Since I started Monti Design eight years ago, I’ve been hired several times to perform project “rescues.”

In a nutshell, these are engagements where I am asked to step in and get a stalled web project over the finish line after the original designer or developer flaked out and left a client hanging (and usually a little poorer). As a result, I’ve witnessed some appalling behavior from a small number of competitors — but for the most part, that sort of thing has been a rarity.

However, in early April, I had back-to-back appointments with two prospective clients, and both had horror stories. One was reaching out to me for help and advice because their unscrupulous web designer was holding their domain name and website hostage without cause. The other recognized that he needed my services, but had been burned so many times that he was almost irremediably suspicious of me.

“You need to realize that there are a lot of charlatans in your field,” he said. “Put yourself in my shoes. I may not know what I don’t know about what you do. That makes me vulnerable, and I’ve already been taken advantage of as a result.”

Wow. Point well taken.

Upstanding web professionals would do well to anticipate and alleviate such concerns when interacting with a prospect or pitching a solution. Beyond that, we ought to be willing to do our best to educate fellow business owners so they’re 1) equipped to find and hire reliable, competent web designers and developers, and 2) empowered to avoid getting ripped off.

So, on behalf of all the hard-working, professional, trustworthy web designers and developers out there…

Dear Business Owners: We’re sorry for the bad apples in our profession, and we genuinely feel your pain. Here are six things you can do to help ensure you’re getting a reputable web professional, and to keep you from parting unnecessarily with your precious time and hard-earned cash:

1. Let me Google that web designer for you.

Seriously, do a quick search on them. Not just the business, but the name of the designer as well. Check their reviews. See if they’re in the news for anything untoward — uncovering it will be one of the best things you can do for your business.

Your domain name is a valuable corporate branding asset. You should safeguard it as jealously as you would your logo.

Remember the client I mentioned who had their site and domain held hostage? They did a search on their web designer after he showed his true colors, and it turns out that he had a disturbing criminal history that caught the attention of the local news media on more than one occasion. Imagine the pain, heartache, and lost productivity they could have been spared had that search been done long before they gave him any money or the keys to their online kingdom.

Speaking of which…

2. Never, never, never, never, NEVER transfer ownership of your domain name to a web designer or developer.

If they ever suggest that you do this, that’s your cue to run away.

Again, I’m going to refer to the poor client that got taken for a ride by the web designer with a rap sheet. How did they lose control of their domain and web assets, you ask? Well, at the outset of their engagement, he persuaded them to transfer ownership of their domain to him. Think about it: he was the web professional. They trusted that he knew what he was doing and had their best interests at heart.

(Their story ends happily, thank goodness — they got the domain back and switched hosts in the end.)

Keep in mind that your domain is a valuable asset, and the core component of your corporate brand. You would insist on maintaining direct control over who has access to your company’s logo and how or where they can use it, wouldn’t you? You should safeguard your domain name just as jealously.

Plus, from a technical standpoint, it’s completely unnecessary to hand total control of your domain name over to a web designer. It’s a common practice for a web professional to simply request access to your current domain registrar or webhost.

Namecheap.comYou’ll have to determine for yourself how trusting you want to be. Many domain registrars like Namecheap or GoDaddy help you out in this regard by allowing you to create guest administrators on your account. You get several benefits from this approach:

  1. It puts you in the driver’s seat in terms of what your web designer can and can’t do with your domain and DNS settings.
  2. It frees you from having to share your personal login credentials with a third party.
  3. It frees your web designer/developer to work as quickly and independently as possible without having to bug you for access to your server or domain settings.

Check your domain registrar or webhost’s documentation for more information.

3. Ask for references.

Once you’ve got them, use them! Your two main concerns are with the competence and trustworthiness of a prospective web professional, right? Send a couple of their references a quick email, or give them a call. Ask them to specifically evaluate those two factors.

4. Do they use a contract? Ask to see a copy.

Whether you’re working with an individual freelancer or an agency, a contract isn’t just for your comfort and benefit — it protects both your business and theirs. Contracts are indispensable aids to successful project management and a project outcome that makes everybody happy. A solid web professional will understand this and typically has a contract template on-hand that they can share with you.

I’m especially fond of Andrew Clarke’s Contract Killer for its plain language approach. It’s easy to adapt and has served as the foundation for all Monti Design contracts.

5. Ask about their processes in the event of a dispute.

You hope it never happens. A web professional who’s worth his or her salt does, too — but if they’re hosting your website for you, you both need to give thought to what happens to your site in the event of a dispute.

A contract is an indispensable aid to successful project management and a project outcome that makes everybody happy.

You don’t want to be at their mercy with no redress other than coughing up cash. And you definitely don’t want to lose SEO ground or market-share because your company website has gone AWOL (courtesy a web designer with a hair-trigger temper).

In eight years of doing freelance web design and development work for over 60 different clients, I can think of only one time where I had to resort to the threat of “turning off” a client’s web site for non-payment of development and hosting fees.

I’m of firm belief that this phenomenon should be a rarity, for three reasons:

  1. Contracts that spell out the scope of a project, mutual obligations, and fee schedules go a long way toward heading disputes off at the pass (hint, hint — see #4 above).
  2. A formal process of negotiation and escalation should be agreed upon by both freelancer and client long before a dispute arises.
  3. A good web professional knows how important your web assets are to your business; holding a website to ransom in order to force payment or other concessions from a client should be a reluctant measure of absolute last resort.

Don’t hesitate to ask about how disputes are handled. If they don’t have an escalation/negotiation process, ask them to put one together that you both agree upon. Then, have it codified in your contract.

6. Ask if they carry liability insurance.

A well-oiled website running on all cylinders, generating leads and adding to your bottom line — it’s a lovely thing to behold.

But this is the Internet. The Internet can be a scary place. Even the most expert, conscientious web professional can only control so much. Things can and sometimes do go wrong.

What sort of things? Vulnerabilities in web publishing software. Hackers. Server crashes. DDOS attacks. Data breaches. Things that have the potential to create loss and liability for freelancer and client alike.

A serious web professional carries insurance as a result — for his or her own protection, and for yours.

There you go. Hopefully, when you go bobbing for web designer/developer apples, these six qualifying action steps will help you avoid the apple with the worm in it. Happy hunting.

Fellow web professionals: Any other recommendations? Be sure to leave a comment below.