This may seem like a no-brainer, but when it comes to doing contract work, a huge amount of headaches can be avoided if you make sure both you and the client are completely clear up front about who is responsible for what. It’s not entirely uncommon for the client and the consultant to have two very different views of how the relationship is going to work, and when the contract between the two parties is vague or non-existent, it’s even more important to make sure your client is getting exactly what they expected whether it’s what you promised or not.
Over the past five or six months I’ve watched one colleague struggle with a â€œnightmare clientâ€ that has expected a great deal of hand holding at every turn. This client was initially brought on for a small amount of consulting, but due to an ambiguous contract and poor project management on the part of the agency, the client is now getting several pieces of content, design work, and tens of thousands of dollars in additional marketing and man hours. It doesn’t matter that the client wasn’t originally supposed to receive any of that. And it doesn’t matter that they haven’t paid an additional penny, because the original agreement was vague enough that the client could reasonably assume all of this would be included, despite the company that put the agreement together only intending the contract to include a small amount of initial consulting.
So, whose fault is this type of scenario and what can you do once you’ve already gotten stuck in an ambiguous contract? Well, it’s possible the client is simply being opportunistic and using any loophole in the contract to weasel their way into getting more than they know they should. However, the more likely scenario is the client legitimately misunderstood what they were going to be getting, and if that’s the case, arguing and pushing back will likely lead to a poor relationship and might even end in non-payment.
As the company doing the work, there is nothing tying them to continuing a poor relationship with the client and jumping through each additional hoop aside from the desire to get paid and keep their client happy. At any point they could just fire the client and recommend someone else, but if they decide to continue onward then the relationship shifts from being mutually beneficial to one party being a slave to whatever expectations the client has and any new issues that might arise.
With this particular case, and with almost any client project, there were three specific points in the process where this could have been handled differently in order to minimize or entirely alleviate any unnecessary conflict.
1) Expectations could have been made clear from the start
Obviously the easiest way to eliminate any miscommunication would have been to sit down at the outset and discuss what was expected of both parties. This would have prevented the consulting firm from thinking they were providing recommendations while the client was absolutely convinced they’d be getting everything from conception to implementation to marketing.
2) Specifics of the contract could have been discussed as soon as it appeared both parties were interpreting things differently
Once the contract was already completed from the consultant’s perspective and it was clear the client still expected a large amount of additional work, it would have been the perfect time for a difficult discussion. The consultant could have gotten a clear understanding of exactly what the client expected and decided whether or not it was going to be feasible to move ahead with the contract as interpreted by the client. If so, then they could make it clear this was an exception and the client was getting a tremendous amount of additional value. And, if not, they could apologize and either offer a partial refund or come to some similar compromise before things got too far out of hand.
3) Lastly, the client could have been given a take-it-or-leave-it offer of what the consulting firm was willing to provide
With each silent acquiescence to the client’s request, the consulting firm loses the opportunity to explain the initial miscommunication or salvage anything from this particular client. It turns into an all or nothing proposition where they need to bend over and take it from the client until the bitter end or they can finally get fed up and fire the client. However, the longer the relationship has gone on, the more difficult firing the client is going to be, and the less likely a decent relationship can still be salvaged.
For this particular company it appears that at a certain point it just became too late and it was easier to ignore the problem and complain in private than to actually do something about it. Personally, I’ve been guilty of doing the exact same thing or of operating with no contract at all when it comes to smaller projects. However, from watching this unfold I’ve become convinced that it’s worth having an initial conversation with every future client before any work is done in order to go over the contract and make sure both parties are completely aware of deliverables, timelines, and expectations, and that we’re both speaking the same language when it comes to who is responsible for what. I don’t want to be a case study for poor client communication.