By John Tabita

Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!

By John Tabita

Would you like to be treated like a commodity, have a high cancellation rate, no client loyalty, and get paid the lowest price possible? (I know you do!) Then just follow my simple four-step plan:

  1. Offer a valuable service to your clients.
  2. Whenever a client cancels or switches to another provider, offer them your same service at a cheaper rate. (Other incentives, such as “first two months free,” are also effective.)
  3. Act like a victim by constantly complaining that your clients are cheapskates, and bemoan the fact that you can’t seem to make any money.
  4. Rinse and repeat.

This plan was enthusiastically embraced by AT&T Yellow Pages during my tenure there. (Step 3, however, was delegated to the sales reps.) They called it “reworking an account,” and it went like this: When the directory was ready to be published, we’d have a “fire sale”—everyone who had canceled during the nine-month sales canvass would be offered the same advertising at a reduced rate. Some $300-a-month ads were now just $100.

Another true believer in this “race to the bottom” was a national lawn care company for which I once worked. Cancel your lawn service? No problem! How about two free lawn treatments to change your mind? It continues to astound me. Don’t they understand that this only teaches customers to cancel, knowing they’ll get offered a better deal a few months (or hours) later? And once your customers become accustomed to paying lower prices, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get them to pay full cost.


How Clients Mistreat Us: Let Me Count the Ways

My story serves to make a point, that if clients and prospects mistreat us, it’s because we allow it. And there are so many ways we can let them to do so. Digging deep into my anguished past, I sought to unearth every sordid detail of the gut-wrenching abuse I suffered at the hands of my clients over the years. Unfortunately, I have few horror stories to share (but I do have a few). So in the spirit of crowd-sourcing, I asked a number of colleagues for theirs.

Jochen Daum of Automatem LTD says his firm has “had issues” with buyers who just want a quote “to beat down [your] competitor.” Companies are often required to obtain multiple bids; but deliberately using yours as pricing leverage against another provider goes beyond company policy—it’s a matter of the prospect taking advantage of you.

Another web firm (who asked to remain anonymous) met with one of their existing clients. After seeing a site demo, the client changed the requirements, which meant researching alternative solutions and making recommendations (for which the firm did not charge). Ultimately, the client opted to go elsewhere; but the firm later discovered that the client incorporated their recommendations into their new site.

They weren’t sure whether a competitor was involved or not, but “proposal-jacking” is an all-too-common occurrence. That’s when a prospect hands off your detailed proposal to a cheaper competitor—one who can charge less because, thanks to you, he doesn’t have to come up with his own ideas. In their words, “The lessons learned from this project will last a lifetime.”

Angelos Evangelou of PricklyPear Media had what he calls “one of my worse experiences” when he allowed a client to make continual changes beyond what his proposal had specified. This only encouraged the client to become more demanding, who alternated between loving and hating the design, insisted on several on-site meetings, then refused to pay the full amount upon completion, to “insure” Angelos would provide technical support.

Stephanie Wells of Strategy11 says her worst client experience was when she and her husband “killed ourselves” to meet the client’s deadline, only to have the client delay final payment by taking weeks to review and test the site. “Of course, clients should review and test,” Stephanie asserts, “but when they use it as a stalling tactic and take weeks to actually look at the site is when it gets irritating.”

I promised to share one of mine. I had a prospect meet with me at a desk in the middle of a chaotic furniture showroom floor. Between constant interruptions from his sales staff, he grilled me with questions about why he should hire me. After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally managed to get a question in, only to discover that he was not the actual decision-maker. The two owners would make the final decision—and he refused to allow me to meet with them. I believe the “John-sized hole” I left in the wall during my hasty retreat remains there to this day.

Here are other ways prospects and clients can mistreat, abuse, or otherwise take advantage of you:

  • Doesn’t set enough time aside to thoroughly discuss the project, then expects you to return another day to finish the conversation
  • Isn’t willing to discuss the project in detail; just wants to know how much it will cost
  • Won’t allow you to meet with other decision-makers, but “promises” to pass along your information to his partner
  • Expects a detailed proposal, yet won’t commit to when—or even if—they’ll get back to you
  • Avoids your follow-up calls when all you want to know is whether they’ve accepted your bid or not
  • Sends content at the last minute, then insists the site still be completed on schedule
  • Habitually cancels and reschedules meetings
  • Breaks a page while updating it, then expects you to fix it, free of charge
  • Waits until the absolute last minute to pay you

And let’s not forget the granddaddy of all disrespectful treatment, the Big Kahuna Himself:

The client opens your design in Photoshop and starts revising it himself

A word of caution: don’t let this list allow you to become jaded. We tend to get what we expect. If you always expect clients to treat you like this, you’ll most likely get treated like this. A good rule-of-thumb is, expect the best, but be prepared for the worst.

Stop the Abuse!

I know you want to learn how to prevent further mistreatment, but my article was too big and it spilled over into next week’s. Meanwhile, feel free to post any abusive client behavior that I missed, and next week, I’ll talk about how to deal with it. See you then.

This is Part 1 of the series Putting a Stop to Abusive Client Behavior:

  1. Stop Client Abuse of Web Designers Now!
  2. Stop the Abuse! 7 Steps to a Well-Trained Client
  3. Stop Wasting Time with Prospects Who Aren’t Serious
  4. Stop Giving Away So Much Free Information!
  5. Stop Writing Proposals to Win Business
  6. Stop Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results
  7. Stop Waiting to Get Paid! How to Collect Even when Your Client Delays
  8. Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already
  9. Stop the Slippery Slope of Scope Creep
  10. Stop Making Endless Design Changes
  11. Stopping Abusive Clients: The Complete Process

Image credit

  • Jason

    How about the sites that you update for charity causes? I swear that every website that I have ever done for charity has had the most demanding clients.

    • Helen Natasha Moore

      Jason, that is so true. The only really bad client I have had was a charity. I spent three months building them a website for free. Some time later, they wanted features and changes that took me a further three days to implement. A month later they wanted a similar number of changes. I told them that I could no longer afford the time to keep doing this for free, at which point I was expelled from the charity. I’m still reeling from the shock.

      • Ivan

        LOL That is about 100% right! The FREE ones are the most demanding. That is why I do not do any more pro bono.

      • Pete

        The only pro-bono work I do now is based on what’s been suggested here. I tell them ‘we have a pro-bono process’ to make it sound a bit formal. This process says: apart from content (delivered only once, upfront), the charity or whoever has no input into the site and will have almost no involvement during the design (but of course, once it’s finished, they can do whatever they want via the CMS). I also state that we don’t have a commercial relationship (it’s a donation) just to make clear what’s happening here. I also tell them that they have other options ie. if they want involvement, go to another designer and pay. They can choose which option they want.

        As I generally don’t want them as customers, ever (for the reasons everyone’s described), I also give them the name of a few suppliers who may want to enter into a commercial support arrangement with them afterwards. Then I use the site as a ‘playground’ to learn about new design techniques etc. They get a free site, I get to upgrade my skills.
        Charities are very hard work: with no commercial imperatives, it’s inevitable that they are usually pretty poorly organised, are full of odd (but still good!) people. They’re out of touch reality as far as money goes, so caveat emptor when you do work for them.

  • Helen Natasha Moore

    It would be nice to read an article by you, John, in which people are not referred to using solely male terminology.

    • Kenny

      Not really the point of the article. He is typically just the default gender, we all know that women work within our field as well and most of us are very happy for that.

      • Helen Natasha Moore

        I don’t think it serves either women or men for there to be a default gender, so I challenge this where I find it.

  • The all too usual: “I don’t really like that background colour” and in the process overlooking every other aspect of the design…

    Ps. Helen, for the sake of the post – does it really matter?!

    • How about this one?

      “Why are there so many empty spots on the site?”

      After further clarification, I explained the concept of ‘white space’ and why filling up every “empty spot” with text is a bad idea.

  • Lance

    Or you could, I dunno, use a contract?

    • Contacts can solve many of the post-sale problems mentioned here (a topic I’ll address in the next article.) However, that doesn’t help prevent you from being mistreated or abused in the pre-sale stage.

      So the question remains, how do you prevent a client from handing your proposal off to a competitor, stealing your ideas to building the site themselves, or using your proposal as a throw-away bid when they never intended to hire you in the first place?

      • Pete

        “How do you prevent a client from handing your proposal off”?
        It’s a common problem, as everyone attests. One thing I’ve experimented with is changing my concept of ‘proposal’ and charging for it. For $100 or so, I’ll have a long-ish chat, and offer to write it up more as a ‘web strategy’. This ‘proposal’ canvasses their options (from free CMS’s to custom) and my advice on the best way forward for the client, and I give them all sorts of info on how to buy domains, good hosting suppliers, what’s involved etc. etc. It’s a more consulting paper, and gives the client a pathway towards a fully-fledged site as their business grows.
        Admittedly, it wasn’t an easy sell, initially, but all my clients who bought it are really really happy. That proposal to ‘just get a free site and go from there’ can save them thousands.

  • Gez

    Thanks for sharing this – I thought it was just me that got clients and prospects that I’d like to sack. Add: phone calls from clients saying ‘can you just update this or tell me how to do it’ for sites written 3-4 years ago! It’s a clever ploy, because it’s quicker to just do it instead of showing them how to use even a very simple cms. Add: get to stage where site is due to launch, then just keep asking you to add content and content and content and string you along because you’ll do anything to get the site live, so it can be finished and paid. Look forward to hearing your suggestions. I think the key answer is be tough. Experience says that the best customers (and generally nicest people) are those that demand least and are most appreciative. I always try to volunteer MORE for those people because THEY deserve it.

    • There is my solution, you have to charge for support, clients outside the support package will not be assisted. It’s best to make this clear from the beginning. ‘Showing’ or ‘telling’ somebody something is considered support.

      If a client is appreciative they do deserve more and it’s within our best interest to keep those kind of clients.

  • This is the same problem I see in my country…often the client is like a child. Is necessary who you must keep the hand and make sure comprising all before starting work.

  • Brilliant read : ) you summed things up very nicely. Looking forward to your next article.

  • Well, rightly said if the customers are used to get similar services at discounted rate they in no situation will be ready to pay total cost to the organisation. Better here they may be provided some extra quantity instead of reducing the price.

  • Kise S.

    i guess being from a small country where there are few designer, i get to choose my customers rather then them choosing me :)

    • Tell us where you live so we can all move there ;)

      • Kise S.

        hahaha trust me you don’t want to wake up with each sandstorm hitting the city! :S

  • As John somewhat alludes to, the less someone pays for something the more demanding their attitude. Professional people expect to pay professionally for a professional service, people who expect to pay peanuts/nothing will rarely have a professional attitude towards you and your work and therefore think nothing of adding to your workload or ridiculously moving goalposts.

    • “…the less someone pays for something the more demanding their attitude.”

      And why is that? Is it a way to cover up their feelings of guilt over manipulating you into working for McDonald’s wages?

    • I think a big part of the attitude is that we live in a “get a good deal” society. We expect HIGH SERVICE, GREAT TREATMENT but with NO LOYALTY to business. And buyingtrends acknowlege that. So it begs a different solution.


  • The thing is there is so many people who think they are designers and people who think that they know what they want.

    • I can only imagine how professional photographers must feel. After all, anyone who owns a camera can take a picture, right?

      • That is a pet hate of mine, and I’m not even a photographer! I see so many “[name] Photography” pages popping up on Facebook created by people who like to take happy snaps and just bought an SLR, because that makes them a photographer, right? I feel really bad the professional photographers I know who have spent years honing their skills, take brilliant photographs and know what exposure compensation and white balance and [insert more technical terms here] are, because their work is devalued by all these “photographers” who can do the work absurdly cheap…but it is of poor quality.

        …Oh wait, that’s just like us.

    • @Ivan, its easy to draw a picture, but coding that picture is another issue. To some degree web design is like architecture. We can advice which rooms we want, and how many and where, but too much control over your houses blueprints is bound to have yourself run into issues. There is always a time we have to draw on client input.

  • Alan

    Jason: good point. I have had the exact same experience. In fact, I have found churches to be the worst, not because they don’t have money, because they are so accustomed to people volunteering work.

    • Paul

      Alan, I would extend that to include all non-profits. I’ve only ever seen one pay well and on time in 15 years of working with clients. I simply pass on all of them now, the roulette is worth it.

  • Rick

    The last year I’ve had to deal with two such clients. The worst offender was supposedly “one of our best clients”. The worst part is that I’m a lowly employee, and I’ve had to put up with all that crap, because my boss (my immediate boss, that is) passes down all the pressure to the rank-and-file developers like me. Always urgent demands, and then the clients fail to pass us the required information.

    I’ve decided to quit and start on my own as a freelancer in a month.

    Please keep us updated, I don’t want to have to deal with this kind of customers again.

    • An old boss of mine use to say, “Sh#!t slides downhill and I’m in the valley.” When you start freelancing, you get to wear all the hats, which means, you may be on the hilltop, but you’ll also be in the valley. Firing those types of clients is all well-and-good, but doing so when you’re trying to get established isn’t a luxury most of us can afford.

    • I agree with John, firing clients is tough when work is scarce. But that just drives me to work a bit harder at getting better clients. We choose who we accept as clients. In environments where you are working for someone else, you don’t have as much control. If you are not part of the sales process and with direct client contact, you have a challenge on your hands. Start thinking about going out on your own IMHO.


  • I’ve had a client for over three years and I still haven’t heard her actual voice. Best… client… EVER!

  • Julie

    I built a custom site for a client that I only took on as a favor to a very solid client of mine. She called me at all hours of the night, wanted to chat about her personal life and all it’s problems. But beside that, I made her site. It was launched in two weeks as promised but she continued to want tweaks and changes each week to stall in paying me the second half of the balance. In trying to keep her happy, I continued making changes and even assisted her in organizing her business plan and editing her photos (which was not in the agreement). She paid via Paypal and finally sent the final payment after approving my work and saying I did a great job. After 5 months, she requested a full refund through Paypal. They denied her the refund at first, saying she was past the deadline of asking for a refund. Then she went a step further and got a “chargeback” from her credit card company. Paypal paid the chargeback to her account, feed me for their “handling” it and now I am negative the amount for the work plus $40 in my account. She never once requested a refund from me. And she was happy with it with one small coding exception. She wanted the selection of color to automatically go into the shopping cart. I explained to her that those kinds of “revisions” would require written PHP and cost an additional amount. She wanted it included with her already discounted price. Needless to say, I now have contracts and proposals with detailed information and try to keep my clients very happy without killing myself in the process. I’m still in shock at how easy it was for her to do this. And the kicker? I am the third developer in a row that has been through this with her. If I had only listened to my gut instinct.

    • I’m not sure if something like this would have helped dispute the chargeback, but I always had a final sign-off, documenting that the client accepted the site and was completely satisfied.

  • malachi

    I almost burst into tears reading this, and I’m a healthy adult male. I’m literally going through this as we speak!! I sent a close to completely finished site to a client, to show how his brilliant ideas have been implemented. He emails late last night asking if I could come in tomorrow, because he now has an even better idea!! My cost however should stay the same, in his opinion. #jaded

    • We’ve been selling 1-page websites that we’ve been bundling with other advertising. One client wanted to upgrade to a larger site, but my boss refused. When I asked why, I was told the client didn’t think he should have to pay any more. Don’t get #jaded; just say ‘no.’

  • Having built and sold websites since Netscape came out, I can tell you there is a common theme associated with many of the complaints / challenges that John has identified. They include:

    1) The Issue of VALUE
    3) Current TRENDS (re: loyalty, getting the best deal, changes in technology)
    4) LOYALTY

    I think we all need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Analyze who we want to market to. We want to make sure we are going after the correct clients and position ourselves for specific clients. Its very easy to pitch to every project that comes along. We can go cheap and lose that battle, or we can provide poorly worded agreements / contracts. Sometimes we simply get scr#wed. But there are MANY steps we can take to prevent this from happening.

    Based on my own experience, when I quote jobs, I do ALOT of prequalifying. I pitch the work very differently than other companies. And that allows me to get a higher percentage of business when I quote. 60-85% of what I bid. But there is ALOT I don’t bid.

    For example:

    1) I rarely bid Gov work or non-profits – They are focused solely on price in most cases. With many non-profits, churches etc, they are limited on $$$ and don’t always understand the value. They do however (my opinion) tend to have high expectations. The old “I want my cake, with icing and want to eat it too!” rings true.

    2) If clients don’t understand the potential benefits and the windfalls that can occur with a well performing website (speaking to the e-commerce sites), then making investments in a site are not going to be understood. Many of my fellow Canadians are very conservative, are risk averse and don’t tend to want to spend a whole bunch, not understanding that they could make a great deal of money. Its a cultural issue. Thus I tend to bid into markets where businesses see the potential. And will make the investment.

    3) Clients have to respect your time. Period. So when I get the odd client who refuses to answer emails, interrupts my meeting with them, or indicates they may be shopping the market, I walk. Its easier to simple thank them for their time and leave. Insulting? Nope. Remind yourself they don’t all care and likely will not change. No biggy. Accept it and move on.

    4) If they give ANY indication they want to fix it, design it, complete it in Photoshop, then I have to consider they have alot of free time on their hands. And they DON’T VALUE what you do. DO NOT fall into that trap and allow that. Take a few minutes extra on a bid or initial consultation and make it clear that you are the expert and that you don’t expect the dentist to hand over his drill so you can finish or experiment on yoru teeth.

    John’s points about expecting the worst is good advice….but focus on narrowing down the potential problems BEFORE you get in too deep. And he is correct is not getting jaded. Our industry offers up 100’s if not thousands of opportunities. But we are our own enemy at times and need to remember that getting the “client homework” or “assessment” done early is critical.

    Last thoughts…take 1000 potential clients, weed out the clients that are problematic, don’t VALUE what you do, don’t want to pay alot, and with the 100 that are left, target about 20. Its that % that you will want to target. A small group indeed but thats how I have been able to get a higher precentage of good paying, loyal clients.

    Great Article John and very timely!


    • All good points, Gordon. I can’t overemphasize the importance of pre-qualifying prospects. I rarely meet with someone without having a preliminary conversation over the phone or via email.

      I recall one that I had a number of email exchanges with, until it finally came out that she’d just hired another developed and was looking for a price from me to reassure herself that she’d gotten a good deal. I was annoyed, but I’m glad I discovered it sooner rather than a two hour meeting and a 15-page proposal later.

  • We have a clear and Agile way to prevent this from happening and it serves us well.

  • I’d rather not leave my name

    My all time favourite hates are Government departments. Round about this time of year, when they have been allocated loads of Gov’t funding they start getting quotations. I’ve seen any work from hundreds of hours of prep and presentation.

    Executive decision to be implemented from now: They ask for a quote, we say sorry, can’t do.

    We did have one tiny gov’t funded job a few years ago which is currently being investigated – evidently we were paid about R30 000 more than we actually received…. Go figure…

    • I’d rather not leave my name

      I’ve seen any work from hundreds of hours of prep and presentation. should read: I’ve seen hardly any work from hundreds of hours of prep and presentation.

  • I think you miss one point, and that is that “avoid selling yourself cheaply” is all well and good when you have money in the bank and can afford principles, however if you have not you’ll have to take what you can get. This can happen even to established freelancers.

    I agree with much of what you say, and the comments here show some familiar horror stories. However, when your good clients are off sick/maternity leave/having other priorites for several weeks and rent/electricity/you-name-it is already overdue, then the client that says “We don’t really need or afford it at this moment, but did you say you could knock off 15% if we take it now?” – will seem like a long lost friend!

    • I agree that sometimes it sounds good on paper, but when the rent’s due and the bills are piling up, sometimes you take what you can get. But the question is, how do you get out of that rut?

      In order to generate enough work to pay the bills, you have to keep your pipeline full. That means you must constantly be having conversations with potential clients so that some of those will turn into actual clients.

      It’s tough negotiating from a position of weakness, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try:

      “… did you say you could knock off 15% if we take it now?”

      “No, but I’d be glad to give you a 10% discount if you’re willing to pay 100% upfront.”

  • I really relate to what you’ve written. I’ve been through it all, except maybe having a proposal handed off to a competitor – now that scares me.

    But I can’t help thinking when I look back on the past 10 years that some of the best work I’ve done has been because a client has been so demanding (because they have specific goals not due to indecision) and making last minute changes.

    One client accepted a quote, waited for the prototype online preview and then started showing it to his prospective clients. He then came back with ALL the recommendations and changes and what should have been a 2 month project turned into an 8 month project and massively larger than the proposed design. I didn’t charge extra back then – I wasn’t in the position to do so and the project was more important for me at the time. Anyway, the final result was a web application that benefited from the industry-specific experience of almost a hundred people in that industry. The site was a huge success and I have received a lot more projects from my credit in the footer since.

    If I was in the same situation now, I would have stood firm and made sure that I got paid for the time I was putting in. Would that really have been better? I’m not sure.

    • I agree; some of my most demanding clients and bosses have propelled me to do even better work. Sometimes, it comes down to a judgement call. When a project comes along that can take you to next level, and you make the decision you did, at least it’s because you made a choice, and not because you were manipulated or coerced. But I still wonder, could you have gotten all the same benefits from the project, yet still been paid for all that extra work?

      • I often wonder the same thing so, spurred on by this article, I asked my client if he would have paid for the extra functionality or left things out.

        He replied that he would have paid but that he wouldn’t have been happy about it at all because in his mind the extra functionality was already part of the project even though it was written down. For instance, the specs might indicate a contact form with a list of fields submitted to a specific email address and stored in the database. My client would read that as meaning a contact form in general which can do anything which he’s seen on any other site. So later that same simple contact form might change into one which can then be submitted to the relevant department even though the list of fields doesn’t include anything to indicate a department and to provide the user with a quote…

        Finally, my client simply told me that it was miscommunication. If he had the full price of the project including the changes at the beginning then that would have been fine. We’ve been working together now for around 6 six years and have a good relationship and I know he’s not a technical person at all (not his fault – he pays me to cover the technical stuff right?) so since the first project whenever he’s come up with a new one I understand his mindset well enough to cover all the bases properly (not relying simply on what is written down but also then meeting and going through it and revising as necessary) and to also budget for changes. I can actually charge more in order to provide the flexibility and that works really well for us.

        I came away from that first project with a resolve never to work with this particular client again but when he needed someone to make changes he couldn’t find anyone else so I got back in on my terms and charged properly. Since then I have benefited in so many ways but mostly in terms of how I code with a real appreciation for building sites with flexibility and extensibility in mind eventually resulting in my own framework which reduces my develop time significantly (meaning more completed projects in less time so more profit).

  • Learn that it’s ok to say no to work, if it’s not right for you or your timetable, let it go.
    Learn that prospects that want to have a low price, also have fears understand what their biggest fears are and understand that most people are satisfied with function, that is the site works.
    Learn to get the complete package in writing, or even better on a story board to know how many pages there will be and how they will work together to provide information about the good and services, and still have a way to maintain a relationship with customers.
    Learn to not be ‘just another web developer’, be their superhero of solutions.

  • CC

    We had a client once who wanted a new logo, during the meeting I scribbled around on my notes as I had a few ideas already for the logo. The client saw this and took a mental note. We provided a quote for the logo design which she did not accept. A few weeks later we had another meeting with her again about another job and she presented her new logo to us. Well guess what it looked liked? Just like my scribble! She smiled shamelessly in my face with the words: ‘Doesn’t it look good, I really love it’.

  • Great article John :) and commentary!
    Thanks for addressing the issue and providing your insights.

  • Victor

    This story is many years old, seems nothing has changed (author unknown):

    If Architects Had To Work Like Web Designers

    Dear Mr. Architect:

    Please design and build me a house. I am not quite sure of what I need, so you should use your discretion. My house should have somewhere between two and forty-five bedrooms. Just make sure the plans are such that the bedrooms can be easily added or deleted. When you bring the blueprints to me, I will make the final decision of what I want. Also, bring me the cost breakdown for each configuration so that I can arbitrarily pick one.

    Keep in mind that the house I ultimately choose must cost less than the one I am currently living in. Make sure, however, that you correct all the deficiencies that exist in my current house (the floor of my kitchen vibrates when I walk across it, and the walls don’t have nearly enough insulation in them).

    As you design, also keep in mind that I want to keep yearly maintenance costs as low as possible. This should mean the incorporation of extra-cost features like aluminum, vinyl, or composite siding. (If you choose not to specify aluminum, be prepared to explain your decision in detail.)

    Please take care that modern design practices and the latest materials are used in construction of the house, as I want it to be a showplace for the most up-to-date ideas and methods. Be alerted, however, that kitchen should be designed to accommodate, among other things, my 1952 Gibson refrigerator.

    To insure that you are building the correct house for our entire family, make certain that you contact each of our children, and also our in-laws. My mother-in-law will have very strong feelings about how the house should be designed, since she visits us at least once a year. Make sure that you weigh all of these options carefully and come to the right decision. I, however, retain the right to overrule any choices that you make.

    Please don’t bother me with small details right now. Your job is to develop the overall plans for the house: get the big picture. At this time, for example, it is not appropriate to be choosing the color of the carpet.

    However, keep in mind that my wife likes blue.

    Also, do not worry at this time about acquiring the resources to build the house itself. Your first priority is to develop detailed plans and specifications. Once I approve these plans, however, I would expect the house to be under roof within 48 hours.

    While you are designing this house specifically for me, keep in mind that sooner or later I will have to sell it to someone else. It therefore should have appeal to a wide variety of potential buyers. Please make sure before you finalize the plans that there is a consensus of the population in my area that they like the features this house has. I advise you to run up and look at my neighbor’s house he constructed last year. We like it a great deal. It has many features that we would also like in our new home, particularly the 75-foot swimming pool. With careful engineering, I believe that you can design this into our new house without impacting the final cost.

    Please prepare a complete set of blueprints. It is not necessary at this time to do the real design, since they will be used only for construction bids. Be advised, however, that you will be held accountable for any increase of construction costs as a result of later design changes.

    You must be thrilled to be working on as an interesting project as this! To be able to use the latest techniques and materials and to be given such freedom in your designs is something that can’t happen very often. Contact me as soon as possible with your complete ideas and plans.

    PS: My wife has just told me that she disagrees with many of the instructions I’ve given you in this letter. As architect, it is your responsibility to resolve these differences. I have tried in the past and have been unable to accomplish this. If you can’t handle this responsibility, I will have to find another architect.

    PPS: Perhaps what I need is not a house at all, but a travel trailer. Please advise me as soon as possible if this is the case..

  • John Wallett

    Great article and comments… familiar issues! Managing (client) expectations is clearly part of speccing and quoting. We do ourselves no favours if we are sloppy or vague, or promise too much that we wouldn’t actually want to have to provide just in order to get a new client. Smaller jobs can be very difficult to cost because they still require a lot of time to pin down functional specs; without a clear spec the job isn’t properly defined (may not even be feasible) but the time spent thinking it through and speccing it is ‘wasted’ if we don’t get the job. One solution is a template spec where we propose what we already know how to deliver. It does’t cover all requirements but then we are often costing a mix of off-the-peg and small alterations/enhancement tailoring rather than high fashion designer one-offs here! At the other end of the process (how to finish and say it’s done) I find a ‘bedding in’ clause (1 or 2 months) in a contract helps: providing phone/email support for how-to-use features, fixing things that dont work, and MINOR ADJUSTMENTS (I know… slippery slope!) for a fixed period is better than having a job never quite finish. Confidence in our own professionalism is probably the most important thing. Remember: THIS USED TO BE ROCKET SCIENCE even if folks now think it should be free… Don’t give up hope, there are some great clients out there!

  • Great article, look forward to more on this, hopefully some advice on preventative measures.
    I’ve could write pages on abusive customers but I’d rather not drag it all up.
    I’m only a part timer, have other areas of business too, and I can promise you that the sort of behavior above is rampant through every business I’ve been involved in. The “Big Boys” make this even worse by operating low price high throughput businesses.

  • Some golden tips I have learnt in my 8 years of web designing:

    1. Don’t do concepts and proposals except for HUGE projects. Just do a quick calculation of costs based per page or per hour or per site. It’s a waste of time doing this stuff for smaller projects because people won’t want to pay for your time. Best way to get started is to get them to send you an example website they like. Then you show them an example one back of what you could do and go from there.

    2. Unless they pay a lot of money, avoid custom work unless it’s very basic. There’s no point reinventing the wheel unless they pay you for it. The wheel keeps getting better every year any way, so custom work requires full, proper compensation for the effort that goes in.

    3. It’s good to have experienced all of the customers above, because it teaches you who to avoid.

    4. Charities are excellent clients, but only if they have NEVER had a website and are appreciative to have one. Just say to them that you’ll only do it for free if you have full control over the design. Then have fun being creative!

    5. Any client who says “our last web designer was hopeless” is to be avoided…..usually it is the client who wouldn’t pay, wouldn’t appreciate what they got or chased a cheap website.

    6. Only ever allow one full edit/revision of the website when your design is done. After that, it is finished.

    7. If a small business wants a big, custom, website for cheap, explain to them that a little, templated website would still suit their needs and their budget. Don’t fall for this one!!!

    8. If anyone says “I can get it cheaper from xyz” tell them to go get it there.

    9. If anyone acts funny with the quoting (eg, not getting back to you), dump them. I find the best clients ask for a quote, then act on the quote rather quickly. Don’t chase people. Just market more.

    10. Have your once-off projects and your long-term work. Build up a client base for the long-term work. Be an expert at what you do. And have fun!

    • Very funny and so 100% truth!
      It is so well written, it should be the bible for all newcomers in this business.

      I wish someone warned me in 1998…


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