Hammer it Home

This is going to come across as a bit of a rant, but it’s a rant with purpose, it’s a rant that I feel every single person in the web design field can contribute to abolish.

Let’s get one thing straight, we might be creative, artistic, any other word that fits your persona but we are in a service industry. However we dress it up, we are a service industry. I feel like we, as designers must be doing a bad job of branding ourselves as our clients don’t seem to agree.

I’ll put my rant into context, our freezer broke down a couple of months back, we called a specialist who came round to our house, pulled out our freezer and took a look at the back and promptly told us it was unrepairable, charged us £45 call out fee and promptly went on his way 5 minutes later. This is how I expected this to work, I was calling this guy out from doing other paid jobs, to come and look at my freezer and use his skills, that I don’t have, to tell me whether I need to buy a new one or not.

I have had two incidents crop up in the past month, both have been from clients who think they can just not pay their invoice. Can I have a refund on the time I spent on your project please, then you can have a refund.

The first has just decided it’s “ok” to ask for a deposit refund because “they” don’t want the website anymore. The second, a logo design where the client said they had a “great idea” of what they wanted, that turned out when they saw it in the flesh, they didn’t like. I had banked on completing it in the allotted time but then couldn’t allocate anymore time to them due to the other clients that week,  so they went elsewhere, but decided that because I didn’t complete the final design, it means I shouldn’t be paid for the time I did spend on their project.

Why is this? How has this crept into our industry and why, when it’s accepted in other service industries, is it so hard for our clients to accept our time is just as valuable? In-fact, we aren’t as bad as solicitors, who I’ve been in regular contact with about one of the above projects this week (I will post about this at a later date), who charge not only by the hour for their time, but also per email/letter read and for time spent on the telephone.

How can we hammer this point home? It’s our time, and time spent working on projects that they ask us to do, is time that we can’t spend on another project and our invoices should always reflect this. It’s that simple, but what are we doing wrong as an industry that means our clients are thinking differently?

Let’s, please, change this.

  • Max Soe

    Hey Sarah,

    What you’ve written is so true. Why must a skilled service as ours (I too am a designer/UX architect) be so devalued? It may be because people only see the end result and think things are very simple. People forget that simplicity is the most difficult thing to create.

    It could also be ‘designers’ who do jobs at really low rates (but the end result is simply awful, ie non-validating html/css).

    I don’t have a solution to your problem but you should know that there are others like you out there 🙂

  • Hi Sarah, I sympathise with your predicament and would suggest that with any business you will always get customers like this – even your freezer guy probably comes up against it.

    Any service business is basically a business that relies on the transactions of payment and the problem with design is the subjectivity involved when it comes to delivery. The more strict your Terms & Conditions are, the more you can set expectation, which is the real thing that needs to be managed.

    I’d love to give you all the answers, but we come across similar people all the time – even after 12 years. I prefer to go with gut instinct and have the balls to say no to them at the offset.

    Also, another thing that has been very successful for us is a contract that ensures people pay 50% up front (new clients and all web projects) and states that the project must be completed within a certain time frame otherwise they have to pay. The serious people agree to this and if they don’t I’d always question their intentions.

  • We like rants, especially client-related ones 🙂

    I don’t think it must be clients’ fault because there are too many people thinking like that (although some clients seem to understand the value of a web designer without the need of a 5 paragraph email explanation).

    In my SOW I have a small note about what the client has to pay if *he* decides to cancel the project, or if *I* do. I find it helps, it secures both parties.

    Anyway, I think we should make our best effort to be professional and convey our professionalism to our clients or prospects, and not just give free work and advice away, because that won’t help our cause.

  • Ooh, it’s good to have a rant, isn’t it? 🙂

    Well, I’ve been in the same position a couple of times and I know plenty of people who have many times, and I think the only way around this is to… well… your title already nailed it: hammer it home! But it needs to be hammered home before a project is started. I find that a brief email explaining the way I work (and that they are liable for all payment whether they like it or not) gets the word out there straight away before any work begins. Of course, if you have a contract, the same things should be in there – with special attention drawn to them – so that there’s no confusion. I’m actually considering putting together a ‘welcome pack’ kind of thing for new clients; a nicely-designed PDF that outlines a whole bunch of things in a friendly – but serious – way, so that all situations like these can be avoided.

    Of course, even with all these precautions, there’s not much you can do to physically force them to pay (without resorting to court, etc.), but another way to cover yourself against this could be to raise your deposit amount. I charge 25% of the estimated fee up front before any work begins, payment in full once a major stage is completed (like design), and then any further payment for a second stage (like development) before anything is handed over. I know some designers who are even more ruthless about it.

    It’s all about putting your foot down!

  • And when client do decide to pay it’s rarely ever on time and within the payment period.

  • I agree with Elliot about increasing your deposit amount. Depending on the amount for the quote I ask for either 50% up front, or 1/3rd up front, then a 1/3rd half way etc.

    I’ve thought about this for a while actually as I have a history in IT. People don’t respect (and thinking how to say this without insulting people) “brain labor” i.e. people who sit at a computer and “manual labor” i.e. mechanics, freezer repair men etc. My brother-in-law is a joiner, if he spends the afternoon putting up a fence he’d get paid on the spot no problem. However if I spent the afternoon fixing somebodies computer I’d be lucky to get a cup of tea.

    I think the problem lies with peoples perception of effort. Something that is “physically” built can be quantified and valued. So much of what we do on the web is hidden and often incomprehensible by the people who commission us to do the work for them.

    A joiner goes up to a man and says “That will be £500 please”, the man looks at the fence and hands over the money.

    A web designer goes up to a man and says “That will be £500 please”, the man thinks to himself, they’ve just sat on their backsides for a couple of days in front of a computer, “How do I know it costs that much?” he asks. “You’ll have to trust me” says the web designer.

    That’s my 2 cent anyway.

  • Couldn’t agree more with EJS. At the end of the day the client needs to be properly educated before the project starts, otherwise the client will at some point or another become a problem rather than the one who pays your bills.

    This golden nugget from the tube of you says it all really: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2a8TRSgzZY

  • Everyone above is right – it’s entirely down to the terms and conditions you’ve set out. Mark all deposits clearly as non-refundable on the invoices and contract and this problem should go away.

    I’ve made the mistake of not having these terms in my contracts 4-5 years ago and I paid a massive price for it. Hopefully you have these terms in your contract and won’t be paying any sort of price in your situation.

    Good rant, right on the mark 🙂

  • This is an issue that, as a freelancer, I’ve come up against on a number of occasions and I agree that it really needs to be something that we’re up front about and explain clearly do the customer / potential customer.

    I think this video gets it spot on:


  • Alex

    Customers dealing with the web development (& graphic design) industry feel they should only pay on delivery of the _completed_ service. It’s this keyword that everyone looks for, and it’s this we need to change.

  • I completely and whole-heartedly sympathise with what you’re saying. As a developer, I am continually dealing with this issue. I remember when I was at high school and had started freelancing, working for some local businesses; I found it incredibly difficult to justify the cost of a website and that was at a rate tailored for my needs at that time! (Playstation games.)

    I remember a common theme back then, which was that clients were of the opinion that the process of making a website was really just a few automated steps much like following a wizard in MS Publisher (or something they had done themselves that seemed trivial).

    Years later, not that much has changed. Now I’m a professional, and clients aren’t (as many) local businesses, but the attitude is still there and we still face an uphill struggle to justify our costs. I find that with most new clients I spend at least 30 minutes talking them through the steps involved in producing their site – attempting to preemptively justify the costing and how I expect the payment process to be followed. I think it’s all a matter of education and once you have a client seeing the process for what it really is, you can feel a bit more confident in working with them.

    For the most part, the upfront approach works; but I still have days that take me back to being an attic web-design teenager.

    … Don’t get me started on solicitors, though!

  • Carl Grint

    I sometimes wonder if some of the problems we face from clients is due to the perceived idea of Design, both Print and Web, being something people can do in their spare time, due to the likes of Frontpage.
    Someone has a nephew who could knock them a website up in a day, and only charge £50.
    But how many people say the same for say, car repairs or your example white goods repairs?
    Would people trust their car maintenance to their nephew who had played around with cars? I doubt many would at all, but they are happy to do so with Print and Web design.
    The professional status has been diluted by those doing this in their spare time for fun.
    This is not to say there are not some talented 15 year old out their doing design in their spare time, but there is more to Print Design or a Business Website that that 15 year old can learn in their spare time.

    The same businesses who treat us this way would never except it from their customers, would they allow people to buy their product then not pay but ask can they pay as they make some money from said product?!
    But business somehow think they can treat the designers ass though it is a cottage industry, people doing it for the fun of it, not for a living, one that takes years of experience to truly produce quality results.

    So many of us have been caught out with the unprofessional approach of businesses, and I would like to think have learned from it,
    I know I have, the next customer has less leeway, having suffered at the hands of customers not paying for work, then expecting me to do more, has made me strict with new customers, no pay, no work, and projects are withheld until they pay.

    I would like to think with time this will resolve as more and more stand up to companies trying it on with us, but I fear there will always be those companies who see Design as a part time hobby, that anyone can do, and why should they pay for it.

  • Dan

    I absolutely agree, however I think web designers and web professionals on the whole have got a strange, almost blinkered, idea towards this. And it is reflected in this blog post.

    There’s no way that this is unique to the web industry. Every single freelance professional, be it Web designer, plumber, electrician, painter, programmer, artist or whatever WILL get clients that don’t want to pay. That is as sure as death and taxes.

    Ranting about it might feel good but it won’t change anything. The only thing you can do is, as Elliot has said, increase your down-payment amount (at the ever-present risk of losing out to someone who can under-cut you) or invest some time and money into developing an iron-clad contract template that covers you as well as possible when a client decides they want to skank you. The two most prominent clauses in that contract, as far as this blog post is concerned, should be as follows:

    1. All deposits are NON-REFUNDABLE unless deemed fit for refund by [your company name].

    2. All working hours are chargeable irrespective of the completion of the whole project unless waived at the sole discression of [your company name].

    The fight will never be won, however. As long as there are people charging for a service, there will be clients who don’t want to pay.

  • It’s always a bummer when problem clients start being a problem. Although you know what, I don’t for one second think this is an issue specifically related to our industry. More a reflection on the fact that there are plenty of people out there ranging from downright dirty scammers to others who think they can just try they’re luck.

    I’m sure you’re freezer chap has come across a few clients who have tried to get away without paying, or do him over in one way or another.

    I don’t think there’s much we can do as an industry about the fundamental fact that there are some bad eggs out there, other than trying to spot them in advance and protect ourselves from the inevitability that we’re gonna cross paths with a bad’un from time to time.

  • First off, Great post. I think part of the problem is that web design USED to cost $50-$300 only 5 or 10 years ago. Technology has come a long way since then requiring expertise (CSS, SEO, etc.) to make a good site. But people still think of it as “just a website”. Compare it to a lawyer. If you have to go to court you have the option to represent yourself…and everything that you will need to know is in a book somewhere. But you will never have enough time to learn what is in the books before your court date comes up. Same with a website. People can go ahead and make their own sites…there are books everywhere that explain how to do it…but they will never get the result they want in the time they want it unless they hire an expert. Pay the money, or invest the time to learn it yourself. It should only take you 2 or 3 years to get up to speed. 😛

  • I don’t think it has to do with our industry per se, but the fact that so many in the design profession do not require clients to sign a contract before work begins. That automatically sends a signal to clients that our terms are elusive/changeable.

    The best way to deal with this issue is to “hammer” out a contract that explains your terms clearly, and don’t start a project until the client has signed it. Don’t make exceptions for friends or relatives because sometimes they can be the worst offenders.

    Then if a client fails to pay or tries to cancel the project mid-stream, you simply refer them to the clause in your contract relevant to that issue.

    A well-worded contract projects both parties.

  • It’s true that clients need to be educated, but some clients require more education than others and there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to educate them for free…

    Cheap web design can be bought from bidding sites and this has lowered the cost expectations for many clients. When designers are charging less than minimum wage to design complex sites, it’s no wonder some clients have the perception that a website should be inexpensive. Spec work has also contributed to this perception.

    However, I think it’s reasonable to assume that it’s a certain type of client who visits those sites and has this impression. The trick is to not work for these clients, but to get better clients in the first place. A serious client with a healthy budget probably won’t use those sites and would rather get a “professional” service from an agency.

    The problem here is that the label “freelance” has some connotations that suggests “cheap” and many clients won’t even touch a freelancer. You have to decide therefore how you want to position yourself. You can market yourself as something other than freelance and see if that changes the types of enquires you receive.

    In the last year of freelancing, I’ve turned away probably 5 times more requests than I’ve accepted. These enquiries have come from all over the world. I’m bemused that I get enquiries from India or Africa for websites with a budget of £200 GBP. That’s less than my day rate. Somebody isn’t doing their maths right — how I can I give a client in Africa a website that’s competitive in their local currency when the cost of living for me (I’m in the UK) is many times more expensive? It’s absurd and just wastes everyone’s time.

    For any new enquiry, I simply now state “I have a minimum project size of £xxxx for new clients”. Those who continue the conversation after that are worth pursuing.

    Last thought: To get beyond the “I build websites” message and attract better clients, we need to actually stop selling WEBSITES and start selling our VALUE better. My current site doesn’t do this, but my new website (coming soon!) will be doing just that 🙂

  • All very good points.

    I think while the freezer man may well have the odd person who tries to slip out of paying, I’d imagine he would be wise to say at the point of being called that he will charge a minimum call out fee to make sure the person is aware of that before he drives across town.

    It does seem to be an issue of the moment, and the youtube video thats done the rounds recently does sum it up quite well.

    For us, a contract is drawn up and signed early on in the process before any significant work is done, as is a 30% deposit on the quoted price for the website. No works starts till contract and deposit is in our hands.

    I am considering upping that 30% to 40-50% for first time customers.

    I’m also considering building in another stage where all but the last 10% will be paid before content goes in – its one thing having a client get cold feet half way through a job, but then to have spend all the time designing and developing it to have them flake out on the last straight, with content being sent it in in dribs and drabs over 2 months just because they have no impetous to get the project finished is infuriating and time consuming – and I’ve seen that a fair it in the past too.

    In terms of why I think this is happening, as well as all the reasons listed above, I also wonder if its not unrelated to the free design / on-spec work expectation that some clients will ask for as part of a pitching process. I know that this practice is currently being called to question by various bodies, and a lot of designers are being urged to not accept this… I think this is another stand that we can collectively start, standing up for our professions and demand a bit more respect from the client for time spent and a job well done.

    This in turn I think will set us apart from the £50 mates-brother-in-law options out there.

  • Carls’ car repair analogy is a great one. I know nothing of cars, but if I wanted to read a few books I could probably botch a new suspension or an engine change myself. Likelihood is the thing will fall out. I could get my friend who knows a bit about cars to do it for a low price. Or (most likely) I take it to the mechanic who can fix it for me. I know which one costs the most, but also which is right. It’s down to the customer to make the call I guess, and there will always be folks who simply don’t understand what goes into making a website.

  • It’s all about the contract / agreed proposal at the end of the day. If it’s clear what service you’re providing, and also the terms of the service, everyone knows where they stand.

    I’ve been burnt a few times, nothing major, but it did make me re-think my approach to certain projects (especially relatively big ones which feel a little bit “loose” for comfort). I wrote this a few months back about a ‘pay as you go’ approach:


  • Wow. Sounds like you’re as intelligent as you are beautiful.

  • Reminds me of a video I watched recently on YouTube. The Vender / Client Relationship in Real-World Situations. Enjoy.


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  • Clients just don’t get it! We’ll have to do our best to make the terms clear before starting on the contract.

  • The main problem is that for the most part, graphic and web designers don’t behave like service professionals or even in a manner that suggests they are running a business. This makes things VERY hard for the rest of us.

    We deal with these things very simply – for websites and logo designs etc – ALWAYS get a deposit – we charge 50%. If the client has a problem with that, walk away. Have an order form clearly stating your terms – and dont do a thing until you have the signed copy – even if they’ve paid a deposit. They must sign to accept your terms & conditions as if you end up needing to resort to enforcing them, you’ll be dead in the water without a signature.

    Always get paid up front (in full) for any printing work you’re getting done for a client before you send it to the printer – dont carry other peoples debts for them.

    Set your own payment terms and DONT negotiate – we are very inflexible with this and I recommend you do the same. We give 7 days terms period, no ifs, no buts. If they are overdue, email or call them DAILY until they pay – believe me they’ll get tired of it before you do.

    In 5 years of business we have lost not one dollar and most of our clients pay on time – set the standard and expect people to keep to it. If they cant, get rid of them – there are plenty of clients out there who will.

    Dont be afraid of being tough over payment terms etc – you wont lose as many clients as you might think and trust me, the ones you lose, you’re better off wthout…

  • Unfortunately, this is not unique to the web design industry. Any service industry has to deal with this. More unfortunately, freelancers and very small businesses are often targeted by this type of “client”, although very large companies encounter the same problem. Dan’s approach is correct: be explicit up front, in your proposal, in your contract and in your terms and conditions. Explain how this works in person as well.

    Sometimes all this won’t help, and it’s hard and costly to extract money from a client who won’t pay. Often, they know this fact and use it to their advantage. (Most clients are just fine, BTW)

    Recently, an article on Smashing Magazine suggested charging per project. Sarah, your post is the reason I disagree with that. While you can add “commercial value” or usage licensing to invoices for larger clients, charging by the hour is a *good* thing, especially when you speicify that the client is paying for your *time*, and not for an arbitrary end result. Time spent = time paid if push comes to shove.

    You don’t spend the night at a hotel, decide the bed wasn’t as comfortable as you’d have liked and then refuse to pay. That would be unthinkable.

    One thing that has helped us in the past: if you outsource the hosting, NEVER give out any passwords before final payment. In eight years of running my business I’ve only had to remove a client’s website once. But I was glad I at least had that ace op my sleeve: no payment? No website.

  • You’ve hammered your point home, and hit the nail on the head!

    I think because our industry is realatively new, compared to handy men and women, people are unsure of it, therefore their confusion and down-right bad behaviour gets reflected as such.

    I think it involves a bit of education from us to them. Making it clear during the first meeting would let both parties know where each other stands.

    It’s tough, on one hand you want to be professional and polite, on the other, you kind of want to punch their lights out!

  • Oh yeah, Sarah. I hear ya. This is a topic I’ve ranted about on my own blog and it’s amazing how many new customers mention that particular post when we start discussing pricing. Definitely “Hammer it Home”. When customers understand before hand that we are service based then there’s no issue asking for money before projects are completed.

  • There’s so much I can say about this, but I feel like this is a fight Paul Rand began all those years ago.

    There’s too much “redesigning” (aesthetic based) when it’s actually a realigning (functionality & useability based) that’s needed. People are better at calling attention to problems outside their expertise than solving them, but unfortunately you will almost recieve this “feedback” in the form of an actionable demand. For example, instead of “we want a color scheme that puts our users at ease,” I think clients are more likely to say “give me blue.” Instead of saying “for some reason our content is not engaging users enough to convince them to visit elsewhere on the site”, you’ll hear “we should probably be making three times as many content updates daily”

    I think a lot of us are behaving like artists/designers for hire instead of the experts we should be paid to be. I think as soon as a meeting with a client starts with them telling you the number of pages they want on the site and what the links to these pages in the nav menu should be called, you’re already headed down the wrong path. I’m working towards (or trying to, at least) being the kind of designer who works with the client to craft a solution based on what they’d like to achieve, as opposed to just doing what they think they need to achieve it.