Why your "small change" may cost more than you expect

I was perusing Facebook this morning when a post jumped out at me. It was from a client-side communications professional who was asking something along the lines of:

"I want to make a small change to some text on my website. The CMS doesn't let me edit it, but the fee that the agency want to charge me to change it is far more than I would expect. Is this reasonable?"

I wrote a lengthy reply and I thought it was worth copying here (slightly edited).

Technical Process

From a technical perspective, this might look like a small, simple change but the process may involve a number of steps.

If the text is written into the code (we call it “hard coded”) then the code needs updating. The code is probably “version controlled” (revisioned) to keep it safe.

If the code has not been touched for a while then someone may need to start by downloading a copy of it.

They then need to make the change and test it to make sure they changed the right thing. Then “commit” the change (save a new version of the code with your change in it) and re-upload it to where the code is stored.

They may then need to “deploy” the change using some process to send it to the hosting server and check/test again once it’s there.

There may be other steps too.

This probably sounds like a convoluted process, and for a change like this it is.

The cost of a small-change "call out"

This convoluted process for editing code is intended to keep your site safe during bigger changes. It’s unfortunate, then, that the same process baggage also applies to the tiny change you are requesting. It’s for the greater good though - the aim of this process is to protect your website.

Think of it like camping: there’s a certain set of things you need to take on a camping trip regardless of how long you’re going for: tent, tables and chairs, cooker, sleeping bags, etc. So you’ll fill your car up even for an overnight stay. But you don’t add much to your kit list if you’re staying for a whole week.

Just like there's a baseline "kit list" for camping that applies regardless of the duration of your holiday, there’s a baseline set of activities needed for making a website change that applies regardless of the size of the change.

Or think of it like a call out charge for a plumber: he may only spend 5 minutes replacing a push-fit joint, but he took your call, drove to your house, invoiced you, and so on.

Business processes

There are also business processes and costs that have to be factored in.

  • you might have interrupted the-engineer’s work on something else and it takes time to switch context and back again
  • they had to log their time and handle the ticket and communications around it
  • someone will need to invoice you and possibly chase payment (thought I’m sure this is not the case with you! 😉) and process the receipt of payment

Business also have overheads. These kinda go unnoticed as part of a large project. But consider that if the agency spent LOTS of their time working at-cost on small jobs like this. Who pays for the office? The furniture? The computers? The software? The accountant? These are also all part of the cost of doing work.

Pricing to control demand

Minimum charges for small piece of work are also used to limit small changes. It’s a form of supply and demand control and this is beneficial for both client and agency.

Consider if you wanted ten small changes like this and you requested them separately. This is quite painful and time consuming for the agency. And...may not deliver value to the client either.

So in putting a minimum price on it they may be filtering requests to things you will actually get value from. They might be wanting you to be asking: do I really want to do this? Is it really worth £100? Or can we do without it?

So if you asked for ten things and the minimum £100 charges started adding up, you may only decide to do the five most important steps ones.

This is good for the agency because it reduces the pain of doing lots of small, ad-hoc changes which interrupt the flow of larger projects they may be working on.

And this is good for the client because it means you only pay for work that is going to deliver you a decent amount of value back to you.

So is the high cost of a small change justified

BUT... having said all of that ... charging a high, minimum fee amount does seem a bit mean spirited if this is a rare, one-off, and simple request. This long ramble is an attempt to explaining it, not defend it in any specific case.

Playing the system

I'll finish by presenting an alternative for the client. Because of the "call-out fee" or minimum charge system, you can get better value by bundling changes up.

So, if you have more changes to make, see if the agency can bundle them up into a package to be done all at once. This will make the cost much lower.

And for the particular case of text that isn't editable in a CMS: it may not cost much more to change the site to make this text editable! If they’re going in and making the text change anyway, can they do that? It may cost a little more now but save you and them the cost next time?

More on the topic

This is another excellent article on the topic of why small code changes can take longer and cost more than you expect: