21 June 2008

When a client goes bad

In three years plus of freelancing, I've probably been lucky in that I've had very few rogue clients to deal with. I've had awkward clients, slow-paying clients and fickle clients, but I very recently experienced all these in one package.

Back in late February, my Lovely Graphic Designer, with whom I've worked on many joint projects, introduced me to a company for whom he was building a website. They needed the copy to go with it. The MD duly rang me to discuss the job. I was under the impression it was somewhat urgent. The MD said he'd email me some blurb about the company as background.

A couple of weeks went by and nothing arrived. I shrugged my shoulders - many jobs never materialise. But next time I had my LGD on the phone, I enquired about the project. It was going ahead, he said, it was just unclear when. And so it was that eventually, in April, we all had a meeting - me, my LGD and the company. We thrashed out a brief and the MD said he would forward the stuff that had been promised in February. Normally, I ask clients to sign a contract, but I didn't in this case as the company was known to my LGD and everything seemed kosher.

It was another 10 days before I received all the background blurb and other info and waas in a position to get started. By early May, I'd made a first draft of the web copy, including all the meta tags for SEO. I sent it over to the company (to 3 different people) and CCd it to my LGD. My email made explicit that it was a first draft and that feedback was expected so I could make any requested changes. A couple of weeks went by and I heard nothing. I was busy, for one thing, and this company had not exactly been quick off the mark in the past.

Nevertheless, another week later, when I was chatting on the phone to my LGD, I asked about the project.

- Oh, he said. The website's gone live already. Have you not heard from the MD? He said he was going to give you a call.

I was stunned. I'd expected feedback first, then tweaks, then a proofread. But no, apparently, it had all gone live. I had a look at the site. Not all my copy had been used, but a lot of it had, plus all my tagging. I emailed my contact at the company who'd been my main liaison while writing, explaining I was surprised to hear the site was live but I assumed they'd been happy with everything. I mentioned I'd be sending my invoice.

There was a resounding silence until 3 weeks later (one week before my invoice final due date and 7 weeks since I'd submitted my first draft of copy). Then the phone rang and it was the MD. I knew immediately there would be huge problems. Sure enough, the MD's stance was:

- As we've only used some of your copy, we're only going to pay for what we used.

- But I still did all the work, I pointed out. It has to be paid for, even if you didn't choose to use it all. But more importantly, it was a first draft - why didn't you tell me if you didn't like what I'd done? I asked for feedback, after all. Why leave it for 7 weeks until just before the invoice is due to tell me you were unhappy?

- I've been too busy.

(But clearly not too busy to use my copy.)

- I would have happily rewritten any copy you weren't keen on, I said.

The conversation then went round in circles for 10 minutes, the MD adamant he wasn't going to pay my full bill, me insistent that I'd done the job he'd commissioned me for and that it was clear I was expecting feedback on the first draft. I worked hard at remaining composed and polite. I could sense the MD was on the point of losing his temper.

It was when I told him that under my terms & conditions, I still owned the copyright to my work until I'd been paid, that he exploded. He burst into a huge rant about how "bloody awful" my work was and then some, how I was too expensive, that he'd settle my bill but would never recommend me to anyone and then, just as I was trying to say there was no need to swear at me, he slammed the receiver down.

I was so shocked at the outburst that I just sat there, stunned and shaking, for 15 minutes afterwards. I cast my mind back over the whole job to double-check everything, looking at the chain of emails, the notes I took at the briefing meeting. I'd given them a verbal estimate of the cost, I'd made clear the process (first draft, second draft, proofing). I really couldn't see that I could have done any more. It is, after all, a two-way process. There's not much I can do in the absence of client feedback during the writing.

I'm now awaiting the cheque - for the full bill - and if it doesn't arrive I won't hesitate to start a small claims procedure to recoup my money. I'm confident I'll win, thanks to my paper trail and the fact they left it so long to complain.

Lessons learned:
1. Always, always, always get the client to sign a contract.
2. Follow up with a phone call after 2 days if no response to email is forthcoming after sending the copy, no matter how busy I am.


Anne Brooke said...

So sorry to hear this - what a nightmare, and what a stupid bastard. Sending you hugs


Anonymous said...

have learned this lesson the hard way as well!!!

And it was HAAAARD!

Everything will be allright tho... :) I'm sure of it! :)


Unknown said...

Yeah, just waiting for the cheque...

In a way, I hope it doesn't arrive as I would so love to see him in court. Especially as the company concerned specialises in saving money for its own clients...

Anonymous said...