How to avoid a messy split with your developer

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It's not unusual for companies to sever relations with various service providers. But when the split is with your Web developer, things can get very nasty.

Ken Allard, group director for site operations strategy at Jupiter Communications, New York, a market research company specializing in Internet issues, has seen firsthand how messy it can be.

"I've talked to some companies who ask if they can just switch vendors after they've out-sourced everything," Mr. Allard says. "The answer is you can't fire them, because they own you."

In these cases, the vendors have written all the code on the Web site, they host it, they maintain it, and the client has no knowledge of what's going on, he says.

"Whether you own it legally or not, the vendor owns the code," he says, simply because its staff knows how it works and the client doesn't.

Homework is key

How do you prevent this from happening to you? The key is doing your homework before hiring the developer, says Lee Wright, principal of People Design Technology, a Dallas business consultant that often hires developers for clients.

"We're all aware that there's often a sense or urgency [in hiring a Web developer]," he says. "The reality is you need a firm process for evaluating and hiring an agency."

No matter who you hire, Mr. Wright says, "divide the project into manageable, measurable chunks, with clearly defined deliverables requiring a specific skill set.

"If the initial phase is strategy, and you're not happy, you wonder about those other things and you're able to nip things in the bud," he adds.

Daniel Turner, president of Turner Consulting Group, a Washington-based Web developer, calls these chunks "benchmarks," and he insists on them in every contract.

"We use a series of benchmarks so at any point the client can walk out," he says.

To play it safe, Mr. Allard of Jupiter says companies should consider possible failure before writing a contract with a developer.

"Think about what happens if the relationship fails," he says. "What will you need from the agency to be OK on your own? Put it in the contract."

Another idea, he says, is to make sure you have an experienced project manager on your side when you negotiate.

No matter how straightforward the contract, Mr. Wright warns, a clear understanding of the strategic vision of the Web project on the part of top management is vital to success.

When clients aren't sure what they want going into a project, he says, "it's little wonder both sides are unsatisfied."

But even with an initial idea, that vision may change, Mr. Wright adds.

"You may need stronger technical skills than you imagined," he says. "Your competitors may be moving, you may need to integrate with legacy systems. But the firm you hired may have its long suit in design and branding, not systems integration."

In that case, "sit down with the agency and add a strategic partner for that technical burden," he suggests. "Evaluate the situation, put in processes, develop some common tools and mediate to put things on the right track."

Another danger is when your developer merges with a larger company, Mr. Wright says.

"I've heard stories where clients walk into meetings where agencies that merged are meeting each other," he says. "It's potentially a whole new ball game."

That's another essential reason to have an internal project manager on top of things, Mr. Wright says.

"Sit down with the new senior management and understand first-hand what their commitment is to your business. You're competing now with larger firms for the same resources."

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