowledge within the building industry what a house will cost per square m to build, standard fixings, luxury or high end fixings etc….all based on experience.

    • christopher.hawkins

      Hi Robert.

      “You probably lose quite a few clients….plenty of experienced companies out there that can give ‘ballpark’ figures”

      I’m sure you read the whole article, but I should probably point out that I never claimed that I can’t or won’t give ballpark figures; in fact, I do so frequently, because there _are_ clients out there who flat can’t move forward without one. That’s OK, I’ve been in business long enough to know that’s never going to go away.

      The _only_ point of this article was to point out the downsides of the practice, and suggest a better way forward. Not the only way forward, of course, but a better way.

      Thanks for taking the time to write, Robert, I appreciate it.

  8. So why isn’t the discovery just part of the cost of sales?

    As long as you have pre-qualified them as serious businesses, not tyre kickers and you have started to develop a trusting relationship, why ask them to $1000 front on a $50,000 project, its only the same cost that you would incur if they paid by credit card.

    I get that if you are selling a website for $1,000 you can’t give away a $1,000 worth of discovery, but frankly websites or projects under $10,000 are pretty easy to give a ballpark on.

    • christopher.hawkins

      Hi Alan! Thanks for writing.

      That’s a really interesting question, and I had to take a moment to think about it.

      Discovery is a part of the actual project. There is no project until there’s a closed sale, so discovery is explicitly a post-sale process.

      At least, that’s my take on it. 🙂

      Thanks again for commenting, I appreciate you taking the time.

  9. Great article, Chris. Thanks for sharing. How can I use some of your content in this article in the “pricing” section of my site without violating copyright right norms?

    Thanks.

    • christopher.hawkins

      Hey Sam!

      As with anything else, you can certainly quote a bit of this article (with attribution and a link, of course). That seems like fair game to me.

      Thanks for taking a minute to ask first. And thanks for commenting!

  10. One thing I noticed while doing market research (see how much other people charge for a given project) is that most of them seem to ask “what is your budget?”

    Is asking a client “what is your budget” appropriate?

    • By the way, I always took “what is your budget?” to mean “tell me, how clueless are you as to how much this project will cost you…”

      • christopher.hawkins

        Not when dealing with a scrupulous operator, it’s not. Any consultant with a sense of ethics will use that question to *avoid* over-prescribing.

    • christopher.hawkins

      Of course it is. How else do you know what kind of a solution is appropriate to recommend? Yes, the budget question is totally appropriate. You don’t tailor your quote to it, you just use it as an upper-bound of what’s possible. And if the client requirements exceed the budget, you know it up front and can talk openly about making adjustments.

  11. I will give them ranges, and send them to sites we’ve build in those ranges. But whenever possible we ask them what they want to spend and recommend Discovery to set the functional and technical requirements that are achievable within the budget. We find that this approach helps set expectations or what I call the HGTV conversation. You can’t afford all these thing, so what do you want to give up or can you find more budget.

    • christopher.hawkins

      Hi James!

      Yes indeed, when you absolutely can’t avoid it, ranges are a great way to go. I do that myself.

      “We find that this approach helps set expectations or what I call the HGTV conversation. You can’t afford all these thing, so what do you want to give up or can you find more budget.”

      That’s brilliant, what a clever way to state it. (I’m a huge fan of Property Brothers, BTW).

      Has anyone ever accused you of extortion for scoping the project in such a way to ensure that you don’t exceed the stated budget? Just curious. 🙂

      Great comment, thanks for participating, James.

  12. Putting myself in the shoes of a potential client, if you sent me to read your “Dear Client” letter after I asked you for a ballpark estimate I’d drop you like a hot potato.

    You’re supposed to be the expert – if I can’t give you a basic outline of what I want to do, have you ask me a few pertinent questions to gather a little more information, and then have you give me a ballpark idea of cost then you’re no good to me as a potential partner.

    I’m a business person. I know what ROI is. I don’t need you to tell me. I don’t need a software company giving me business advice. I don’t need you to try to sell me on “discovery” when I don’t even know the potential viability of what I’m thinking of doing – you’re making a HUGE assumption that I’m past the initial idea phase.

    If you need to know more to give me a ballpark, fine, tell me that. I get that. Tell me what you need to know to give me a range. Do YOU not understand that what I’m looking for is information I can use to help me decide whether to move forward? And that if you help me, I’ll probably hire you? And if you talk down to me like I don’t know what’s involved in running a business, I’ll move on to someone who doesn’t?

    • I enjoyed the article and the idea that you took a stand to defend a particular idea, instead of just providing some information. I hire a lot of freelance developers, mostly hire for many small jobs under 10k, and I definitely enjoy getting costs upfront when I make a hire. I agree with the comment above from Steve that a freelancer that doesn’t understand costs — or can’t make estimates and absorb costs — is not a good partner to me.

      Of course there are a lot of unknowns for the developer because the work is done by a team and the exact parameters of the job are not clear when you give the estimate. But why assume ballpark estimates are created out of thin air? Most developers likely have their own procedures for padding their estimates to account for such things. You are making an assumption that when freelancers create ballparks they just make up an idea out of nowhere, and with this straw man you’ve created a “better” way. I suppose your way is better than the straw man you created, but in the end we could still call yours a ballpark estimate. I do see how helping the client through these questions could be helpful for you and the client, if its done intelligently. But I seriously doubt the skills of most developers to have an intelligent, helpful response or conversation about these business issues.

      You hire developers for their computer skills, not their insight into business matters. The way that a business is run is often not shared freely and the details only shared on a need-to-know basis. I would have trouble convincing my board of directors that my developer needs to know details about our business strategy, costs, etc. Most developers have neither an MBA nor business experience and thus lack the savvy to really talk intelligently to clients about the dizzying array of different business needs, environment, etc., they will face. How is a developer supposed to have an intelligent response about employee motivation and different types of business plans and regulations in all the different industries for whom they will be working? Asking these questions to an experienced client could uncover the ignorance of the developer for asking questions they have no idea about how to intelligently discuss.

      If a developer really has these skills to understand business in many different industries, they can market themselves as providing business consulting advice as well as developer advice and certainly should do that, along with a higher cost for such specialized service. But most developers (or team of developers) will have no idea how to have an intelligent conversation about these issues, and thus probably should not waste the clients time by asking. Thus, for your plan to work, you should hire an MBA onto your developer team and market yourselves as providing a higher level of development that is mixed with business consulting advice. The MBA and not the developer lead should be having this conversation with the client.

      And here’s my last related point: The idea that you are going to ask the client about business costs and profit margins in order to try to figure out the value of what you’ve provided, and then base your cost on that value, sounds like extortion. Think about if a car mechanic did this. The cost of the repair is based on how much its worth to you. If you are a stay at home mom I will put in new brakes for $100 but if you are a daily commuter I will put in the same new brakes for $300. Mechanics already have a bad reputation for gouging, and they mitigate this by having published standards regarding the cost of their work. I understand that the work between mechanic and developer isn’t the same, but the point is that customers need to be treated fairly and equally, and the costs must not be based on the economic utility of the project. If I wanted a complex project that was going to make me zero dollars, would you work for free? I hire developers for serious projects, on behalf of nonprofits who don’t make money. I’d be happy to hire you if you have the skills to provide MBA level business advice as you suggest you could, and you prioritize the client profit in your cost calculation. So in the end, I really like your proposal and think if it were followed in an intelligent manner, could help both clients and freelancers. Where are all these developers that can drastically reduce their costs because there’s no profit, and provide free business advice too?

      • christopher.hawkins

        Hey, Tim!

        Great comments. I’m about to take a call, but I wanted to make sure I took a minute to answer you.

        ” I agree with the comment above from Steve that a freelancer that doesn’t understand costs — or can’t make estimates and absorb costs — is not a good partner to me.”

        Just as I said to Steve – who also posted some interesting thoughts – at no point in the article do I claim that I can’t or won’t give estimates – the sole point of the article is that there is a better way. I’m sure you read the whole thing, but maybe that part wasn’t clear enough.

        “But why assume ballpark estimates are created out of thin air? Most developers likely have their own procedures for padding their estimates to account for such things. You are making an assumption that when freelancers create ballparks they just make up an idea out of nowhere”

        This is really interesting. I never claimed that ballpark estimates come from thin air, or consist of ideas made up out of nowhere. But I do claim that ballpark estimates are often based on extremely preliminary and imperfect understanding of what is to be done, and I suggest a better way. That’s all. That’s literally all. Anything else is coming from you, not the article.

        “The idea that you are going to ask the client about business costs and profit margins in order to try to figure out the value of what you’ve provided, and then base your cost on that value, sounds like extortion. ”

        Once again – never made that claim, either, or anything like it. You’re clearly smart and clearly have some experience with this sort of thing, and I appreciate the passionate response, but honestly – I’m not sure how to respond to a critique of a position I never actually took.

        So instead, I’ll just say: thanks for participating, I love the passion, and I wish you all the best in your development projects.

    • christopher.hawkins

      Hi Steve.

      Thanks for participating in the discussion! I love the passion, but your comments might be laden with assumptions that aren’t based on what’s in the article. But that’s OK. Let’s unpack that one item at a time.

      “Putting myself in the shoes of a potential client, if you sent me to read your “Dear Client” letter after I asked you for a ballpark estimate I’d drop you like a hot potato.”

      And that’s OK. That’s called self-selecting and it’s a very healthy thing in business. Not every consultant is right for every client, and vice-versa. This is nothing that should keep anyone up at night.

      “You’re supposed to be the expert – if I can’t give you a basic outline of what I want to do, have you ask me a few pertinent questions to gather a little more information, and then have you give me a ballpark idea of cost then you’re no good to me as a potential partner.”

      Bear in mind that at no point does the article suggest that I can’t – or won’t – give a ballpark estimate. In fact, I do it quite frequently. The point of the article is that there is a better way for both parties to proceed than using super-vague estimates based on a cursory understanding of what is to be built. That’s all.

      “I’m a business person. I know what ROI is. I don’t need you to tell me. I don’t need a software company giving me business advice. I don’t need you to try to sell me on “discovery” when I don’t even know the potential viability of what I’m thinking of doing – you’re making a HUGE assumption that I’m past the initial idea phase.”

      At no point in the article do I claim that you need anyone to tell you what ROI is. In fact, I explicitly state that “you’re in business; you understand the value of investment & return”. This understanding is why it’s nice doing projects for business owners.

      Also, I’m making no assumption at all regarding where you are with your project concept – in fact, I’m doing the opposite. I’m acknowledging the fact that I know little about it, and that without a certain level of detail, any number I might give a potential client is essentially baseless, and therefore of limited utility to the client.

      To combat this, when I do give ballpark estimates, I use ranges – sometimes fairly large ranges. It seems like every freelancer does this a bit differently – some like ranges, some like a quote with a contingency disclaimer, some go with a heavily-padded fixed bid, and so on. As long as the acknowledgement of uncertainty is made explicit, and the discussion isn’t framed purely as cost, the freelancer is probably doing OK.

      This is a slightly less-bad solution, but still not as good as a project plan with a properly-discovered set of reqs. How do you tend to do this sort of thing? Are you a fan of ranges? Those seem to be popular.

      “If you need to know more to give me a ballpark, fine, tell me that. I get that. Tell me what you need to know to give me a range. Do YOU not understand that what I’m looking for is information I can use to help me decide whether to move forward? ”

      Yep, I understand that. That’s why I explicitly stated in the article that I understood it, and spent a paragraph going into detail on it. 🙂

      It’s often not easy to move forward because of that information gap, and it impacts the consultant as much as it impacts the client.

      “And that if you help me, I’ll probably hire you? And if you talk down to me like I don’t know what’s involved in running a business, I’ll move on to someone who doesn’t?”

      Now this is where you lose me. There’s no “talking down to” going on, that interpretation is coming from you. If one business owner can’t make a frank recommendation to another without being seen as talking down, well…I honestly don’t know what to tell you.

      I get hard, direct questions from clients and prospects every day, and not once in 13 years have I ever felt talked down to. Likewise, not once has anyone ever objected to being asked hard, direct questions. That’s how you figure out these difficult, non-obvious scenarios – with diligent questioning and firm pushback on assumptions.

      There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I find it healthy.

      Thanks again for participating in the comments!

  13. I’m a little shocked at the push-back there seems to be on a paid discovery stage. Both from the business owners that have commented thus far, and the design agencies that have disagreed.

    There is always a stage at the beginning of the project that involves discovery, and laying out the roadmap to the rest of the project, whether it is implicitly stated or not. But there are several advantages to a paid discovery phase that people seem to be missing.

    First and foremost, a paid discovery stage protects the client.

    At the end of discovery, you have a roadmap for the rest of the project, a scope of work that you can take to any developer you wish, and have them execute against.

    Imagine for a second that you ended not working well with your developer. Instead of finding this out after signing the dotted line for the full, large-scale contract. If you do a paid discovery session, and you’re unhappy, you can walk away with minimal financial and time investment, with a list of specs you take to another developer that you do prefer.

    Another way that paid discovery protects both parties is it greatly reduces the chance you’ll have an erroneous estimate. This helps the client avoid anchoring against a “ballpark” figure that turns out to be too low, and reduces the chance the consultant gives a “ballpark” figure that is too low or high.

    Why would there be room for error?

    Every project is different, and there are always details that come out after the initial phone call…you know, when prospective clients usually ask for a quote, an estimate, or a ballpark figure.

    And even if you SAY you won’t hold the consultant to the arbitrary figure you’ve asked them to come up with, it’s human nature that you will.

    We get anchored to the first number we are told, and any larger number that is stated after that (when additional information about the project is revealed) will seem to you like price-gouging.

    Paid discovery keeps both client and consultant form feeling like they are getting ripped off by the other. Trust is the #1 factor in having a successful project. Communication, honesty, and mutual respect follow very closely behind.

    There are some comments in this thread are bit worrisome, because they convey a lack of mutual respect from the authors. These, to me, are red flags when I’m first deciding whether to work with someone.

    The more I know about a client’s business, and the better I understand it, the better position I’m going to be in to help them achieve success. Prospects that are unwilling to work with me on that point never become clients.

    Ideally, clients and consultants are working in unison to make the client’s business successful. For the same reason you hire an experienced lawyer or doctor to solve a specialized problem, hopefully you’re hiring an experienced web consultant to help you solve one of the most important problems you will ever face, how to make your business more profitable.

    Consultants do more than sit behind a keyboard and crush code. We are also small business owners. We also understand business. Sometimes much more than you realize. (In my younger years, I was part of a corporate world, managed departments of people, and yes – figured out ways to drive revenue and build sales).

    There’s a reason why consultants ask questions. It’s to help you solve your business problems, both now and in the future.

    Paid discovery is the first step to defining what those problems ARE, documenting the facts, and then establishing a plan and a strategy for solving those problems.

    I would suggest that agencies and freelancers everywhere consider adding paid discovery to their process, to reduce project risk for everyone involved.

  14. Pricing for web design and other creative work can vary enormously from one contractor to another, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a client to ask early on about rates — and the ballpark estimate is attempting to do exactly that. If the contractor is going to charge three or four times the client’s budget, it saves everyone a heck of a lot of time and effort if they can figure that out upfront.

    On the flip side, some contractors are total boneheads about this. For example: We’re building a wine cellar in an underutilized area of our home. I had a wine cellar designer/contractor come out to give us an estimate. The owner of the company came, we spent an hour on-site and talked about what I wanted, and what he might do. I asked for a very rough estimate, off the top of his head, and I made it very clear I wouldn’t hold him to those numbers. I just wanted to know if we were playing in the same, well, ballpark.

    He did a little math in his head, and said he’d figure about $12,000 to $17,000. I told him that the upper range of our budget was $10,000 (though I really wanted to spend much less, of course!). He said that if I did some of the work myself, we could probably get it to come in around that number.

    Two weeks later, I received two quotes. One if we had them do it turn-key, another if we did some of the work ourselves. Their first price was $23,000, and the partial-DIY price was about $13,000 (which didn’t include the refrigeration unit, which add another $1,800 or so).

    Why’d they even bother to bid? If he had heeded my response to his ballpark estimate, he would have saved all of us a bit of time and effort.

    • christopher.hawkins

      Hey Andrew! Love Blogtutor, great site.

      I agree that it’s not unreasonable to ask – I just think there’s a better way, is all.

      That contractor story of yours? That’s AWFUL. Complete idiocy on the part of the consultant in question. I desperately hope that operators like that are in the minority, but sometimes…I really wonder.

      I’m dying to know now…did you end up getting your project built? Or did that knuckle-headed bid turn you off of doing the project completely?

      Thanks for taking time to write a comment, I appreciate the participation.

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