The following blog article is based on experience and opinion. The text is not theoretically underpinned and the case studies are not scientific. The blog is intended to prompt thought in customers and developers, particularly customers buying a website for the first time.
Who is going to pay for a website that they will not own…
Some of our customers have shared feelings with us of negative experiences when purchasing a website for their business. These tales of woe could save your business time and money so please read on.
Who is going to pay for a website that they will not own and that they will have few rights over? Probably you; in fact, you may already have. Phone your developer and ask for access to your source files saying that you wish to move hosts or that you would like another company to make changes to your site and listen to what they say.
Not owning your website can be common, particularly if the site is a content management system (CMS) as they make setting up administrative accounts that restrict user access to content much easier. Admin accounts usually allow users to update products; but, not change the site functionality.
At university it was drilled into us that we had to protect our intellectual property (IP) and respect other peoples. However, in our experience customers lack understand and interest in IP, until they get bitten that is. Many customers cannot differentiate between the technical aspects of our products; to many customers a website is a website.
An understanding of the customer’s approach to intellectual property during the sale of websites is a grey area in my opinion; perhaps that is why some choose to avoid the issue altogether. Customers are used to physical goods that they find easier to value.
It is often the case that customers do not understand the work that goes into building an application therefore they can feel a lack of appreciation for its value. This changes when the product starts meeting the customer’s needs by making them money through the sale of goods and services, or by serving another purpose.
Enforcing IP can have a knock on affect to future events
I feel that in part this misunderstanding arises from how we inform customers about the range of products we offer. It’s my opinion that as developers we have an obligation to bridge the gap by making product offerings and contracts clear and easier for customers to understand.
IP provides developers with rights to intangible assets. Enforcing IP rights in contracts with customers is fair; after all, it is how we make a living. However, enforcing IP can have a knock on affect to future events that we understand as developers but the customer cannot foresee. From our customer’s perspective this is where the issues lie.
In my experience customers don’t have a problem with developers protecting creativity. The problems start when developers are not upfront about IP in contracts and when some developers use IP to tie customers in without their advance knowledge.
bigint are extremely customer orientated; therefore, this approach to doing business was alien to us as. It just does not fit with our culture or the processes that support the bigint philosophy of customer service. On the whole I am sure that bad practice is rare in the industry; although it does exist.
To illustrate the point I’m going to briefly share details of two situations that our customers were in as a consequence of poor sales practice. Both reflect poorly on our industry
Some time ago a customer with a large ecommerce site approached bigint to discuss improving the design and functionality of the website. bigint had not worked on the site before so the first question we asked was “do you have access to the source files?”
The customer had paid £1000’s for the website to be built and hosted online and they were in no doubt that they owned the website. When the customer picked up the phone to arrange the control panel access that I had requested, access was flat denied; although, an offer was made to undertake the website changes.
The only option was to employ the company they had just lost all faith in
Now, I’m not going to speculate on who did or said what in the sales process. The fact is that the customer felt that this large creative studio had cleverly tricked them into being tied in. Their only option was to employ the company they had just lost all faith in to do the work.
In the end, the customer shelved all expansion plans for the website choosing instead to start over and work with us planning a new ecommerce site that they would own outright.
A new customer approached bigint and asked if we would increase the traffic on their site by implementing some recommendations contained within a search engine optimization (SEO) report the company had commissioned.
We would have preferred to have produced the report as well as implement the changes; however, we are a customer service orientated so we began to help. Again, we asked the customer for access the control panel or source files. In the meantime, we took a look at the accessible source code through the browser console.
The development of this site was bordering cowboy practice
It happened that the customer’s access to the control panel amounted to an administrative account in a CMS with which only the products on the site could be changed. The developer said that they owned rights to the source code and denied the customer access suggesting the only option was that they themselves implemented the changes. A situation that I explained to the customer that was not unusual.
I read somewhere that not optimizing a site is like writing a catalogue and leaving it on the shelf for nobody to read. When I looked at the source for the site and I was extremely surprised with what I found. The site had been put together with little or no consideration for SEO.
The development of this site was bordering cowboy practice even though it would have taken little extra time to build a site correctly and believe it or not, the same company now wanted paying again for putting everything right that should have been done initially.
The customer was distraught
Doubly concerning was the fact that the other company produced a SEO report that cost close to £500 and none of the recommendations could be implemented. I’m not suggesting that the situation was malicious; in fact, it was probably an educational issue. It does though cause a lack of respect and trust of the industry by the customer and it will eventually turn them off causing customers to be less likely to invest in new technology and expansion.
The customer was distraught. Within the space of a few hours the customer had discovered that their business did not actually own an ecommerce site, they were actually renting one, the £500 invested in a SEO report to increase business had caused a loss and the relationship with their web host was in tatters.
We felt a mixed sense of shame for the industry and sympathy for the customer. We explained the contract that customer had entered into with the developer and provided them with options for the future.
I accept that there are issues surrounding how customers often value and understand the products we make, but we can hardly blame the customer. If the dentist messes up your root canal work is it your fault for not reading up on your medical guides? Of course not; customers can be more informed though and should try to stay one step ahead of sharp practice.
The industry as a whole can do better in my opinion. Some development agencies appear to view customers as cash cows with little consideration for service excellence. This will turn out to be a mistake for them in the end; but, it does not help the industry in the meantime.
When you commission a painting the artist doesn’t come around and take it back a year later or say that they are the only person that can change the picture frame. One of my customers compared the purchase of his website in exactly these terms.
We need to help customers to understand that it takes years of leaning to become a programmer. Would a customer question a barrister, dentist or doctor? Most of us are qualified to the same degree with a similar financial and time investment in our education.
There must be integrity and best practice in the sales and promotion of our products. Human computer interaction theory, usability and agile methodologies have moved developers much closer to users and customers in a relatively short space of time but the industry has a way to go with customer service.
When I was studying business computing at university and I took a first look at agile methodologies it bothered me that quality in the service excellence sense was missing from the process.
GE Capital trained me so it will be no surprise to some of you that I took it upon myself to ingrain quality in the delivery process using six sigma organizational process improvement techniques to develop hybrid approaches that combined agile with quality tools and project management to structure developments and documentation. See figure 1.
Fig 1 illustrates how the strategies combine to focus effort on meeting the user’s needs.
Each opportunity with the customer was used to cross reference requirements against the development process provoking thought on how every step could be used to meet the customer’s needs. Nothing was left to chance. This approach had to be academically justified at the time; but, this was not an issue as my user needs analysis were producing results that went beyond universal approaches.
There are lots of opportunities in agile approaches for user feedback or moments of truth in quality speak. I saw no reason why these could not also be used in the quality sense to meet business as well as development goals.
The sales approach that a lot of developers use lack the type of quality that many of our customers are used to from the service industry i.e. satisfying the customer’s needs.
A greater investment in knowledge of the socio-technical to learn soft business skills including integrity as well as service excellence would help.
After 20 years in organizational quality it is a subject close to my heart, so I could ramble on all day about it. In my option it’s a matter of options and information. bigint give customers the option to own the IP, we feel that this approach if anything has only increased future business.
There is no need to tie customers to you involuntarily. We find that being upfront creates trust and understanding in the relationship delivering customer satisfaction and causing customers to want to stay with us.
I’m going to finish with a few pointers for customers and developers alike. Hopefully, it might help a few startups and developers to avoid being trapped in difficult situations and provide them with options for the future.
- Ask who owns the IP
- Read the contract
- Get yourselves more informed and stay one step ahead of sharp practice
- Think about how the site will be administered and add how products can be added
- Consider whether you may need the source code
- Ask questions
- Consider the future of the site upfront and try to plan for it
- Appreciate what it takes to produce good development work
- Look for signs of integrity in your developer
- Put your self in the customer’s shoes
- Bring a focus on customer quality into your sales and marketing processes no matter how small or large you are
- Remember you are in business with customers not just users
- Give the customer options
- Explain what the source code is and who owns it
- Offer the site IP as an extra
- Make it clear who owns what to the customer and how it may affect them now and in the future
- Make clear what your product offering is
- Let the customer know who will own the IP
- Ask the customer about future plans for the website and advise them accordingly
- Think – if the customer will need login rights later offer to build them in initially
- Don’t presume the customer understands
- Be transparent. It won’t scare the customer off if we all play by the same rules
- Educate yourselves. Consider how to optimize for SEO if you don’t already know
- Do things right
- Most of all, have integrity