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Security series: Negotiating the right maintenance contract for your website

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When advising entrepreneurs on their digital marketing strategy, we often get the question "how much should I budget for my new website?" This question presupposes that building a website is a one-time expense.

Business owners are seldom aware of the ongoing maintenance costs that come with owning a website. These include keeping your technology current, obtaining support when there’s a crash and protecting yourself from hackers. For all these reasons, buying the right maintenance contract is crucial!

What your website maintenance contract should include

Typically your maintenance contract will be outlined in a brief paragraph in the overall contract you sign with your web firm. It’s rarely discussed in detail during the pre-sales process.

But this is a critical element when negotiating your partnership with a web firm. At BDC, we’ve advised more than 400 entrepreneurs on their digital marketing projects and we’ve gained the following insights into what you need to look out for when negotiating a maintenance contract.

So let’s get started…

1. Website hosting and security—make sure to read the fine print!

Most web firms do not host their client websites on their own servers and instead use third-party hosting companies for this service. Hence, the hosting cost is often transferred to the client on a monthly or yearly basis and is rarely negotiable. Attached to the hosting service also comes the responsibility for protecting your website from attacks and providing support.

Since the web firm has to correct any issues via their third-party provider, ask for the third-party provider’s terms and conditions for both the hosting and security clauses and yearly maintenance cost. Here, you will see if the service level corresponds to your business needs and operating hours. Contacting a web firm after regular business hours for an emergency is a nightmare you don’t want to experience.

2. Website technology updates—watch out for the best before date!

Once your new website has been launched, you should obtain all the website files. You will need these should your company decide one day to host the website on your own servers or move to another web firm. Since your website will grow and evolve over time, you should regularly obtain an updated version of the website files, preferably once every 3 to 6 months.

The maintenance contract should also deal with future technology updates for the CMS (Content Management System), Web widgets (forms, site search, etc.), plug-ins (browser extensions), third party software API integration (QuickBooks, Salesforce etc.) and operating systems/web browsers. For starters, you should have a detailed list of the current version running on your website. Our free website evaluation tool can get you started with this task.

3. Website technical support—in line with your business needs and digital maturity level!

An initial warranty period typically lasts no longer than 30 days after your new website goes live. When it ends you’re either on your own or have to have website maintenance contract that includes technical support.

Most web firms offer either a flat monthly fee that covers a certain number of technical support hours or a bank of hours pricing model, including volume rebates. (The more hours you sign up for, the lower your hourly rate.)

There are certain details to look out for in this section of the contract.

  • What happens to the unused hours at the end of a month? Most web firms will not carry them over to the next month, unless it’s a yearly bank of hours.
  • What service level is offered? Just like traditional IT support this is normally “best efforts within the service provider’s business hours with no guarantee of resolution.” If you’re running an online store that takes orders 24/7 you may want to obtain a quote on additional service levels such as “4 hours response and 12 hours resolution, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” However, some web firms are unable to provide after-hours support service.
  • Can technical support hours be used for other website projects? Some web firms allow their clients to “spend” unused hours on general website improvements or training.
  • Can you modify the yearly bank of hours once the maintenance contract has been signed? The answer is typically “Yes.” However, you should make sure the pricing for each level of hours used is detailed in the contract before signing.
  • Should I pay an hourly fee or take a bank of hours? This question is best answered by your employee in charge of maintaining the website. If you have a relatively high level of in house technical expertise, an hourly rate can be the wiser decision. Otherwise it is always best to test how many hours you use in a month before committing to an annual contract.

Conclusion and recommendations

Our experience has proven that negotiating a maintenance contract helps to set the right expectations for a successful partnership with your web firm. That’s why it’s important to discuss your maintenance needs at the very beginning of your project when asking for a quote. Then include this important element in your overall budget.

Once the post-launch warranty has expired, we recommend holding a quarterly call with your web firm to review maintenances needs, obtain an updated version of your website code and get a list of updates that were made by their support team/developer.

Otherwise you risk having an outdated website within two years and being ill-prepared for an emergency situation. Trust us—we know there will be one eventually!

Do you have a website maintenance contract in place today? If yes – what recommendations do you have for entrepreneurs who don’t have one? Please comment below.


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