Who Makes Up for Ambiguity in Client Agreements?

Referee Dog
Photo credit: CowCopTim

When your idea of what the agreement was, and your client’s idea of what the agreement was, differ, how does that get resolved?

[Disclaimier: This scenario is a montage of experiences, and does not represent any one client.]

An unsophisticated client generally sees their website project in vague, feeling terms–something that will make them feel good, look good, be magical, etc. On the other hand, my central job as an executor of the tasks required, as that of technician–I have to translate their wishes successfully into a series of tasks that are executed well, so I have to break it down into a series of left-brained tasks.

And let’s just say I didn’t do a great job of spelling all this out at the start of the project (shame on me, etc.). Let’s say I said, “Sure, I’ll install this shopping cart for you, and then you can sell your products on there.” (Ouch! How vague! But of course, the client’s not going to bug me about that–they’re seeing it all as this right-brained, ooeey gooey feeling good thing, and just picturing how great it will all be…)

The client says, “great! I can’t wait, I’m so excited!”

Meanwhile, reality progresses…

my reality in my mind, and their reality in their minds… like a ticking time bomb, us both happily living in our own version of how things are supposed to go.

Then, comes the day when I show them the site, and they go, “that’s great–could you just add these six more products?”

“Oh, I think. I assumed that the twelve products they showed me were what they wanted in the site–but now I recall that they did mention in passing that they might want to have some more products in there.” And, I don’t want to disappoint them, so, I go, “sure–I’ll add those.” While silently sighing inside.

Another week goes by, and I hear back from them, “that’s great–oh, could you please add these six articles? That will be great. It’s really coming together.” I’m thinking, “well, I don’t remember talking about putting in a lot of articles… then again we didn’t not talk about putting in articles, and I do want them to be happy.” So, I say, “sure, I’ll put those in,” while silently sighing inside.

I bid the project at a flat fee, so that the client–a small merchant, with big dreams, but not a big budget–could feel comfortable, could feel safe and secure that they were able to afford quality work at a reasonable price (dot dot dot).

Another few days go by, and I hear from the client again. Just another few little changes, a couple of tiny revisions. No big deal. Meanwhile, my time, with a bid based on 20 hours’ work (trying to get it done fast for them–they’re small, and I want to save the money, etc.), is over by 16 hours.

This scenario highlights why I have changed my billing practices, but still it raises the question:

  • When there is ambiguity in the agreement, who pays?
    • Do I “pay” with my time, to make the client happy, or does the client “pay” by not having it just how they wanted it, for the price offered?
    • Is it my “fault” that their vision of what they were getting differed from my vision of what I was offering?
  • Should I let my fear of disappointing the client cause me to do 2 times’ work? 3 times’ work?
  • Why have I made it my job to make their dream a reality for $x,000?
    • That’s what they want me to do..
    • They’ve paid me a large chunk of money..
    • Should the fact that that’s not, actually, what we ever, specifically, agreed to, interfere with this?
    • Should the fact that they’re paying me a lot of money stop me from defending my version of what was agreed to?

The bottom line here, in the end, is that I’ve stopped making a lot of the mistakes that would put me in this situation, and you should too. And in the end, I will do a large bit of what the client thinks was promised, because not to do so is to create a difficult situation, where they would experience that they never got what they wanted.

Also, our real success (in business terms) will be measured by how happy we make our clients–not how accurately we execute the tasks that were requested (whether unambiguously or not).

In the end, the scenario described here (and lived so many times by me over the past several years) is a tale of the ignorant leading the blind. I was the ignorant–not knowing how to define the project clearly enough for the client, or create boundaries or shared ownership in the outcome. And the client was the blind–not knowing enough to know what they didn’t know.

As professionals, we have the option, of knowing enough to educate the client about what they’re really getting, and its value. Often times we don’t, and then we create this kind of confusion.

I have run into so many small clients who have had previous nightmare experiences with past web designers. One thing this tells me that, in their case, when the confusion in the agreements was revealed, they probably blamed the client, and thought of them as “stupid,” created a situation of disappointment. Maybe they didn’t lose as much money, but they created no goodwill.

But of course, it’s very important to create both–goodwill, and profitability. To be the kind of web designer that clients need, you also have to survive as a web designer.

Please, share your experiences with these issues below!

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