Efficiency or Quality? The Client Perspective

Brian Pullen

The question of efficiency or quality seems to come up a great deal in the digital creative business. It is routinely asked by both clients and agency management and is not an easy one to answer. There is a deceptive amount to learn about what these two concepts really mean and how they affect the way agencies are run and the way clients make decisions. For most of my career, I was unaware that I was even making a choice between these two approaches and have recently begun to think very critically about this question. At Playground, this has become a central question to our business, one that is reshaping the way we are structured and how we build projects.

In this second of a two part on this topic, I will cover the question from the perspective of clients working with digital agencies like mine. I will identify why the question is important and how it manifests in process and management. I will try to find a universal answer to the question and show you the direction we have chosen to take at Playground.

What is Quality?

It is important for this discussion that we define quality as I will use the term a great deal in this article. The most common definition of quality is “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind” or “general excellence”. I’m relatively happy with these definitions as they are but I think it might be important to be more specific to how they apply to digital projects. In my previous article on this topic I extended the definition of quality to not only apply to the end result of a project but to the process as well. That said, for the purpose of this article I will use quality to refer to a dedicated team-based process that allows ample time for concept, iteration and focus. While I am aware that this process alone won’t always guarantee quality, I do believe it to be, as discussed previously, the best way toward it.

Doesn’t every client want quality?

It might seem obvious that all clients want quality work all the time, but in fact, I think that is not always the case. If I gave a client the opportunity to build a much higher quality product for 3 times the price, the answer would often be no. It is almost always the case that building for a higher quality will cost more and many clients will make budget and not quality their top concern. I will detail some common reasons why a client may choose efficiency over quality.

No ROI

A client may not wish to increase budget and quality as the project being built either has a fixed or low return on investment. In this case increasing the quality of the product does not have the ability to produce better results for the client. This is the most common scenario where an informed client will not wish to invest more into a project. While it can be argued that a better product can have long-term benefits for a brand’s reputation and thus provide long-term ROI it is not always the case that brand reputation is necessary or desired.

No short term ROI

While some projects have a fixed ROI that prevents further investment, many projects simply have a low short-term ROI. This means that while further investment can create better returns, it may only be realized over many years. This risk paired with what is often a very short-sighted approach to doing business deters clients from investing more in these projects.

Fixed budget

Often a client will have both a fixed budget and a fixed scope that are incompatible. The client simply has unrealistic ideas about what can be done within a given budget and are unable to change expectations. In this common scenario the client is willing to risk trying to build the project on a greatly reduced budget as they believe they have no other choice. These situations typically end with disappointing results and a project that was not worth even the small budget allocated to it. It is my experience that many clients may choose to repeat this model in the future despite it having failed in the past.

Little experience and trust

It is common that a client may be inexperienced in working with agencies and digital products and they may not understand the differences or value of a better process. This means that a client may not believe that the agency can produce better results with a higher budget or a dedicated team. This is often paired with a lack of trust between the client and agency that prevents the client from believing that the agency is not simply trying to increase budget. This lack of trust and experience leads a client to take what they believe to be a more cautious approach through reduced budgets.

Bureaucracy

I have come across many clients that have a great deal to gain from quality but the individual stakeholders on the client side that are governing the project do not. This misalignment of incentives can often cause the key stakeholders to not invest more in a project to look out for their own personal interests over that of their organization. It is unfortunate that this is a common occurrence and it often takes an agency trying to align interests with the individual over the company to get their buy in.

So when does quality matter?

At first glance there appears to be many scenarios where quality is not desired. In actuality many of these are short-sighted excuses and not valid reasons to reject quality. In my opinion the only reason to not build quality is when there is clearly no ROI to gain from it. Let’s look at a scenario where a client has nothing to gain from quality and then one where they have a great deal to gain.

Scenario 1 (nothing to gain)

A home building company wants to put up a site to promote their new development project. This site is to educate consumers on purchasing one of 150 new homes. The site will be online for 1 year or until all the homes are sold. In the past the builder has had little trouble selling all the homes in their developments as all sales will be done by real estate agents. The client has made it clear that the site will drive very little traffic and that all the homes would likely be sold even without the site’s existence. There is not much value in selling the homes faster as it translates into very little gain for the builder. Additionally, the builder’s brand is not public-facing and thus will not be a major part of the project, while the brand of the new housing development will only be used for the duration of the selling period.

In this example there is a fixed amount of product to be sold and they will likely sell out on their own. The brand will be short lived and thus has little to gain from an increase in visibility or reputation. So despite the fact that the development project may be worth tens of millions of dollars, this client may have no reason to spend more than a few thousand on a simple online experience and aim for maximum efficiency at the expense of quality.

Scenario 2 (a great deal to gain)

A major clothing company is looking to update their e-commerce experience. They currently do around one hundred million in sales a year through their online store and are hoping to increase revenue. The current site is out of date both technically and visually and is making operations more difficult as well as preventing them from taking advantage of new opportunities and ideas. Finally, sales have been decreasing and the conversion rate is well below industry standard.

In this example every 1% of growth will translate into roughly a million dollars of revenue. Additionally improvements in operations can create major savings for the client. Furthermore the client’s brand is well established and has a great deal of incentive in preserving and increasing its reputation. Finally, the technical stability of the platform is critical as a single day of downtime is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue and much more in lost reputation. In this example a client should prioritize quality as even a large increase in project costs will be offset by much larger gains.

A few perks of quality

So while it is easy to see where clients that have higher potential for return on investment may desire quality there are more reasons to consider it.

Efficiency isn’t always that efficient

One of the best reasons to avoid building for efficiency is that it is not always that efficient. In fact by following the matrixed team approach you increase the chance of oversights or issues that come up late in the project. These issues can often increase scope a great deal and quickly make your efficient project more expensive than it would have been following the dedicated team approach.

Better Results

One of the best reasons to build for quality is the desire to get better results. This can ensure that projects make your company money regardless of cost. Additionally, a better project has lasting effects on a company and brand that can be very valuable.

Better Process

A better process can be very important to a client not just an agency. With a stronger process the client can be more involved and kept up to date with progress. This can often be very meaningful to key client stakeholders who need to report internally and get continued support.

Less Risk

One of the most compelling reasons for large organizations to build for quality is to mitigate risk. Large companies often have as much to lose as they do to gain and thus can not afford serious lapses in quality.

It’s not me, it’s you

While I’ve made the case above that some clients simply will have nothing to gain from quality due to a fixed or low ROI, I believe that even this can be changed. Almost all examples I’ve seen of clients with nothing to gain from quality have created this limitation themselves. I believe that clients who have nothing to gain have set their business up this way, often not intentionally. With appropriate changes to a client’s business model or operations following a robust digital strategy, it is often possible to give that same client a great deal to gain from quality. In the case of the home builder a change away from working with agents to sell homes could save the client 5% on the sale of each home. A robust digital experience and marketing strategy paired with internal sales teams has the potential to save them millions on this project alone. Now not all clients are interested in changing their business to prioritize digital opportunities even if they have high potential, in these rare cases alone quality is not an option.

The verdict

So while there are scenarios where quality is not the right choice for a client, it is rare that this is the case. Furthermore even these rare cases are often due to self imposed limitations by a client or a lack of desire to change other factors that drive their organization. So while many clients may resist, I believe that building for quality is good business for both agencies and clients. It still requires considerable trust, collaboration, skill and knowledge to make it work but building for quality gives you the best chance to success. I would encourage agencies and clients to avoid projects that prioritize efficiency over quality and encourage both sides to start thinking more about creating greater value in what they build.