Friday, March 6, 2015

Sometimes the customer IS wrong

I have been an independent consultant in the web-development world, off and on, for a little over 11 years now. In that time, I’ve realized some really nice successes and gained friends and long-term customers, but I’ve also made my share of mistakes and had some failures along the way.

Quite possibly the biggest mistakes have come from trying to stabilize relationships with customers as they’ve veered off track. In some cases, it resulted from my lack of foresight, but in most cases, it resulted in dealing with impetuous people and trying to appease them, or convince them of the right course of action, when they plainly have no interest in agreeing with anything.

Because I started my company to cater to small businesses, I was, naturally, dealing with small-time entrepreneurs and that often means dealing with people who have small budgets and big wants - along with big egos. Sometimes I’m dealing with small non-profit organizations whose leadership don’t always understand that they have to pay for things.

Here are a couple of missteps I’ve encountered along the way, and how I believe (in hindsight) they could’ve been avoided or fixed. Most of you may look at these and say "well, duh, everyone knows that!" And you're right. But when you're in the thick of a project, and just want to get it finished, it's easy to fall into these before you even realize it.

It needs to Pop more!
What web development or other design professional hasn’t heard that before? In this scenario, I was working with a real estate agent who really didn’t know much about marketing, in general, and the web, specifically. We provided three designs for him to choose from and he ended up choosing a few elements from all three. After making the requested modifications and providing a new mock-up, he approved it and we continued with the development process.

After we built the wireframe and some dummy pages, we presented it to him again, and again, he approved it, with some modifications. So we completed the build. That’s when the wheels came off.

Our client looked at the finished product and said “Hmm. I don’t like it.”
“Well, what don’t you like about it?”
“It needs to POP more. It just doesn’t POP!”
“Hmm. Can you be more specific? What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know, it just needs more pizazz.”
“Okay. Is it the colors? Is it the images? Is there another site you’ve seen that you like? Can you give us something specific you think might help?”

We spent the next two weeks offering modifications and nothing seemed to suit him. Eventually we told him “We’re done. Unless you can give us something specific you’d like to change, we can’t help you.” Because this was a fixed price contract, we were already losing money on it and decided to cut our losses before they were too far out of hand.

What we should have done:
We should have cut our losses much earlier. Instead of trying to guess what the client wanted and make him happy, we should have told him upon delivery of the original site that he had approved the site at two previous stages and that further development would represent a new contract. Additionally, instead of trying to guess what he wanted, we should have halted all modifications until he could clearly articulate what he meant by “Pop” and “Pizazz.”

But you told me you wouldn’t charge me for this!
Translation - “I don’t want to pay for things.” Because I offer managed hosting to my customers, I have always been rather generous with little support issues. If you ask me to add an image, or make a small text change in your site, I have traditionally not billed for it. It takes longer to generate an invoice than it does to make the change.

Recently that policy blew up in my face. A customer I’ve had for six years has often been the beneficiary of free work - an image here, a changed phone number there. No big deal. Occasionally he’s requested things that took a bit longer and was presented with invoices for 15 or 30 minutes - never anything too complex.

A few weeks ago, this customer requested some substantial revisions to his website. By “substantial” I mean enough to require a few hours’ work. We’re not talking about thousands of dollars here. He went apoplectic when he got a bill for 3 hours. He said “You said you wouldn’t charge for changes.” To which I replied, “No, I told you the same thing I tell all my customers - if it’s a little change and doesn’t really take any time, I won’t invoice it. But anything that takes more than 15 minutes will be billed commensurate. You haven’t had any trouble in the past receiving free work, or even paying for up to half an hour of work. This work was far more substantial.”

What we should have done:
Bill for everything, no matter how small. In giving work away, I broke one of my own philosophies, which is that if you want someone to perceive that something has value, you must assign value to it. By giving away even the smallest amount of work, in the name of “relationship building”, I devalued my time and effort.

I don’t like this, why is it so expensive?
I’m ashamed to admit that this has happened a couple of times. And each time I tell myself “never again” (which is another no-no, as I philosophically object to using the word “never”). Recently, I entered into a time and materials contract to develop a very small website for a non-profit organization. Their current hosting situation is soon to expire, and they have a fundraising event coming up so time was of the essence.

The director of the organization made it clear to me that he placed all the authority for the development of a new site in the hands of an executive who works for their primary sponsor, so I should work with her to execute everything. The first thing I did was meet with her to make an assessment of the project, then I offered her a proposal and contract, which she had the client sign. He chose time and materials, rather than fixed price - and that’s an important distinction.

I worked with my developers and the intermediary to approve information architecture, layout, design, and content. The intermediary provided images and logins for various third party software accounts, such as dynamic calendars and payment portals.

In three weeks, we built the site, integrated all the third party software, and were ready for the punch list. But instead of giving a punch list, the client fired us. Not because of failure to perform, but because he didn’t like it - and this was the first time he had seen it. I explained to him that we had approval for everything but we could certainly go in a different direction, since it was a time and materials project and we were only about halfway through the estimated budget.

The next correspondence from him was that he had found a volunteer who would do it for free and that I should send him or our intermediary a bill for the work we’d done and he would pay it. When I sent the bill, he was incensed and shocked (even though I had already told him what it was up to) and couldn’t believe it would be that much, since he didn’t like it.

What we should have done:
This same scenario played out almost exactly the same way about ten years ago, and I should have learned from that. If you MUST deal with a third party middleman, you MUST insist that the ultimate client sign off on everything. It’s not enough for the intermediary to do it, regardless of what they tell you about that person’s authority. In the end, the only one with real authority is the client himself (or herself) and not the middleman. And even if his motivations are wrong (and in this case, the client is demonstrably wrong) he’s the one who has to like the product. Halt all production if the intermediary refuses to get client approval.

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