Site Support: Understanding Your Options

This post continues an earlier post on site support, which we can summarize as follows:

  1. You’re going to need site support.
  2. You’re going to need a plan for site support.

We’ve also covered one of the best options for securing ongoing support: creating a retainer arrangement with the same developer or team who built and deployed your existing web project. So check that option out, and if you think it’ll work for you, go with that!

…You’re back! Sounds like a developer retainer isn’t the right solution for you. Perhaps your relationship with your developer isn’t good enough for a retainer arrangement, or else your developer doesn’t offer work on retainer; or perhaps your developer is too expensive to contemplate hiring in an ongoing fashion.

Here are some options for what to do instead.

1. Find Another Developer

How to Do It

The job here is to find another fully qualified developer, likely much the same way you found your previous one.

Good search mechanisms include word-of-mouth; contacting developers who blog actively in the area requiring help (or who helped write the relevant plugin, etc.); and networking through local Meetups (for example WordPress Meetups), some of which link to sites with affiliated job boards.

Dodgier but still potentially fruitful search mechanisms include Craigslist job postings and Googling “help with [web development need].”

Why it Can be Good

“Can you fix this?” can be a great way to evaluate a new developer.

Particularly if the constraint on your previous developer was that you didn’t like him or her for some reason (unresponsive, shoddy work, etc.), support work can be a good introduction to a new developer. “Can you fix this?” can be a great litmus test—arguably better than “Can you put together a pretty proposal?” We’ve certainly met a number of ongoing clients through initial one-off projects.

You also have the advantage that you can find a dev with specific expertise in the issue you’re facing. For example, if your e-commerce solution isn’t working properly, you can find someone who specifically works with that solution—maybe even helped write it.

So hopefully, finding a new dev is a great way to bring in an expert to get your immediate problem solved. Once you’ve made a good relationship with the new developer, you can work out a retainer arrangement with him or her, and you’re set!

Potential Obstacles

If you left your previous developer because of cost concerns, watch out. Developers’ rates are not arbitrary and tend to scale with skill and experience.

If you left your previous developer because of cost concerns, watch out. Web development may resemble the Wild West in a number of ways, but developers’ hourly rates are not totally arbitrary and tend to scale with skill and experience. If you’re mostly looking for a bargain, you may ideally end up with someone highly skilled but less established—or you may end up with someone with big gaps in knowledge or professionalism. (This discussion applies to Western developers; we’ll cover outsourcing in a bit.)

Also beware of the time that both you and your new developer will have to put into setting up to work together. Your fix may end up taking 15 minutes, but your developer will no doubt have spent several hours meeting you, emailing back and forth, getting needed login credentials, figuring out how to bill you, et cetera. For your part, you’ll have spent hours browsing through potential developers, contacting several of them, waiting to hear back, browsing the new dev’s portfolio to gauge his or her work, emailing a detailed bug report, setting up an initial consultation, sending over passwords… That’s a lot of work for a quick fix, and either you, your new developer, or both may end up taking a loss if the relationship is a one-off.

Relatedly, be aware that your new developer is starting from scratch on your site. This is both good and bad. On the plus side, he or she might be able to fix mistakes your old developer made. On the other hand, your new develoepr will need to spend (billable) time just figuring out what’s going on. And developers being developers, prepare for some muttering about foolish choices the old developer made—or a sober pronouncement that the site’s coded so poorly it’s impossible to work in. (This may be true!—particularly if you let your former developer go for unpardonably shoddy work.)

2. Outsource Support

How to Do It

Most website owners are routinely contacted by overseas development agencies offering help. You can respond to one of these emails, or simply aimlessly Google “help with [problem] [target country].”

Going onto oDesk or another labor marketplace also generally counts as outsourcing unless you filter results, as Western developers are generally not cost-competitive on those sites.

Why it Can be Good

In two words: It’s cheap.

Because of purchasing power disparities, offshore web developers work for rates that are pointless for Western developers to comprehend. A typical absurdly low number is “$8 per hour,” which is what an American developer spends per hour in lattes and beard wax. So if your primary purpose is to get a problem addressed for as little money as possible, this is a route to look into.

Potential Obstacles

In three words, one hyphenated: It’s often low-quality.

Issues can include, but are not limited to: obsolete or otherwise substandard coding practices; difficulty communicating effectively; cultural differences around timeliness, initiative, and follow-through; time zone and other scheduling difficulties; and lack of oversight and accountability.

Well, you’d expect an American developer to hype up the outsourcing horror stories out of self-preservation. In general, though, I’m not at all against outsourcing development work when it works for the customer. (Web development is currently a big enough pie to accommodate all different kinds of professionals.) I’d just mostly recommend it for work that is tracked and predictable and doesn’t require a lot of creative decisionmaking. The issue is that it’s hard to know as a customer which types of work do and don’t require creativity. So unless you’re lucky and get a very high-quality development team, you may be converting some of your cost savings into technical debt for another, pricier developer to wade through later.

3. Enroll in a Dedicated Support Service

How to Do It

Find a service like WP Curve, which offers to help with small WordPress problems as much as you need for a flat monthly fee. (WP Curve is WordPress-specific, but I’m certain there are analogues outside of WordPress. If you know any, leave it in a comment!)

Why it Can be Good

Speaking about WP Curve: It’s a very affordable way to cover your bases for site support. The $69 monthly fee would almost certainly be eaten up with a single call to an independent developer, and covers as many small problems as you run into.

Furthermore, you don’t have to be embarrassed calling your developer with “I lost my password!” or “Should I update WordPress?”-type questions—those are the cornerstone of this business model.

Potential Obstacles

This model only covers small support jobs, and it’s very difficult to know a priori what’s going to be a small problem. For out-of-scope larger projects, you’re, to a large extent, back where you started.

In Conclusion…

Site support is an absolute must for any website. You should find that one of these routes to securing support is right for you. Let us know which one, or let us know how you solved your support needs!

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