We all desire smooth relationships with our clients and customers. Issues and emergencies only drive up our stress level and make us doubt our career choice. As a website professional, breaking your client’s live website is one of the most stressful situations you can deal with. This emergency is made even worse when you realize it was ultimately your fault … and that fixing the website is your responsibility.
But thankfully, you’re reading this article! It means we can be proactive in how we handle this situation as we prepare and learn from our mistakes to make a better future.
Fixing a website that you broke? Start with honesty.
I can’t tell you how many times I see posts in Facebook that do not want to own that they created the issue on their client’s website. It’s a hard pill for any of us to swallow because we don’t want to face our incapabilities.
We must be honest with ourselves — we’re always learning how to build more secure sites that run faster, update better and edit easier with beautiful clean code.
There is the reality, however, that when maintaining your client’s website, the buck stops with you. When you offer ongoing website maintenance for a fee, you are making a promise to them to take “care” of their website. Although there’s many reasons why it broke, if it was at our hand, we have to step up and own it.
Top 3 reasons a website might break under your watch (and how to fix the problem if it happens)
If a client’s website breaks, one of these issues could be the culprit:
Outsourced work to developer.
Something you built is no longer compatible.
Let’s look at each of these possible culprits in more detail, and learn how you can fix a website that breaks due to these issues.
1. WordPress/plugins/theme update
The most common reason websites break under your watch is an update to WordPress, the plugins or the theme. With WordPress core, plugins and themes, we are looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of different developers’ code clashing together to form the website you built!
In my 10 years’ of WordPress experience, it isn’t always a smooth update and is the most common cause for a little stress.
Steps to take
Backing up the files and the database before all updates will help you roll the site back every time with little hiccup. I use ManageWP so the backup happens from the ManageWP Dashboard and I can just choose to restore files or all files and database.
Manually checking the website before and after an update is key! You have to catch the error before your client does. This includes logging into the admin and checking there as well. It’s an extra step that is necessary.
Avoid bulk updates. Don’t click to update massive high risk plugins with easier low-risk plugins — or the theme and WordPress all at once. Do it in steps. This will also help prevent a broken website you can’t easily restore in knowing what update broke the site. (I leave the high-risk plugins to get an update time of their very own.)
Related: How to update WordPress like a pro
2. Outsourced work to developer
Another common reason is when an outsourced developer doesn’t do the work correctly and breaks the website. Now, I strongly encourage every website professional eventually have a developer that works for them so they can transition to client communication, support, strategy and sales. The problem, however, is you are then responsible for the work they do. You can safeguard yourself and your clients in many ways.
Steps to take
Create a process and best practices for updating and coding websites. With screenshots, tutorials and steps, walk them through how to safely update a site and roll back for issues. If you are starting out and don’t know, ask a trusted community! The majority of us website pros are always willing to help share our processes.
When possible, use a staging website — no cowboy coding! If the site is an eCommerce or a membership website, on the staging site make sure subscription charges are not active and when they test it’s not using real credit card processing. (This happens way too often, so be proactive in checking staging is set up correctly)
Do QA (Quality Assurance testing). Oversee all work that is done as you develop the relationship with your dev and perfect your processes. It’s double work, but necessary. If not you, someone other than the person doing the work needs to quality check whenever possible. When issues arise, work with your outsourced developer to learn from mistakes and get better. We are all learning!
3. Something you built is no longer compatible
Sometimes it turns out some code you wrote or a plugin you chose is no longer compatible with WordPress or neccessary plugins and needs to be replaced. This can also be the custom theme you built and the whole theme needs to be fixed or replaced! This is a tough situation, and although this falls on you, it doesn’t mean your time to fix it is free.
Steps to take
Inform the client of the change. Clients only push back when they don’t understand and you don’t take the time to explain. If you delivered a working website and in maintaining it over the years, the old code is no longer compatible, most clients can rationalize the need for improvement. Heck, we all trade in our phones every two years for a new one!
After informing the client, quote out the work to replace the code or theme. In good faith, offer a price reduction or some bonus value-adds. If a client does not have the budget, you’ll need to get creative in offering up a smaller quote to keep the website functional.
If the client is on a website maintenance plan, provide a couple hours for clean up if needed. Although I strongly insist website professionals charge for their work, in special cases like these, you may need to sacrifice some of your hours to clean up the site to get it functional. There is a breaking point in which you need to quote the client for additional time and you need to use your best judgement call on when that is.
Note: To be clear, this is for code you wrote or a theme you built that is no longer compatible. When a third-party plugin or theme the client purchased is no longer compatible, I don’t believe that is your responsibility to concede any of your time or your fee when quoting to replace. Use your best judgement.
Set expectations with your client
In all these cases, if the client spots issues before you do, angry emails can quickly roll in. The most important takeaways are: Education and prevention.
A WordPress website is built on the thousands of developers’ code with just a small amount from you! You need to let your client know that although there’s this strong network of support that works to have the whole system run together, it also can work against a website when certain code conflicts.
It’s also critical you advise the client of the role of their web host, your role in maintaining the website, and their role when editing the website. Onboarding emails, phone calls and handoff documents can all include this vital information.
Preventing issues from happening requires processes. Taking the time to think through how you update, what tools you use to code and steps for quality checking. This way, you know you never miss a step and can safely outsource to a developer knowing all they need to do is follow your proven process.
Establish a protocol for moving forward after disaster
All in all, ‘it happens! Sites break and no amount of prevention, education or process could have avoided it. What do you do?
Backups are your best friend. Have as many as possible (daily up to 60 days and one downloaded yearly). Note that restoring the database will erase any previous posts, order info, etc, so be careful choosing both files/database to restore.
Notify the client of what happened. This shows you were on top of things and also educates them about the issue should it ever happen again.
Move forward with the lesson you learned! I have 10 years of lessons, many I’d like to forget, but every one made me a better website professional.
Move past the stress
Broken clients’ sites are not the end of the world. They don’t reflect on your capability as a developer, designer or website specialist. Clients’ anger can be misdirected and rooted in another issue, so never take that personally.
It’s a tough pill to swallow when these things happen, but we’ve all been there. Use these tips to help you fix the mess, then move onward and upward in your professional career.