That time a client fleeced us and management let it happen

It was early on in my web design career and I was learning heaps and having fun.

One day, some lawyers approached me to design a website for them.

They had very specific requirements, right down to text indentation and line spacing along with the imagery I needed to use and the exact placement of elements on each page.

This sounded like a simple project where the clients requirements were clear, expectations were reasonable, price was discussed without either side having to compromise and the site was scheduled to go live ahead of schedule.

But life teaches us all that if it sounds too good to be true…

The policy at our agency was to take 50% upfront before work commenced.

The final payment would be required before handover.

It wasn’t uncommon to have a number of projects pending handover because clients were late in paying.

But not these guys. They were prompt.

It did help that they were just a few doors away too.

I thought I did a good job with this project. Considering I had (up until that point) never had to worry about line spacing or indentation in text for a website, I learnt a few new things.

Then came the demo day. The day we show clients their brand new site and run them through the CMS and how to manage their online presence.

That’s when things went bad, really quickly.

And I was absolutely gobsmacked.

I mean, we had wireframes complete with hex colour codes and sign off on the number of pages along with everything else the client wanted.

I delivered. I definitely delivered.

But they somehow found little things here and there to nitpick about and any normal person would have let it go but they insisted on getting these things fixed.

It was quite a meeting. I relented and assured them I’d address all of their concerns.

But I was upset.

I had gone to great lengths to procure imagery that could be used for their website legally. As in, I didn’t do what a lot of designers were doing at the time which was abusing licences from iStockphoto or using screenshots and doing dodgy Photoshop edits to get around watermarks.

I made sure the site had everything they asked for. I was after all, just a humble web designer just trying to make it in the world and truly carve out a career which had started off as a hobby in the mid 90s.

Fast forward to the second demo day.

If the first meeting was Hell, this second meeting was Hell’s even more evil twin.

To paraphrase what they said: we’ve paid you to design a website for us and you have failed to design it. Therefore we demand a refund and we demand all of the design files.

Sheer disbelief.

Not only were they demanding their money back, they wanted all the design files.

In essence, they were fleecing us and getting us to pay for the privilege.

But what got me was that as a company, we didn’t fight it.

We just let it happen.

I should correct that – not we, because I didn’t want this. It was management.

Management let it happen.

I would have expected us to have fought this or at least reasoned it out.

Even if it took a few more revisions, we’d still get paid for the work.

But no, management chose to roll over, play dead and they did it so quick.

I felt cheated and betrayed.

I was so proud of the site that I designed and the way I had catered to every single minute detail the client wanted. It wasn’t overly difficult – just very specific.

And here was my company saying: it’s ok, we don’t want any trouble, just let it go.

I didn’t think we should have walked away from that web design project but my bosses thought otherwise.

I was upset then but this doesn’t bother me anymore. It was a long time ago but I do think about it from time to time.

One thing for sure is that it has shaped my work ethic ever since. I’ve fine tuned my processes. I have everything in writing. I stay within scope. If something is required beyond what is agreed, it’s okay – things happen, things change – but these need to be factored into timelines and costs.

And above all else, this whole experience taught me to stand up for what’s right but also learn when to walk away and save my breath.

I’m still learning.


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