If your contract isn’t strong, then your protection will be limited. In the US, presumption of engagement could be as simple as a note reading, “One website: $X,” which stands as an agreement for you to deliver a website and be paid $X.
Clients generally don’t want to sign a contract. I know designers who substitute the word “contract” with such terms as “work order,” “confirmation of engagement” and “purchase order.” If it smells like a commitment, the client will get nervous. Many clients feel that with a contract they would not get what they want or would be overpaying for what the work order states. Explain the terms before the client even reads the contract, and specify terms that protect both you and the client from any misunderstanding or legal challenges.
Personally, I don’t ask clients to sign contracts. I email the creative brief with the “work order” below, fully spelled out: short and sweet, but legal and protecting my rights. Also, the last paragraph states that the client accepts these terms as soon as the project moves forward. Once the creative brief is accepted and agreed on, it functions very much like a contract, because it stipulates the framework of the design process.
Tracking requests as a staff member is easier. Always send an inter-office confirmation email to whoever requests the change. Accountability is important. If fingers will be pointed, then you should have the tools to deflect accusation. Not that anything like this should happen in a professional organization; but where there are humans, there are problems. Stop thinking in the absolutes of the digital world. People are odd in their operating systems, applications, skills and habits. In practice, you need to debug people more than any website.
Up-front deposits are fairly new in the creative field. The norm has always been 30-day payments, which can stretch out to more than 30 days. As a friend once said, “30 days is a jail sentence, not an expectation of payment.”
I’ve had companies insist on paying after 30 days because they are a “big corporation” and “aren’t going anywhere.” I remind them that they aren’t exactly a bank and that I work as long and hard as any regularly paid staff member and that I need to eat as well. I usually end up with “milestone” payments.
On large projects, keep the checks and balances moving smoothly. Having milestones for both work progress and payments not only eases the client’s financial concerns (because they get to see progress each time a payment is made), but assures you of payment because you control production.
You will be in situations where you reach a milestone for payment but the check isn’t ready and you are asked to proceed on trust. In my experience, even the largest corporations in the world can cut a check in two days. Smaller companies might have an accountant who comes in once or twice a month, but even they can be called for a check at any time. To be clear, no check takes more than three business days to cut. Don’t proceed without payment: it is not your fault, and you shouldn’t be asked to take that gamble. If a client gets angry because they have not lived up to their end of the contract, would you want them as a regular client anyway? Give it three business days; if the check hasn’t shown up by then, then it’s time to talk with the client about the project being delayed due to a missed payment.
For those of you on staff, if you have reached a milestone but content has not been delivered or another problem has arisen, this is the time to make known that you cannot proceed and that the delay will affect the launch. Make sure that the people responsible know they have been identified, but keep it subtle; don’t point fingers or make dramatic accusations. If one person is late, you will usually be expected to pick up the slack and be a “team player.” It might not sound fair to you, but that’s how it works. The more you can keep on the straight and narrow, the easier the journey will be.
Much discussion has been made of using a kill switch and putting a website in maintenance mode if the client hasn’t made the final payment. In a recent case, a Web developer pulled down an e-commerce website due to non-payment and was found liable for the client’s lost revenue while the website was down. So, avoid that route.
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