At some point, every freelancer or small design firm will be asked to renegotiate a contract. Is this legal? Moral? Professional? Those are tough questions to answer. Your contract with a client is only as good as the law that enforces it, and as any good criminal knows, the law is slow and full of loopholes. You can send an invoice and end up with nothing. You can go to court and win a case but still get nothing. Judgments and liens do not ensure payment, and being a creditor to a bankrupt company might get you five cents for every dollar owed. The solution is to pick a comfort level and stay above it.
One common problem is that clients do not see Web designers as having to spend anything on resources. Clients assume that we rarely have to upgrade our software and hardware and that we have no ongoing costs to create our products. In one sense, this is true. Yet to a large extent, it isn’t.
Negotiating means meeting where the comfort zones of both parties overlap. If you are being asked to lower your rate, then could the client make it up by retaining you to update the website over the next year? Does the company manufacture products that you could use? Perhaps they will allow you to prominently credit yourself on their website? There are always options for a happy ending.
If every client were impossible to deal with, then the industry would fall apart. It does happen from time to time, usually because the client ignores how much time the designer is spending on the project and then, once they add up the fees, realizes they don’t have the budget to finish the project or suspects the designer is pulling a fast one. Sometimes they will threaten to pull the plug midway through the project, leaving you to negotiate right down to the wire; in this case, you would refuse to deliver the files or transfer the copyright unless payment is rendered. Do you accept half the fee and chalk it up to experience? Sometimes you should, if the prospect of getting paid in full looks bleak. Should you walk out at the last minute, refusing to deliver the files? The client will scream that they are being blackmailed, but it often works because they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have stood there and not released my grip on the files until the check was in my hand. A trail of insults and threats followed me into the sunset, but all I lost was a bothersome client who didn’t want to pay.
One designer had an interesting solution to the problem:
“I’ve learned that hosting my clients’ websites is an administrative pain but gives me a wonderful power in delicate situations. I’ve never had to turn off the website of a non-paying client, but I have used the fact that I could to influence negotiations. Nicely, of course.”
Another designer relates the value of a positive attitude in a bad situation:
“Never let your guard down. I had an experience where a client needed to design a website in time for a major campaign, but before we began, they needed a great-looking “Under construction” page. Because this page was a last minute add-on, we decided to include it at no charge. Their 50% deposit check for the project was lost in the mail. And as it turns out, the “Under construction” page was all they needed; and after dragging us around past the campaign launch, they stopped all communication. I could have enforced the contract, but why waste time? Lesson learned.”
One designer relates this advice on renegotiating:
“I make sure that I’ve nailed down the function and design and put it all into the contract or invoice. After that, any changes to the original specs must be approved via a “change order.” I’ll send out a new estimate, and the client has to approve it online.
There will always be difficult clients and difficult projects. The key is to catch problems early. Giving into small requests and deviations is easy, but over time the project may die by a thousand cuts. So stop the client in their tracks, and cover yourself contractually against these kinds of changes, even if only in the invoice or estimate”.
Keep in mind that once you renegotiate, you might have to do it all over again shortly after.
Design is an unregulated business, and clients just don’t view creative services the way they view a lawn and garden service. If you mowed their lawn while creating their website, then they might see the value. When you build on a business that is already strong, you are building relationships that will sustain you for many years and you avoid a career of hit-and-run design. Give a little, get a little.
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