You Don’t Own Me! Or Do You?

How easy is it to leave your Web Developer?

I am always amazed at the lengths some in the website industry will go to in order to hold on to their clients. I assume that many industries have their own examples of competitors that will use really heavy handed tactics in order to prevent clients from leaving them, whether they want to or not.  My problem with this is that it gives the entire industry a bad name.

The first quarter of every year is always a prime time for people to start taking a look at there websites and thinking about doing something different, so now is the time we are typically talking to a lot of people. I don’t know if its just my personality or jus the nature of our business, since we primarily work with companies’ existing websites, but a lot of my sales calls turn into venting/therapy sessions.  I am hearing tales of companies now on their fourth or fifth different web developer and each new vendor bringing with them another level of frustration and disappointment.

This past week brought yet another story of a website owner being held hostage by their web developer. Why this particular story caught me by surprise is that it highlighted a new item in the category of – if you leave the developer, what can you take with you?  What do you own, versus what are you paying the developer to rent and will go away if you stop doing business?

This particular contact has a WordPress site. In past instances, I have always felt that having a WordPress site protected you from becoming a hostage. WordPress sites are very portable and can easily be moved from one server to another. All of the software is open source, so there are no software licenses that have to be sorted out.  Yeah, you may have a couple of paid plugins, or a theme you have paid for,  but worst case scenario would be if you move your site away from your developer, you have to pay to renew the plugins/themes when the current one runs out. Since most run around $45-75, this is not a major financial hit. As long as you have an Administrator login to your WordPress site, there is not much that could be kept from you.

How did we get here?

Typically how these stories start is a company hires a web developer, asks them to build a website, doesn’t ask a lot of questions and just waits for the site to go live.  Then once the site is live, when they do have a question or need something more, they go back to the same developer. And this can work well for a long time, as long as everyone is getting along. It isn’t until things aren’t going smoothly that the business owner starts to ask questions.

In my example, that’s exactly what happened. The company was doing their yearly sales push.  They had asked their developer to add functionality to the website to help facilitate the sales and make it easier for customers to signup for the service. The new website feature was directly tied to revenue generation.

So the the sales campaign kicked off and the traffic to their website went way up.  That’s when the complaint calls started coming in. Potential new customers were calling their office complaining that they were unable to complete a sale on the website.  Other customers thought they had completed the sale but the business never received the money in their account off the website. It was unclear whether the new sale had been charged or not. I didn’t want to make the company feel worse, but my mind immediately went to all the potential sales that had trouble with the website and didn’t take the time to call and complete the sale. Just walked away frustrated, never to return.

So where was the web developer in all this?

When the first complaints started coming in, the company contacted the web developer and asked him to fix it. It was at that point they found out that their web developer was not so much a “developer” but a “designer” whose skills were more artistic and less technical. The functionality that was failing was provided by a plugin and he was the one that added it to the website, but it was beyond his skill set to troubleshoot problems with how it worked. He was going to have to bring in other resources to help solve the problem. After a few weeks of promising to fix it (and in the meantime the sales drive is still going on), he admits he can’t figure it out and the company needs to find someone else to help them.

This is when the company came looking for us. I spent some time with them and we looked at their website to get a sense of the problem.  I asked to login to the WordPress site and have them show me the plugin. I wanted to get the name of the plugin and do a little searching to see if anyone else was reporting the same problems that they were. It was when I did this search that I had to break the bad news to this company,  they were in a bigger pickle then they realized.

The plugin that was causing all the issues and provided major functionality on their website was not only owned by their original web developer/designer, but it was part of a personal account that would not allow the company to walk away with their own license. The developer/designer had used a plugin that was free as part of a web developer platform tool he used to the build the website. In order for the company to keep the plugin, they would also have to buy a license to this developer platform, which they would never use and the cost for one month was more then they would spend getting a new plugin and paying a webmaster to set it up for them.

As long as everyone was happy and doing business together, the company would have never known that a major part of this website was not theirs.  Keep in mind,  the developer/designer quit! He was the one walking away. What was the plan if he wanted to get out of this relationship? Lets say he was willing to let them keep using the plugin off his account. The problem is, this company now needs someone else to help them and the new webmaster will have no access to the plugin support resources. It would make fixing the problem that much harder, spending more of the company’s money on webmaster fees.

My recommendation was: We need to get a new plugin. Start over. 

How to Make Sure Starting Over is NOT the Only Answer

Listening to this story, there were a couple of key mistakes from the beginning that lead to this ending. As a business owner I can say that switching vendors is not the big issue here, its the loss of revenue because of this vendor that would keep me up at night Here is what you can learn from this tale:

  • Do you know where your website is?  I bet you can tell me within thirty seconds where the lease is to your facility, or the purchase info for the equipment sitting sitting on your shop floor. Your website is just as important to your business as these things.  So why are you letting someone else keep the keys to your website? If you don’t know who holds the keys, find out today.
  • What happens if we make a change? Before you build, ask the question. If you want a more diplomatic way to ask what happens if you want a new developer, try asking, what happens if we want to take this in house? That can help get the conversation started.
  • What kind of support can you provide after we go live? In my example, the original developer of the site was better skilled to build a brand new site, but did not have the technical skills to help once the site is live. Ask what you can expect to happen once the site is live and what kinds of problems you can bring to your developer.
  • Can the website handle a big sales push? If you are expecting a large number of visitors to your site, don’t wait to find out if everything is working OK.  I often advise our clients to periodically try to buy/register/download something from their own websites just to make sure that everything is working.  Especially when you are dealing with a WordPress site, a software update or an addition of a new plugin can impact functionality. Put an item on your calendar once a month to visit your own website. If you run the test yourself, you will feel a lot more confident that the website is doing its job for you.

I know for a lot of website owners finding a reliable web developer is a business necessity because they do not have the technical skills either themselves or in-house to really make a website work. There are good web developers out there, one that will be a good fit for the needs of your business. A website should not be so reliant on one vendor that making a change would require you to start over. That’s the level of service you should demand.