The Client-Vendor Relationship in the Digital Age

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December 1, 2011
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Shai Gluskin

Building dynamic Web sites involves numerous variables, not the least of which is that Web site owners often don’t know what they want or need in advance of building the site. While they might not know what they want in terms of specifications, they typically want to lock in the cost of the project.

It’s not unusual for a vendor to be required to commit to a fixed price in order to get the bid. This pressure can lead the vendor toward engaging in unethical business practices. Vendors may pad their proposals significantly in order to account for what clients might need, but don’t know they need, at the time a contract is signed.

Alternatively, vendors may be stuck working essentially without pay to complete a project because of a miscommunication between the vendor and client — each understanding the proposal differently. This conundrum is exacerbated by the quickly changing environment in the digital space.

What are the ethical obligations of Web site builders and owners in developing their contractual relationships?

In early 2005, I was the director of education at the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF) — the organization that oversees Reconstructionist synagogues. Due to budget cuts, I was tasked to oversee the JRF’s growing Web site, which was in transition. We had contracted with a professional Web developer to redesign the site from its initial conception years earlier by a visionary lay founder. In discussing the predicament of managing 500-plus Web pages with our developer, Sharon Cooper, I learned that we could probably manage the large amounts of content better by using databases to organize the information.

We decided that we would bring order to the site incrementally by looking for content areas within the site where the data was most easily structured and would therefore fit most easily into a database. Our first two candidates were the congregational listing and the bank of divreiTorah.

I asked Sharon for a proposal with a fixed price for building the congregational listing. The proposal was approved and we started to work. Soon after, the excitement and collaboration began to deteriorate. The good feelings were replaced by palpable tension — primarily because I kept changing the plan. During the planning stage, the give and take between us was easy. However, in the implementation stage, each time I made a change, Sharon had to ask: “Does this change take the project beyond the scope of our initial proposal?” Rather than focusing on whether the suggested changes improved the project, Sharon found herself defensive, needing to protect her time and her livelihood. I hated the change in our relationship.

Having worked with Sharon for some time, I trusted her. I suggested: “How about we pay you on a straight hourly basis? That way, when I propose a change, you can respond with your expert opinion without worrying about appropriate compensation.” She responded that she much preferred to work hourly but most clients weren’t willing to work that way.

As a manager with a limited budget for these Web projects, I asked Sharon to report to me often on how many hours she spent on each small phase of the project. The reality of a limited budget helped to keep the project focused and productive. By paying hourly, the budget management was just another aspect of the collaboration. When we were working on a fixed price, the burden had been put solely on Sharon as the contractor.

While the best option would be to carefully plan a project that would not require change, changing course midstream is a well-accepted development approach. It’s called “iterative” design. With so many variables, the most important being the user’s experience of what is created, a project is more likely to succeed if it is built in small chunks, each iteration punctuated with as much feedback as possible.

Is there an ethical imperative toward efficiency and building productive relationships? Sharon’s behavior was ethical when she defended her time by evaluating whether every change I proposed would break the terms of the contract. But if the terms of the contract cause inefficiencies and negative feelings, should not the basic assumptions of the contractual terms be questioned?

I struggle with these issues on a daily basis. I tend to start projects with a fixed contract, in which I’ve written in some protections for myself, and then allow the relationship to evlolve into an hourly one as I develop more trust with the client.

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Rabbi Shai Gluskin is the owner of Content2zero Web Development. In 1995, he co-founded the listserv for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and he has been enthusiastic about the role of the Internet in promoting conversation and ideas ever since.

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