In my last post, I shared with you the benefits of using a firm, fair and friendly contract for every project with every client. I also reviewed how a contract helps (and protects) both you and your clients — and why the longer you are in business, the longer your contracts get.
And while that is all really important information to understand, you might be wondering what you need to include in your client contracts — or what your current agreement may be missing.
When I first began freelancing, my contracts were one single page. Today they range from six pages to 20+ pages, depending on the project. Almost every clause, section, or piece of our design estimates was born from a tough client situation, an awkward conversation, or a misunderstanding in language and terms.
In every instance, I gave the client exactly what they wanted, took the hit for goodwill (the brand always comes first), and amended my contract to avoid experiencing the same thing again.
The basic information every design estimate or project proposal should include:
- Scope of work.
- Add-ons, upsells.
- Technical details.
- Legal details.
- Payment details.
- Agreement and signature.
Now let's look at each of these items a little closer...
When speaking to a potential new client, you wouldn't immediately start talking about money before discussing the project and chatting a bit; treat your estimates the same way. Begin your design estimates and project proposals with an introduction, giving the recipient a little more information about you, your business, and your potential partnership.
Remember, your prospects might share your estimate with colleagues, consultants, advisors and others. By writing a clear and informative introduction, you're giving alternate influencers who’ve not yet interacted with you some important background — helping them get to know you a little better.
If your potential client will be working with different members of your team, or more than one person will be working on their project, include a Team section with team members’ bios; this will help your prospects feel more comfortable. And it’s a great opportunity to further build trust by communicating your team’s collective expertise and experience.
Scope of work
This is the most important aspect of your project proposals, as it clearly outlines exactly what is and is not included. The scope of work defines the project deliverables, sets expectations, and ensures everyone is on the same page about what work will be completed for the total investment listed.
They key to a successful scope of work is to write it in plain and simple language that everyone — technical and non-technical alike — can easily understand. Steer clear of industry jargon, complicated language, and technical terminology when you can, and when you can't, explain what it means.
Break everything down into the simplest of tasks, and spell out all details. It’s just as important to list what is not included for the proposed budget as it is to list what is included. You’ll also want to spell out what services will require a change order or additional investment.
Note: Don’t forget to add details you’ve discussed with the client but that you haven’t included in the scope of work to be provided. This will help you avoid the "we talked about this before I signed the contract" conversation when they are requesting additional work at no additional cost. Clients always remember the conversation but not the part where you said it wouldn't be included at their budget level.
Depending upon the client, you may want to include a request for the potential client to initial the scope of work, stating they understand what is and is not included.
Every new potential client we speak with wants to know how this process is going to work — and they will only remember a fraction of what we tell them. This section of your project proposal is designed to reinforce everything you shared with your client about how the project is going to work, what they can expect, what the steps are, and who will be involved at each step.
This is also the perfect place to outline the project timeline, the roles your team and the client and their team will play, and what is expected from each party at each phase of the project. Put in writing what materials and resources they need to provide you and when, as well as when you need revisions and approvals.
Add-ons and upsells
Often, we speak to clients who need the brand designed for a new venture and a new website created, or they are redesigning an existing brand and redesigning their website.
We know that with the redesign of their brand and their website, they also will need to update their social media cover images, email newsletter template, video splash images, information products and other materials. But we also know that if we brought up all of these items during our initial sales conversations, they would begin to feel very overwhelmed, and it would distract them from making a decision about the core services they are interested in.
Instead, focus your sales conversations on the services they know they need, and include the information for your most commonly requested or most popular add-ons in your project proposal. These optional add-ons will trigger that, "Oh yeah, we need that, too," memory and encourage a natural upsell.
This section covers all of the small pesky details that most people don't think about, but could cause you a lot of grief (and erode your profits) down the road. The clauses in this section address "what happens when..." scenarios like:
- What happens when a client provides you all of their content for a brochure or website in hardcopy or handwritten format?
- What if a client provides me graphic files that they don’t own?
- What happens when a client tries to sell what you designed for them commercially?
- What if a client doesn't have website hosting or they don't realize they need it?
- What happens if they want to have an opt-in on their site but they have no email marketing account setup?
- What if the client doesn't provide you the materials you need to complete the project?
- What happens if they choose to manage the printing of their marketing piece themselves and there is an error or the color is messed up?
- What happens if a print piece they approved has an error or typo?
- What if you've completed the revisions included in the scope of work, but your client wants to keep making more revisions?
- What happens when a client changes their mind about what they want or what the deliverables should be halfway through the project?
- How are videos handled? How do they need to be provided to you? Do they need to be hosted? What platform should they use?
- What happens when a client sends you all of their videos in the wrong format? Or asks you to edit or upload all of their videos to Vimeo?
- What happens when a client emails you on a Saturday, you don't respond until Monday, and they freak out?
- What happens when your client decides to not hire you for certain tasks and instead hires a virtual assistant, who then proceeds to email you daily asking for technical support to help them complete the tasks?
Details covered in this section might include:
- Ownership of provided materials — ensure your clients own everything they provide to you, and protect yourself in case they don't.
- Content and artwork formats — outline how files and content need to be provided to you and in what formats.
- Timeline, milestones, and deadlines — note what is expected, as well as what happens if the milestones or deadlines are missed.
- Issues caused by third-parties — cover yourself in case there are issues beyond your control with third-parties such as printers, mail houses, email marketing providers, hosting companies, marketing platforms, virtual assistants, consultants, stock imagery resources, video hosting sites, copywriters, or photographers, that impact the project.
- Right to use project in portfolio — always include a provision that you can use the project in your portfolio or marketing if you choose to do so.
- Revisions and changes — outline how many rounds of revisions are included at each phase of the project, what happens if the client wants additional revisions, and what happens when they make big changes in the middle of the project.
- Design Approval — explain very clearly what design approval means.
- Website hosting and email marketing — communicate what is required for the project, what is or is not included, and what role you will or will not play.
- Print management — cover what to expect if you manage the printing and what to expect if they opt to manage their own printing, what happens if they choose a printer you are unfamiliar with, and what happens if they find an error after it is printed. Also communicate printing costs, and whether they are included or separate.
- Video management and hosting — outline what format the videos must be in, what size is recommended for the project, and where they should be hosted. Also communicate your role in working with their video.
- Browser compatibility and testing — explain responsive design, what it means, and what views you build and test for. Explain what browsers you test against and what versions of those browsers you support.
- File storage — communicate the importance of backups and safe storage of the files you provide the client, and that you are not required to save their files forever.
- Communication and availability — Outline your availability, when you will and will not respond to email or answer your phone, and response times expected.
This section covers all that important legal stuff, such as:
- Copyright and ownership of work — outline who owns the design, the files, and the final deliverable product, as well as any concepts created and not selected by the client.
- Location of legal filings and proceedings — this ensures that if a client were ever to take you to court, they would have to do so in your specific location.
- Warranty of work — outline the warranty term you provide for the work completed, what is included, and how long it is good for.
- Support and maintenance — if support is included, communicate what is included and for how long, as well as what happens at the end of that time and how they can engage with you again.
In this section, it's time to talk about money.
First, you need to communicate the payment terms:
- Do they have to pay in full up front?
- Will you offer an incentive to paying in full up front?
- Is payment due upon delivery of final artwork, before go-live, upon design approval?
- Is there a payment plan? How many payments will there be — two, three, four, five?
- Is there a deposit required? If so, is it equal to one payment of the payment plan, or is it a larger amount? Is the deposit refundable or non-refundable?
- Are payments tied to specific deliverables, project milestones, or time?
- What forms of payment will you accept? Are certain forms of payment required for a specific payment term?
Second, you need to talk about project cancellation — and cancellation isn't just about what happens if a client wants to cancel the project, it also must include what happens if you want to cancel a project and fire the client.
Third, you need to account for project dormancy — or what happens when a client disappears for weeks or months.
- Is the project considered cancelled after a certain amount of time? If so are there any refunds? Do they get any of the work completed? Are they owed anything? Are you owed anything?
- If they reappear, is there a re-activation fee for their project?
- If they suddenly reappear and want you to drop everything and finish their project immediately, how do you handle it? Does their project get worked in where you have space? Does it go to the end of the line behind other commitments and open projects?
Agreement and signature
In this final section of your client contract, communicate that this is a legally binding agreement and confirm that they have the authority to enter into it. Explain what signing the contract means and what they are agreeing to.
Ask for all of their contact information, including a physical (non-PO Box) mailing address. Get their overall approval signature, and include a reminder of what will happen next.
Many designers and developers ask for credit card information in their contracts, but we advise against it for liability reasons. Instead, gather only the pertinent information and how they want to pay — cash, check, credit card, PayPal, bank transfer — then upon receipt of the signed contract, send them an invoice, a PayPal invoice, or a link to pay by credit card. Just be sure when asking for credit card data, you're using a service that keeps it secure or encrypted.
Wrapping it all up: Writing your contract
If you need help with putting together simple contract language or want a base to start from, check out Contract Killer, the popular open-source contract for web designers and developers by Stuff & Nonsense.
Once you have your a draft of your contract completed, walk away for a few days and come back to it to review with fresh eyes. Read through it, evaluating every clause and statement, asking yourself if it is firm, fair and friendly. Also look for any potential misunderstandings due to unclear language or industry jargon. If you have as trusted friend who fits the profile of your ideal client, ask them to review it for you and provide you feedback.
Note: The larger your project budgets get, the more important your contracts will become. While writing your own contracts with clear, plain language works, there may come a time where you'll need to retain a lawyer to review your contract and make suggestions.
Remember, the ultimate goal is to make your contract easy to understand and to eliminate any roadblocks to decision-making, and to make your potential client feel comfortable and safe.