Most agencies and freelancers in the world of web design have experienced the DIY client. You know, the one who wants your help with their existing website, but as they have self-built there is a potential world of pain to navigate.
Often it’s OK, they used to work in IT. Or their cousin is a developer. Or they built a website back in the 90s and decided it couldn’t be that difficult now.
Whether there are abandoned plugins causing security issues, a roll-your-eyes hosting company causing that slow speed, or a helpful ‘friend’ who’s started but failed to finish the project, there’s often a hard decision to make between working on an existing site or suggesting a complete overhaul.
The typical problems found on a DIY website
There are a whole host of potential issues when a site has been DIY’d by an individual who is not a website design or development professional. Some are an easy fix; others require big changes.
Depending on the type and number of issues, it may make more financial sense to rebuild. Some agencies will naturally take this route, whilst others build a complementary income stream supporting those DIYers.
There’s certainly room in the market for both approaches, and clients that will want one solution more than the other.
Abandoned and restrictive themes
The client LOVES their theme but doesn’t understand why they’ve been hacked, can’t just ‘add a box there’ or had something break when they updated to the latest version of WordPress.
We, as WordPress or design professionals, know that poorly supported or abandoned themes and plugins are a scourge on the world of WordPress. And when it reaches the point that the client is unable to keep their website updated, it becomes a problem.
Equally, there’s a real breadth of opinion even in professional circles on the benefits and withdrawals of different types of themes. From larger (and potentially slower) full page builders, down to niche restrictive (but, done well, lightning fast) themes. It is a big range even for WordPress professionals to choose from.
The issue for a DIYer is the lack of knowledge up front. They will often choose from the look of a demo site alone. Only once they have paid and begun using a theme can they find how restrictive or complex it may be.
It can be difficult to convince a DIY client that they need to abandon that theme they searched for, paid for, learnt how to use and wrote content and sourced imagery to suit that layout.
The client, understandably, has a feeling of losing their invested time and money in moving on rather than ‘fixing’ it.
However, they also know they have a problem. That is why they contacted you. Explaining in clear language terms what is causing the issue and how you can solve it will often bring the customer around.
There’s little choice here. Either you can convince the client to work with you to have an alternative theme applied to the site, or you can’t. And that means trying to further cobble what they already have.
A new WordPress user finds the plugin repository. Their eyes light up. Look at ALL THE THINGS I can add to my website!
Random stats on my dashboard? Check. An XML sitemap generator? Don’t know what that is, but surely I need it. Check. A cool looking social media feed? Check. Ooh a better one, let’s add that one too. Which one am I actually using? I don’t know. Never mind, I’ll keep them both!
And on it goes. We’ve all had to manage expectations and vet plugins with clients. Is it well supported? Is it compatible? How regularly are updates released? Is it a single author or a development house behind it? Should we consider going paid? Do the reviews or support feeds show issues?
Our DIYers don’t know any of this, and so plugin issues are a very common reason for problems.
A DIYer may realise there is an issue when the new WordPress site health indicator notifies them that they are on an old version of PHP. They dutifully update. Then half the abandoned plugins on their site break.
A full plugin review can be a really easy way to help this type of customer, with a suggestion of replacements for abandoned or problematic plugins. More often than not there will be plenty of excess plugins that can just be removed or consolidated.
Should the issues be restricted to plugins-only, it may not require a full rebuild.
It is shocking how many contact forms don’t work. There may be a glaring error on submit, or the default PHP mail function is faithfully delivering those important contact form emails straight to the junk folder.
Whenever investigating an existing website, one of the first things you should do is test the contact form. When a DIYer or website owner realises that crucial and essential functionality on their site is failing, they are often much more open to paying for assistance – whether that be a rebuild or ongoing support.
Adding a contact form that saves entries to a database, integrates well with the caching plugin of choice and has an SMTP configured is a simple but relationship-building solution.
It amazes me how many people think hosting should cost less per month than lunch does in one day. But knowledge comes with experience, and all agencies and web designers have seen the sheer horror of cheap shared hosting. And the up-selling. Oh, the up-selling!
I blame the large marketing budgets behind the main culprits, combined with the affiliate blogging programmes. But either way, we will all continue to have clients come to us with:
“My website is loading slowly/that plugin won’t work/etc.” client
“Ah, I see you are hosting with XYZ for £1. Here’s a thorough explanation of why that’s causing your issues, and more.” agency
“No, it’s not my hosting. My brother’s friend said they are the best and I don’t want to pay more. Can you please solve [insert original complaint here]?” client
Some you win, some you lose. A technical explanation can help. Equally, so can pointing out the awful reviews for these hosting companies, which will often refer to the same issue the client is presenting with.
It is a great way to bring clients on to your hosting and maintenance plans and keep them happy until the next rebuild. Or it can be used as part of the discussion towards a rebuild now, depending on what other issues are also at play.
Why do some clients choose to DIY?
We’ve identified the issues with client-built WordPress websites. But why do those clients choose to DIY in the first place, rather than bringing in a professional web developer?
The DIY market is heavily advertised
Marketing budgets rein supreme. We’ve all seen the adverts of the lady sitting amongst the snow outside with her laptop, building a website on SquareSpace. It is so fast; and she can do it while sitting in the snow!
Then there’s Wix, there are website builders in email marketing products and there are tools wrapped up and up-sold as part of hosting packages. All of these offerings focus on the message that it can be cheap, fast and easy.
That naturally rubs off on the whole market. A client who chose to build their own WordPress.org site is likely much more involved and aware than those who choose a website builder. However, this continuous message that business owners and marketing teams can build their own sites inevitably leads more to DIYers.
Cost, or actually, perceived cost
If you need to build an extension on your home, or put in a new boiler, there’s often a real fear of getting ripped off or hiring someone who will do below-standard work.
You are not a specialist in this area. How can you know how much it should cost? What makes the project well-done rather than poorly done? What do you need to factor in for longer-term wear and tear?
Now, imagine there were lots of people building their own extensions. And lots of companies suggesting if you bought their helpful tool, you could do it yourself too. Fast, cheap and easy! Right?
Surely the DIY option is a good one. It is cheaper, the advertising says so. And lots of others are doing it. Some are really happy with the results – most quickly realise that those tools haven’t magically turned them into web designers.
What you don’t see in advance is that the end product looks great on day one, but perhaps isn’t up to standard, technically. Only later do you learn of the issues in your new extension, and that in fact you are going to have to pull it all down and pay a professional to do it properly.
This is a good analogy for the perceived cost of websites. If I can sign up to hosting for £1, buy a domain for £10 and get a free theme, why on earth are these agencies and website designers wanting to charge me thousands?
They must be ripping me off! Or they must be offering a service much more complicated than I need.
Following this logic it is easy to see how some start-ups and small businesses choose the DIY route. It is only after learning why a website takes many hours to build well, and the depth of experience needed to do it, that a client can grasp the true cost and that we aren’t all money grabbing cowboy builders.
My niece built my website
People buy from people they trust. Plus, it is nice to support someone you know. Hey, that’s how plenty of agencies and freelancers start off.
Not quite DIY, but often resulting in a website of the same quality, we’ve all had those clients come to us with a site that isn’t performing as it should. Or where they can’t achieve what they need to with it.
Often this results in a site where the client can’t get support, and they are left stranded without the knowledge to take their website forward. Having not built it themselves, and with nobody to turn to for assistance, this can leave clients in a tough position.
Attitudes to websites and digital in general
I’m a small business owner, perhaps a florist, a mechanic, or a small legal firm. I had a website built in the 90s and I know it isn’t mobile responsive. But it’s not my biggest priority.
My business has been around for decades. We are a bricks and mortar business. We aren’t going to make money on the internet, and I don’t really understand it anyway.
However, I do know I have to have something. I’ll do it as cheaply as I can, which is better than nothing at all.
Where the customer doesn’t see the value, the expense of a professional website will always seem too great. These business owners aren’t seeing their offering through the eyes of their customers, or understanding the potential growth that a well thought out website and online marketing programme could bring to their business.
A website, and associated online marketing, is an investment for growth. The return justifies the investment. If the expected ROI is close to zero, then the budget isn’t going to be there.
Why it’s often better to rebuild than repair
A client has an existing DIY website, but with problems or challenges. They contact you hoping for an easy resolution, be that solving issues with contact forms, performance, or adding new content.
Whilst some sites may be in a relatively good state, often there is a complex range of issues. It can be cheaper to completely rebuild the site than to spend repeated hours repairing and expanding on an existing site.
There is also the challenge of understanding their unique set-up of theme, plugins, hosting and overall configuration. There are costs involved in an agency or web designer taking the time to navigate this combination, understanding the limitations, and working within them.
However, convincing a client that in fact a full rebuild is a cheaper solution can take careful explanation. And there are some occasions where, for a well-built DIY site, it may make more financial sense to work with the existing set up.
It is often easier if the client is keen to have a redesign carried out. When considering a redesign of a website, there is much clearer justification for changing the full tech stack. Equally, the client is already mentally invested in a larger project.
Should you support DIY clients?
Is there any value in working with DIY clients? Are they too budget-conscious to be worthwhile? Are the various issues highlighted in this post too time consuming to manage?
Whether this type of client fits depends on your business model and who the ideal customer actually is for your agency or freelance business. DIY clients can be a real time drain if they are not the right fit.
Unlike with clients who understand the value of a professionally-built website, there can be much more time invested in the sales process. However, this is also an under-served section of the market. If you do it well, you can hone your processes and build a solid income stream from a valuable niche.
Whilst there is value in the DIY market, there are also plenty of potential customers who will pay little and take up valuable time. A strict process of qualifying customers in or out early on is essential.
You should identify if the client is open to advice. Equally, are they willing to spend once you have gained their trust and shown value? If you find yourself five phone calls and ten emails down the line with no sign of a paid-for project in the future, it is time to cull the relationship.
Personal fit is also important. If the relationship feels awkward, it is. Working with a DIY customer involves a lot of collaboration.
For it to work there needs to be trust, and both sides need to feel the collaboration is successful. Otherwise it is easy for the agency to end up committing too much (unpaid) time to specifying the work, or for the client to be unhappy with the results.
Get it right, and you can find yourself with ongoing work to support a DIYer, and when the time comes you are the obvious choice to build their new website.
Spotting the red flags
Find your red flags and use them to qualify-out customers that aren’t a good fit. Hosting is a good example. If a client is determined to stick with their cheap hosting plan, that will offer no (decent) support, limits every resource, and will permanently cause poor performance: that’s a red flag.
Communication can also be a clear red flag. If a client expects answers outside of office hours, or chooses to communicate outside of your chosen methods (nobody wants a Facebook message at 9pm about this ‘quick problem I’m hoping you can solve’), you may want to rule the client out.
Having clear initial conversations about response times and communication methods can be one way to manage expectations, and the relationship. But due to the work/life balance most DIYers have with their small business, some clients can find it difficult to accept. The ones who break these rules are also the ones who are most likely to take up more time than they pay for.
Niching by theme
Picking up a website built with an awful theme and attempting to make it perform well can be a challenge. When something isn’t working as it should, the client is likely to blame you. After all, they are paying you to solve their problems.
With the sheer breadth of themes out there, with many different builders and combinations, it can be hard to offer a profitable service to the DIY market if you are having to spend time learning different themes every project.
Niching by a theme is one way of targeting your offering, and being able to offer it affordably.
Choosing a widely-used theme or framework, like Elementor or Divi and becoming an expert in it, can help you to really understand and identify the issues that DIYers come across. This way you can quickly win new customer trust, as they immediately feel you know what you are talking about. You can also quote comfortably as you’ll find you often carry out the same work for different clients.
Recurring income and lifetime value
If you offer hosting and maintenance plans for your clients, the DIY market can be a lucrative way of increasing your recurring revenue.
Yes, you earn more from the initial project, but the recurring revenue is the same, whether it’s a site you built or a site you didn’t build.
Equally, a website design customer will often have little extra work once their new website is designed, while a DIY customer is more likely to need additional work over time.
The best thing about this approach is that it’s accumulative. Your monthly revenue increases year on year. Meanwhile, you can work on getting more DIY clients on board.
And of course it’s easier to get the smaller jobs. And the more happy customers you have, the more referrals you’ll get. If you manage it right, it’s a very scalable model.
Should you work with DIY customers?
The answer, as expected, is subjective. We have identified the myriad issues throughout this post that can occur when a website has been built by a non-developer. It is also clear that these customers are often more price conscious and the sales process may be more involved.
However, the recurring revenue and larger customer base certainly can be a scalable model to grow your web design business. While each unique customer will likely bring less value, you are also likely to be able to service more customers.
If you can identify a clear niche that makes sense for your business and existing customer base, it is one option to consider. If you are typically servicing much larger clients, it may not be the right fit.