By John Tabita

Stop Getting Walked on and Set Some Boundaries Already

By John Tabita

As the father of two boys, I’m continually amazed and confounded by the difference in their personalities. My oldest tends to go with the flow, but my youngest always feels the need to push the boundaries. One day, he’ll grow up and become your client.

How are you going to handle him, when he does? As parent, it’s my job to define the boundaries and let them play within them. Your job, as a web consultant, is not so different.

Am I suggesting you treat your clients like children? To a certain degree, yes. Children do not have a complete understanding of the world around them. When left to their own devices, they tend to make foolish choices. Likewise, when a client steps into the world of web design and development, they have an incomplete picture of how that world works and may have unrealistic expectations. Bill Cosby once said that with 200 active two-year-olds, he could conquer the world. A single over-active client can overrun yours. It’s time to set some boundaries.


Don’t Assume Your Client will Read the Contract

Boundaries and expectations live or die by a written contact. Don’t assume the client will read yours.

Signing the contract without reading it? Seriously! You are legally obligating yourself to my terms here. Make sure you understand them. It’s great that you trust me, but we’re still going to have an awkward conversation when you do something not allowed by the agreement.

– Michelle Gower, author of How to Fire a Client

You can avoid “that awkward conversation” by sitting down with the prospect, face-to-face if possible, and discussing each point of the contract before he signs.

It’s not as nerve-racking as it sounds. Let’s take the issue of getting paid even though your client delays sending you content. You accomplish that by setting up a payment schedule, rather than attaching payments to production milestones. Here’s how to have that conversation with your client.

First, discuss the project timetable and let the client see that the projected completion time is 60 days (or whatever time frame you’ve agreed upon). From here, it’s easy to transition into the reasons why a project can get behind schedule:

Mr. Prospect, one of the problems I often encounter is busy clients who end up delaying completion of their site because they take too long to send me written copy and images. It’s usually not intentional, but I end up waiting weeks or even months to get paid when that happens.

To prevent it, my contract stipulates that final payment is due in 60 days. That means, if you don’t send me the content I need by then, and your site’s not finished because of it, you’re still agreeing to pay me. Did I explain that clearly?

Each and every aspect of a site design has the potential to be miscommunicated, misunderstood, or assumed by your client. Here’s an example of a client who assumed that something I left undiscussed was included: setting up all the domain email accounts on his office computers. He didn’t know how and, after all, I registered the domain for him. (What a pain; I hate doing that stuff, especially when I get stuck doing it for free.)

But where some see problems, others see opportunity. From that point forward, I asked each client whether or not they could handle this internally. For those who needed help, I sub-contracted to my cousin’s networking business (marking up his fee slightly). After that, he got to keep them as a client, if they needed more work.

And, as an aside, when I started asking the same question about copy writing, I found that clients would pay extra to have me provide this service.

Consider some of the “abusive” behavior we’ve discussed throughout this series: scope creep, endless design revisions or technical support, clients deliberately stalling to delay payment, client site modifications after-the-fact. What parameters can you set to minimize or prevent these, while still providing the client with enough latitude to accomplish what he wants? Draft a policy for each and write down what you will say to the client. Sitting down and explaining each of these points has never been anything but a positive experience. I’ve found that the other person appreciates this and understands completely. Besides, you just saved him or her 45 minutes of reading and translating your legalese gobbledygook.

In my next (and possibly final) installment of this series, I’ll discuss some of these behaviors and give you suggestions on how to address each one.

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It’s not too late to get my free guide, 27.5 Must-Ask Questions for Consultative Selling. Just follow me on Twitter and I’ll send you a link.

This is part 8 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
  • It is very interesting, thank you for this news

  • Great article, John! I remember this discussion – so many good points were made among the group.

    People NEED boundaries, even if they push back against them. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as the professional to set those boundaries, but if we don’t explain them, then we can’t expect others to know what they are. It’s easy to let the contract explain it all, but I’ve certainly seen maybe one person in the last few years of my business actually read it and point things out for clarification. I even went over the contract line by line with a client once – and it didn’t stop scope creep or content delays.

    So I do think that we sometimes place a lot of the burden on the client to understand AND remember what our contracts say, but it just isn’t going to happen. All the more reason for a written agreement!


    • You’re right, boundaries are not just for children and clients; they’re a part of life. I remember one of my graphic design teachers saying that creativity happens within boundaries, not when they’re absent. Suppose a client were to say, “I need to bring in more business. Design me something.” Without any guidelines (i.e., “boundaries”), where do you start? But when he says, “Design me an 8.5″ x 14″ 2-sided, tri-fold brochure with these 5 photos and this text,” then I have something to work with.

      In the early days (before I knew what I know now), I had a client whom I’d emailed my contract. She called upset because it contained an item she didn’t like. When she explained what she was having an issue with, I realized she was interpreting the clause to mean the exact opposite of what it really said.

      A lot of people fear discussing the contract face-to-face with the client, especially the parts that talk about cancellation and going to court. But for me, it’s a no-brainier, because it prevents misunderstandings like these.

      Thanks for all your input.

  • Pamela

    Just found this series, I really hope your next post is not the last one. Thank you for offering your great tips.

    • I just might have enough material for a few more articles.

  • Rob

    This series is uncannily accurate, are you spying on me!! I’m glad to find I’m not the only one who is held up by ‘payment on completion’ – I received an email TODAY, just before reading this article, from a client saying they were going to send me the rest of the content last night but they got a headache and will be away now until 14th of May!!! That client has been good to deal with, but now I am waiting for my final payment for a further 2-3-4 weeks- who knows!! From now on I am adopting your contract and payment strategy.
    I ‘invented’ a way of organising my clients and the scope of the work they want me to do, after a client kept giving me pages until we had a 27 page website, when I had budgeted for 7. I get them to draw up a menu table, with the top line being the main menu and below those headings the drop down or child menus. Once we have that, we BOTH know the scope, it is also handy when asking for content, because the page is clearly marked on the table. When I receive content for that page I mark my copy of the table. I have found that helps the non web literate client understand more about what they need to provide.
    Your mention of setting up emails, another time consuming area, and your mention of copy writing, are all helping me to become better prepared,
    thanks very much John


    • Yes, I’m spying on you … and a lot of others, as well, apparently. Glad I could help.

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