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We agreed to work on two websites with a client.

  • Website 1 took about 5 months longer than expected to finish, and I never got the remaining 50% paid.

  • Website 2 hasn’t even started and was scheduled to start on April 15th.

These inconsistencies make me want to cancel the remaining work with them. How do I go about this?

Note: There is no formal contract. Just a spoken agreement. I’m concerned about the best ethical path to follow here.

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closed as off-topic by mhoran_psprep, Joe Strazzere, ReallyTiredOfThisGame, Michael Grubey, aroth May 14 at 3:39

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The first step will be a review of your contract. Failure to pay would seem to be a problem, but we can't see your contract so can't give advice regarding what steps you need to follow. –  mhoran_psprep May 13 at 16:36
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There's no contract. Just a spoken agreement in which we agreed to work on these sites. –  Alain Jacomet Forte May 13 at 16:48
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@AlainJacometForte "There's no contract." Well there's your first problem. ALWAYS get things in writing, especially if you want to ever get paid. –  David K May 13 at 16:55
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If what's been going on since April 15th is that they've been ignoring you and not answering your emails, I think they're no longer interested either. If they are keeping in touch but not giving you what you need, just tell them that you can't meet your revenue needs with these kinds of delays and that they should find someone else to do the project for them. –  Kate Gregory May 13 at 16:57
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Why did Website1 take 5 months longer to finish? Is missing that deadline correlated to the fact that you did not get the remaining 50% of the money? The start date on Website 2 (15 Apr) went to hell. Did you agree to a new start date? I am hoping for "not yet" as an answer. Are you ready to forfeit the 50% of the money they owe you if that's what it takes to fire your client? –  Vietnhi Phuvanmail May 13 at 17:18

6 Answers 6

Oh, I see it.

The fact that you have no contract with this other party is the reason why things are lingering.

You're not communicating the value of your efforts to your client effectively and are basically allowing the client to control how you run your business.

A written contract says, "For a certain valuable consideration that the client agrees to give me on xx/yy/zzzz, I agree to provide a valuable service or product ABCDEF." One of the valuable products in your case is that you give up your time so that the client can communicate their needs with you, but right now you're getting nothing in return for that.

It also seem that you took on a fixed price project but made no provision in your oral agreement for the client to incur extra costs for desired changes. You are probably feeling like you've gotten screwed by your client, but in fact you have had the power all along to control the situation (or get out much sooner if you couldn't).

I wouldn't DARE start a second project with a client that hadn't paid me for the first one. It tells the client (with all due respect to you) that you're a sucker! It also means that whatever agreement you believe you have isn't truly an accord between the parties.

Stop being a nice guy and run your BUSINESS. Your services are VALUABLE. Stop giving them away for nothing.

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7  
+1 only because StackExchange doesn't have an "Amen, Brother!" button. –  Wesley Long May 13 at 20:29

I think this is a good example of the importance of drawing up a solid written contract.

I ran into a similar situation with a client when I first started out on my own as a web developer/designer.

The client asked for a ultra simple, cheap, WordPress site and I thought "That sounds simple enough I should be able to knock this out in about a week or so..." of course that's not what happened, I didn't think to pin them down on the specs, so the specs continually changed and I ended up rebuilding the site for them a several times, countless working hours and few months later I was fed up and so was the client. I didn't want to continue the project, because I wasn't really being paid adequately for the amount of time and effort I ended up putting in and the client didn't think they should have to pay for a site that didn't meet their hazy expectations.

Obviously all of this could have been avoided with a relatively simple contract stating the clients expectations, how much time I would be willing to devote to meeting those expectations, and much money would be paid for all of it.

The lesson I learned from getting burned on that project was a valuable one. A verbal agreement on a project isn't really an agreement at all, especially in cases where the client doesn't really understand most of the work being performed for them.

Funny and somewhat related Dilbert comic strip

tl;dr
Get the agreement in writing, and make sure the client understands that any changes to the agreement must also be in writing. It will not only ensure you get what you need from the client, it will also help to ensure that the client gets what they need from you.


To more directly answer the question...

At this point I would ask the client to sit down with you and draw up a contract with everything laid out on the table. I would try to get it in writing that all monies owed for the previous project must be paid in full before work can start on the next project (this may help you to actually get paid for the previous work) and try to come to some agreement about hard deadlines for the next project, with clearly stated consequences if those deadlines are not met, this should be done in a way that protects both you and the client.
If no agreement can be reached, walk away having learned a valuable lesson and be done with it.

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If the specs are not nailed down but they seem reasonable, I'd base my estimate on the number of hours required to meet the specs plus a margin of profit. I would specify in the contract that any change in the specs that results in increased time gives me the option to unilaterally switch to an hourly rate going forward, payable on a weekly basis. Not being a dope may cause me to lose a contract but I'd rather lose a contract than lose my shirt and whatever else including my sanity. –  Vietnhi Phuvanmail May 13 at 19:42
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@VietnhiPhuvan I've found that when clients have to write it down and see the direct connection between what they've written and the price on the bottom line the haze tends to lift quite a bit. –  apaul34208 May 13 at 19:49
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The lack of a written agreement cuts both ways. If I am starting to lose money, I am going to tell them that my expectations did not include their seriously changing specs and that going forward, I am charging them a hourly rate, payable weekly. They may drop me like a hot potato and tell me that we'll never be BFF again but I'll have slammed a lid on my losses. Which is the only aspect of my relationship with the client that I care about at this point. –  Vietnhi Phuvanmail May 13 at 19:49

Website 1 took about 5 months longer than expected to finish, and I never got the remaining 50% paid.

The reason you do 50/50 splits for contracts is to deal with issues like this. My advice? Just walk away. But before doing that explain clearly & succinctly why you are doing so. But once you do, just do not think twice about ignoring the client. You are ethically within bounds to drop a client who is being difficult to this level.

That said, experiences like this have led me to work only with a contract. Period. Even if this is a casual friend you need to draw up very clear boundaries that are fair to all with dates, timelines, expectations & budgets.

It might seem hard to do at first, but in the end the headaches you get dealing with the contract on the outset will pay off if things go sour in the end. And if they go well? All the better.

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Client is very unprofessional

Telling a client that they're unprofessional is unprofessional itself, there's nothing to be gained here but more strife. Is telling them this going to change lifelong habits and personality? Nope! So it's better not to bother. For the purposes of answer diversity, there are certain websites careerists like to vent their stories on...

There's no contract.

As you don't have a contract, you may very well be out of luck. You can't simply go to court for your lost wages according to the nice legal document that you don't have.

Option: Communication

Inquire about your pay, prefferably via phone as it's difficult to dodge questions when you're live on the line rather than the ease of simply not responding in an email. If you were still interested in their second project (your comments say no), you'd firmly state that you will not start until backpayment (and preferrably milestone payment for the second project) has arrived. This is probably your best first steps, as a kindness with honey approach is the least sticky one.

Option: Hostage

Playing with fire isn't always wise, but it is an option. Weigh your options carefully, as you don't want to hurt yourself in this process. As you designed the website, surely you're able to hold it hostage until payment arrives? There are stories of work being held hostage and the client quickly and successfully making restorations. But there's also potential for backfire.

Option: Threat of Lawsuit

Again, this may not be a best option, but it is an option. If your client doesn't know that you have no real case, you might consider letting them know you're too busy for their second project as you're briefing your lawyer on their case of unpaid wages. For some people, the mere mention will get you paid immediately, no questions asked. To be clear, the tactic here is bluffing. But if you did have a contract, this is what you'd do.

Option: Walk Away

If you're sure there's absolutely no hope, it may be best to merely tie up your losses and go home.

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I'm assuming you no longer wish to work with this/for client, you simply need to tell them you are no longer available. If they press for an explanation, keep it short and to the point, and try not to point fingers at either party.

Tell them as soon as possible, since there is no written contract you are free to walk away at any time(keep in mind you may lose your back pay owed).

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There are many ways of saying "No" without saying "no". You can tell them that going forward, you are charging them an hourly rate payable each week. And that you are not starting work on Website 2 until you see say a 10% deposit for work on Website 2 and significant, continuing progress being made toward paying the 50% they owe you.

You don't have a contract with them but they don't have a contract with you either, so they'll have a hard time dragging you to court over breach of a contract that never existed. If they threaten to take you to court, tell them "show me the contract". A contract by definition is a mutual agreement, as attested by both parties putting their signature on it. Ask them, "what did I sign again?"

You can insist that going forward, they sign a contract with the terms that I outlined in the first paragraph, if you so wish. You may lose money if they decide to drop you instead but at least, you'll have cut your financial hemorrhaging and you've seen the last of their derrieres.

Contract or no contract, a lousy client will cost you money. Contracts can cut both ways when you ill-advised enough to agree on significant financial penalties for getting out of the contract. It's not the fact that you have a contract that protects you, it's the terms of the contract that protects you. I am going to state the obvious: don't agree to a contract that'll get you screwed, and screwed in every way that hurts. In that case, you are better off not having a contract and unilaterally changing the terms of engagement as an adaptive response to a change in circumstance or expectations.

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