The key to successful client relationships

You are so dedicated to your work that you worry more for your clients' satisfaction than you do for yours. In fact, design is more to you than business. It is your passion, your purpose. As time’s passed, you have discovered that it isn't only about creativity, art, and translating. Paperwork, complicated relationships, and time management issues hit you all at once.

In the beginning, most designers live in what we like to call an artistic, imaginative bubble. As reality springs to poke holes in that bubble, many begin to feel overwhelmed by all the extensions attached to design and solid client relationships.

It is common in many fields of work for passionate and motivated people to be ambushed by additional responsibilities that they never realized were part of the job description.

No matter the case, when you signed up to become a creative designer, the duty to write contracts hid in fine print at the bottom of the page.

We are here to help you navigate through the complex and broad universe of contracts. Please note that our advice is not meant to be interpreted as legal counsel. Our goal is to pinpoint some crucial ideas and tips that you might have missed. We rely solely on our experience as web designers, not contract attorneys!

Why do you need a contract?

You don't, but you'll thank yourself later if you have one.

Let's play a short game: would you invest your time into writing a beneficial contract to match your work preferences, or would you rather have a client draft it on their own terms?

We can bet that you like the sound of the first option more.

On a serious note, a valid contract will help you and your client build a long-lasting, trust-based relationship. Nothing compares to valuable relationships with clients, and a good starting point is a clear, honest, and specific contract that you both agreed on.

It also works as a safety net for both parties involved. An equitable contract isn't an advantage or a bargaining chip that you can flash in your client's face. It is a way to value and respect your efforts, as well as your client's faith in you.

We will get into more details about protecting yourself and your work through a legal document when analyzing items to add to a contract. An upright, proper agreement should pivot on communication, specific clauses, and respect from both parties involved in the process.

Efficient communication

Undeniably, the best way to make yourself and your expectations clear is through open discussion.

Remember that you are the expert in your field, so you have to manage the process effectively.

If you aim to break communication barriers with your client, remind yourself every once in a while, that you are dealing with a human being. Sometimes, we tend to have an overly professional approach that limits connections and scares potential partners.

Be your authentic self while maintaining a degree of respect, and you should be just fine! You can allow yourself to be informal, as actions usually speak louder than any great words. Being professional and proving that you are an expert means connecting with your clients, not making them feel like they are trying to sign a contract with an automated phone call attendant.

Tip: Schedule a meeting or call with your clients to answer their questions about the contract and solve any unclarities. People tend to feel more comfortable trusting real faces and voices rather than small picture icons with names on their desktops.

Detailed contract clauses

Having a contract with clear conditions will help you handle any sudden issues during your collaboration with a client.

It will also serve as an instruction manual to your client, as they will know their responsibilities are, what yours are, and how they can manage obstacles. They will know what they can and cannot do while working with you. Even the most well-intended clients can sometimes overstep limits without realizing it. It is helpful to have a written document that simplifies everything.

We put together a list of ideas that you should consider when working on your contract draft, as well as some pointers to help you discuss the contract with your client.

Project scope

Explicitly stating the purpose of your project is essential. Many designers that choose to write their own contracts tend to overlook the significance of a detailed scope. A superficial or shallow description of the task allows the client to produce project extensions that may cost you many hours of unpaid work.

It's all about telling your client what you will do for them as detailed as possible. This section of the contract deals with expectations and informs your client specifically about what they're paying for.

A detailed scope of the plan confirms your professionalism, showing your clients that you know what you are doing and what your rate includes. It also has the purpose of protecting you from potential free additions that your client might deliberately or unintentionally attach.

Make your obligations as plain as day by naming every single detail of the process and letting your client accurately know what they're paying you for.

Payment details

You may be working out of passion, but you are also working for profit. Your payment terms should be as specific as the scope of the project.

Let your client know when, how, and how much to pay you. You can choose hourly billing or payment per milestone depending on what works best for your needs and the project. As far as payment methods go, you have to state whether you prefer the payment via bank transfer, PayPal, or any other platforms. Most importantly, specify the rate or price of the project!

Tip: To exclude the possibility that you don't receive a payment, you can set a clause that mentions due dates and late payment penalties. This way, your client will know exactly when to pay you. Also, these clauses will keep the payment process stress-free for both of you. It won't let room for unpleasant surprises such as clients vanishing into thin air or extensively delayed billings. All in all, you have your own budget to keep an eye on. With this said, don't assume that every client who is late with their payments has bad intentions. They may only be less organized or have a lot on their mind.

Approval windows and revisions

Approval windows are the timeframes in which your clients can send feedback on a completed project milestone. Stating in your contract the number of days allotted to receiving feedback is an intelligent way to use approval windows and speed up the communication process. A part of the project that didn't receive evaluation will automatically qualify as approved by the client. This way, you will be sure that your client holds on to their responsibilities.

Another thing to state in your contract would be the number of revisions allowed for each client. You don't want to find yourself on an endless road to nowhere and work on infinite numbers of revisions for eternity. This approach will encourage your client to make on-point annotations and think everything through before sending you an email.

Tip: These contract clauses might seem difficult to accept by clients, but they really aren't. You must explain to your client that you want an efficient partnership, and as long as you are not missing your deadlines, you expect them to do the same.

Deadlines and milestones

Set real expectations! Be honest with yourself and with your client about the required time to complete a task.

Don't bury yourself in work to deliver projects sooner than expected or promised. Don't make assurances that you can't keep or set deadlines that force you to work until exhaustion. Remember to set aside enough time for yourself, because being the best in your field doesn't mean being the most drained person in the room.

Set deadlines and milestones that you know you can achieve while still enjoying your free time and relaxing when you feel the need.

As mentioned earlier, your client is also human, so he won't expect you to have superpowers - hopefully. It depends on you to set healthy expectations for yourself and your projects.

Termination and "Acts of God"

Protecting yourself from an eventual cancellation is a must! No matter the outcome, it is still your time and effort invested in the process. For this matter, your contract needs a clause to ensure that your work is paid and respected.

An "Acts of God" clause will protect you from a problematic situation that might occur and is out of your control.

In today's digital world, many things can happen that are out of your or your client's control. For example, flooding in your apartment can destroy your stored data, and you can't do anything about it. The best thing to do is watch out for an unfavorable situation by adding a few terms to your contract.

Although these are somewhat outside-chance cases, it's best to keep you and your business safe.

Breaches of contract

What are your options in case someone breaks the rules of the contract?

First, you can take legal action and solve the problem with your client. If a situation gets to a point where there is nothing else you can do, taking legal action remains your only alternative.

There also more amicable ways to manage contract breaches and preserve your relationship with a client. For example, you can add a clause to your contract allowing your client to own up to their mistake and solve the problem beforehand. Mention a timeframe for your client to find a solution or apologize frankly.

Tip: Breaches of contract can happen intentionally or not. If your client doesn't respect the contract terms but acknowledges their mistake and openly expresses their wish to continue your partnership, a more friendly approach is the right way to go. All in all, your goal is to form strong relationships with your clients. Even though a scenario in which your client breaches the contract might not occur, the best thing to do is evaluate your relationship and take your time to think things through before rushing into any decisions.

Copyright

It's your call to determine whether you give your client full ownership of your work or not.

Whatever your choice, mention in detail the deliverables and the non-deliverables. Your work process for a project and any material not mentioned in the project scope, for instance, are not something that your clients should own.

More than that, discuss the meaning of copyright with your clients. Inform them that adding copyrighted material to their website that they don't have permission to use is unacceptable. It is easier for many clients to send materials found on Google Images or other platforms that offer readily available content. Usually, these images have their rights of use reserved, so check in with your client to see if they are allowed to use these images and avoid any copyright infringement.

Tip: To find more clients, you need to put together a portfolio. Leave space for that in your contract! Giving all the rights to your client without mentioning that you have the permission to use your work to build a portfolio or marketing strategy means that you won't be legally allowed to display your work experience and spread the word about your achievements.

Pro Tip: If you find yourself in a situation where the opportunity of working with clients from the same niche arises, it's best to add a non-disclosure clause to your contract. It means that you guarantee that all information you receive during the project remains confidential. This way, you will help your partner trust you and open up about details of his business that might be relevant to the project.

Work hours

Be clear about your working hours and your schedule. You are not required to answer clients' questions at 2AM on a Sunday. Let your client know what your work hours are and when you are available.

Add these details to your contract to inform your client and prevent any arguments related to late replies.

The tendency to prioritize your client's needs above everything else is normal but allow yourself to differentiate work time from your free time.

Final thoughts

Don't forget that you choose your clients! Some are easy to communicate with, some are not. A good contract can transform even the most difficult to handle client into a long-time partner.

Spend time on drafting an organized contract and spare yourself future problems and stress.

Although it might seem impossible to draft a contract that contains all the things mentioned above without spreading across ten pages, being specific and allowing yourself the time to organize everything can help you more than you think. Clients are usually scared by a very long, hard-to-read contract and mostly prefer a short, specific one. Adapt the contract to your client and the nature of the project, and avoid small, fine prints that could make your partners doubt your good intentions.

Other than that, do what you love and be creative!