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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!
I usually provide a login page that says the site is under construction or down for maintenance, but the client is provided with a login so they can preview the site as it comes along. That way, they don't get a site and the site doesn't go live until they pay.
Wow, I feel for you, what a horrible mess. Sounds to me like they are trying to get all your input for free so they can turn around and find someone else to do it for practically nothing.
I would have walked away from the moment they mentioned they were looking for 'new quotes'. Unreal!
....Every 4 months we would ask them how the website copy was coming along....
Over the years I've dealt with many types of customers. Some need motivating, some will never be motivated. Allowing 4 months to pass without a call asking "so how's it going?" is an error you should also never make.
As a provider, it allows it to fade into memory: every time you re-visit the project, you have to almost learn it over because so many other projects have crossed your desk in that time. The same is true of the client, except that as a "buyer" of services, their view is likely, "we have someone doing that, haven't heard from them in 4 months." I hear this all.the.time when cold calling potential clients, and the disdain is obvious.
Falling out of constant communication with the client is the one sure way to kill a project, IMO. It's no fun "doing someone's job for them" but sometimes that's what it takes to keep them in the game.
Short term projects, I make contact every day - how I'm doing, or if I'm waiting on something, how they are doing. On longer term projects, at **least** once a week. People seldom move unless you make them move, and this gives the impression you're a "go-getter."
If a client doesn't respond to this, I let them know the project is floundering, and offer help (as you did.) If repeated contacts and offers to assist don't make anything happen, I let them know: I have to schedule time for new clients, we have to wrap this up ( = "last call, can I help you or not?")
If nothing happens, I let them know, this project is closed, contact me when you are ready. Then we move on.
But 4 months? I'd expect them to forget my name! :-)
I think its time to cut your losses and move on, also use the design to start a small side venture etc...
fair amount of money to walk away from
Call me skeptical, but I don't believe the "client" intends to or will ever pay for any of the work.
Rocknbill has a good point, you probably had a chance to establish a *relationship* with the client, esp since they asked you to do the extra IT stuff. Would have been a perfect occasion for you to step up to the plate and see what else you might be able to help them with.
My guess is that this client initially wanted you to be more involved overall, and did not communicate this clearly enough. You, on the other hand have let the ball drop by not getting in touch regularly and not being proactive enough in trying to understand their needs vs their explicit wants...
To late to fix now, focus on paid work - forget "getting revenge" get better new clients instead.
Not walking away is called "loss aversion" or the Sunk cost fallacy [en.wikipedia.org]
If they pay it*, give them the files for everything finished so far, but don't do anything more. Continue the project only if you are paid in advance for the remainder of the work.
* From what you've said, that's an unlikely scenario.
...then walk away.
Clients like those are insufferable. Sorry for your loss.
and Welcome to WebmasterWorld!
It's passive-agressive supplier exploitation, and it's despicable.
Invoice today, via signed for post, fax and email, for the full outstanding sum with short terms (e.g. due immediately / five working days), with whatever interest penalty terms you can legally apply. Don't give them 30 days unless they already have a record of paying promptly.
When the money has not been paid for two weeks, write to them (signed for post, fax and email) requiring them to contact you immediately and explaining that you may turn the debt over to a collection agency if it remains unpaid.
When they contact you and ask you to do X, Y and Z before you get paid, inform them that the invoice is in respect of work already completed and must be paid in full before you will do anything further, even providing breakdowns, screenshots or technical details.
Odds are, you will not see the money even if you do turn the account over to a collection agency. But it is worth a try! In any case, do not do anything more for this client!
You next communication with client is: "Failure to complete. I'm using this for another project. Hope we can do business again."
And do it. Meanwhile, if they aren't totally stupid they will say "No! Don't do that! Etc." and you say "$4000.01" The Penny is for your trouble.
Ocassionally she gets a client that does not want to pay up front. She holds her ground and let's them walk. Often they come back weeks or months later wanting to do business again and willing to pay. She has a great portfolio to back her, so she can get away with it. If you are just starting out, you might want to try incremental billing of your time. Send an invoince every month. Etc.
In my experience, even a deposit doesn't guarantee that client's will perform their end of the contract, but it improves the chance since they then have skin in the game. And if they don't meet their commitments, at least there is (some) compensation for the work performed.
Reason I comment, is I've seen so many people bent on a contract being a must. I happen to disagree with this school of thought and have been running a successful business without worrying about contracts for 6+ years. Granted, my initial fee usually ranges from $1,000 to $2,000. I can see how 4k might require a bit more.
As for us, email communication has worked just fine and sure saves a lot of the headaches of rewriting contracts then faxing/scanning/signing/meeting for the sake of signing the dotted line.
Okay, I'm sure some people might have online contracts that would make things quite a bit easier, but you get the gist.
Difficult clients are going to be difficult clients with or without a contract.
Perhaps the answer is to start off a bit smaller and get to know each other first. Make sure you are a good fit. Works for us.
If they're quibbling over a 4k website then tell them to get it done cheaper, wish them luck and spend the spare time you've gained from not dealing with them searching for new work.
So what you should do and should have done in the past is set a reasonable deadline until you expect the content. Four weeks should be more than sufficent for 20 page website. If you do not receive the content within the period of time cancel the contract and charge the work you have done so far.
At least that's how it would work in the jurisdiction where I live.
You do not have to wait until kingdom come for a customer to provide the content.
I'll add my voice to the chorus here: write this one off.
They won't pay you, even if you were somehow able to produce something exactly to their spec, which is very unlikely due to the fact that they don't know what they want.
As others have mentioned, you shot yourself in the foot a couple of times in the years leading up to this moment.
The takeaway is that clients need to be managed, some quite a bit more than others. And client management is at the root of how web designers get paid.
When there is more then two people involved and things are not put in writing (or everyone is not copied on each and every email) the details will differ for each person.
It happens with written contracts too, just not as bad. The courts are filled with people who have contacts but can't understand what is written there for some reason.
Even if you are all on the same conference call, over time each person will interpret the facts differently and have a different understanding of the end project.
The CEO gets caught in the middle, and justifies their job by resolving the "difficulty". But if they have enough contrary info (or time pressure due to delays working out minute details which can seemingly never be resolved verbally) will try to hire someone else.
People are basically pack animals. I think this place may see your firm as an outsider. This means you have not settled into your place the pack. This means you will either have to make submissive gestures towards the CEO, or snap at them. If you snap they may kick you out, if you submit you may be humiliated and accept the scraps the higher members of the pack leave behind.
This is why it can be helpful to have a negotiator or "pleasant personality who can deal with the CEO" (submissive gestures), while the other one can maintain a stronger role with other members of the project like the marketing analyst you mentioned who appeared out of knowhere). One of the things Henry Kissenger did so well was that he was a very powerful man and perceived as such, yet he could make genuine submissive gestures to other leaders at the proper times.
My business practice is to put the money in escrow before starting any billable services (No matter how small the project is). I also suggest you should get some capital upfront so you can pay some bills or whatever. I try to get maybe 10% upfront but it depends on the scope of the project.
As far as litigation etc, I would say you'll only be wasting your time and money with that. It's ok to loose some money but really you should have never put your business in that position in the first place. Don't give folks work if you don't have compensation! Litigation is also a bad move if you work a lot locally. That one client can ruin your business if you try to sue them. Just like you're telling us about this unfortunate situation that business will be sure to drag your name through the mud locally and you don't want that at all since it could far exceed the 4k you were going to get.
Chalk it up as a loss and move on and forget about any lame revenge ideas folks have been mentioning, that will get you no where real fast. When a client seems unreasonable or I just don't like them I just don't work with them, we all have pretty good gut instincts about these things. I know it's hard to cut and run but in the long run you'll thank yourself for doing it because you'll have a delightful client base.
By the way: Of course you have a contract. You do not have a written contract. That's a difference.
But I guess you have enough emails to prove that an (oral) contract exists, and what the outlines of the contract are.
I am going to second this and am surprised no one else has brought this up. Aside from the local reputation concerns mentioned by archaxis, you have no reason not to take them to small claims courts (assuming you live in the States).
You may not even need to hire a lawyer, although it wouldn't hurt to get a consultation (especially if you have friends who are lawyers). It seems like you have enough evidence to prove the existence of a contract and that they breached it.
Send them an invoice and if they don't pay it then consider filing in small claims court.
Lack of a written contract does not automatically equal defeat, although a written contract would make things easier and should always be done going forward.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and my above post is not intended to constitute legal advice or create a lawyer-client relationship.
and then outrank them for their own name ..and keywords ..with links to the story ..
but I would say you lose nothing put the site on a keyword ich domain name and leaving open with your own copy. Worst that can happen is that it disappears ... best, that you get a call of interest in the future...
Of course, a contract is the way to go...where project deliverables, timelines and expectations are spelled out...
I always include a "consequences for inaction from the client" language in my contracts...keeps everyone on their toes so a project can be completed in a reasonable amount of time...3 years ongoing with issues unresolved is a bit painful...needs to end sometime...somehow...