Design Dilemma: Can I Fire My Client? (Again)
It’s a popular question and one we covered at least once, but every story is different. How many ways can a design project go wrong, by accident or on purpose? Can I say it all starts with a contractual agreement in writing? Not often enough, I’m sad to report.
But let’s grab a few moments of schadenfreude at the expense of someone else’s career. Join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…
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Christina W. writes: Here’s my dilemma…
Designed a website for a client based on a flat fee estimate of $2,000. They just keep finding issues and revisions that have now gone beyond the original scope.
They have paid me the entire amount… but continue to be a very difficult and ultimately unsatisfied client. If I fire them, do I have to pay them back?
Naturally, for me to even take a guess at some kind of solution, I needed a little more information. I wrote back to Christina and made a general suggestion:
It depends on your contract/written agreement (if you have one). The problem seems to be that you promised to do the site for a flat fee and they believe that entitles them to as many changes and such as they want.
I suggest you tell them you have to put on the breaks for additional scope creep as it was not covered under the original fee and will garner extra costs outside of that fee. Work out an hourly rate and make the charges retroactive to the point where the scope creep began.
If you walk away at this point, they will not be happy and demand the entire fee back. Legally, you can be found liable for those fees under your current agreement. Hold fast and try to work out a solution that you and the client can live with. If they balk, then finish the project, do your best and take it as a lesson that a strong contract/agreement is necessary for all projects. Spell out what a client gets for a flat fee and make sure they know that any further changes or scope creep will cost a certain amount per hour after that (and set milestone payments with a final payment before you publish the site or turn over files).
Let me know what happens so I can use this for a future article.
Pretty standard advice. As I didn’t hear back from her, I assume the worst — she had to finish the project — slowly and painfully. But it brings up another conundrum about our industry and this very column — why aren’t designers using contracts and why is there little to no follow up from designers?
Nothing in Writing
Unfortunately, I’m going to guess that our latest victim had nothing in writing. So what are her chances of legally dumping the project and keeping the entire fee? None. She took on the project all inclusive on a flat fee and due to intent of the oral agreement, she will have to finish it. In court, she could argue that the scope of the job changed but the client could respond, as with my favorite client response, “these weren’t changes — the project just evolved!”
You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again but you just can’t quite get up the nerve to ask that smiling client to sign a contract with simple and fair rules of how you want to do a professional job at a fair rate. Why? Most people think they’ll insult the client by showing disloyalty and mistrust right from the start. No. You are showing professionalism. Yes, most people don’t expect that from “artsy-types” but do you want a regular client that treats you as anything less than professional?
It doesn’t even have to be called a contract or be signed! Call it an “engagement” or “purchase order.” You could even call it a creative brief and attach it to your creative brief as “confirmation of project and have a codicil that “once the project commences, all terms are deemed fair and accepted by the client and vendor.” That works great in court and has a much friendlier sound to a client.
You can find free, legal contracts for creatives and a multitude of projects and rights at docracy.com.
Don’t Forget to Follow Up
By not following up with me, after asking a question she knew was bound for possible publication, Christina (as have others) has cut her lesson short, before arriving at a solution she can use in the future . If you look back at past Design Dilemmas, we manage to come up with some great solutions. Follow up, in general, is hard for people. It’s what makes sales so hard. It’s a drive, really. While most human animals shun tribal conflict of any kind (unless you’re from Brooklyn), those who can merely get up the nerve to just communicate, will end up succeeding.
That can be very hard for those who write into us for advice and help. They are admitting defeat, or at least near defeat. It’s nothing to be ashamed of as there is little to no training at places of higher learning for creative careers. We all need to learn hard lessons and if advice from someone who has already made those mistakes can save you the same trouble, then all it takes is a little follow up, here and in life.
Will Christina follow up with her client and work out a mutually beneficial solution? Probably not. She will either walk away and leave what may be a well-meaning client in the lurch, only making the working relationship with the next designer strained and more difficult, or she will suffer continued changes silently, until her anger explodes from being held in too long. Not a happy ending.
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