Why Payment Prior to Launch is So Important

This weekend saw one of the worst client interactions I have had. The intention of this post is not to expose who the client is or to show them up, but to highlight an industry problem that I want to campaign to change across the board. I will therefore not be saying who the agency or the client is, as this is irrelevant to the topic.

A brief history, I was hired to create a website back in October, the project bounced back and forth between me, the agency (they’re not a digital agency in the sense we all refer to it, but for arguments sake we’ll call them an agency) and the client, largely due to the fact the client withheld information for weeks on end or simply didn’t provide it at all, even re-designed their own website in publisher at one stage only to revert to a hybrid of our design and theirs at a later date. Say no more.

So fast forward to launch day, a Friday at the end of March (I had completed a further 4 e-commerce sites in the time it took to complete this one!) , the site is completed, against all odds, they had had the final invoice and they were aware of my terms and conditions;

“The remainder of the balance is paid upon completion of the project prior to any files being transferred”

My clients pay 25% of the total project at the start and the remainder 75% is paid upon completion prior to launch. I have done this for the past 3 years due to an incident a couple of years before when a client locked me out of the server, changed the passwords and ran off with a brand new website. I have never had a client complain or question this clause before – possibly because it’s common sense, you wouldn’t walk out of a car showroom with a brand new car without paying for it, why is this any different? Milestone payments are not a new thing, in fact I will probably change them to smaller percentages more often to defer that risk even more but, enforcing them before site launch is less common and something I want to campaign to be the “norm” in web design.

Again, without going into too much detail, on launch day I had the agency demanding the site to be put live. I referred back to the T&C’s and explained that I had made people aware of this prior to launch day and that under no circumstances would I put the site live prior to the balance of the site getting paid, that it was nothing personal and something I do with all my clients. To this I received a very icy response from the agency and I asked that they send me an email with how they want to proceed. I go out for the evening, come back and grow suspicious that I had heard no more communication, I check the site in question only to find it live. Not only live but they had already changed the FTP passwords for the site. so that I was locked out.

N.B. We had been dev’ing on the agency server towards the end to test all the SSL encryption and the payment gateways properly, this is where some people would argue the files had already been transferred and as such, payment should have been due the minute we placed the files on the clients server, the way I was thinking – there was still a holding page up so, until the final tweaks were done and the index file uploaded, it wasn’t live or completed. In actual fact looking back now and considering what happened, I think you would be right that the minute the files were on the clients server would have been the right time to at least collect a milestone payment. Live and learn…

The agency putting the site live really got to me, a lot, however I was not about to let it slide and nor was I about to do anything in anger. I calmly thought about what my choices were and decided the only thing I could do would be to remove the MySQL database that was feeding the site. So that’s what I did, in turn I found out what the new password to the FTP was and placed the holding page back up so that it didn’t look unprofessional to any visitors and shut down for the evening..well by this time it was 3am.

The following morning, Saturday, I awake to a couple of strongly worded emails from the agency.  I re-explained that these were my terms and conditions, that my contract was with the agency and that I expected my terms and conditions to be adhered to. They were aware of the circumstances but thought for whatever reason intentionally or unintentionally,  they didn’t apply to them. Here is the explanation I sent to the agency to explain exactly why I use this clause in my contract:

This is how I see it, and why my T&C’s are laid out this way:
“The remainder of the balance is paid upon completion of the project prior to any files being transferred.”

The reason for this is so that;

a) the developers/designers are paid for the work done on the project prior to any files being transferred because it’s too easy for clients to do what (agency) did last night and lock people out of the server once they’ve got the files then disappear, OR define their own payment terms, as they have no incentive to pay on time once they are in possession of a live site.

b) You tend to have a transition period where if the client has 2 weeks to pay or a month they think any further significant changes are included in the website price, I’ve seen it happen years back and you loose hundreds of pounds just trying to keep them happy to ensure you get your money.

This is the reason the industry turned to milestone payments, ie. where the bulk of the money or all of the money is transferred before the site goes live. This protects the designer/developer and it’s also fair, you get paid, the client gets their site.

I just don’t see what the problem is with paying for the project, and the fact there has been so much uproar about it makes me suspicious. That’s been in my terms and conditions for 3 years and this is the first time I’ve ever had a problem with it?

I can’t help but feel the time spent going behind my back and putting the site live would have been better spent doing a BACS or Paypal Transfer of the balance so it could be put live through the correct channels?

Once I am paid what I am owed, the site will be restored.

Further emails followed, and I’m sure you can guess the tone. I have never felt bad for asking clients for payment prior to the site going live, the way I see it is business has to be a two way transaction, the client is getting a brand new site, you are getting paid for the work you have done. It really does seem simple.

My reason for highlighting what happened to me is that the agency’s defense was that other web designers they had worked with did not have these types of terms and conditions, to me, other peoples terms and conditions are irrelevant and this is the way I’ve done business for 3 years without any problem whatsoever.

I would like us, as a web design community, to make something that is common sense – concrete in our workflow. I do not think any website should be put live without prior payment of some kind, and I know I’m not alone or the only one working like this. Whether you choose to do milestone payments whereby a percentage is paid upon launch (ensuring it’s a majority percentage) with say 5% balance left over as a fixing fee for any bugs or errors they might find. Or whether you take the stance that if a website is live, the client is happy with it, therefore it is signed off and the full balance is due. You might choose to take a different point of view if the site is being hosted on your own server, but on external servers it really is too easy to have a fight on your hands – and a fight that takes up yet more valuable working time and becomes ridiculously unproductive, trust me.

If you do not already take some form of payment prior to launching a site, no matter how difficult you think it might be, I urge you to re-think as I have never lost business due to it. While you are in posession of your hard work and while the client wants posession of their new website, the ball is in your court.

I strongly believe that credit terms should not apply to completed websites unless it’s exceptional circumstances and would be interested to hear your views or how you currently deal with these issues.

Note: As of Monday, I have now been paid for the site and the site is live.