Losing your case: Did you get what you deserve?

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By Christopher Elliott

Do you ever lose a case?

That’s the most common question I get from readers. And it’s understandable since my nationally syndicated travel column has an almost perfect track record. The answer, regrettably, is yes — I’m also an expert at losing cases.

Even more regrettable: Sometimes, I deserve to lose.

Let me tell you a story about a personal loss that happened to me just this week. It’s a humiliating defeat for which I was almost entirely to blame. But it also underscores an important concept that sometimes, a loss is more valuable than a win. The money they take is something our commenters ironically call tuition.

Word of advice: Never try to save money on a website redesign

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know that we had some IT challenges last year. Chief among them: Our website sometimes doesn’t work. Our previous developer was brilliant but mercurial. He dropped off the face of the earth shortly after finishing the design work.

We needed a new developer for our WordPress theme. Problem is, WordPress developers are pricey. In looking for a solution, I found a site called DesignCrowd, a crowdsourcing platform that allows website designers to compete for your business.

It seemed like a great idea. A search for customer reviews didn’t turn up anything negative, so I thought I’d give it a try. After finding an online coupon, I paid $457 for a competition.

Instead of putting the nonprofit’s money at risk, I decided to fund the redesign myself. I would start by redoing my personal site, which has the identical page design (and is kicking up the same errors).

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I figured that I could just repurpose the design for this one.

What a stupid idea.

We have liftoff!

The project got off to a promising start. As the design concepts rolled in, I congratulated myself for saving the organization so much money.

One of the new themes caught my eye — it was clean, minimalist and catchy. When I left a positive comment on DesignCrowd, the designer contacted me immediately, and we set up a phone call.

It turns out the designer managed a small web design firm in India. He explained that his team uses DesignCrowd to attract new clients. The design competition is a loss leader for his company. He told me that the idea was to create a design people like and then convert them to a customer, charging hundreds of dollars a month for maintenance and extra design work.

By now, the sirens should have been screaming in my brain. But my $457 was committed, and I really liked the Indian design firm.

I should have asked more questions.

But don’t worry, I was about to get what I deserved.

What are you hiding?

So I designated my new Indian designers as the competition winner, and they began building my new theme. That’s when the problems started.

The design firm set up a site on an unsecured server that wasn’t password protected. Anyone could see the new site, which included stories I had already published and was about to publish.

Had I specified that the site needed to be staged in a password-protected environment? No.

Then the company created a site with a hodgepodge of plugins. (A plugin is a program that extends your site’s functionality). One of them was a page builder called WP Bakery (also known as Visual Composer) that has a reputation for churning up bulky code and slowing down sites.

One of our volunteers, who designs websites professionally, said the developer was also intentionally hiding other plugins for reasons we couldn’t determine.

Had I specified that the company should not use hidden plugins or a page builder with a reputation for slowness? No.

I lost my case — and I got what I deserved

When I pointed out these issues, the design firm promised to move the site in a secure staging environment and removed WP Bakery. It deleted the plugin, but kept the site unsecure.

The site still looked wrong, in the same way an imitation Rolex feels like a counterfeit on your wrist.

Why? It’s hard to say. But the site design wasn’t working.

When I mentioned that to the designer, he declared that he had done enough work. Putting any more effort into the site would mean he would lose money.

“DesignCrowd isn’t paying me enough,” he added.

I knew that he was right, and I was wrong. I had failed to specify which plugins he could and couldn’t use, and I hadn’t specifically asked him not to use a page builder like WP Bakery. The new theme looked like the one he’d proposed. But it was unusable.

I had lost.

So I agreed to pay him. But before I did, I reached out to DesignCrowd and explained what had happened. DesignCrowd was sympathetic, especially when I told them I had a theme I could never use. But after some back and forth, a representative told me the terms were clear — I needed to pay the designer because technically, he’d done what I had asked. Only, he’d done it his way. (Related: I’ve never told anyone these advocacy secrets.)

By the way, I’m certain that if I had installed the new theme, it would have ruined my search engine rankings and led to countless complaints from readers. (Here’s what you should do if your flight gets delayed or canceled.)

That new theme was DOA, no doubt about it.

Losing my case: My tuition was $267

There’s a silver lining. DesignCrowd acted as my advocate, negotiating with the designer. He agreed to accept partial payment for the unusable theme. I received a $190 refund.

I’m grateful both to DesignCrowd and the designer. For just $267, I learned a few important lessons about web page design:

  • Don’t cut corners.
  • Don’t assume the designer will build your page the way you want it (after all, he can’t read your mind).
  • Coupons are for groceries, not professional IT work.

I consider the $267 to be tuition. Getting burned by a developer helped me understand that you almost always get what you pay for. It’s much the same lesson that consumers on this site learn every day when they buy a cheap computer online or book a super-restrictive consolidator fare from a no-name travel agent.

Still, I can’t believe they sent me this.

The project was a lost cause so why did the company ask for a review?

When consumers fail to make informed decisions, our commenters like to use the term “tuition” ironically — as in, “You deserve what happened to you, and the money you lost is tuition, you dummy.” But I think sometimes you have to lose if you want to learn. That applies to regular consumers and to consumer advocates.

There are no shortcuts. And sometimes, you learn more from losing your case than winning.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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