I despise the me-versus-you mindset that colors some client relationships. This mentality creates an unhealthy situation where the creative is just trying to get paid, and the client is grasping for the most bang for their buck. Of course, clients can be forgiven for wanting the best possible product for their lives and businesses, and creatives gotta eat. We’re all human. But still, this dynamic isn’t pleasant and I strive to avoid it wherever possible.
I’ve found that a clear, concise and no-nonsense contract is one of the best ways to keep a working relationship on the rails and über-friendly. It removes the stress of wondering what’s included or expected, reduces the possibility of anyone taking advantage, and provides a third-party enforcer of the terms so no one has to be the bad guy. It’s a nonpartisan ally we can all call to our aid, but only if we’re careful in its design and construction.
The beauty of a client-based business is that it evolves as time goes on — and so must your contracts. Here are some of the crucial tips I’ve learned over the years about crafting a contract, that you can take into account when creating yours:
1. Make financial commitments and timeframes clear
I’ve never actually had a problem getting paid, but I have had to wait longer than I’d like. And you hear about fellow solopreneurs getting stiffed all the time. Truthfully, there’s no iron-clad way to prevent this, because no creative worth her salt is going to demand full payment before beginning a project. It’s unprofessional, it’s mistrustful and it’s just not done.
I do, however, take steps to try and streamline the payment process and increase the chances of getting that final check. For one thing, I always include in my contract the number of revisions I provide for the stated price. That way, if a client asks for more (than two, in my case), I can point to the contract. I also include what additional revisions cost, so that we have an already-agreed-upon way to proceed if necessary.
Furthermore, I clarify timeframes for various steps of the process — i.e. deposits due at the beginning and final delivery of materials. Some clients are impatient, or will “forget” what you agreed to, so it’s great to have this in writing. Plus, it covers your derriere. While I’ve never gotten litigious with a client, you best believe I want the ability if I need it.
2. Remember that contracts are not intuitive to clients
With the explosion of the digital age, we sign contracts all the time. Every time you check that little box for another app or website sign up, it’s a contract. Because of this, many of us are used to breezing through and signing on the dotted line. Don’t let your clients do that, or you might be sorry.
I’ve learned the hard way that a contract is only as clear as the words you put right up top. For instance, I sometimes do design work, and once worked with one client while I was still in launch stage and working at quarter-priced rates in order to fill out my portfolio. Despite this, she thought she was getting top-quality pro work, the kind she’d receive from a 10-year veteran. When I requested understanding for my newbie status, she did not grant it.
In this case, it needed to be in my contract that I was starting my business, streamlining my process and not promising the same quality she would have gotten from an established creative charging four times as much (if not more). And once you put the terms in your contract, be sure to discuss them verbally.
3. Limit scope creep like a boss
Scope creep happens. All the time. Recently, another one of my clients sent me a job for 1,000 words. When I returned it to them, they told me they were happy with my work, and went on to insert it into a larger piece they were working on. They then emailed me all 11,000 words of their full project and asked me to edit for consistency… you know, since I’d been the one to write a small piece of it.
Even if you dutifully note the number of revisions you offer, as suggested above, clients will still try to take advantage by asking for “small fixes” or “just one more thing,” forgetting to include vital information up front and wanting you to include it later on. Or — as my client did — just wildly overestimating your willingness to help for free.
This is why it’s important to have a line in your contract stating how much you charge for continuation of work. Something along the lines of, “for revisions past two rounds, or additional work beyond the scope of the project, I charge $XYZ.”
4. Clarify incentives up front
Let’s be real about incentives: they’re not necessarily that great for you. If they bring in more business? Well, awesome. But sometimes all they are is a discount for work you would have gotten anyway, without benefiting you or your business in any real way. So… be careful.
If you offer incentives, stick to the terms. Honor them if a client is really buying two things for a 2-for-1 deal, and tell them to stick it if they ask for half-off one thing. Don’t play ball with old clients who want the new client sign-up discounts; it’s not for them. If you really like someone, you can consider it, but respectfully request that they don’t tell others. This goes for working at reduced rates for friends and family, who need to understand that as a businesswoman your goal is to charge much more than that when you work for others.
Use your contract as your new best friend
Working with clients can be a challenge. We’re all set in our own ways, opinionated, and looking out for Number One. A good contract, though, can create a team out of what might in other scenarios become two opposed parties. I believe strongly in its power to bind and build a bond through mutual understanding, and I hope you can one day feel the same.
What other situations have come up that have taught you important lessons about what to include in your contracts, fellow solopreneurs?
P.S. Want more information on effective contracts? Check out Small Business Bodyguard for the legal perspective and Stress Less & Impress for the process/workflow side of things!