Lessons Learned From My First Unhappy Client
I realize it may not be the best business move to talk about a negative client experience, but I have always tried to share all I can about my journey through growth as a freelance designer as part of my own process as well as the hope that others can learn and grow alongside me. This week I ended a project with the first unhappy client I have had in over 15 years in this business, and as it turned somewhat ugly I decided to explore the situation, share it with others, and see what we can learn from it in an effort to keep anything like it from happening again. In this post I will do my best to share the facts of the situation as I understand them, as well as the impact it has had on me as a person and as a freelance web designer. It is not my intent to bash the other parties involved so I will refrain from identifying them, since the point of this writing is to process, learn and grow. Instead of focusing on who did what, I want to look at what happened and discover how to do things differently in the future.
Note: I have tried to condense this as much as possible, sticking only to relevant details. Even so, it is a very long story, but hopefully it will be worth the read.
In The Beginning
May 30 – I received an email containing a brief introduction and description of what this client was looking for – she needed a custom WordPress theme for her existing blog as part of her business’ rebranding effort. Also a new Twitter profile background. She said I had been highly recommended to her by a mutual friend and client of mine. I called her, we talked about her project, and within the next few days she had sent me details of what she wanted and I had given her a written proposal and contract for the WordPress design.
The client’s $1,000 budget was 2/3 of my starting price for a custom WordPress theme, but due to the mutual friend we have and the relative simplicity of the project, I told her I would stretch my normal pricing to accommodate her budget. I made it clear in the proposal and contract that I would only provide a single mockup with two revisions to help keep the price down, rather than my standard three mockups with two revisions on the chosen mockup. I explained that very seldom do I actually ever have to create more than one mockup anyway because I pride myself in taking extra time in the beginning gathering information toward capturing my client’s vision for their website – most often I get pretty close with the first mockup.
June 3 – She and her husband reviewed the contract and proposal and were excited to get started. They were concerned with delaying the process by having to wait for their 50% deposit check and signed contract to me, so I told them I would trust that it was on the way and go ahead and get started within the next few days. They were ecstatic, and asked if I could possibly make some quick changes to their existing theme to tide them over until the new one was ready. Although this was not in our contract, I was happy to help out and said I would take a look, which I did the next day. Over the next few days we had several emails back and forth regarding their current blog and web hosting setup, in which I explained some of the additional things we would need to do to set up their new design.
June 7 – I received an email from the couple that said, “We love you…you are a hell of a guy, and we can’t tell you how much we appreciate it.” It was on this day that I emailed a response letting them know I would have a mockup for their review within 1-3 days. It was also on this day that we realized they had sent a check made payable to the wrong name, so they paid via Paypal instead.
The next day everything changed.
June 8 – I sent an email letting them know their mockup was complete and ready for viewing on my server. I explained that they should give me their honest reaction because it’s important that they get the mockup they truly want, since there’s no turning back once it’s approved. I had created the mockup based on our discussions on the phone and via email, which is how I typically work, and I was excited to get their response.
About an hour later I received an email from the client: “I can’t believe how fast you work! Thought it was going to be a couple weeks!” She went on to explain what she liked and disliked. The biggest beef had to do with a misconception I had of a certain style that I thought prevailed in her descriptions of what she wanted. I misinterpreted “deco” as a key ingredient of the look and feel they were going for, when instead they wanted something “more modern and contemporary feeling”. She pointed out some specific elements she liked and said she would go into more detail later.
She ended with, “Just don’t do anything yet, especially if I only have two more chances to get it right! I want to find some examples and take a better look and let you know the things I like! Thank you so much for your quick work and all the help you’ve given so far. I’ll try to send some good examples to better direct you!”
I admit I was disappointed. I thought I had nailed the look but it was obvious I had made a mistake regarding the deco style. I responded explaining my mistake and said I would wait for more examples.
The next email I received later that day said, “The mockup has a definitive vintage slant to it and not the direction I was asking for. Perhaps we could consider this mockup a ‘trial’? I really do want to get it right within 3 tries, but I don’t want to run out of chances because of a miscommunication and something I hadn’t asked for. Even if you just sent me an email with a logo idea before doing an entire mock-up, that would help tremendously.
Honestly, it’s not that far off, mostly just a different font. Loved all the pink highlights, how the categories were placed etc…”
She expressed her concern with my schedule and my efforts to get their site done within the next week. She told me their blog was not an emergency at all, even though they had asked that I make changes to it right away. Still, we still seemed to be heading in the right direction.
June 9 – I responded with a long, detailed email explaining the process up to that point and my thoughts on some of the misunderstandings that were affecting this project. I recapped everything that had happened as I had seen it, and apologized for any miscommunications I may have made. I also made it clear that there is no such thing as a “trial mockup”. The time I had already spent designing their mockup was part of what they had paid for, and to start over would be outside of the scope of our contract, therefore costing extra. I explained next steps that would help keep us within the budget and ended the email with a paragraph that started, “Please let me know if any of this is confusing or if you have any questions.”
It was at this point that everything began heading downhill.
Her response took a different tone. I realize emails are infamous for their potential for misinterpretation, but obviously something went very wrong here.
“To first respond to your email I thought it would be best to forward the original list of requested items. I’d like to start over here. We don’t need any animosity running in either direction and I’m sure you would agree with that. I can assure you that I am not confused and do very clearly understand your process. I can accept the first mock-up as the first as opposed to a trial. I was trying to point out that what was done was something never requested so it really shouldn’t be on my dime. A fair request. But that’s ok, we’ll just move beyond that.”
She went on to reiterate many of the points she had already made previously, and ended with this:
“So, let’s please try to move on. I am an artist too. I understand being sensitive about your work, but really, the sarcasm is not necessary. (Please note the tone in my email compared to the tone I received back.) … I fully understand a first mock-up can be off course and I certainly don’t expect perfection, I just didn’t feel like my ideas had been heard…And please, if you have any questions, feel free to ask me.”
My response contained numerous apologies for any misinterpretations she may have had. I assured her I was not trying to be sarcastic, but that I was reading her email as suddenly defensive and angry. I expressed my confusion as to how we got there, and that I really hoped we could put this behind us and move forward.
Her next email started with, “It was just the constant assumption that I am misunderstanding you and being ‘confused’, I don’t understand the contract, etc. while I felt you hadn’t really heard what I had requested and went off your own feeling of the current blog … I’ve just never asked a client, to let me know if any of this is “confusing” unless I was trying to teach them quantum physics – they would kill me. I’m not confused, I promise and I understand your contract. I explained in my last email that it seemed unfair because the mock-up wasn’t what I asked for. It wasn’t because I didn’t understand the contract. I apologize if I took it the wrong way but I also hope you’ll try to understand why I feel this way.”
And I responded: “There are several things that I disagree with in your email but in the interest of the project I would like to just leave it at that and not try to take a stand for who was right or wrong anymore. Truthfully, unless it affects the final outcome of the project, your satisfaction, or the fulfillment of the contract, it is otherwise irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. I hope you can accept that and we can move on together. If not, I will be happy to refund your full deposit and there will be no hard feelings whatsoever.”
The last email of the day contained a detailed description and examples to better inform me of the client’s vision and desires for the blog. She also included a 9-point list of likes and dislikes of the mockup. “As I mentioned before, I like almost everything about it except for the deco style which includes header, subheaders, date etc. but I appreciate the details you added.”
Moving Things In A Positive Direction?
June 10 – It seemed we had turned a corner and were now moving toward a better understanding. I sent an early morning response with a few questions for clarification. I mentioned, “You asked for my honest feelings. The truth is, I am a bit gun-shy now, especially as I am writing this email. I am trying to be extremely careful with my words and stick to business. I don’t prefer to work that way, but it’s where we are and that’s fine. I’m just letting you know because you asked.”
I gave a proposition for next steps, including creating a header/logo ONLY for approval before constructing an entire mockup, and up to 3 more revisions on an approved mockup (tweaks, not new mockups). I said, “If at any point it seems that we are not connecting and/or the time spent is beginning to exceed or is seen as potentially exceeding the budget, we will communicate and make a decision whether or not to continue and what extra charges may be incurred. In essence, amendments to the original contract will be made and agreed upon, OR we will end the current agreement and, as the contract states, ‘work completed shall be billed at the [discounted] hourly rate of $60.00 an hour or 20% of the signing deposit, whichever is greater.’ Should the contract be terminated now or in the future before completion, I will not charge for the hours worked up to this point (06/10/2010 6:30am) since you feel I never should have done it in the first place.”
I thought I was being beyond fair, and forfeiting payment for the hours worked up to that point was disappointing, but I felt it was necessary because the client was unhappy with the work, regardless of what our contract stated. I finished the email with, “If this sounds fair and you agree, I will get started today. If you would rather not proceed, I will refund your deposit minus %20 and we’ll call it a day.”
A day or two after this, her husband called and we spoke for awhile on the phone. I think we both felt better after the talk and I recall feeling that we both genuinely liked each other. We ironed out the misinterpretations and miscommunications and I think we all felt good about moving forward.
June 13 - I received a very long email from the client with many more details and requirements for the next mockup. She ended with, “If some of the things I requested above are not included, please let me know, and let me know how much extra we’re talking, and I’ll likely decide to proceed with them.”
I sent a detailed response answering questions and explaining what could or could not be done. I said I would also send an itemized addendum to the contract so they could decide what they wanted to do or not do based on cost.
Her husband responded, asking, “What’s the addendum for? Are there some things that may cost extra? If so, which things and about how much, why, etc.? It may be easier for all of us to address it casually before sending us an addendum to the contract. Then you don’t have to go through the trouble of writing one up if we decide to hold off on one or some of them.”
My response the next day included: “The original proposal and contract was based on the original phone conversation and emails I received prior to 6/2/10. Since then we have had numerous email and phone conversations to clarify what is needed for your blog. The scope of the project has changed, and therefore an addendum needs to be agreed upon in order to continue insuring we are all on the same page.”
June 19 - A few days and emails later I explained the few main issues that could potentially add cost above and beyond the original agreement. I told them that I would prefer to just outline some specific conditions and if they agreed we would forego the addendum and just get to working. I didn’t want to go over their budget, even though I had already spent many hours beyond the original scope. At this point I was just trying to get a clear plan for moving forward and give them a design they were happy with, while simultaneously protecting myself from any further losses.
June 23 – In response to some further questions, I sent an email explaining very clearly how I was willing to proceed.
“I am willing to ‘start over’ and create a new mockup with the contingency that if I am ‘way off’ we will end my participation in the project and I will refund your deposit minus the hours worked on the mockup. Just so you know, that is usually anywhere from 4-8 hours, at the rate of $60 per hour.”
“As we agreed, I am forfeiting payment for all work done up to this point, so, all things considered, this plan for moving forward seems more than fair from my perspective. Best case scenario is that the next mockup is close to your vision and all of this is irrelevant anyway.”
Later that day the client responded:
“Just do it. Start. Good luck with it. We want to see beautiful work–that’s all that matters at this point.”
June 25 - I sent a link for the new mockup design to the client. At the same time I was preparing to relocate across the country, from Florida to Northern California. It was a crazy week. We changed our cell phone numbers to our new area code, so I was difficult to reach for a day or two until I had informed everyone. On June 28 the client and I communicated via email and made plans to talk. I didn’t hear from them again for 43 days.
Moving Downhill Again (and Slowly)
August 10 – I received an email from the client:
“Please let us know what’s going on with [our project]. I know [we] would like to discuss toning some things down—a lot has happened here since you [moved], and ideas crystallized more. It’s going to be subtle and a bit pared down, so we’d like to discuss details before you do any more work. We just would like to find out where you are with the whole thing.”
I replied 17 minutes later and suggested we talk on the phone, explaining my availability and times to call. I didn’t hear from them again for 23 days.
September 2 - I received another email requesting options for times to talk on the phone. I replied within 30 minutes and set up a time to talk that afternoon. He called a week later and asked that I resend the link to the latest mockup I had sent back in June. I resent it and he said we’d chat the next week. I didn’t hear from him until the end of the month.
It Hits The Fan
October 1 – We finally talked on the phone and I was informed that the client no longer wanted to move forward with the project. They had decided to have someone else finish it for them and they requested a refund of their deposit. I emailed them the last written agreement we had made on June 23rd, which stated that they would be refunded their deposit minus the hours worked on the most recent mockup. Although I spent well over 20 hours on this project from start to finish, I only spent 7.5 hours from the point of our last agreemen] on creating the newer mockup, so that is all I would be billing them for. That made the total payment $450, and they paid $500 on June 7, so their refund would be $50. The client replied that he would call me in 30-60 minutes. I didn’t hear from him again for over two weeks.
October 17 – I received an email explaining that they were very busy and would need to discuss this as soon as they were available. He continued:
“We really need to discuss this over the phone to iron it out. I understand your time is valuable, and so is ours. I also understand that all of the time and direction given to you yielded nothing resembling what we asked for. This need not be a battle over $500, but let’s discuss the principle of it when I return. You know as well as I do that a $50 refund is insulting and flies in the face of every discussion we had whether or not you choose to remember them.”
I apologized for any unintended insult, and suggested we rerain from any more emails since they seemed to be aggravating the situation. He replied agreeing, then proceeded to explain three points to substantiate why they should only pay me $175 for the time I spent, since they had nothing to show for their money. He said, “Sometimes it’s important to consider the old adage ‘the customer is always right.’ I’m willing to pay you $175 for your time spent, but to receive nothing I return. It’s hurtful that you don’t see or appreciate the hours of work the two of us put into this project. And I am disappointed that so much time was spent to no avail. So, if refunding us $325 via Pay Pal works for you, you won’t ever have to receive an email or phone call from me again.”
I suggested he read back through all of our emails (as outlined here) to see what we had agreed in writing. I told him that I completely disagreed with his justification that the customer is always right, because in this case he was blatantly incorrect. The service they paid for was performed, and although the results were now not to their liking, the services were still performed as agreed and therefore should be paid for as agreed. I pointed out, “Had you chosen to complete the project with me, you would have received a completely custom-designed WordPress theme valued at almost twice what you agreed to pay, and yet I never would have come back to you demanding payment above our agreement. I am simply asking that you give me the same respect and professionalism in return.” He didn’t call me again for almost a month.
November 15 – We talked on the phone for 81 minutes. The client offered to split the deposit in half, so that I could keep $250 and refund them $250. He felt that this was more than fair on their part since they had nothing to show for the money they had spent. I disagreed, pointing out that they had two mockups to show for it, one of which was free. I held firm to what we had agreed and offered to send him $50 via Paypal immediately. We went round and round in ccircles and I finally suggested that I would go back through every single email as well as seek the advice of a few outside parties to see if somehow I was in the wrong. I told him it was the best I could offer, and that I would get back to him in two days with either a new arrangement or else a reaffirmation of my standing. He suggested that this could be a stall tactic, but in the end he agreed.
I wrote a recap of our phone conversation in an effort to keep everything documented. I sent it to him via email and asked him to confirm that this is where we stand. He replied with an accusatory and abusive email, trying to convince me yet again that I was mistreating my customer and running my business poorly. He claimed we had several phone conversations where I had overridden our written agreement and offered to create the second mockup for free. I couldn’t believe it! I asked why I would ever consider doing that, since everything had been in writing and this would obviously be a huge risk on my part. He refused to back down and accused me of lying about our conversations. I asked him to please give me the two days I requested to reevaluate and we could talk then. Finally he stopped.
I spent the next two days very distraught. I was trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Why had this turned out this way. What could I learn from it? What would be the right way to bring it to a close? Should I refund only half of their deposit and take an even larger loss, or should I stand firm and do what we agreed upon. I talked to my dad, another freelance web developer, and friends, trying to get other viewpoints on the situation.
Bringing It To Conclusion
November 17 - I reached a decision. Everything I looked at and everyone I talked to supported my stance that I was doing everything within my legal and ethical boundaries by charging for the 7.5 hours I worked. So I sent the clients an email explaining this, apologized for how things had played out, and wished them the best. I also sent a Paypal refund for $50 and I sent them the editable files for both mockups, so they would at least have something to show for their expense, even though they didn’t like them.
Almost immediately I received an angry email:
“These files are worthless as we told you the work was not acceptable. Is this how you make a living by tricking people into believing you are actually listening but throw out the same schlock time after time and then keep their deposit? It is absolutely appalling! You have been nothing but rude since day one except for the first phone call we had.
“You have just pocketed $500 with NO proof whatsoever for your time spent. We have no invoice or breakdown-it is all made up to line your pocket. And everyone we have spoken to has called the work laughable and obvious that very little time has been spent. Obvious! We all know you DID NOT put 8 hrs into that ridiculous example. You may have put in a couple hrs at most. We want a refund for the excess you are trying to charge- it is VERY easy to prove that you did not spend that much time on it. Bad business does not pay off Brian! Cheating people does not either! Deceptive business practices always come back to you like bad karma.”
They then proceeded to express their anger on Twitter, calling me a thief, sexist, a liar, and a laughable designer. They said they would like to see me get beat up. Slowly. On videotape. They said I was a total jerk and could care less. They warned others to stay away from me and that I had pocketed their $500 without doing any work.
I was appalled. I was hurt. I was disappointed. I did my best to refrain from responding publicly and I am now trying to move on. I’m trying to learn from my mistakes and figure out what to do or not do in the future. Here’s some of what I’ve come up with.
Lessons I’ve Learned
Although I try to be flexible when working with restrictive budgets, especially for small businesses and non-profits that can’t typically afford as much, I will think long and hard before working for lower than my standard rates. I am beginning to think it is too risky and that some will see my willingness to discount my services as a devaluing of my work. That will never end well.
I will stick to my contract. Period. It has never failed me before and it is the best way to maintain a legitimate working relationship. I am not a retail store that can accept exchanges and returns without blinking an eye. I am a service business, and must operate as such.
I will not change my approach of believing the best and trusting people until proven otherwise. I just can’t bring myself to do it. I do believe that at the core every human being is a good person, and to operate otherwise would change me as a person in a way I refuse to accept. I will not choose to live my life as a cynic. I may get burned again, but I have far too many more positive experiences to allow one to change who I am.
Part of my process in working through difficult situations is to write about it, as I have done here. Another is to ask for the input of others so I can learn from their viewpoints. I would greatly appreciate your insight and experiences that may help me and others who are reading this grow and learn how to do things better. Please share with us in the comments below.
And thank you for taking the time to read this. If you have made it this far I am truly grateful for your time. I realize this is probably one of the longest blog posts in existence, but I didn’t see any way to make it shorter and still maintain the integrity of the story. Thank you for bearing with me and taking your valuable time to share in this with me. I am always honored by anyone who cares enough to join in my experience. I am happy to share this with you. And I hope that somehow my hard time will help you avoid experiencing your own. Thank you.