Let’s not be fooled by people who want a 12-page website, fully loaded, for $500. If they can’t afford to gamble more than $500, even in two or more payments, then it’s going nowhere for the creative. Creating a professional website requires a good amount of money. Are clients happy to sign checks or appropriate budgets before anything goes live? You can bet that they would prefer to see how the website performs long before they argue about the fee. Clients feel that committing to payment will give them something that they don’t want being pushed on them and from which they will have no recourse. That’s understandable. Show the client that you empathize with them and that you also have concerns. Work them out. Negotiate, and then come to an agreement. You may be asked to compromise to the point that you are uncomfortable, and you’ll fear that money will haunt the project at every turn. Make a decision to run or take a cut in price.
Eventually you will be asked to do a “favor,” make concessions, give a break or cut back on expenses. The favor never gets repaid. As many years as I’ve been in the business, I have yet to see a client return a favor, unless you think a new project with a low budget is a favor.
If the project is spiraling out of control, and you’re too far in to walk away but still far from the end, is it reasonable to expect anything better down the road? You might need to decide quickly. In my experience, the sanest approach would be to take control of the situation by sitting on the project for a few hours and offering to bring some suggestions the next day. I would come up with at least two bids that would save costs through fewer revisions and that account for my hourly rate for revisions. Basically, if it goes smoothly and the client gets a great website and I’m not beaten down in committee meetings, then the client actually would save money because I would need less mental therapy afterwards and so could charge less. Run me ragged with change after change, and I will charge more.
Present as many visuals to support your plan as possible. I know I keep repeating this, but if you did it, I wouldn’t have to remind you! Keep it simple and flashy. Do your best to make your work appear tangible, even if it is rather virtual and abstract. For clients, a website’s existence begins the moment the design becomes visible, not before when the crucial design decisions are made.
Use simple terminology and draw on familiar examples in your creative brief. When you get excited about a project, you tend to throw in jargon and make assumptions that the client will feel embarrassed to ask about… until you deliver the product, at which point they will perk up and make their displeasure known. Parallax effects, carousels, footers, sidebars, fluid layouts, responsive design, media queries: even if you illustrate every obscure concept in your creative brief, the client will still have difficulty grasping them, as would anyone unfamiliar with the field. Draw on familiar examples, and speak the language of your client. Every story I have heard of the designer not getting paid was a result of the client not being happy in the end. The truth is, it’s not always the client’s fault.
Say things like, “This is just like the little spots you see at the bottom of TV shows,” or “It will look like the promotional area on this [insert name of well-known website].” It might seem a bit simplistic, but in the long run these familiar visuals will put the client at ease.
Whatever you say, the client either will suspect that you are charging them too much or will introduce scope creep by asking for favors—those little changes that pop up during the project (yet another plague to discuss). The client will want these changes made at no extra charge, and you’ll have to decide whether it is worth arguing your point to squeeze out what might amount to only a few hundred more dollars.
Designers on staff are in a different position than freelancers. The approval committee will be just as nervous and indecisive, and the lessons are mostly the same. But aside from the regular paycheck, the major difference is that scope creep can suffocate paid staff and keep them up many late nights. In the very worst cases, it can lead to a loss of reputation and even firing. Control the situation by organizing your work based on an 8-hour (rather than 25-hour) day.
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