Design Dilemma: The Scope Creepy Client

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We received a comment to the Design Dilemma article, “How Do I Fire a Client… Legally?” that piqued our interest, so we followed up, and learned about one of the worst situations any designer had faced in recent memory. This wasn’t just a crazy client, or exploding scope creep — it was blatant threats, and emotional, and financial slavery for the designer. Just reading the email from the designer was sickening.

We decided it was well worth relaying the entire story to our readers, so, join us as we delve into another Design Dilemma, helping to answer your questions, queries and concerns about the murky world of design…

Vicki M. wrote: : I have a client from hell and I want to fire them very badly. It’s just been awful really from day one now that I think about it.

My old friend started working for a fairly large e-cigarette company, and he knew I was a website designer, and developer. He asked me for a proposal, and a quote. Their existing site is a nightmare, on Big Commerce, with a lot of content, and pages. I gave them a lower estimate for a friend (I know mistake) for 15k. This is a ecigarette company, so they would have no trouble paying that, you would think. Well the CIO said it was too much. For my friend I countered at 12k, and they came back at 6k. I took it, but cut a lot of things from the scope.

“I really want to quit, and now my friend who works for them told me that if I don’t finish, or quit he will have to pay the deposit out of his own pocket.”

We have a contract, 50% down, and the rest upon completion. I said I would have the project completed 120 hours after comps were approved. Well comp approval never came, and I was repeatedly asked where the website was (by the way this started in Feb, comps were delivered in May), and so I kept communicating that I had not gotten feedback. So I was told by another person to just work on the site as is. Then, a month after that, I get word they hired some marketing guy who immediately came in, and started calling me, making demands for things that were out of scope, saying that things I had done for the site were unacceptable, and useless.

They wanted a map driven by Google API to upload stores. This was an addition not agreed to in the price. I gave them all of that, and the marketing person convinced the CIO it wasn’t good enough, and they should just pay for something. I subcontracted that piece out too, so I’m out $ 500 bucks.

So finally, at the end of July, I got sign-off, and a week later content, and two weeks later they are furious the site isn’t done. I referenced the contract, and they don’t care. They are being demanding, nothing is good enough. I have done more work than the total cost of the job. The issue being I don’t have an escape clause. I feel like they have no right to sue  me because I have been working on the site continuously. On top of that I did a ton of free work for them on their old site all Summer. I really want to quit, and now my friend who works for them told me that if I don’t finish, or quit, he will have to pay the deposit out of his own pocket.

In a bind. I have 45 freelance clients, and I have never had to deal with this.

Oh, Yikes!

My response:

Okay… here’s what I suggest:

Send them an invoice in which you cover all the changes, and extras to date. In your cover letter, explain the extras beyond the original contract, and ask for the difference to be paid before any further work continues.

They will naturally argue the point, but you need to stick to your guns, and insist that they either pay for the “scope creep,” or you will have to stop working on the project. They will argue, and make threats, but just keep telling them that they exceeded contractual terms, and must pay the difference before work can continue. They will either pay up, or you will never hear from them again.

“They will argue, and make threats, but just keep telling them that they exceeded contractual terms, and must pay the difference before work can continue. They will either pay up, or you will never hear from them again.”

As for your “friend” who cost you $ 9K in discounts, tell him to either get them to pay for the changes as per your contract, or he shouldn’t expect you to continue (his threat is outrageous!).

Not that they can or will take you to court, but if any legal entanglements start (they may have their lawyer send a letter, but remember that lawyers don’t decide cases… a judge does), you have a paper trail that shows they didn’t follow through with contractual terms. Answer any further letters with an updated invoice, and tell the sender that once contractual terms are met, and paid for, you will continue the work. If it does continue, then do not give up the work until you have the final check, and it clears your bank.

Then wave bye-bye, and take this as an important lesson not to do work for friends, or family, and any company that bids a third of your fee is just trouble waiting to happen.

There was a two week period where I didn’t hear back from Viki on my question of what was the progress, and then she emailed me this:

Still working with them. Although, when I asked some questions the CIO came back with a shitty response on how they asked me two weeks ago if I needed anything, and I went back with a even shittier response of, “well I have been asking you for things for two months!”

The project went into review with them, and of course they are requesting changes that are out of scope. I am shutting them down. I have also requested to be paid before I transfer the site over.

I wrote to Vicki a week later, asking for a progress report. Vicki responded:

I sent out the site for review. A week later I get an email, “can we add this? Can we add that? Can we make this section look like this? That product isn’t offered anymore, can you remove it?” Along with them asking me if I would be doing things that in the previous email stated that I would be doing. Can you read?

“We struck three rounds of changes. The third set was smaller, picky little things. “Make this link open in a new window, why didn’t you put all of those testimonials (14) in a rotating banner? (never communicated that), the mobile template looks bad… well Big Commerce has a crappy mobile template, can you change that?”

Today they want to have a meeting to make sure we are on the “same page.” I am still sticking to my guns, and am not releasing this website until I get paid.

And, the unfortunate results of that meeting:

We struck three rounds of changes. The third set was smaller, picky shit. “Make this link open in a new window, why didn’t you put all of those testimonials (14) in a rotating banner? (never communicated that), the mobile template looks bad… well Big Commerce has a crappy mobile template, can you change that?” More scope creep.

“OK, after these changes, can we go live?” I asked

“Wellllll, I have to present it to the big bosses first, and then I will let you know,” they replied.

“When will that happen?”

“Maybe Wednesday.”

I also found that that after the site is done, they are going to go in a different direction, that they outgrew what they initially signed off on April – July. They want something else. I am supposed to get a check this week. We will see about that.

I said, “fine, go spend 50 to 100k, and wait for a firm to deliver a website in 9 to 12 months. Also, don’t think they will put up with your nonsense.”

The moral of the story is; don’t work for assholes, write an escape clause, and get paid based on milestones, and always get a deposit!

Conclusion

Vicki’s moral is correct. Always get a contract with a deposit, and milestone payments, and never deliver the final job without getting that final payment! There’s not much to say after that, except Vicki will no doubt have to sue, based on her contract, and then face the nightmare of having to collect from this company.

Collecting a court judgement, at least in the United States, if the client refuses to pay, involves further steps to enforce the court order, and usually liens on the client’s bank account, or property. In the end, it can take years to get paid. There is, however, a happy ending to this whole dilemma. Vicki just emailed me the good news…

The website still is not live. They have decided they want to use a third party company for crazy age verification. I don’t think people are going to want to enter their Social Security Numbers, and they will lose business, but whatever.

“Check was sent out last Monday. I got it, took it to the bank, and the f#@%er had made it out to it to the wrong name. No one would touch it because of the mistake.”

I finally had wrapped up all of their changes, and fulfilled my contract. The person who got me the gig told the CIO to pay me. The CIO then proceeded to come back with design changes, design changes that should have been dealt with before they signed off. I got into an email war with the CIO, and told him no, and stood my ground. I told my friend who works right under the CEO that I am not lifting a finger on that site until I am paid, or I am walking with the entire site. He went to the CEO.

The CEO sent out an email that was forwarded to the CIO, that said something along the lines of “Vicki has fulfilled her contract, done everything we have asked of her and more. Pay her, stop driving people crazy, and we will retain her for $ 50 an hour for updates.”

Check was sent out last Monday. I got it, took it to the bank, and realised they’d made it out to it to the wrong name. No one would touch it because of the mistake (although slightly off). I even took it to the issuing bank, who said no way. I immediately called them, and the CIO then calls the bank, and chews them out, and is frustrated that he has to send a new check. I made them overnight the check. I get the second check, and go back only to find out the check needs two signatures, and that check only had one. The manager was nice enough to just let it go.

Since I am now in hourly mode I am billing the heck out of them. I am already up to $ 1,200 dollars. As soon as the site is live I am quitting.

I love a happy ending — don’t you?

Send Us Your Dilemma!

Do you have a design dilemma? Speider Schneider will personally answer your questions — just send your dilemma to dilemma@designshack.net

Speider has created designs for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, and Viacom, among other notable companies, and is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, and co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee. He writes for global blogs on design ethics, and business practices, and has contributed to several books on the subject of business for designers.

Featured image © GL Stock Images

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