Does anyone take responsibility for their actions any more?

Last week I bought an item on eBay. When I received it, I discovered that the seller had mis-measured two of the dimensions. It was the wrong size.

I explained this to the seller and asked her to take it back. Her response was that she’d measured it carefully, that if she’d made a mistake it was a completely innocent one, and what did an inch matter? After all, I’d gotten a great deal. So what was I complaining about? Oh, and by the way, she sold the item for a friend and she can’t refund my money because she doesn’t have it.

There was no admission that she had made a mistake. That she was sorry. Or that she was willing to take responsibility for her action. I guess she never read the part on the eBay auction site which says that the seller is responsible for the listing.

It’s a trend that I find disturbing.

Here’s another more serious example.

I’m locked in a dispute with a web programmer who built a database driven web site for me. Although we had a fixed fee agreement at the end of the project he handed me a bill for more than twice the price I’d signed off on. This was not a small overage. It amounted to more than 100 hours of work at his billing rate. What was he thinking? I can’t even imagine turning in a final invoice to a client with that kind of overage especially when our agreement was for a set fee, not an hourly rate.

I took a look at the invoice. The major item was “trouble shoot search function.” Translation: he couldn’t figure out the programming and he wants me to pay for his learning curve. He took no responsibility for his own ineptitude. He never submitted a revised estimate or consulted me on how I wanted to handle the problem. In fact, most recently he’s threatened to sue me! His rationale appears to be that I paid him less than other bids I’d gotten for the project, therefore I got a bargain! Maybe if I’d hired one of the other firms I would have gotten a website that worked.

What happened to making an agreement and sticking to it? Am I aging myself to admit that’s how I do business?

A life experience that I could have skipped

I’ve worked in the public relations industry since 1982, in my own consulting firm since 1991. I guess I’m lucky that until this past year, I’ve never had a serious problem with either a client or a vendor.

That has changed. I’ve been locked in a dispute with a web programmer that I hired to create a personal business (a fun website) since the beginning of the year.

One of my attorney friends has told me that everyone needs to live through a lawsuit once. That it’s part of life’s essential experiences. I must say that while this hasn’t progressed quite that far, it’s something I could have easily lived without!

I’ve always thought of myself as a fair person. I try to give my clients good value for their money and, if I sometimes underestimate the difficulty of a particular job, I live with it. When I’ve hired people for client work I’ve also tried to be fair. Many times I’ve gone back to clients and asked for more money when I’ve seen how hard people have worked on their behalf.

For several years I dreamed about building a website that would let me turn a favorite hobby into a small business. I didn’t have a lot of money to invest so I chose to hire a local web programmer who was known to several of my colleagues. He hadn’t built a site exactly like I wanted (it is a database driven site, so not as simple as a standard site), but he expressed his desire to expand his capabilities and collaborate with me on the development.

We agreed to proceed in phases. Each phase had a budget which was submitted to me in writing. I approved it. If something changed, he sent me an updated budget to discuss. This system worked fine.

Until it didn’t.

When we started the fourth phase of the project he gave me an estimate that gave me pause. It was considerably more money than I had anticipated and more than he’d originally told me I’d have to spend. We discussed it at length. He explained why he felt this phase of the work would be so expensive and eventually I agreed. The phase took several months to complete. There were frustrations when essential functions (such as search) just weren’t working the way they were supposed to.

Finally, those problems seemed to be solved. I started to talk to him about the final phase. The one that would turn my dream site into a real viable site.

Then I got a new invoice from him for the just completed phase. The amount was more than twice what I had agreed to pay. I was — and still am — stunned that someone, especially someone with whom I worked for a year, would send me an invoice for what represented more than 100 hours of his time without ever discussing it with me. I consider the work to have been part of the scope of the project. It was programming. Something that could have been outsourced to India and done for a pittance. Had he come to me and explained that he was having problems that he would charge me for . . . I could have taken control of the project and decided what it was worth to me. Instead, he said nothing. He simply handed me a bill.

I paid what I had agreed to pay. I even offered to pay 15% of the overage. It didn’t satisfy him and so far I’ve gotten no satisfaction, either. In fact, I’ve gotten the everything but. Every month I’ve received letters trying to intimidate me into paying the overage and demanding interest on funds (not) owed. I’ve been threatened that I’ll be liable for attorneys fees, collections fees, etc. I’ve received a letter from a collection agency. I’ve learned that despite the exorbitant overages (that I haven’t paid) and the amount of money that I paid, I was left with a website that was rife with errors . . . that I’ve needed to pay another firm to fix the problems. At that time I discovered that many of the changes I’d been told were not possible were indeed just simple programming. They’ve been fixed for a relative pittance.

By a professional.

I am embarrassed that after so many years of evaluating vendors that I so badly miscalculated on the skill and integrity of someone who was supposed to work on my own project, the one that I cared the most about.

I’ve looked at the laws in Massachusetts and am contemplating whether it’s worth the emotional energy and the additional funds to consider a suit against him. I’ve gone through the exercise of consulting a lawyer and am fully aware of how quickly legal fees would add up. Mostly now I want him to go away. I want to put my project aside until I can look at it without feeling betrayed. I’d like to get my dream back.

Anyone in the Boston area who would like to avoid the problems that I encountered are welcome to contact me so that I can share the name of person with whom I am in dispute.

Who’s Using Which Browsers? And why does it Matter?

Browser compatibility is one of the trickiest issues in web site design. Just because a site looks great in Firefox (which is apparently programmer-friendly) or IE7 doesn’t mean that it works well (or even at all) in IE6 or IE8. As for Safari, Chrome, Mozilla and Sea Monkey (!), you have to decide whether the number of visitors requires compatibility testing.

You would think that blanket compatibility, at least of the major browsers,  would be top of every web designers list of “Must Haves”. Sadly, I found this isn’t always the case — it’s something that needs to be written into the contract and then tested, tested and tested again.

Last year I worked on a Website for a client where the site looked great in Firefox and IE7. The problem was that they used IE6 in their office and in that browser, they couldn’t see the entire page so important information appeared to be left off. The programmer’s initial response? They need to upgrade their browser. I think not!

This year I had a client who had a Website that worked perfectly in everything except IE7. If it was an obscure browser like Sea Monkey, maybe it wouldn’t be an issue but according to my own tracking, IE7 is still the most popular browser on the market. The programmer’s response? We’ll fix it in the next phase. I think not! Browser compatibility is integral to the success of your clients’ websites. It’s not something you get to later. I understand that each version of Internet Explorer has specific programming requirements, but absolute conformance just needs to be part of the completed job.

Who uses what browser depends a lot on your target audience. Consumers tend to upgrade their browsers frequently than large corporations, where IT departments generally standardize the use of a particular browser company wide.  I know several companies that still use IE6 (with no immediate plans to upgrade) even though IE8 is gaining market share.

While there are mass statistics that dictate browser share, I monitor the visitors on my own and my clients’ sites to give me a finger on the pulse of the industries that I serve. I’ve found that my figures are not much of the mark as those reported in Wikipedia.

For example, here are the trends I’ve seen over the past year for one of my clients, which is in the telecommunications industry. The people viewing their site are fairly technical, international in scope, and many work for larger companies.

Here are the stats for visitors to their site during the past 30 days:

Browser share over the past 30 days

This chart shows browser share over the past 30 days. IE is by far the most dominant browser. More than 63% use IE with Firefox at just under 30%.

This graph shows the breakdown of the different IE Versions.

This graph shows the breakdown of the different IE Versions. No surprise -- IE7 is the predominant browser with 48.5%, but IE6 still enjoys heavy usage for an "old" browser at 33%, and IE8 adoption is up to 18%, a significant increase since the beginning of the year.

IE8 usage has grown considerably since the beginning of the year.

Look at the stats from Jan '09. Just six months ago, fewer than 2% of our visitors were using IE8. Interestingly, IE6 usage is pretty consistent; IE7 had a larger share of the browser market.

So, what’s the bottom line? Don’t underestimate the longevity of the major browser versions. Make sure that your clients’ websites work on all of them. Browser testing should be done by your web designer or firm, but it’s a good idea to check for yourself. I generally have the current versions of Firefox and IE on my computer but there are resources on-line that can help you look at some of the versions not immediately available.

Here are two that I’ve used: lets you look at your website in a large number of platforms (some of which I’ve never heard of!) You can look at a limited number of screen shots for free. lets you see your website using any browser and any operating system.

How much should this project cost? This is almost funny.

Last week I put a project out to bid on It’s a pretty straightforward project: my client wants to clean up and enhance a Zen Cart site.

I’ve looked at the CMS and figured it was maybe 20 hours of work. I solicited bids only from companies with experience in Zen Cart and I provided each company that expressed interest a very detailed list of what needed to be done.

I got bids in almost immediately. I had to stop and scratch my head. They ranged from $450 to $3,600. That’s right, the same project.

I sent back questions to two of the companies that had the highest bids. I was genuinely curious. What was it about the project that they thought would require an investment of $3,600?

From the first company, I received an estimate of the time that would be involved with specific line items. So, they really think that it would take:

  • 12 hours to set up the Zen Cart site for a company based in Massachusetts. I’m sorry, but having looked at the Admin panel, I know that it’s a question of changing one setting. Actual time? 15 minutes to find the right setting and click on the right box.
  • 20 hours to test the site in multiple browser/operating system configurations. Really? We’re talking about a site that’s got fewer than 10 pages. Maybe they know about more configurations than I do!
  • 8 hours to test that the shopping cart functionality works. I guess that’s not included in the above mentioned 20 hours of browser testing! Let’s see, I tried it myself. In less than half an hour I found out that the cart does work. Phew, saved myself 7.5 hours!
  • 12 hours to resize two images on two pages. Are they planning to redraw them? Heck, we paid less than that for the designer to create the images!
  • 16 hours to complete text edits on the FAQ page. That’s about 25-cents per word. Most writers don’t make that much.

Okay, you get the picture now. The bid was so over the top that it was funny. Except that it isn’t. In my mind it’s a case of a company that is trying to take advantage of what they perceive to be a client’s ignorance. Pricing on this level is extortion.

The second company in this price range said only that it was expensive because the request was “so detailed.” They immediately offered to cut their price in half, but only if I awarded the bid to them that day. Sorry, I don’t work with suppliers that try to gouge me the first time.

In the end, we did most of the work internally. We did find a few programmers who provided honest bids but I’m sorry to say that out of the 16 companies that sent me proposals, they were in the small minority. We are going to start working with one soon and hope that he is as good as his references state.

Bottom line? As a client or agency understanding the scope of the project and it’s worth is essential. There are plenty of people waiting in line to take your money who hope you just don’t know the right sum to pay.