Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Clearing the Air: When Client "Favors" go Awry

Designers, for the most part, are a giving lot. While you do get the occasional antisocial jerk (and really, what profession DON'T you get that in - have you been to the Post Office lately?), most of us got into this because we want to make the world prettier. As such, most designers, especially in the beginning of their careers, find themselves doing a bit of design work here and there as a favor - to a family member, friend of a friend, etc. Often, this isn't a big deal - you whip something together really quick, the person loved it, and buys you a six-pack (or, in one recent personal case, a fancy dinner) to thank you. No biggie.

But sometimes, and some would argue more often than not, what starts off as a quick favor turns into a nightmare of revisions, tweaks, and "could you just make this bigger? Could you make the font green?" The resulting stress is enough to make even the most generous designer swear themselves off doing favors ever again, and think of the favor-askers as someone who is just looking for something for nothing. But often, all that's needed to rectify the situation and get things on track again is a bit of open communication about what's expected from each party at the beginning of the project. And if things do start getting out of hand, a gentle reminder of those expectations is in order.

Not long ago, I ended up chatting with Kevin Scarborough, a young designer and budding illustrator who's going for his master's at the Portfolio Center in Atlanta. As a "favor" to a friend of a friend (which really is a favor to the friend, but let's not get into that discussion), he agreed to do the shell of a website for someone his friend knew at a greatly reduced rate. The deal they struck verbally was for 1 home page and 1 interior page, with 2 rounds of revisions on the design. The client would then take the pages and do the rest of the build, and all the updates, on his own machine.

Well, as many things do, things didn't go that way.

"I laid out the site for him, sent along the files. He asked for tweaks, I tweaked. Back and forth for close to two months. 2 rounds [of revisions were mentioned]. We've long since passed 2 rounds."

At the point he was at, he was ready to give up - getting down on himself for being enough such an idiot to take on this job, and thinking that he was stuck in a situation he couldn't get out of. What I suggested, however, was a simple conversation to clear the air.

Okay. So what I think you need to do is sit down and have a conversation with the guy on the phone. Say that there seems to be some confusion as to what was actually agreed to when we spoke, and before you move forward with this job, it's important that the two of you reconnect to clarify what is being done for how much money. When you talk to him, impress upon him that what you verbally agreed to was 2 pages with 2 rounds of revisions. It's now been [x amount], and this job has reached the point where it is no longer feasible to continue working on it without additional compensation. This also puts you in a situation where you can get a signed contract from him that will protect both of you. Draw up a formal agreement that both of you can sign. Send him a PDF and have him fax it to you before you do any more work for him.

So, did this reasoned discussion with the client result in a magical client turnaround? Not exactly. But, it accomplished the primary goal - getting the matter resolved - professionally and without causing undue stress for the client or for the designer. When I asked Kevin how the situation turned out, this is what he had to say:

It ended amicably; we decided the situation wasn't set up properly from the beginning. Deliverables made, payments made, both parties parted in peace.

Now, one might think that this resolution is a negative thing; after all, nobody wants to lose a client. However, amicably parting ways with a client after a reasoned discussion on the phone is far better than what can often happen when issues are hashed out via e-mail. E-mail arguments are enormous time-wasters, and the impersonal nature of e-mail makes it near impossible to judge a person's tone or mood, which can lead to misinterpretation and hostility on the part of either party. By talking with the client in person or on the phone, you can avoid a whole host of potential drama.

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