The slippery slope of WordPress customizations

There are two things I highly admire in the WordPress ecosystem: being able to precisely budget small projects (where the tiniest error could ruin the entire profit, if not more) and do freelance customization work.

We own a small brand under the DevriX hat called Premium WordPress Support, which started as a support engine for maintenance and retainers work. Currently we’re testing different approaches related to marketing and SEO, advertisement campaigns and more, and the majority of incoming requests are related to customization work – WordPress websites, themes or plugins.

The $500 client

I was truly impressed by WP Site Care after they posted Why We Love the “$500 Client”. Given the technical ignorance of the majority of clients who come from non-technical industries, I’ve found it challenging to compete in this field. Why?

There are several work phases:

  1. Approach
  2. Negotiation
  3. Research
  4. Discussing requirements and details
  5. Offer
  6. Implementation
  7. Few iterations
  8. Testing
  9. Delivery

The first 5 phases are not billable as you need to understand the specifics, send the offer and see if the client is ready to commit. Then, there are several tricky phases with either dodgy requirements, or a high risk of scope creep and more (especially if you don’t spend 10 hours writing the most detailed specification that would cover the entire budget).

WordPress Customizations

Even then, building a $500 website from scratch is doable – if you have a package that includes specific features, a list of premium themes and several fixed hours of work. Then the amount of time during the negotiation phase is limited to zero, and the package is sent as an offer.

What happens with WordPress Customization requests? You get an email that says: “We have that site that’s almost ready, with a few plugins and we need the following 3 changes: X, Y, Z”.

I already blogged about the $15 gig, and the type of RFPs I get way too often from several networks. But even if we ignore that particular case, another bunch of requests comes from clients who have build 90% of their website already with several plugins and expects a few tiny bits to be done before the end. And they see it as a hot fix “no matter what”, preferably ASAP though.

If you need to “quickly” adjust a plugin and adapt a few CSS fixes on the given website, what sort of issues could you encounter?

  • The theme is not written according to the WordPress guidelines
  • The plugins are not compatible
  • There have been various manual changes in those plugins
  • The hosting provider has some limitations
  • There are PHP/MySQL version issues
  • The site uses some 3rd party API/service/database that needs special attention
  • The fixes could cause a regression in another area of the site
  • A simple functionality has been built with a complex plugin and the change needs to be applied there, which requires hacking the plugin itself

Most of those issues are actually being noticed during the research phase, after the work has been started. The other way around is to ask for an hour of two of research before sending the offer, or spending some time discussing the specifics upfront (even if the client may not be aware of all of those).


Last year I was getting roughly 8 meeting requests a week for random projects. Some of those didn’t even specify what sort of work is involved.

If I had to commute for 2 hours, spend an hour in a meeting, prep a proposal and get it rejected, that means at least 40 hours a week of non-guaranteed work. And if I want to get my time billed upfront, most of the clients reply with: “Are you crazy, we haven’t even started yet!”.

There are not too many business consultants in WordPress willing to estimate the costs of a project, mostly due to the small budgets of the clients – many can’t afford the changes, how about business consulting upfront? 🙂

Possible Options

Most of the time I avoid WordPress customization requests since my personal track record has been disappointing. There are several other options that I suggest to some of my clients though:

  • Consult with a technical expert regarding the budget or building a decent specification for the changes needed (or pay for consulting before the work has started)
  • Increase the budget and prepare for higher costs (sometimes it’s easier and cheaper to start from scratch if the architecture isn’t stable or scalable)
  • Rebuild that from scratch (sometimes)
  • Pay for 2-3 hours of research before sending the offer
  • Pay hourly with some very rough estimate where it’s possible that any unexpected changes would be billed extra
  • Subscribe for the retainer plan for a few months while we could sort everything out without too much pressure
  • Contact a risky agency that loves gambling and is willing to bill a fixed fee “no matter what”

I have had clients from other areas investing in customization work that includes a research phase, getting acquainted with the code base, building everything as needed. The most important advise for clients though is that starting small doesn’t mean that changes would be almost free later on.

If you build a small house you can’t expect to convert it to a castle for a few bucks based on the initial base. Changes may take time – a lot of time on larger projects.

Do you use a different approach with clients asking for customization gigs?


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