What To Do If You Start a Project Without an Agreement

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it’s a bad idea to start a client project before you have a written agreement in place.

I feel compelled to state the obvious because, for some reason, this happens all the time.

I hear from designers at least once a week who have gotten themselves into a sticky situation with a client and they don’t have anything in writing.

Sometimes designers even start a project before talking about the price at all. (Yes, it’s true—this happens too, though I’m sure not to you.)

image from Getty | CSA-Archive

I have two stories to illustrate why it’s so important to follow this common-sense rule.

First is a client of mine, a designer, who got into some hot water because she started a rush job without sending her agreement to the client. I get it. The client’s in a hurry and you imagine it will delay things if you “force” them to go through the agreement process.

A week later, I got this message from her: 

So that job I told you about last week, the rush one. Well the deadline got extended, again and then … again. It changes all the time, and I’ve worked more than I thought when I quoted $2500. I haven’t sent the agreement yet either. Now, I’m on the fourth or fifth round of revisions and who knows how long they will keep coming? I thought we would be finished tonight (again) and just got another design change. I think I should say something before I show another revision. Do you have any advice?

I did, of course. I suggested she send the client this message:

As you have noticed, this is taking longer than we both anticipated. And because it was a rush job, I neglected to send you my agreement, which specifies that three revisions are included in the $2500 price I quoted. So now we’re beyond that number, and I take responsibility for not making that clear beforehand. That said, we do need to agree to an additional fee for the extra work. I’ll give that some thought and I hope you will too. Let’s discuss …

This one had a happy ending. The client offered to pay her an extra $1,000 because he knew he was asking for more than was fair.

But the lesson is clear: Always confirm the agreement in writing, even if they’re in a hurry. Besides, your agreement should be ready to go—a simple process. (Here’s a model you can use.)

Our memories get especially foggy when a dispute arises. There is nothing clearer than the written word.

This proved true when another client, a web designer, had a situation with a client of hers who didn’t like the initial work she delivered.

This is inevitable—it happens to all of us at some point. You can’t please everyone, so please don’t try to. Instead, choose clients who seem flexible, open and grateful for your work. They’re usually easier to please.

Fortunately, this web designer did have an agreement in place and she had delivered what she had promised to a client who had showed no red flags up—until that point, that is.

But then suddenly, this person transformed from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde and decided to end the project with the web designer.

Not only that. They wanted their deposit back by the end of the day!

Because there was no possibility of salvaging the project and providing the client something they would accept, here is what I advised the web designer:

    • First and foremost, don’t let yourself be pushed around. I advised her not to agree to that on principle. “He’s not the boss—you are,” I reminded her. “Sleep on it. Don’t ever make decisions at the height of emotion or under stress.” She responded to him with this message: “Sorry you’re not happy, but I need some time to think about next steps. In the meantime, here’s the contract stating what we agreed to. You’ll see that the deposit is non-refundable.”
    • Talk to a lawyer. In this situation, her lawyer also advised not to refund the money.
    • Put everything in writing from there on out. Learn the lesson immediately and document every exchange with this client in writing, just in case you need it later on.

This one had a happy ending too. The message with the contract reminder worked—she hasn’t heard from them since!

The biggest lesson: You can’t please everyone. But you can (and should) always protect yourself.

For more, listen to my podcast on negotiating. And come see my talk, “The Worst Negotiating Mistakes and How to Avoid Them,” at HOW Design Live 2018, April 30–May 3 in Boston.