Why web designers need client agreements, proposals, estimates, contracts

Whatever you call it, you need one

Throughout my career, I have often heard other designers, developers and contractors comment that the best contracts are those based off real client experiences. When I was younger, newer, less experienced, I didn’t take their comments seriously.

“I’ve got great clients,” I thought. “I don’t need a scary contract. I’ve never had any issues with my clients.”

It didn’t dawn on me at the time that maybe I didn’t need big contracts because I wasn’t doing big jobs. My first few years freelancing were overwhelming. I had no idea how to run a business and I was undercharging for design services. As a result I was working with A LOT of clients on A LOT of small, turn-and-burn quick projects.

At the time, I just used a one-page estimate that outlined the scope of work and the fee — and it worked great.

But as time went by, I grew as a designer, I grew as a business owner, and my clients grew, too. I began working on bigger, longer projects with more at stake. I only had to experience one tough situation when I pretty much ended up paying the client to let me do the work, to figure out I needed a better contract.

This process has repeated itself over and over throughout my time as a designer and business owner, and every year my contracts get longer and more detailed. I learned the hard way that the longer you are in business, the better your contracts will become.

Designers and developers are some of the most generous people I have ever met. We are willing to do just about anything in the name of good design and clean, well-written code IF the client is awesome and the project is interesting.

The problem is that this often leads to laziness around contracts and protecting ourselves, our bottom line, our time, and our sanity. We tend to accept potential clients’ promises and take their word at face value, believing the best about every new client relationship. Why? Because we truly believe every project we take on is going to be amazing.

With great clients this is true, but…

Not all client are great clients

Clients have no idea what really goes into designing a logo or building a website. They trust you to lead them, educate them, and make the process easy for them. If there is any confusion or misunderstandings, especially about what they will receive for their investment, it will be your fault. The client will get mad, confront you, and with nothing in writing to reference, it can be close to impossible to salvage that relationship.

Perfectly educated clients and potential clients are rarely a reality because they don’t build websites for a living.

If every client was a great client we wouldn’t need contracts. If every engagement went smoothly clients wouldn’t have horror stories about past designers and developers, and designers and developers wouldn’t have client horror stories.

The worst client situations create the best contracts

Read the above headline one more time. Notice I said client situations. While there are bad clients here and there, most aren’t bad. It’s the situation that is bad.

  • There may be misunderstanding about process, timeline, deliverables, payment, or other aspects of the project.
  • Without a clear contract, assumptions may have been made about scope of work, expectations, roles and deliverables.
  • You might experience a lack of respect for your time and boundaries, because no expectations and rules were set and agreed to upfront.
  • Revisions and changes might get unruly and feel out of control.
  • You might feel taken advantage of from a client who keeps asking for more, simply because they don’t know where their engagement stops.

All of the problems mentioned above are communication problems, and they all can be addressed, if not eliminated, with a clear, well-written contract. And in the future, when you experience a new sticky situation with a client, you’ll immediately think, “I need to add a clause for THIS to my contract!” and you’ll amend your client agreements to protect yourself and provide more details about communication with your client.

Actively use your contracts

Call it a contract, an estimate, a proposal, or a client agreement. It doesn’t matter what you call it. It just matters that you have one and you use it. This is not a create-it-and-forget-about-it document. It is a document you need to use and reference throughout your client engagement — not in a hostile way, but in a gentle reminder sort of way.

There have been situations with clients where I have wondered, “Did they even read the agreement they signed?” And the sad thing is, many clients don’t read the fine print. They don’t read the entire client agreement you spent hours putting together for them. They just sign it, and assume everything will be perfect.

As the designer or developer:

  • It’s your job to give the estimate or agreement you send importance.
  • It’s your job to review key aspects of the contract with them to ensure everyone involved in the project is on the same page.
  • It’s your job to set clear expectations based on the proposal you are agreeing to.

Make your agreements part of your process, and refer back to it often as a reference document or the foundation and guiding brief for the entire project.

Use it to set clear expectations and boundaries with clients, so they don’t email you on Friday night and get mad when you don’t respond Saturday morning, even though they see you online through social media.

Use it to remind them of where you are at in the process. When design is approved and you’re moving a site into development, let them know the project is entering a new phase of the process, and recommend they revisit the original agreement for a breakdown of what will be happening and what they can expect.

When submitting initial design drafts, educate them on how the revision process will work. For example, you might say something like, “Our agreement includes three rounds of revisions. That means you’ll have three opportunities to provide feedback and share your thoughts and ideas with us.”

Use it to gently remind them of the original scope of work. It’s OK to refer back to the original agreement and say something like, “Sure! We’re happy to do XYZ. It wasn’t part of our original agreement, so why don’t we jump on the phone to discuss how this impacts the project.”

If you include a warranty or ongoing support in your contracts, remind them of it during the final website go-live and remind them what is included.

Clear contracts help designers, developers and clients

Recently I was at WordCamp San Diego, where I spoke about “Pricing The Unknown And Dealing With Uncertainty In Web Design” — and naturally in several discussions client contracts came up.

Multiple designers and developers mentioned they don’t have a formal agreement and rely on verbal agreements. Many of these same service providers also admit they are being run ragged by their clients and struggle to maintain profitability on projects.

Contracts protect you, your bottom line, your time, and your sanity — and they do the same for your clients.

Yes, we joke that bad clients make great contracts. But we often forget that many clients have bad experiences, too. For them, it only takes one bad designer or one bad developer to make them skeptical of every other designer and developer.

As a designer or developer, you need a contract to:

  • Set clear expectations and boundaries
  • Outline final deliverables and a clear scope of work
  • Communicate what is and is not included
  • Share the process the client will experience
  • Mitigate the common “what if this happens” scenarios
  • Cover what happens when your engagement is over
  • Educate the client about the project, process, technical details and more
  • Create a helpful reference document to refer to later
  • Protect you and your company
  • Set a legal precedent in case anything does go south
  • Set the stage for a successful relationship

Clients need contracts to:

  • Understand the expectations, boundaries, and how things work
  • Receive a clear scope of work and outline of deliverables, so they know exactly what they will receive for their investment
  • Create accountability between them and their service provider, so the project gets done on time and in budget
  • Understand the roles each person will have in the project, who is responsible for what, and what they must do and provide you
  • Review the ownership policies of the end product
  • See the process they will experience while working with their designer or developer
  • Ensure they are hiring a professional who takes their business and craft seriously

What should go in a client contract?

As I mentioned, the longer you’re in business, the better your contracts will become. I started with a one-page estimate that was nothing more than a scope of work outline and fee, and now 10 years later, I have a client agreement that is on average 15 pages long.

It only took a couple of wonky projects to add a short terms and conditions page to my first estimate template. Then with each sticky client situation I experienced, I first continued to over-deliver no matter what the cost was to me (even when it cost me money), then I amended my estimates, adding more detail to the scope of work and more clauses to the terms and conditions to ensure I was never put in that position again.

As our clients and projects grew and our rates increased, we added a section for payment terms and eventually a section for legal details and court locations, etc.

This past November, after Bourn Creative underwent a complete rebrand, we rewrote our entire client agreement. It now includes:

  • Answers to the most commonly asked questions by potential clients
  • More information about our company, how we work, and what they can expect
  • The process we use and what their experience will be like
  • Crystal-clear scope of work, deliverables and objectives
  • Extensive terms and conditions, legal details, and payment information to protect us and our clients and set a solid foundation for our relationship

Firm, fair and friendly

We use the phrase firm, fair, and friendly all the time because it is our core approach to every client interaction and communication — and we approach our client agreements the same way.

We are firm in our scope of work, deliverables, boundaries, and terms. This is a professional contract and we take what we do very seriously.

We are fair in our pricing, process and structure. We want our client relationships to be mutually beneficial and provide value for everyone involved. We want to deliver a quality product for a fair fee.

We are friendly in our language and communication style. While this is a contract and it is serious business, there is no need for scary verbiage and threatening language. We use simple, clear, easy to understand language and approach everything in  friendly manner. We want to like working with our clients and we want them to feel comfortable with us and like working with us.

Remember, if you approach your client agreements in a firm, fair and friendly way, and you use them as a positive reference document for clear communication, you’ll be setting a strong foundation for long-term success and happy clients.

Image by: paul goyette via Compfight cc

Jennifer Bourn
As founder and creative director of Bourn Creative, Jennifer is an award-winning designer with a penchant for writing, white space, chocolate and Legos. She has been in the design, web and digital strategy trenches since 1997, working with a variety of clients. Today she consults on brand, website and digital strategy, leads all design projects, and specializes in custom WordPress theme design. When not obsessing over pixels, margins and type, Jennifer manages the Bourn Creative brand, writes for multiple blogs, and manages the creation of all internal systems and processes. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter.