I took a call today from a potential new client. As with many such interactions, there’s always an underlying tension. They want to know, “can I afford this guy?”, while I want to know, “can they afford to pay what I’m worth?” Unfortunately, one of the chief struggles in my business is separating one kind from the other.

I’d spoken with this client last December. The general site had been outlined, and she needed to get her ducks in a row before moving any further. A promise to call back “in a week or two” turned into almost seven months! When she called out of the blue today, I didn’t feel bad asking her to bring me back up to speed on who she was.

We spent a good half hour talking about her site and the scale of the job. We were doing the dance. I was aching to get to the part where I could gauge her spending tolerances, while she was just trying to sort out whether I was able to accomplish what she needed to do.

At last, we came to the deciding issue. One part of the job called for an email marketing system. I advised that she look into a solution such as Campaign Monitor or MailChimp, two services that provide brilliant marketing tools, and are dramatically affordable (to say they make it up on volume would be an understatement!) — not to mention, easily integrated into a web app using their APIs.

“I have looked at MailChimp,” she said, “but I didn’t want to spend that much.”

That sound you heard around 2:30 pm today was my heart sinking into the depths of my black, black soul.

In the subsequent clarification, I told her that what we were talking about constituted about $3500 – $5000 worth of work. Turns out she had a budget of about $500. I politely suggested that if she decides to reconsider her budget, I’d be happy to help her out, but until then she might want to consider other options.

After hanging up and taking a moment to utter a curse or two for the wasted time away from a tight deadline, I was left with a sense of powerlessness. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that I was dealing with someone who simply didn’t understand the scope of the work she was asking for. On the other hand, it’s perfectly understandable that these kinds of misunderstandings occur. After all, application development is a non-trivial undertaking, and it’s a black box to those who don’t practice this particular dark art. I get the feeling that clients assume I simply configure a few check boxes, and boom! the site is live.

But that is entirely not the case. As I’ve been learning more and more of late, developing web sites is almost never a simple matter. As soon as you go beyond a simple, static five page site, you’re in a land where you need professional help. This client knew Dreamweaver, but was of course completely helpless considering server-side functionality, e-commerce and email marketing integration. That stuff takes specialized expertise, a great deal of time spent educating, working with third-party vendors, developing, testing and deploying. And then, after those months pass, and the invoice is submitted, there are the requisite months of waiting to get paid!

It’s a difficult business, and I feel quite strongly that clients don’t understand it. So if today’s experience has taught me anything, it’s that perhaps we should be looking for ways to educate our clients on the realities of this kind of work. It’s not an easy job, but i think it would go a long way towards avoiding uncomfortable phone calls.