The solution for a client who wants you to do all the little changes they could do themselves

I’ve already expressed my thoughts on using frameworks and CMSes, and how these are a poor fit for web use in many cases.  In that rant, however, I only touched on another, deeper issue involved.

Here’s the situation.  You develop a website for a client, and give them their own admin portal (wp-admin for example) to make their own updates and changes.  They asked for this.  They wanted to be able to control things themselves, they claimed.  So you obliged.  You gave them their site built on top of a framework or CMS or whatever, and handed them the keys.  They were delighted, and you thought that was going to be that.

And then two weeks later they want something changed.  Guess what happens?

In theory, they could make this change themselves.  After all, you’ve given them an admin panel to be able to do whatever they want.

So who ends up making this change?

You do.

After all the work to give them a website with all the possible customizations that they could ever want right at their fingertips, after giving them the total power and control they said that they wanted, they still come to you for changes they could make themselves.

Ugh.

How does this happen?  It’s simple, really.

There are two main paths to creating a website.

  1. Roll up your sleeves and learn HTML, CSS, JS, Etc.  Build whatever you want.
  2. Use a CMS or framework, which promises to do ‘everything you could ever need without any coding!’

The problem is this.  The learning curves for both of these are too steep for your average business owner. Your client has other fish to fry.  Their customers are calling them, ordering pizzas or scheduling cleanings, or whatever it is they do on a daily basis.  To your client, you are the one who handles the web stuff.

While the learning curve for CMSes is lower (in many cases) than learning HTML, it’s still not something most businesses are going to bother with.  And why would they?  They have you to lean on, and you’re the expert. So if they need something changed, even though they demanded that they be able to maintain it themselves, even though they said they wanted to be able to control it, at the end of the day, very few clients actually want to take on the maintenance themselves.

It boils down, really, to willingness to assume responsibility.  They don’t want to go into an environment that they’re not familiar with, and start making changes.  Even though how to do things in the backend may be plain to you, the client is afraid of messing things up.  They want you to take the responsibility for the website.

So what are you to do?

Simple.  Take responsibility for the website.

Be their guy to make whatever changes are needed, but understand that along with responsibility comes the concept of control.  You can tell clients what is and isn’t a good idea on their site.  You’re the expert.  So be the expert.

I will tell clients ‘no’ when they ask for changes that would shoot them in the foot.  Just flat out “No, we’re not going to make that change.  It’s a bad idea and I won’t let you do that to yourself.  Sorry.”

This may surprise you, but they don’t get offended. Instead they realize that they have someone watching out for them with their best interests in mind.  They are glad, and so far there have been no negative repercussions for having said ‘no’, since it’s always with good reason, which I explain to them.

“No, you’re not going to play music to the visitor on each page.  You may love this song but people despise uninvited music on web pages.  Proven fact.”

“Animated gifs – uh, no.  You want a site that looks modern and professional, not like it was designed by a kid in his parent’s basement in 1998.”

“Technically, yes.  I could have a penguin moonwalk backwards across the screen to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ wearing lipstick and holding a teapot, but – no.  We’re not going there.”  (okay, I made this one up)

Sometimes this puts you at odds with standard practices.  A popup asking the visitor to sign up for your newsletter as soon as the site loads?  Personally I HATE those, and just click through them; then remain slightly annoyed with the website for the imposition.  Turns out most people feel the same way.  And yet this distasteful practice is standard all around the web.  I won’t do it; I tell the client so. “If you want to gain subscribers, you have to offer them something of value; something that interests the user, in exchange for their email address.  That popup has to be in response to a user action, not rammed down their throat in exchange for the privilege of visiting your site.”

The first few times I did this I was slightly concerned I could lose their business.  I could just imagine a painting company saying “No, I won’t paint your office lime green.  You have to go with a more neutral tone” being fired offhand.

Frankly I am willing to walk away, rather than be associated with something I think is doomed to fail.  If you don’t think it’s a good idea, wouldn’t you feel dirty going along with it, just to keep the client?  I’d rather walk away than have my name on something I thought was garbage.

However, it’s never come down to that though.  In fact, it’s the other way around.  The client is happy to get the advice.  They are glad to have some direction in a world where they are not expert.

I’ve really begun getting adventurous with taking responsibility for a client’s website. I’ve repeatedly gone so far as to search for, find and BUY the domain for their website, without even consulting them.  I tell them after the fact, here’s your website, the address is xyz.com.

When I first began there was no way I would presume to take such a leap on behalf of a client.  But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the experience of going through months of agonizing over a domain name. You research possible names that are available, you give them the list.  Weeks go by.  By the time they land on what they want, the domain’s been snapped up and you’re back to square one.  Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience.

Or worse, you ask them what their domain name should be.  Might as well ask them to pay you in moon cheese. Good luck with that.

One would think that there’d be blowback from presuming to pick a domain name and register it for a client.  Nope.  Not so far.  Not one has even batted an eye at it.

After all, you’re the one taking responsibility for this.  So be that guy, all the way down the line.

This also gets into technology, where we started.  Again, you can build a website with HTML, CSS, etc, or you can use a framework.  If you’re going to be taking responsibility for their site, pick the technology that you feel is best for the project.  And tell the client that’s what you’re using, and tell them why.

My feeling is that there is a point at which client involvement in the process becomes burdensome.  To both parties.  If you go to the client to ask how they like each individual element of their project, not only are you setting yourself up for endless, needless meetings, but you’re probably also hampering the client from getting on with their business too.  After all, they hired you to make these decisions, why would you keep asking for their direction on minor details?

The big picture?  Yes.  You need to know about what they want.  But don’t then keep pestering them.  You get on with the website and let them get on with their business. Once they see it, if there’s something they don’t like, they’ll tell you.

Imagine going to the dentist, and being constantly asked how you want things done? That would be absurd, and you’d leave with the idea the dentist wasn’t a professional who knew their business.

If the client demands a CMS where they can maintain things themselves, fine.  Have the discussion.  Find out if they have any real plans to maintain their own site.  If not, tell them no.  Or yes, or whatever you want.  The needs of some clients may never stray outside of what a framework can deliver.  So maybe use WordPress or a CMS, despite the fact that the performance won’t be the same, particularly if they blow up in popularity.  It’ll also hog-tie the site into the limits of the framework, but again, the client may never need to stray outside those confines.  I probably wouldn’t do it, but that’s me.

But the point is that at the end of the day, you’re the one who is going to be taking responsibility for the site. So stand up on your own two feet and do so.

Your client will be glad you did.

 

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