We don't normally use this venue for the "airing of grievances", especially outside of the traditional Festivus holiday season. But there are lessons that have been learned from a less than positive client experience that should be helpful for all.
HockeyGurl Designs took on a small side job that consisted of the editing of three small sites; there was no contract, no agreement, no 1099. They were small text and graphic edits and additions to existing websites and existing shopping carts, with no analysis, development or design on our part.
Sadly, we have learned the hard way that even those small types of projects need a written agreement of services.
As the designated web editor, we received updates, content, etc. via email from this particular client, and we processed each update as instructed. As she was very particular and exact, we needed to stick specifically to her very precise instructions in each and every email and attached word document. We then invoiced her for each batch of work, whether it be for content edits, content additions, photo editing, or social media posts. These invoices were very detailed and specific, reflecting the instructions she had originally sent via email.
It became apparent to our staff, although not to our client, that her websites needed some major work as far as redesign and reconfiguring, as they were very "old fashioned" and the setup of her ecommerce sites were more complicated and were hindering her ability to do business on line. Each and every one of our suggestions to make these kinds of changes, with an estimate of time and cost involved, were refused because she did not believe anything was wrong with her sites. She also indicated that she could not afford the changes we recommended, and at the already 1/2 price hourly rate we had given her out of courtesy for her situation for the changes we WERE making, as well as the many hours of work we did not bill her for at all, we did not feel it was good business to offer these higher level services for free. There are many things we do to help our clients, but offering high level, time consuming, expensive services for free is not going to be one of them.
Late in the game, after we once again offered an opinion about what REALLY needed to be done with her sites, she called GoDaddy, her hosting company. And while they were very clear on what needed to be done, and, strangely enough, agreed with what we had already told her needed to be done, they did no one any favors by what they did next.
GoDaddy, in the name of "customer support" found it necessary to tell my client that "any decent webmaster" would have done "this and this and this and that." And while that may be true, and while those things, "this and this and this and that" were things her previous webmasters should have done when advising this client at the beginning of her design and development process, and while it also may be true that these were also things that we had tried to suggest throughout our association with her and were rebuffed, upon hearing these same things we had suggested from GoDaddy (rather than us), this client deemed these same things we had already suggested to be GoDaddy Words of Wisdom from Above. (And yes, I fully intended to capitalize that entire phrase.)
After all, GODADDY told her it needed to be done. And the fact that "any decent webmaster" should have done it to begin with made all these issues OUR fault because we did not just step in and make all of the wholesale changes that needed to be made. Regardless of the fact that the setup and development of these sites went back several years and multiple webmasters. Regardless of the fact that this was not what we had been tasked with doing, and regardless of the fact that when we suggested these exact changes we were rebuffed.
And most importantly, with the very important lesson to be learned, WE HAD NO CONTRACT. We had no contract, nor did we have any agreement, any discussion or even a request to do the type of things that GoDaddy had now suggested and told our client that any "decent" webmaster would have done anyhow. When we had requested that a contract be written up, even for the basic web edits that we were doing, this client was outraged and insulted, questioning why "good people" needed contracts, what was wrong with the world today, people didn't trust each other.... well, you can guess the rest.
You all know what came next. The accusations and abusive emails began. We were terrible people, we didn't do all these things GoDaddy said had to be done, we didn't correct all the errors of judgment made by previous webmasters in the design and development of her sites, on our own, for free. We didn't ignore what she demanded and instructed us to do, since she didn't know what was really needed and we, as webmasters should have known better. And we didn't OFFER to make all those changes for her, FOR FREE, once GoDaddy bagged on all of her previous webmasters and told her what needed to be done. Not only were these major changes to her three websites and the setup of her ecommerce systems now demanded, we were accused of fraud for charging her anything at ALL for all those editing tasks we had so meticulously completed at her direction, since all these additional things were things we "should have known about and should have fixed".
As we were only tasked with making her very specific edits, at $10/hr, you can guess that as a group we were a bit taken aback by demands for $45/hr work, without a contract, and for free at that. After all, as GoDaddy said, any "decent" webmaster should have known these things needed to be fixed, and out of the goodness of our hearts, we should have offered to make all those changes and fixed all the misdeeds of all previous webmasters. For free.
As kindly and professionally as possible, we informed this client that that was not going to happen. This unleashed a tirade, a series of very long abusive emails attacking us, our business, our expertise, our principles and values. How we were "under contract as her webmaster" and were obligated to fix all these things. Oh, but there is the rub. There was no contract. There was no agreement. And in spite of her new claim that we were her employees and were to do as we were told, we were under no obligation to do anything other than the edits agreed to in email after email of very particular and specific instructions.
I apologized to her for the misdeeds of her past webmasters and the situation she was currently in. I also pointed out that with a contract in place, for a price, I would be happy to correct the problems she was now facing, but only with a written agreement that that was what I was tasked to do, and in return, she would abide by our recommendations.. But I informed her that while I was sorry for the position she was put in by her former webmasters, we were not going to take the rap for them. Nor were we going to "fix" them for free. When this unleashed yet another tirade, I respectfully requested that she no longer contact us.
The emails continued, with threats and accusations and name calling such as I have not seen in my professional life.
We have, of course, blocked all emails from this ex-client. And we are taking the necessary measures so that her uncalled for accusations and threats are not damaging to our company and our professional reputation.
And sadly, we have learned a very important lesson. There may NOT be any room in this world for the kind of trust and blind faith in humanity that this particular client demanded, to be given regardless of her strange and in the end, frightening behavior. There is a reason for contracts and agreements and complete disclosure on terms of services offered, no matter how small.
So, in closing, my team is sad to hear that I am now demanding contracts for the very smallest of jobs, even if it entails content editing for a three page website that consists of a few changes in punctuation and a new paragraph of text. They liked even less having to go through this particular clients 1000+ emails, matching each of her requests with our very specific and detailed matching invoices.
And to those clients who ask, "Why do we need a contract? Don't you trust me?" I am sorry, but you will get an answer you might not necessarily expect.