At Pantheon, new clients and agencies often ask “how do accounts work?” and “how do I transfer ownership?” These are common questions for anyone starting out on a new platform or hosting provider. And given that the various solutions all work a little different, we began to notice these questions included an indirect question of “what happens when we want to end the relationship with one of the parties involved”? As we have discussed in other places, discovery is the time to cover all scenarios and define scope as much as possible before coding begins.
Let’s look at my favorite questions agencies ask their clients to approach the ever-awkward discussion around “what happens when our relationship changes?”
Negotiating the Hosting Relationship
“Who do you expect to hold the contract with the hosting provider?”
Some clients want to cut a single paper check per year and never think about their host. Others either demand internal infrastructure or have mandates to utilize pre-existing contracts with a certain host. The bulk of the clients we hear about would rather have their own relationship with the host, but still have access for their agency and developers to collaborate unfettered. In this scenario, the concepts of ‘ownership’, ‘administration’ and ‘development’.
Before we move too much further, let’s briefly pause to define what these ideas specifically mean on Pantheon. Ownership refers to the person who has paid for the site and who is ultimately responsible for content, compliance with laws and standards, and ultimately any access and permission sets. Administration here means anyone doing anything to maintain the site, including pushing code and updates. Development, while a subset of administration, is specifically the act of building the site, either from scratch or iteratively through an update process.
There are multiple ways this could work between the agency, client and vendor, but like any relationship with three parties, it can get tricky rather quickly. Having the client administer a site that you develop and own puts your agency on the hook at times you might not want to be involved, like when a content editor makes a faux pax or an ad campaign goes awry. The bigger worry though is that since you are taking on the role of owner, your agency is responsible for hosting as accounts payable and receivable.
Pantheon provides a solid solution here by way of pass-through billing. This lets the end customer fully own their site while letting you steer clear of the collections and payment for the recurring hosting. Under “Settings” on any Pantheon site is a setting to “Invite business owner to pay.”
You will always have free Dev and Test environments on Pantheon, meaning you can build on the platform, get client approvals, and only take the site to production once the client has paid. Yes, you read that right. Pantheon basically becomes a free tool for your building, launching, and managing sites as an agency. Your clients will appreciate that you are not running up extra expenses to get their site to production.
Changing ownership is as simple as using this process internally at a client organization as well. In cases where the worst has happened and the current site owner is simply gone, Pantheon support can work with clients to make sure proper ownership is assigned.
“Who will be responsible for contacting hosting for support?”
If everything goes flawlessly, this becomes a moot point. However, experience has taught us all that technology sometimes goes awry and support is usually necessary at some point. Having a predetermined delineation of who is responsible in most scenarios will make these events as painless as possible.
If you are cutting checks to a host for your client, this likely means your agency will be responsible for filing support tickets, locking the client out of support in case you are unavailable. The opposite scenario is also too common, where agency developers cannot gain access to needed environments when their email domain does not match the one on file. You need a clear way to show this arrangement between you and a client without blurring too many lines or causing too many permission issues.
Pantheon has an elegant solution to this problem set by way of our Organizations, which you can set up for free with a Pantheon for Agencies account. Rather than assigning individual users to sites or accounts, the structure of Supporting Organizations allows a client to add an entire team at once to their site project. Supporting Organizations give our support team immediate permissions to help anyone who needs it from the client or from the agency side. This does not interfere with the client’s relationship with Pantheon nor how ownership works.
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This Probably Won’t Last Forever
“What do you expect to happen if we end our contract?”
This is a very diplomatic way to ask “what happens if you fire me as an agency?” and “what happens if I fire you as my client?” While never top of mind when starting a new relationship, this is a critical point to figure out. Leaving it until this scenario presents itself will make a bad situation worse.
Defining handoff and release processes upfront makes the process of ending a client/agency relationship as straightforward as possible. You should have a standard approach for packaging up the code, database, and filesystem and a process for handing that off to the client seamlessly. Ideally this shouldn’t impact site uptime or performance.
Our founders ran into messy handoff situations many times as agency leads and thus is one of the core features to our ‘Organizations’ model designed for agencies. Every live site on Pantheon is owned by a single user and agencies connect as a whole team via ‘Supporting Organizations’, making it extremely simple to remove or restore access with a simple change in a site’s settings. The site owner and individual team members keep full access to the code, database, and filesystem without the agency having to take any action. Severing this tie of Supporting Organization will not impact the site uptime, so either party may dismiss the other without service disruption.
“Will you be using any in-house developers or other contractors for this project?”
Similar to accounting for changing contractual relationships is the concept of adding new team members. New team members can come from a variety of channels— a new developer on the agency side, a completely different agency to supplement the work, or client-side developers who will also be contributing. Traditional development approaches force people into passing around shared credentials, bringing with it many security gaps. You want to have a system in place where individual team members or whole teams can be added or removed without disruption or security risks.
On Pantheon, site owners can add or remove individual team members and entire Supporting Organizations at once. Individual site team members will have full access to the site, code and backups. Clients have the ability to grant Supporting Organizations Developer-only mode, where no one on that team can access the Test or Live environment for a site. This gives you and your client confidence that a new contractor or agency developer won’t cause any issues with their live sites.
Bring This up Sooner with Clients
Conversations around site ownership can be tricky and don’t arise naturally during discovery. Planning for changes in site ownership and your contractual relationship lets you enjoy the defined project at hand without the worry of what-ifs. Having sustainable and repeatable processes in place for starting and ending client engagements will help you scale your agency and focus on more billable hours. Pantheon was born from the experiences of developers who were striving for exactly that. We invite you to leverage our platform as a service to make your client conversations a lot easier along with site management.