Being Professional: Getting Upset, But Learning To Know When To Walk Away.

This is maybe going to seem entirely unprofessional to one specific reader in the world, or at the very least, they simply won’t enjoy it. To everyone else, this will be a true story of extremely committed investment, plagued by a client that had no idea what they really wanted, refused to accept anything less than “perfect,” and found a way to convince me to do it all for next-to-nothing per hour. The idea (and the ultimate reason why I agreed to do it) was that the client had a way of increasing my profits in the future, increasing my reach and exposure, and would most likely make up for the lack of payment 5 to 6 times over in a calendar year. That is not at all what happened though. This is a story I will never have to tell again. It will only happen once, because it is one of those things I’ll never allow to happen again.

For the sake of this story (because I would never be so unprofessional as to disclose actual names), we’re simply going to call this client “XYZ” throughout this lesson. This is, obviously, not the real name of the company or the man that represents it, so if there is a company out there actually named “XYZ,” it is purely coincidence and entirely unrelated. I’m not ‘personally’ hurt or offended in any way at the outcome of this story, and I’m simply going to say I’m over it now that I’ve written it all out. Personally… I’m just “whatever” with XYZ. Professionally, I will not do any work for them again without payment in advance, because in my professional opinion, they aren’t able to be trusted anymore.

The beginning

XYZ contacted me about doing a website for them. They, having seen my own business website, thought that my abilities to produce a quality product was worth their investment dollars, and that I could bring a lot of value to the face of their company. They even wanted me, initially, to be the voice and potentially face of their company videos. It was “that client” that you normally wait a while to see, because it’s a total package: They want a website, they want my video skills, and they want my voiceover. If you’ve ever been to Pryor Media – you know that’s the three services I offer – and they wanted everything. Perfect.

Much of my discussions with XYZ in the early stages of our communication led to some serious revolutions about how I was doing my business, and how to I could potentially do better for myself by changing a few things. Some of the advice I received within our initial talk via Skype, which lasted over 3 hours total, I actually implemented into my business. Things like removing the free trial, and offering a money-back guarantee instead. Things like charging what I was actually worth. Allowing myself to bring more value to clients with faster response times because of the increased resources I’d have to dedicate to them. I thought this was great advice throughout the initial talk, since XYZ was the type of company that should be a creditable source in these sorts of things. At least, they presented themselves as such. I look all around the web and have yet to find a real solid example of their success with a client, but I simply figured that this was because their success would ultimately be invisible to people in the public anyways.

We spoke a while, and then agreed on a rate. The rate was actually “very cheap” according to XYZ, which told me they would have started the price at 3 times that amount if they were doing it. They recommended I raise my rates, because I’m worth it… just, apparently, not to them (I was to keep the proposed rate the same for them though). Not a big deal. It made sense really; after all – I proposed the rate. They agreed. That’s business.

Miscommunication from the start

It’s so vitally important to communicate with with your clients, and likewise for clients, it’s vitally important that you communicate with your freelancers. XYZ had an initial deposit that was the equivalent of 7 hours of work. The task was to have things migrated from their old site to their new site. Their old site wasn’t on the CMS I needed to set up for them, so there was more work in it than usual. It’s not exactly a “export and then import” scenario. The agreement for this deposit was specifically stated as the costs of getting their new website set up within WordPress, and all of their old data transferred over – with graphics. Then, once that was complete, more work would begin.

Throughout this process, and during the working processes for every client I work for, I submit a time sheet. The time sheet is freely available for each client to view 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The timesheet is shared with the client, and is updated immediately whenever work stops, and starts.

This is the actual timesheet for this client. See how amazingly specific it is?

This is the actual timesheet for this client. See how amazingly specific it is?

Above is the actual timesheet for this client (at least, most of it). It calculates the exact amount of time worked on their project, down to the second, and then (using formulas like any spreadsheet) calculates how much they’ve paid with what they owe up until that point to come up with a “current balance.” It is, arguably, the most transparent work disclosure any freelancer does for their clients. I spend well over an hour of my life every week updating and tracking these sheets – never of course expecting pay for it. It’s for my customers. I want them comfortable, informed, and with the knowledge upfront that what is happening, is actually happening. Their websites are also freely available for them to browse through and check progress on during this time as well.

I sent this timesheet to XYZ right in the very beginning, before I had even clocked a single minute. They didn’t have a Google account (we’re using Google Docs), so I guided them through the process of getting one so that they could follow along with it. They created the account, and was added to the sheet successfully right away, so I knew they could see it. I then shared updates about this sheet after every working day… again, for the client’s sake. Not my own. I don’t use some internal “my eyes only” hourly tracking system and then just bill for whatever I tracked just by myself. I do it live, on the internet, and they can audit it at any time.

The stressful middle

To bring into perspective the “okay” client situation, allow me to just say right now that “most” clients don’t know exactly what they want. Many do, and they provide excellent notes and example sites that they really like to model towards. These clients are super helpful, because it gets rid of the guesswork in what things should be looking like. They almost always have graphics prepared to use as well, so that we don’t have to spend their money making graphics (which can take several hours, and can be expensive for them). A full website that involves constant revisions in styling, trial and error features that are being forced on the designer from a third party they don’t fully understand, and making the designer do the graphics as well can easily become a $3,000+ investment for most clients. Clients should be prepared to understand that it takes money for quality results – and without investing in those results, you’ll get less result later.

If I had been aware of how unhelpful XYZ would be with directing the flow and appearance of their website in the beginning, I would have quoted them significantly higher. It’s pretty standard practice from my experience that clients are actively participating in the appearance of their website, to the point of almost being “specific” in what they want. Dozens of clients, including current ones, even give detailed bullet points in Word Documents, showing exactly what they envision. Then there are some that have no idea. They don’t have anything ‘specific’ to contribute to the design of their site, and they still want us to “just make it perfect.”

That’s all fine. I have zero problems with either one of these types of clients. – But it doesn’t take a lot of thinking to know which of these people end up with a higher cost in the end. That’s exactly what happened here. XYZ apparently thought a lot more came with 7 hours of work, expecting their full home page and the formatting of their pages to be done as well, all without much direction as to what they wanted it to look like, aside of course from some example home pages that I flat-out couldn’t copy because they were all graphics and custom-coded forms.

On top of this, they completely ignored the time sheet as work was being done for them. I submitted updates on the sheet every day, and mentioned that the time log had been updated after every single day I worked. I made every single effort to insure that they understood what was going on with their project at all times. It’s the most I could do. I even directly linked it to them half the time, both in email and in Skype chat. I would later find out that ‘planning’ for his website wasn’t supposed to be something XYZ was paying for, and all of the time I had been asked to spend on Skype planning their website wasn’t on the clock. It absolutely was, but they said they didn’t know about it. Apparently I was supposed to just hang out with their project for free when I could be making somebody else’s dream come true.

When I ran into an issue with the performance of their website, I informed them that their server was far too slow for my work to be economical for their budget. It was just taking me too long to do simple things on their host, because their server was just too slow (I had similar experiences when I was with HostGator too, and then got smart). I specifically advised them to seek out a different web host, and that I wasn’t going to work anymore on this slow host unless they gave me permission to do so. It was in this very email, asking them for permission to continue work, where I again linked the time log, and the amount of time I had currently spent on their business.

They clearly saw this email, because they immediately changed web hosts, and gave me new information so that I could do my job. They never mentioned the time sheet or anything, but it’s been available as always, and linked to in the email. It is my assumption that when I send an important email about the progress of a project they are paying for, they pay attention to it.

When the balance due reached my maximum threshold (which turned out to be a great thing to have in the end), I informed the client that I’d be invoicing them for time up until this point and would continue work, again, with their permission and payment. After a day of no response, I received a message calling me unprofessional for having such a invoice sneak up on them. Already, this was obviously going to be “one of those people.” Despite every attempt possible to show them that websites actually take time to produce quality results (go figure), I agreed to lower the invoice amount considerably (half), and reduced the deal to the point where I was no longer charging for communication. Imagine that… not billing for HOURS of communication and planning for their project.

My reason behind this was logical. XYZ was the type of company (or at least, they appeared to be) that could bring a lot of business to me later. The nature of their business would bring referrals to my company at a higher working rate than what I was already charging. It seemed that, potentially, having this client happy – despite the huge financial sacrifice that it would take to do so – would be worth it in the long run. So, I then proceeded to (make a mistake) quote the client just 9 more hours worth of work to complete their website. I did this, knowing that it was going to at least be a 25-30 hour commitment that I would likely not actually be paid for. I settled for a partial payment of the amount (about half of what it should have cost them), and then agreed to a flat amount for the remainder of the project – a flat rate I knew was far too low for what I was originally working per hour to be paid, but did anyways.

My mistake.

The ridiculous conclusion that changed things for me

Throughout the rest of the design process (also a trial and error process that offered a bit more input from the client, but not much more than usual), i frequently ran into small bugs and roadblocks that offered themselves as an obstacle I had to deal with in order to create a presentable website. Such things ALWAYS happen when you are making a new website. It took me almost 140 hours of work to get all of the functions and aesthetic properties of Pryor Media to be as I wanted them, and a big part of that process was fixing bugs and little bits and pieces of the site that weren’t working as they should.

I won’t go through every bug, but I will say that 100% of them occurred as a result of working with third-party tools. It is an inherited property of using third-party products together to form your image. Since you are saving potentially thousands of dollars on the software that gives you the features you want, you may have to deal with paying a hundred here and there to fix a few conflicts these things have. In this case, it was third-party plugins working with a theme, conflicting slightly with how a third-party development company with a high reputation, which had custom coded a solution for XYZ. Everything worked well… except one bug.

To fix this one bug, I approached the developer with the problem. After waiting almost 2 days for their response, and having XYZ asking me why it was looking so shitty, I received an answer that basically included: “sorry you’re having that problem, but we can’t replicate it on our end” in a bit more words. I even showed the developers video of their own how-to videos having this bug present, but they don’t have any answer for me. – So I did the one thing I knew would work, because I wasn’t going to get any help from these other developers and my client needed this fixed. I went back to an older version of the files – back when they were working before.

Like clock work, everything fell into place. Everything was fixed for the client, and all those “ugly” bugs were taken care of… except one detail, of course.

Remember that third-party I was talking about above? Well their program was integrated into yet another third-party service (you can see how the room for error grows here). When I reverted back to the old version of the theme template for my client’s site, CSS formatting for their HTML elements were broken. The form still existed, still behaved as it needed to as well, but the style being incorporated was that of the theme, not their custom theme. Now, I ONLY changed core theme files when I fixed these problems, not anything else. I also backed up every file from before onto my local system, incase further problems couldn’t be solved and we had to resort to the other files.

This problem could have ONLY came from me removing styling code from the server. Code that their form relied on in order to show up properly – and since I only touched core files when I downgraded the theme, that means that this developer placed code in core files… something only rookies ever do.

Yet, despite me having a backup of the files, and being able to easily fix this situation anyways by resorting back to the other version (therefore bringing back the bugs I had fixed), and having spent over 30 EXTRA, NON-PAYABLE HOURS on their project, they decided this was my fault. Not only my fault, but that I wasn’t even worth allowing the chance to fix the problem that was created by the third-party… for free, of course, because I’m not getting paid for the hours I’m spending on it.

That didn’t matter though. I was simply ejected from a project I had already 95% completed, and had not yet missed the deadline for. I was ejected without any warning at all. No discussion even in the beginning. In fact, I found out about it because I couldn’t save the changes I was making to their “About” page. I was actively working, still, and was locked out while working on it. That’s how I found out.

I’m confident their deadline would have been met easily, as long as they actively participated in the content of their site. As long as they were willing to respond faster than 3 days about something as important as the flagship product behind their business model. When the client is active and participating in a project, providing constant support and feedback about their product, everything goes smoother. In this case, a VERY SIMPLE bug with a third-party that arose only after 3 other bigger bugs were fixed (from another third-party) was enough to have me blamed for it all. And of course, as you may have guessed already, I didn’t get payment for that time. XYZ just spoke on the phone with the third-party that wrote the code… and after speaking with just them (and not allowing any rebuttal from me, of course), XYZ made the decision that it was all my fault, and that I shouldn’t be given the chance to fix it.

We had a written agreement that I would be paid a certain amount for a completed website on a deadline (a deadline I didn’t miss). If you eliminate my ability to do my job, and terminate that contract before it can be completed… well… you don’t have to pay. I guess that’s how XYZ sees it.

I was uncomfortable with the working terms and the vagueness of the professional relationship, and progressively got more and more uncomfortable with the deal as time went on. I’ve even said multiple times in the last week “I can’t wait to just be done with XYZ” to my wife… so my gut was telling me this already. I’m going to vet people a bit more now instead of just listening to sweet talk. If I don’t feel good about something, I’m not going to do it anymore. I expect my potential clients to vet me as well. Get to know me, talk and figure out how things really work. If you don’t feel comfortable, I wouldn’t expect you to hire me either.

The lesson learned

No matter how little sense the actions of clients make sometimes, one thing will always be apparent to me: SOME clients will always do what they want with something, instead of what those more knowledgable tell them to do. They will act intense, expect more than they should, demand things be done faster than they can be, and always – above all else – want the best for themselves… and only themselves. It’s a fact of life I’ll have to deal with. They are very few and far between, which is always a good thing. I don’t hold anything against them personally, as I don’t know their own situation, and I don’t see anything from their own prospectives. I absolutely know (in this one case) that they act on impulse instead of on all the information they can get… and for that, I will never work for them again. Don’t care about an apology anyways. They can pay somebody else 3X more for the exact same thing (which will be a bit humorous considering they were complaining about budget with me). Whatever. They do what is best for their company, how they see it. An outsider’s view on things doesn’t matter… which is ironic given their area of business.

There are many clients that are fantastic. I LOVE EVERY ONE OF THEM. They are the reason I do what I do, and I love making people’s lives better, easier, more profitable, and more enjoyable. I live for others. I always have. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve never really made any money – because I undersell myself, and over perform for the income.

XYZ still had the nerve to express their interest in having me do video services for them still, despite dropping me from their project without being paid for the time I had already spent on it. That isn’t going to happen unless they bring their account current for the 30+ I’ve already given them.

To the rest of my clients, and to future clients: I want you to know that I do not say these things to express any personal distaste for XYZ as a person, or in any form to somehow attack them. If I wanted to attack them, or to somehow publicly attack their brand, I wouldn’t have replaced their name with XYZ. As a human being, the person that hired me is probably a fun person to hang out with, and in another setting, we could totally have been friends. As a professional though, I will never be happy working with them again. They are an odd-ball case in terms of who I deal with every day, and I’m moving on now for better people, and better opportunities. If you ever hire me for something, all I ask is that you accept my transparency, rather than ignore it, allow me to explain how things work, so that you aren’t surprised when they don’t, and allow me to fix problems that arise if I say I know how to do it, rather than paying somebody else 3x as much to fix it.

To other freelancers and creatives: I tell you this because it’s important to understand that things happen in this industry that are outside your control. Things from third-party people that you cannot predict. When things go wrong with those third parties, and you know they have ZERO responsibility for the product you’re in charge of, you make sure you take control of their content too. If you allow a third-party to mess with your work, and inject their work into your project… you have to be prepared to take the blame when they screw up. Make sure you communicate with those third-parties, and know what they are doing… so that when you do have an issue, you don’t have to rely on them to be honest about fixing it. You won’t get into a situation like I got into, where they can get more business by getting rid of you.

Most importantly… if you take absolutely nothing from any of this, get at least this much: GET THINGS IN WRITING > So when you run into a situation where a client simply says “thank you for your efforts, good luck” – You have the legal ground to demand payment for your time, and the right to make their name and business doings public for the world legally. I have a terms and conditions posted for everything… but in this specific case, they never expressly agreed to it.

My mistake. It will never happen again.

Charlie Pryor

Charlie is a media producer, writer, and a traveler. He grew up in Michigan, all of his life and attended Grand Valley State University for a B.S. in Film and Video Production. He's married to a wonderful woman named Hang, and simply hopes to one day turn himself into a man that many will remember long after he's gone.

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2 Responses

  1. Donna Rae Burton Sizemore says:

    I guess if you learned something your time was not wasted. Well, sorta. Good luck next time!

  2. "Get Things in Writing"
    This is a huge lesson that I've learned myself this last year. I took a deal I made with a client through emails in good faith because the producer had an entire payment plan laid out and I was meeting with the director of the project frequently, though he wasn't the one with the money, it was the producer.
    After I had finished the product, I handed it over and continued to receive payments for another month. But before even half of their balance was paid, I stopped receiving payments all together… I had fulfilled my task, but still haven't received full payment for it to this day.
    It has been a nightmare, as the $3K that I'm still owed was to be invested in new equipment so I could take on more advanced work.
    But because it was only a gentleman's agreement and nothing was signed I don't have anything I can do but regularly ask when I can expect to paid what I am owed.
    My difficult lesson? "Unless you hold a contract specifying otherwise, do not hand over the final materials until you have received full payment… Get it in writing."

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