Websites can be a highly personal subject - everyone has different ideas on what looks good and what works well, both website visitors and designers alike!
Choosing a company or individual to design a website for you can be a difficult prospect, as the number of people offering website design is growing by the day. It is likely to be a long term relationship, as your website will not stay the same forever, changing and evolving over time.
There are a number of factors which you should consider when looking for the right company to provide you with the best website to suit your needs:
The website of the design companies themselves
This may sound a bit obvious, but I don't mean use their website to find out more about the company, I suggest looking at it from a visitors point of view - ask yourself a few questions:
If the answer to any of these is no, it may be worth looking elsewhere.
Portfolio examples from each company
Don't necessarily look for a company who has experience creating websites for your own business area, look instead to see if they have created websites to look good and work well for the companies and audiences they are for.
If they have managed this well across a number of websites then it's quite likely they can achieve the same for you.
Testimonials need to be read with the awareness that most companies are only going to publish the best testimonials. Perhaps ask if you can speak to or e-mail some of the existing and past clients to see how well they are being supported now their websites may have been setup a number of months or years ago. Word of mouth can be an important way to find out about website design companies, but just because your friend knows somebody who can do it does not always mean they are the only option out there.
Do you have ideas of what you need from your website, or do you need the designer to suggest them to you? Either way, take a look at what each company can offer and see if any appear to fit your needs better than others.
Make sure you ask more than one company for a price - this is the only way you'll know for definite if company-x is asking too much or if company-y is unusually cheap. Be aware that prices can differ for a number of reasons depending on the software and design methods used, so make sure you understand how each company works and how this reflects upon their quotation.
Do you like the company or people themselves?
Getting along well with the designer or designers of your website is critical - you need to know they'll be professional, courteous and responsive to your needs, and able to offer a service which you will enjoy using.
Is a contract created and signed, with full terms of work?
To save problems in the future, and to protect both the designer and the client, it is important that terms of work are agreed, so both parties know what is expected of them. A full contract should also be available and signed by both parties to ensure the long term management and ownership of the website is covered.
Last of all, don't ever feel you are stuck with your existing website design company - websites can usually be moved easily to a new website design company, so if you have issues with the current provider, take a look around at alternatives.