Whenever a client and I agree to work together, I send the client a draft contract that contains suggested deadlines. I build my contract from a template that clearly states we need to work together to make the project come to life. That means we must send each other materials by specific deadlines so I finish the job in a timely manner.
I learned long ago that if you don’t create and sign a contract with clients and partners, uncertainty is always the result. That leads to lost productive time, (probably) court hearings, (maybe) lost money, and (definitely) more stress.
Setting the Scene
I recently created a website for a medical professional. She signed a contract for website design services in early April. Throughout the process, she verbally chafed about the contract deadlines. At different times she claimed:
- She didn’t read the contract before she signed it.
- She didn’t understand the contract when she signed it.
- We were on a “relaxed” schedule, not the schedule stipulated in the contract.
I knew about my client’s busy life, so I created a contract amendment for her to sign. That amendment contained new due dates and would not charge additional fees as stipulated in the contract…provided we each met our deadlines. She signed the amendment.
Things were going well. My client approved the design that I delivered to her on time. We spent a few days making small changes to the website text.
Two days before any other text changes were due, she decided she didn’t like her new website. She demanded that I either extend the deadline to a nebulous future date or not charge her for the rest of the website work. If I didn’t comply, she said she would damage my reputation on Yelp.
The Value of a Contract
I never encountered such a threat from a client in my nearly 23 years in business. So, I consulted with my pre-paid legal service, which has been a good investment. The attorney sent my client a demand letter, and I sent her the final invoice. (If she tried to leave a bad review on Yelp in response, she quickly learned that I don’t have a Yelp account.) Her written reply to my attorney said I was wrong about so many things and directed me to contact her attorney.
So, I sent her attorney a two-page letter that included:
- Information about my experience with small claims court cases,
- A reminder that she’d have to drive 50 miles to my town for the small claims court hearing,
- A note that my client and I communicated exclusively by e-mail, so I would bring our entire correspondence to the hearing, and
- An offer to waive late fees if his client paid the final invoice 10 days after he received my letter.
With that letter, I included copies of the contract, extension amendment, and the e-mail message that contained my client’s demands and Yelp threat.
One week after the attorney received my letter, I received a letter from the client. It contained a cashier’s check for the full amount due. My client paid me for my work, but I still couldn’t show off that work on my website portfolio.
The moral of this story: Create contracts, stick to your deadlines, document everything, and be ready to protect yourself.