Website Design Agreements: Stop Client Delays and Get Paid

Client Delays & Not Getting Paid

A client decides they need a website as soon as possible. You get a website design and development agreement signed and ask them if they have the site content ready. They say “no, but we have this print flier with content for the home page. We will get the other content ready for you ASAP!”

So you rush and create a design that they are happy with, program it, put up the content that has been provided, request delivery of the remaining content, then you wait, and wait, and wait.

This can become a real problem if you don’t get paid until project completion, or “go live”:

  • If you are lucky, the client will eventually provide the content, the website will “go live”, then you will get paid.
  • If unlucky, you will have months of email that say “Been super busy! Will send you the content next week”.
  • If really unlucky, the client will say something like “our business model has changed significantly since we initially spoke with you 6 months ago. Your design (that we approved) no longer meets the needs of our business. Can we adjust the design so it’s more like *shows your some national competitors website*.

The website agreement that can put you on rice and beans

My website proposal agreements were really simple. In an ideal world with ideal clients, a simple agreement is all that’s needed. My agreement went something along the lines of “I receive 50% payment up front. I will make a website that you will be proud of. Once it’s finished and the site is live on the net, you will pay me the remaining 50% and we will give each other a high five”.

This agreement normally works out fine, but you should assume that it will not.

Once you have been waiting on the client for months, you lose the happy feeling you had for the client. When you gently let the client know that they need to pay for the services provided up to this point, they feel like you are rushing them, being pushy, or want them to pay for a product that hasn’t yet been delivered.

Then no one is happy.

The problem boils down to the oversimplified agreement that doesn’t clearly set the expectations or create any type urgency for the client to do their part.

An agreement that puts you in control AND doesn’t scare clients

Asking for 100% up front is not the solution, but there is a simple solution.

The client needs to understand that they are not just paying for “a website”. They are paying for two distinct services to be provided:

  1. Website planning and design. You are not just changing the colors on a template and inserting their logo into the header. You are creating a customized design that meets their specific business needs. This includes:
    1. Gaining an understanding of their business process.
    2. Finding out what they expect from their new website.
    3. If they already have a website, how it is failing their business.
    4. The desired outcome of having this new website.
    5. Understanding the target audience(s).
    6. Understanding the type of content to be presented.
    7. Understanding the quantity of content to be presented.
    8. Planning how to best divide up and present the content to their target audience(s).
  2. Website programming. This is the technical part where you put on the headphones and turn the design into an actual website.

Having two (or more) distinct phases will help the client understand that they cannot change their mind and keeps switching back and forth between the phases.

They will be more understanding of these terms: after design approval, change requests will be performed at regular hourly rate.

It is similar to home construction. If, after construction has begun, the client decides they want to flip the plan so the living room is on the opposite side of the house, they will have to pay for the extra planning, bulldozing, materials, and labor required to do so.

The better agreement payment structure

Assuming you charge 50% up front for your websites and 50% after project completion, here is how you would invoice:

  1. The client pays ~50% up front for the website planning and design phase. Do not use a percentage on the agreement. Use an actual dollar amount.
  2. The remaining amount of your total estimate is to be billed as the programming phase. The payment for the programming phase is payable once this phase has been completed (we will define completion later).

Use an actually currency amount on these phases instead of a percentage. We want to maintain the separate services logic. Using a percentage doesn’t help.

Also provide an estimate for how many weeks you expect each phase to take.

You also need to set terms for what happens if the client decides to cancel the agreement. At a minimum, you will want to make sure the client understands that no refunds will be given for completed phases. If you have already started a phase of the project they have not yet paid for, they will also be responsible for paying you for the completed portion of that phase. Stipulate that you are the one that determines the percentage that has been completion.

A new definition of “Project Completion”

Here is where I got myself in trouble. I defined project completion to be when the website goes live. That is a BIG mistake. This puts the client in complete control of the completion date and creates perpetual delays due to lack of content delivery.

A better way to define project completion is when the programming phase is complete and all content provided up to that point has been inserted into the site.

If the client hasn’t finished gathering up the content, no problem! They can take as long as they want to gather up the content. Their net 30 bill will already be in the mail and we will be getting paid regardless of content provision or go live status.

This puts you in control of when you get paid instead of person paying!

This definition of “completed” will not scare your potential clients away. They will see that you estimate the project to be completed in X number of weeks and think “that’s plenty of time for me to gather up content!” No client plans in advance to cause a content delivery delay that spans 6 months. It just happens.

Since the amount of content to be presented on a website will greatly shape the direction of the site design and its navigational areas, stress to the client that they should provide all the site content they possibly can up front. All site content not available up front should be described in detail so a sitemap can be be created and referred to during the design phase.

In case you client doesn’t have the content ready by project completion, set terms that give them an extra 30 days after project completion to provide it. This grace period is for content delivery has nothing to do with billing. The final bill has already been mailed and payment is due based on your invoicing terms (I like terms of net 15 with 3% interest accrued per month).

Any content not provided after 30 days will either be added in by the client via their brand new website content management system, or it will be added in by you at your regular hourly rate.

But what if the client delays the approval of the site design?

If the client decides to start playing the waiting game after you have presented them with the design, it’s really not too big of a deal. You have already been paid 100% for your planning and design services. Just let the client know that if they wait too long to approve the design that your other project commitments might start to interfere with the timely completion of their project programming phase.

To sum it all up

  1. Divide the website building process into at least two phases, designing and programming.
  2. For each phase: describe it in detail, price it in dollar amount, and estimate completion time in weeks.
  3. Set terms for moving backwards a phase due to client change requests.
  4. Set payment terms in event of agreement cancellation.
  5. Define “project completion” as when you have completed the programming phase and all content provided up to that point has been inserted into the site. Mail the final bill on this day.
  6. Give a 30 day grace period after the completion date for them to provide any remaining content.
  7. After 30 days, additional content will be added by the client or by you at your regular hourly rate.

Hopefully these details and terms will help your client better understand the design and development process, minimize content delivery delays, and abolish the payment waiting game.

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