Tighten Up Those Terms and keep copies of EVERYTHING.. forever

Many times in dealing with my clients, I fear I repeat myself too often. When a client submits their order to us, they get treated to our terms of service statement not once… not twice… not three, but four different times during the order process. Plus, I refer them to the terms of service several times throughout their browsing experience on my site. In addition, their order will not be submitted to us unless they have checked the box that says “Yes, I have read your terms of service”. They are also presented with our terms within the project quote.. as well as within the body of the invoice.

Overkill? I don’t think so. 80% of the time, during the course of a project, I find myself reminding a client about the terms of service that they agreed to, initially…because some, inevitably, didn’t read it.

And yet, as cuckoo as I am about it — there are some cases where it just doesn’t matter. Either the person did not actually read the terms of service.. or they did not understand the terms of service.

My terms of service specifically states the items that are included within the initial project payment. It’s a simple concept: You pay me X amount of dollars – – I give you X services and product. Anything beyond that will incur additional fees.

If you hired a painter to come in and paint your kitchen blue… would you expect him to charge you more if, after he was finished with the blue, you decide you really want it to be green? Or would you expect him to do the green for free?

Within our terms, we agree to provide you with up to TWO iterations of your design request. That means.. you provide us with your specs and details and within a certain time frame, we provide you with a mockup of our concept for your design work. Additional work beyond the two iterations will incur additional fees — it says that in our terms, we say it in our quote to you, your invoice also says the same thing — we repeat that at LEAST 6-10 times throughout the initial communications.

If you love it – that’s great! We’ll then proceed to apply the necessary coding and CSS to turn it into a template/theme for use on your site.

If you don’t love it – that’s ok, too. We will listen to your feedback and go back to the drawing board. We will either modify our first attempt if all you need is some modifications on color/layout – – or, we will start completely from scratch and provide you with a completely different look, based on your preliminary feedback.

Once you approve the design work – – then the graphic design phase of the project is over and we move on to the coding.

So, Lisa – then why, if you’re so upfront, were you investigated by the FBI??
Well, it’s an interesting story, to be sure.

Backing up here….recently we completed a design project for a client. Her original request was very specific about color schemes, layout, functionalities, etc. Our client worked and communicated closely with the designer in picking out the kind of artwork she’d like to use in her site design – and made specific choice in that regard. Here’s how it went after that:

  • Designer took all the clients ideas and artwork and developed the first design mockup and presented it to the client
  • Client liked it.. but felt it lacked a few things and she gave some feedback on what she’d like to see added/modified
  • Designer took her new ideas and applied them to a new mockup and presented the second mockup to the client
  • Client stated she really liked it and had only a few adjustments she wanted done
  • Designer went through and applied the clients requested adjustments and presented her with a THIRD mockup
  • Client indicated that she liked it – the Designer informed the client that the design phase was complete and she was going to go ahead and move forward with the coding and theme creation phase
  • Clients exact response was “I like it, everything is fine as is”
  • Designer spend several hours creating the templates and CSS – – put it all together to create the theme and presented a ‘live’ version of the theme to the client, loaded onto our own development domain.
  • Client responded that she liked it, but needed a little time to decide what she thought was ‘missing’
  • Client came back the next day with new ideas on a completely new approach – – nothing in her new requests were included in her original order, therefore, these new ideas were not included in the quote she was provided. These new ideas would require us to go back to step one and start over again from scratch – – it required a completely different color scheme, different layout, different artwork and completely different functionalities – and the client even apologized for “not knowing what I really wanted in the first place”.
  • We responded and let her know that we can surely provide her with this new request, however, it is subject to additional fees and notified her that we would review her new request and would get back to her with a new project quote and time line

This is where it all went downhill.

The client didn’t think she should have to pay for this new request….that it should be included in the price that she already paid. I, very nicely, explained that the work on her original order was complete, to her own specifications.. even having gone as far as providing her with that third mockup to make sure she was 100% happy with the end product. I explained that we would not have proceeded with the final coding of the templates/theme if she hadn’t given us the ‘go ahead’ to do so on a design that she said she liked. We followed her initial order to the letter and she gave us feedback that she liked what we did – – and then changed her mind completely, wanting to go in a vastly different direction in the last hour of the project. It’s not a problem – but the new work is not going to be done for free, at this point.

You can imagine where it went from there. She wanted the work done at no additional cost or she wanted a full refund. We went back and forth a couple times until I finally ended communications with her and let her know that no refund would be issued on work that was already complete and, further, we are not willing to complete the second phase of her request – mostly because I felt that this relationship was no longer viable, considering our most recent exchanges.

After a 5 or 6 days, I didn’t hear back from her – – so I attached a zip file containing the theme we completed for her and sent it, along with a pleasant note that said “In case you wanted the original theme we created, I’ve attached it for you. Best of luck to you in the future…”

2 days later – I was contacted, by phone, by the FBI’s Internet Crime Unit

cyber crimeSeriously. Me – a cyber criminal. I guess anything is possible, hmm?

Our (ex)Client, apparently, filed a complaint of fraud and they requested that I come down to their local offices and share the story with them.

I printed out everything. Every correspondence between the client and I, every file, every mockup – – everything that had anything to do with her project. I printed out my terms of service and a copy of the order form that our clients fill out.

I sat, for an hour, with the detective while he read through everything – – I provided a bit of clarification to the areas he needed. After he was done, he told me that there is no case here at all. He said my terms were very clear and he is even the one who provided me with the ‘painter’ analogy that I mentioned above. He said, “Fraud is when you do something like.. put your motorcycle up for sale on the internet…someone sends you 5K for the bike, but you don’t deliver the bike….. Or if someone hired you to build and paint a deck for their house… you leave the project as ‘complete’ – but didn’t do the painting part…. there is no fraud here – – you did everything you said you would, even a little more, in the name of client satisfaction.”

He thinks all of my dealings on this project were above board and feels its a case of a client who wanted a whole lotta work for a little bit of nothing. I couldn’t agree more.

Seriously, I’m the first one to admit when I’m wrong, or when I haven’t been clear. I’m always one to step up and apologize when I’ve screwed up and I do not pretend to be perfect. I’ve made my mistakes a long the way, and have learned some very valuable lessons because of them. Not that I’ve never provided refunds in the past – because I have… on a case-by-case basis. It all depends on the individual circumstances of the individual project. This project, in particular, was done to spec …without question.

I have to say, though… as a consumer, it is actually very pleasing to know that the FBI actually follows up on complaints sent in by consumers of internet related goods and services. I always had a feeling that if you sent in something like that – – it ends up in a black hole somewhere..never to be seen again. Apparently, it absolutely ends up somewhere!

The detective even took my card, just in case he has any design work he, or his friends/family/colleagues, may need sometime in the future. Heh. He was a very nice man.

If this experience has taught me anything, it taught me to definitely keep my terms up to date, and completely airtight on what you plan to provide for the price that you charge. There should be no question… at all. Not in your mind… and not in the clients mind.

It also taught me how vitally important it is to keep copies of absolutely everything that relates to projects and services. You never know when …. or why…. you may need them someday! Those copies come in very handy as evidence to support your side of the story…. ‘Don’t take it from me….here, read this…” If I hadn’t kept copies of everything to provide to the detective… it would have been my word against hers… and who knows where that would have gone??

I struggled with sharing this post, quite honestly…. I mean, who really wants to admit that they’ve been investigated by the FBI? I was officially one of those “Persons of Interest” you hear so much about… at least for a brief moment in time. I share this post with you, regardless – and my reason for doing so is to make the point that just because you conduct your business on the internet does not make you immune to the very real possibility of legal fallout. Yes, you can be investigated. Yes, there is a department that takes consumer complaints and YES – those complaints really DO land on someone’s desk and that complaint DOES make it to your local FBI office and YES they will call you on the carpet.

It can happen to you and I’m just here to tell you that you need to be prepared for it by keeping those terms airtight. Communicate EVERYTHING and keep copies of those communications….forever. You never know when that phone is going to ring.

Even if you did everything absolutely, 100% right and above-board – – you better be prepared to prove it.

It was a good experience, actually – to go through it and get a first hand look at the process. Though, my husband said I should bill her for my time spent with the detective. Heh.

32 Comments

  1. Some people!

    (» Read usedtobeme’s last blog post..This is not a joke)

  2. You’ve got a good point – I’m glad to know that they do investigate it! Oi, glad THAT mess is over! Also, glad that the majority of our clients are not like that.

    (» Read Lindsey’s last blog post..Too Many Cats!!!)

  3. Very interesting read. I’ll definitely be tweaking my Terms of Service tonight. Sorry it had to happen to you.

    P.S. You really should bill her for your time spent with the detective.

    (» Read The Lisa Show’s last blog post..The Random Overfloweth)

  4. @usedtobeme I’m with ya there!

    @Lindsey – you and me both!

    @The Lisa Show – get those terms updated, girl! ;) And I totally should’ve invoiced my time – – I’ll chalk it up to “Professional Continuing Education” heh. Hey – maybe that’s a tax write-off??? :-?

  5. ..uhhh… for any feds who might be reading this – – I, seriously, was JUST kidding about the tax write-off thing. :x

  6. the nerve… i can’t even imagine asking for sometime like that after the initial design was done! glad it all turned out okay…

  7. @Daniel.. thank you :) I’m happy it turned out well, myself – – prison stripes make my butt look big :p

  8. What a pain! This is one of those reasons that I try to vet my clients very closely before working with them, and try to get a feel for their personality and if they are a good fit for my working style.

    I had a client like this once (and thankfully only once) but I decided to refund her money after the initial design phase because I could see that the amount that I would have gotten from the project did not match the “pain and suffering” that I would have to go through with her.

    That being said this post has been a good lesson for me and I think I need to tighten up my terms a lot more.

    Thanks for sharing Lisa.

    BTW- to the FBI all drive brown sedans like in the movies ;-)

    (» Read Leah Maclean’s last blog post..Pay It Forward Today)

  9. Great story and plenty of wise advice. Good customer service is important, but there comes a point when the customer is wrong. We live and learn.

    (» Read Sean Hackbarth’s last blog post..McCain Lies About Watching The Hills)

  10. Jammie J.

    What an experience/story. Just, wow. A lot of work in the project and a lot of work in preparation for your appointment with the FBI. I’m glad it all ended well, as in, the way it SHOULD have ended.

    As an aside, I’ve always enjoyed your explicit communications with me. If you know what I mean. *leer*

  11. Wow, that was truly an edge-of-my-seat sort of read. It has a protagonist, an antagonist, suspense, tension, and a federal agency to boot!

    I had to share it with a few people. I’m definitely going to take that as a cautionary tale. I’m glad things turned out well in the end.

    And who knows? You may even have a few new potential clients coming your way after giving the FBI agent your card. How sweet would that be? :)

    (» Read Velanche’s last blog post..The Identity of Contributors? Individual Postings Are Now Displayed More Clearly)

  12. A good article for the novice consumer on positive interaction when contracting services. Many people have no experience with this kind of business dealings and don’t know what to expect or how to ask for what they really want. Good words for both service provider and consumer. I hope I’m easier to deal with than that.

    (» Read Debbie’s last blog post..Fall? Pushed? Jumped?)

  13. This is very good information to be aware of! I’m about to enter into the phase of writing terms of service for the services that I provide. It’s good to know that, as long as I keep my stuff in order, I can stand by my policies without trepidation.

    (» Read Daisy Olsen’s last blog post..I’m tempted to skip reading any blog posts today…)

  14. Lee

    In my full time job, I work as a project management professional in the IT arena. What you have described is what is often referred to as “scope creep” and can end up in millions of dollars of lost revenue if it is not controlled.

    The biggest lesson you illustrate is communicating with and getting sign-off from the major stakeholders of any project. From the customer side of things, the lesson is to make sure you know what it is you are buying.

    Too often, it is a break-down in communication which leads to this kind of problem. Sadly, from your side of things there wasn’t a whole lot more you could have done. Your customer was poorly informed, lazy, greedy, or a combination of all three. It’s amazing how many people think that the kind of work you do is so easy you can afford to entertain their every whim and whimsy. Hopefully, she learned an expensive lesson and will do a better job defining what she wants before she goes to someone else.

  15. @Leah – I, too, try to vet as much as possible… sometime they slip through, though. I completely understand when you mention weighing the potential gains of the project versus the “pain and suffering” you’d have to go through in order to attain it… sometimes, its just not worth it. Thankfully, those kinds of projects are VERY few and far between :)

  16. @Sean – Live and learn, indeed! On both sides, I would say :)>-

  17. @Jammie – I think it was *you* who taught me all about explicit communication. ;)

  18. @Velanche – thank you for stopping by. The whole reason I posted this story was because of the whole ‘cautionary tale’ part of it – I’m glad I did :)

    ..and it would be totally sweet if I got a few jobs out of it haha :-j

  19. @Debbie – you’re not even close.. no worries :) A story like this surely does teach a lot, on BOTH sides, I agree!

  20. @Daisy – good luck with your new business phase, and with the writing of your terms. Sounds like my story was very timely for you :)

  21. @Lee – thank you for stopping by. A break down in communication is often the culprit in case like this – – I went through all communications on this project a hundred times trying to figure out where I could have tightened up communications from my end and have made adjustments in my overall process, as a result.

    From where I’m sitting – there is always room for improvement and noone has ever complained about too *little* communication, hey? :)

  22. Holy cow! At least it worked out in the end and you didn’t need to go anywhere Guantanamo-ish for your questioning.

    Wouldn’t prison strips just make it look taller?

    (» Read Gary LaPointe’s last blog post..TweetStats)

  23. @Gary – you’d have to know my butt lol I can pretty much say that about anything :p

    I had no doubt it would work out in my favor, in the end .. but the process is a little nail-bitey, ya know?

  24. Wow< Glad it turned out good for you…. Some people you can’t please at all… Your work is beautiful and that says a lot about you… Thanks

    (» Read chronic chick’s last blog post..10 Reasons Why I blog- I’ve been tagged)

  25. Wow. This ALL rings a lot of bells for me (well – apart from the FBI bit!) And yes, I learned the hard way too. :P

    V.

    (» Read Vixx’s last blog post..The Day With 2.5)

  26. @chronic chick – thanks, of course I’m happy it turned out, as well :) Thanks for the compliment!

    @Vixx – happy to pass my hard lessons along, hopefully we will all be a little more careful! :)

  27. I saw mention of this post on WordSesh. Great, great talk btw. =)

    I am so glad to read this… I have literally felt like I’m terrible at what I do for the last 4 or so months. It seems like angry clients are always what I’m dealing with. I know that I’m not perfect either; I know that there are times when I can be more clear and I’ve been chewed out by pissed off clients… But they haven’t pulled this on me… Yet. =)

    While I’m sorry that it happened, your story and your WordSesh talk let me know two things: 1. Firm up on my scope and communication. 2. Everyone has pissed off clients from time to time. I’m not alone. ;)

    Thank you for this.

    • Alex – thanks for stopping by and for listening to my session on WordSesh. See how it goes? 5 years later and I am STILL preaching about tightening up the processes as a provider of services because people are STILL doing the same things time after time after time.

      Get the requirements…document them….get signatures and keep copies. 5 years later, it’s still relevant and it always will be.

      And no worries – you are definitely not the only one! :)

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