What To Do When Your Web Developer Is Unresponsive (January 2020)
This article was reviewed and updated for accuracy as of mid-January 2020.
Imagine you’ve just handed over a big chunk of money to someone who promised to build your shop an amazing website.
They wooed you with all of the beautiful mock ups and product demos.
You were utterly smitten with the idea of finally getting a new website.
Then, you remember that you forgot to ask them about that one small detail. You send them an email.
A few days go by.
They don’t respond.
You send another message.
You’re slightly panicking.
You try calling. No answer.
You wait a few hours and call again.
Four days go by. Nada.
It’s a week, now.
Is the sweat dripping from your brow just thinking about it? Do you feel the icy chill of regret and anxiety?
Don’t worry—it’s just a fictional scenario.
But, unfortunately, it does happen.
Sometimes web developers or shops are unresponsive either in the middle of a big project or when you urgently need them to make a change or an update (not all developers, of course—ahem).
And, again, unfortunately, nonprofits are often especially vulnerable in these situations.
Your organization may not have any internal staff that understands technology. They may not even have the keys to their own website because they trusted a contractor to build and maintain it for them.
So, if that contractor goes dark, it can feel very, very scary.
In these situations, there are two big questions:
- What do I do right now to not feel so helpless?
- How do I stop this from happening ever, ever again?
The answers to both of these questions will ultimately depend on the exact scenario that you’re experiencing.
The obvious response may be to hound them repeatedly until you finally get a response and then immediately cut ties with the contractor you’ve hired. But, in some cases, there may be a way to salvage the relationship and save yourself the time, money, and headache of trying to find someone new to step into this role.
Let’s first look at the reason that your web developer may be unresponsive in the first place.
Why Developers Go MIA
Let’s get one thing clear right away. There’s no good reason for someone you’ve hired to leave you high and dry.
At best, it’s just rude and disrespectful.
But there are some pretty common explanations for why these scenarios occur.
Reason #1: They’ve been busy, distracted, or on vacation
The most likely, non-menacing, but-still-very-frustrating reason that your web developer would unexpectedly go dark is that they just weren’t able to respond to your message or request. This could mean they’ve just been busy, sick, or on vacation.
Obviously, they should have at least taken the time to let you know if this was the case.
Nonetheless, it does happen.
It’s also important to recognize that the person you have hired may just not be good at the parts of their job where they have to interact with clients. Talented and smart tech people are not always good at managing relationships or projects. Again, it happens.
If this is the situation, it may be simple enough to salvage the relationship by simply setting better expectations about communication (more on this in a bit).
Reason #2: There is some technical difficulty
There is some non-zero chance that the reason your website developer disappeared is not that they actually vanished into thin air, but that, for some reason, they are not receiving your communications and thus do not know that you’re trying to contact them.
This seems like a simple or downright silly thing to point out, but the fact is that we have emails from regular clients land in our spam folder from time to time.
Consider how you could try to test and/or resolve this:
- Are you sure you typed in their email address correctly?
- Is there some alternative way you could contact them?
- Could you swing by their office?
If a few emails go mysteriously unanswered, asking if your emails went to spam is a nice way to start a conversation about response time and communication. Even if you suspect they’re receiving all your emails, it helps to lead the conversation by giving them the benefit of the doubt.
This one can go both ways. It could be a completely innocent gaffe or technology hiccup. But, if it’s a common occurrence, you should beware. The real reason may be #4 below.
Reason #3: They are unhappy working with your organization
It’s not unreasonable that your web developer is not responsive because they are not very happy or excited about working with your organization.
That’s a bummer.
‘Again, if this is the case, then the person should be upfront and honest about the situation. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Some people respond to bad situations by just shutting down and trying to ignore the problem.
If this is the scenario, then it may make the most sense to just cut ties.
But, you may not be quite as innocent as you think. And you might be able to salvage the relationship if you’re willing to reevaluate your communications and expectations to make both of you happier in the relationship.
Reason #4: They’re just plain unreliable
Unfortunately, some people are just not reliable.
If you’ve hired one of these people to build or manage your organization’s website, then it’s probably time to find someone new.
When you’re evaluating someone else to take their place, consider the following to prevent making the same mistake twice:
- Is the contractor doing this full-time? While there are plenty of reliable people out there working a side hustle, you run a greater risk of conflicting priorities when the contractor’s clients aren’t their complete focus.
- Do they communicate well in the beginning of the relationship? The first set of email exchanges and phone calls set the tone for the rest of the relationship. Most people will put their best foot forward at the beginning, so if the opening exchange doesn’t cut it, don’t expect things to get better down the line.
- Do they have a well-articulated system for managing projects and ongoing work? A seasoned consultant or firm will have at least a basic system for managing their work apart from their email inbox. If they don’t self-manage, you’ll have to manage them (unless they’re sharp but still a bit green).
You May Not Be Innocent
As noted above, it’s important for you to first consider which of the reasons is the explanation for the problem that you’re having.
It’s also important to consider that you (or other members of your organization) may be contributing to the problem.
Contractors of all types can get frustrated with their clients and customers from time to time because of poor communication or unrealistic expectations. As I mentioned before, this is not an “excuse” for a web developer to become unresponsive, but it may be an opportunity for you to assess how you work with them and improve the relationship.
Some common ways that organizations unintentionally sabotage developer relationships include:
- Not planning ahead to provide a comfortable amount of lead time or notice for changes or requests
- Expecting a contractor to be “on call” at all times, as if they were a full-time employee
- Little or no communication about needs and expectations
- Not responding promptly to questions when the developer is working under a deadline
- Multiple stakeholders communicating conflicting information and priorities
- Pressuring a contractor to overstep their personal and professional boundaries
Take a careful evaluation of your organization, culture, and communications with the web developer.
Have you been guilty of these mistakes? That’s okay.
Again, having an open and honest conversation here is the best way to get to the root of the problem and—hopefully—salvage a good working relationship.
Consider asking your contractor a simple question such as “When have I had unreasonable expectations in the past?” or “What’s the hardest part about working with our organization?”
Questions like this are tough because you’re inviting constructive criticism. You may already know the answers you’ll receive, but opening up two-way communication is an important step to maintaining a healthy, productive working relationship.
No one is perfect. Most organizations have their idiosyncrasies, and many things can be forgiven when both parties are willing to work at the relationship. So how do you do that?
How to Revive a Relationship
If you determine that you may be able to salvage the relationship, then you need to have a playbook ready for how to avoid similar situations again.
First and foremost, once you make contact with the web developer, you should avoid casting blame. Depending on the specifics of the scenario, there may be some fault to go around. But, ultimately, focusing on assigning blame is less productive than being clear about how to make sure it does not happen again.
Explain to your web developer the situation that you were in when they were unresponsive. Make sure they understand that it is something you take very seriously. Help them understand that this trend cannot continue if you’re to have a successful working relationship.
At that point, it’s time for some ground rules.
You should provide a clear set of expectations for response time and turnaround time on specific types of tasks and make sure that they’re mutually understood and agreed upon.
If the web developer cannot meet your expectations or fails to meet them again, you need to be prepared to walk away.
This can be a painful process, especially if they have become deeply involved in your organization. But it’s better to set expectations and then provide consequences rather than to let the unresponsive behavior go on unchecked.
If you are struggling with this decision, it may be helpful to consider the following questions:
- What is your organization giving up by choosing to limp along with someone who isn’t reliable?
- Flip your expectations around for a moment. What would a failed relationship with a contractor look like? Is it eerily similar to what you’re experiencing now? Or are there just a few problem areas to be addressed?
- Are you avoiding a difficult conversation because it’s easier to just keep the status quo, even if it’s not great?
How to Bow Out Gracefully
If the relationship with your web developer is not salvageable or if you’ve decided that it’s in your best interest to find someone else, then you should aim to amicably cut ties.
The most important thing to know about this is if it feels like a “difficult conversation” to have, then it’s likely because you have not done a good enough job of communicating your expectations and feedback.
Before you jump to close the door, take the time to communicate clearly and firmly about the level of communication you expect to receive.
Set expectations (see above) about the relationship and spell out the consequences of those expectations not being set (e.g., “If we have continued communication trouble, we will need to find someone else to manage our website.”)
If this communication is done beforehand and conditions do not improve, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise if you decide to end the relationship.
At that point, you can leave amicably be writing a simple “break up” email.
Be polite, but firm:
Over the past 2 months, you and I have discussed the importance of open communication regarding our website. I’ve tried my best to emphasize our need for prompt action on urgent matters and how important it is that our website remain up to date at all times.
Unfortunately, the problems have persisted.
We’ve discussed this issue internally and believe it’s in our best interest to find another developer to manage our website.
I hope you know that we immensely value the work that you’ve done for us and I am sorry that we weren’t able to get on the same page in terms of communication.
Thank you so much for your time and effort. Best of luck on your future endeavors.
You should also be sure that you have all of the proper access to necessary software, logins, and other important parts of your web presence.
It will be difficult—or nearly impossible—to have a smooth transition if you feel that your organization’s website or donor information may be held hostage by an angry contractor. Avoid that situation by being extremely judicious about who has access to which systems and who has ultimate ownership over digital assets.
The most important part of this painful process is to learn from the mistakes.
Whether that was a mistake on your behalf with how you communicated with the contractor or a lesson to be learned about how to properly hire the right person, the key is to understand where things went wrong and create new systems or processes to avoid them in the future.
Save yourself from that knot-in-your-stomach feeling by finding the right web developer and setting expectations clearly and openly.
And if you’re in need of better help, let’s talk.