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I apologize in advance for this lengthy post, but I’d like to try and give the full history to get a good opinion, as I can’t really see the forest from the trees anymore.
Three years ago we got a referral to develop a website for a realty brokerage. The referral was via another long-term business contact. We went in, had a positive information-gathering meeting and agreed to reconvene 2 weeks later with a proposal. We went in with the proposal that they thought was “outrageously priced”, and so we started crossing items off and came to the agreement of developing a static site of about 20 pages- most of their current site. They wanted a fresh and compliant redesign of their mid-90’s website (that was done by the CEO in FrontPage). They did not want any CMS (too expensive), nor did they want any further system integration (like a realty listings DB). We presented a few Photoshop mockups; they were really excited by what we presented and chose the one they liked most. We verbally agreed to a fixed price of $4k and the scope was clear, but due to the huge changes, never got them to sign a written agreement (big mistake).
They did not want us to write the content, nor did they want us to use the existing content; instead they promised they would provide us with fresh copy for the pages promptly, and that we would get to actually developing the site once we had content to build it around. The sitemap was to be pretty much identical to their current one (but about half the size), so they had a clear idea of what to write.
After the meeting, they asked if we do IT support as well, which we do, and agreed to an hourly rate for the IT services. For the last 3 years we’ve been providing them with IT services, and they have turned out to be very difficult indeed (to keep in succinct I’ll just say that they are ridiculously cheap and nitpicky).
Every 4 months we would ask them how the website copy was coming along and they would give us an excuse. We were not thrilled about this, but let it slide as we were doing ongoing work for them and had other projects on the go.
Last August, due to the terrible market, they wanted a status update on the website. We reiterated that they still needed to provide content (and we once again offered to write it). They declined, but demanded a site map, which we printed off and gave to them. They once again confirmed the price of $4k, and said they’d get moving on the writing.
6 Months later (Feb’09), they once again reiterate that they need the website up asap. We tell them that we really need the content before coding it and they once again promise to deliver it promptly. Late August rolls around, and whilst speaking to the CEO, he claims he has no idea of what we need from him. Frustrated, I offer to just code the site and use copy from their current site that we would change when they are ready (free of charge), so that they can see how it will look and so that we can get the ball rolling. We also agree to copy their current site as is- all ~50 pages (as opposed to the original 20 we agreed to). Mid September we place the site on our staging server, send them a link so they can review it, and schedule a meeting a week later to discuss it. At this point the CEO is “kind” enough to let us know they are seeking proposals from 3 other companies!
At the meeting, a new face turns up, a “marketing analyst” who claims that we did no analysis, have no supporting documentation, and now wants us to prepare the framework/outline of what we had been working from and the project history. He also claims the fee is exorbitant compared to the new quotes they have; he wants us to recommend a CMS so that they can change the content in-house, and worse, they demand an hourly breakdown to justify the fee. Begrudgingly, we email a copy of the framework (about 20 pages because it includes the mockups, sitemaps, outlines, objectives and the numerous standing requirements documents we provided), research some CMS systems and send it to them, without an hourly breakdown (because it was agreed to be done at a flat fee).
At this point all communication is via email because they don’t return our calls, and it gives us a record. They say neither of the CMS systems would be adequate for their needs (without saying why) and continue to demand a price breakdown. We respond by assuring that the CMS systems are very flexible, and ask what their objectives are with regards to it. We also state that if they really want a breakdown of the hours, we could provide it for a fee (we have records, but really its irrelevant since the whole project is supposed to be a flat rate of $4k, and we don’t want to waste time putting together a report given that we’ve already gone above and beyond). We continue to be polite in all correspondence and try to be as accommodating as possible…
We get chewed out for requesting a fee for the hourly breakdown, and with still no further idea of what it is that they want, they ask us for an agenda for the next meeting. At this point I’m furious because it feels like they have us going in circles doing “busy work”, not giving us any direction, and anything we provide them with they summarily dismiss/ignore and ask us to do some other trivial task. We politely request their revised expectations for the project since we have no clue what they want and they haven’t answered any of our questions to try and clarify their objectives. It feels like they just want to “meet away our time” with other trivial items.
It has now been a month since we last heard from them. We’ve committed a lot of time to this project, have had the feature complete (well beyond original spec’s) version of their new site sitting on our server, and not a cent in return. We would like to finish this up or at least collect some sort of compensation for the work we’ve done. At this point we could probably send them the invoice (which they are unlikely to pay) and turn to litigation, or we could just wash our hands, cut our losses and drop them entirely. If possible we would like to resolve this in a civil manner and we would really like to collect the money since it is a substantial amount. The work is done, but at the same time it seems like this is never going to end. I can’t help but wonder if they’re just trying to get us frustrated enough to drop the project so that they could go with their other, supposedly lower bids.
The obvious take away lesson is: never again do work without a contract.
Thanks for taking the time to read all this, and any thoughts would be much appreciated!