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How to stop clients breaking their contracts

How to stop clients breaking their contracts

Andy Rutledge, co-founder of Unit Interactive, outlines how to write proper contracts for your clients.

Professional relationships are built on mutual trust and respect... and well-conceived contracts. Not surprisingly, as these factors go, so go your projects.

Despite best intentions, there are some things that your clients might invite into your projects without understanding how they work to corrupt or destroy trust, respect and the things you're working to create together. Important stuff, yes?

It's therefore your responsibility to ensure that vital standards and expectations are clearly defined in your contracts. Among these standards and expectations are a couple of issues that my experience and research shows to be seldom accounted for. These generally touch on the category of "abuse of relationship."

Taking responsibility

"But wait! I'm just the designer!" I hear you cry. Yes, but hopefully you're aspiring to be a design professional and not merely a responsibility-free production lackey.

If you are to fulfil your role as design professional you must ensure that either: 1) as a freelance professional, your contracts fully express necessary standards and cover issues essential to success, or 2) as an agency design professional, the contracts your agency owner, sales manager, or project manager produce include components that ensure and protect your ability to deliver your best work to your clients. In either of these cases, the contractual components must be considered as vital services... to your clients.

Misappropriation

One of the more unfortunate mishaps in a project occurs when a client, unbeknownst to you or your agency, is working behind the scenes with another designer.

This might happen due to a client's lack of confidence in you or because the client doesn't understand how professional relationships work and the harm their split allegiance does to their project. In either case, it sometimes happens that a client will interrupt your work to introduce a new design or new version of your design.

The client then asks that you work to develop this externally supplied design instead of your work. Alternately, they might ask that you work in concert with this other designer in the course of your project.

Fail. Yes, it's over. You're done. Turn out the lights on your way out.

Clarification

If only you had made clear in your contract that such an event would be neither appropriate nor permissible. It is, in fact, your responsibility to ensure that your client does not make this mistake. These sorts of events are always entirely your fault.

"But what prevention?" you ask. Answer: the professional kind.

This request is a misappropriation of you or your agency with respect to what you were contracted to do. It also likely delivers a soul-crushing blow to your enthusiasm. This event indicates a client's lack of confidence, trust, or respect (or all three) for you and casts a pall over your relationship.

Not surprisingly, you will probably, and rightly, lose respect for the client and perhaps be disinclined to work at the optimum setting if the project even continues (which it likely should not!). In short; everybody loses no matter the intentions that brought about this situation.

Prevention

This sort of corruption is easy to prevent and you are required to do so. Issues of misappropriation should be accounted for in the project contract so that your clients understand your requirements of them before they agree to work with you.

You should therefore include language along the lines of:

If AGENCY has been contracted to conceive of designs and if during the project CLIENT introduces any other designer into the project or eschews the designs conceived of AGENCY's own processes or rejects AGENCY's design recommendations in favour of AGENCY's mere production or reproduction of designs submitted by CLIENT or a third party, AGENCY's obligations with respect to the AGREEMENT are nullified. In such case, payment must be rendered by CLIENT for all work performed up to that point and AGENCY reserves the right to then end the project immediately.

Note that as is reflected in this generic example, you should always detail specific consequences for breach of any standard or requirement in your contracts.

Win-win

Knowing your requirements, your clients will be far more likely to meet them deliberately instead of accidentally transgressing them.

On the other hand, if your potential client finds fault with and can't agree to meet this requirement, you'll be saved the headache of wasting time on a doomed project. It's win-win. You can be a pleaser or a designer - but not both.

A common frustration of designers in the course of their projects is that some clients don't understand that they are not often the appropriate target of their website or application design.

While a responsible designer will, as a matter of course, work to determine the target audience(s), the client themselves is seldom if ever included in that group. Therefore, designing according to the client's own preference is usually a very bad thing.

Sometimes the situation is even worse as you find yourself required to please not only the primary stakeholder, but also various department heads or other stakeholders; each with his or her own preferences. The result of this hellish scenario is that your design process is replaced by a negotiation. This negotiation is sometimes even played out behind the scenes, whereupon you are presented with the ridiculous results and then expected to accommodate them with little or no discussion. Most often these results comprise a foolishly negotiated compromise and a failure for the actual users of the website or application.

Be specific

It should go without saying, but your contracts must work to preclude this sort of debacle ever happening. I suggest you be very specific on these matters in your contracts. One of the best examples I've seen for addressing this issue was published in a blog post by Seth Godin. In it he suggested mottos for doing work that matters. The mottos he suggested were:

"We can't please everyone, in fact, we're not even going to try." Or perhaps: "Pleasing everyone with our work is impossible. It wastes the time of our best customers and annoys our staff. Forgive us for focusing on those we're trying to delight." [Sic] - Seth Godin.

This is a fine sentiment and it works well to establish expectations and allow for you to articulate your standards on the matter. I use something near to this wording in my own contracts and go on to expound a bit and establish that we'll be focusing on pleasing the direct target audience(s), even at the expense of involved stakeholders during the project if we determine that doing so is appropriate.

Here again, I suggest that if you use a similar passage in your contract that you also include specific consequences for any contrary expectations or requests from your clients. (Pro tip: appropriate consequences mostly include project cessation.)

Conclusion

When you know what your standards and expectations are, you have a professional obligation to articulate them fully for your clients as a condition for signing your contracts and working with you. When you do this, your chance for success (for your clients) is magnified and you will find that compromise seldom, if ever, rears its ugly head in your projects.

  • Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I therefore intend that my words here be considered professional advice rather than legal advice. Always consult with your legal advisor on matters of specific content and language included in your contracts.

Words: Andy Rutledge

Andy Rutledge is the co-founder of Unit Interactive and the author of DesignProfessionalism.com. This article first appeared in issue 224 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

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