On a recent call with another designer, I was asked about contract wording for design services and how best to outline what is and what was not included in a client agreement.

At a recent WordPress Meetup, I was asked about cancellation clauses and how to deal with customers who disappear for weeks or months at a time in the middle of a project. This topic also came up in a WordPress Facebook group I'm part of.

By email, an industry peer reached out to ask about our contract terms and conditions, and through Slack a friend reached out about contract language for a new type of project they had never bid on before.

When a topic consistently appears in front of me over and over, in different places, from different people, I pay attention. This usually means it's something that other people are also wondering about or struggling with — and it screams write a blog post!

Creating a Client Contract

Never have I run into a designer who was thrilled to invest hours upon hours into a client project only to not get paid. Never have I run into a client who was happy about paying for work and not getting what they expected. Never have I run into a service provider or client who looks forward to and enjoys the tough conversations about contract enforcement.

Rock solid, crystal clear contracts aren't just good for you, they are also good for your clients. The best contracts support and protect you both equally and communicate your level of professionalism.

In fact, I recently wrote an article on this exact topic for GoDaddy called Whatever you call it, you need one: Why web designers need client agreements, proposals, estimates, and contracts.

The best contracts are often created over time

These contracts are based on real experiences and less-than-stellar scenarios that become hands-on learning opportunities. Unfortunately, that means the newer you are to the industry, the least likely you are to be protected.

In July, my company Bourn Creative will officially be ten years old. I began with a one-page estimate, and over the years have worked my way up to a client agreement that is often 20+ pages. In that time, I have sold and delivered an enormous amount of work. I've enjoyed a lot of big wins, made a huge amount of mistakes, and learned a lot of hard lessons — all which resulted in updates and refinements to our contracts.

Here are six contract clauses we have added over time (that have saved our tushes more than once):

1. What's Not Included

Not every client we speak to needs this section in their contracts, but for those who do — this is a lifesaver. Add this clause to your contracts if at any time during the sales conversation you discuss items that are outside their budget, add-on items, phase two or three items, etc.

Trust me. At some point, a client will be upset about a deliverable they want but was not included in your flat rate agreement. You tell them you'd be happy to take care of it for them at an additional fee, and argue with you. Why? Because they remember having the conversation about the feature in the sales call — but they never remember the part where you said it couldn't be done in their budget.

2. Third Parties

It is critical to protect yourself, your deliverables, and your deadlines, from project delays and problems from third parties that you have no control over, like hosting companies, email marketing service providers, the postal service, mail houses, social media sites, plugins, email, domain registrars, Internet service providers, etc.

It is also important to protect your time from the third-party human — i.e. the virtual assistant your client has hired to implement their Infusionsoft campaigns, opt-ins, and other online items. It's not your job to train their virtual assistant to do the job they were hired for, nor is it your job to fix things they set up incorrectly.

Include a clause that protects you losing hours of your time. Communicate that you are happy to be a resource for their team or virtual assistants, but that training them on a third-party platform, fixing their configuration mistakes on a third-party platform, or providing ongoing email and phone support for work not included in your agreement will require a separate support agreement.

3. Availability

Make it very clear when you are available when you're not available, and how quickly clients can expect a response.

Be clear about your availability for:

  • Phone calls
  • Email
  • Meetings

Set boundaries for:

  • When and how often you check email and respond to messages
  • What lead time is required to set a meeting
  • How fast turnaround will be on work to be completed and revisions

Consider adding a short clause about social media. Let them know that you use social media for both works and play, and that when you're on Facebook and Twitter at nights or on the weekends, that doesn't mean you're available to them as well.

4. Client Cancellation

It's important for both you and your client to understand what the process is for canceling a project.

  • What do they need to do to cancel the contract?
  • How much notice do they need to give?
  • Do they get a full refund, partial refund, no refund?
  • What happens to the work done to that point? Do they get what have been paid for thus far? Do they get nothing?

5. Dormancy

Life happens. There is nothing we can do about that. But you can do something about the clients that disappear in the middle of a project, fail to communicate what is going on with you, and stop responding to your emails or phone calls.

A dormancy clause addresses what happens when a project falls dormant and how it is death with.

  • Outline what length of time must pass before a project is considered dormant.
  • List exactly what criteria makes a project considered dormant.
  • Note what happens when a project becomes dormant — what action is taken.
  • Communicate what must happen to restart the project after it has been deemed dormant. Is their a re-engagement fee? Do certain milestones or deliverables have to be met?

6. Provider Cancellation

While the cancellation clause covers how a client can cancel the project, this clause outlines what happens if you want to cancel the project and fire your client.

Some things to consider addressing here are:

  • How long does a project need to be dormant before it is considered cancelled? If it is cancelled after falling dormant, are all refunds forfeited?
  • What happens when you realize a client simply isn't a good fit and you want to part ways. Do you refund them 100% and wish them well?
  • What if work has already been completed? Do you cut your losses for good will? What stage of the project begets only a partial refund and files for work completed to date?

Your Contract is For More Than Legal-Speak

One thing I want to communicate is that your contract is so much more than a legal document. It is a marketing piece. It is a key part of the sales process and is an extension of your brand and reputation.

Just because you have a great sales call or sales meeting and you send a potential client a contract, it doesn't mean that will sign it.

At that point in the game, you can still lose the client.

Several projects we have sent clients agreements for came down to us and one other company. We were neck and neck, but ultimately we won the project and the client because our contracts were more impressive, made them feel more comfortable with their investment, and reinforced that hiring us is a great decision.

Not only do you need to focus on the content of your contracts, and continue to edit, refine, and improve them over time, but you need to focus on the presentation of them as well. This will ensure you're not only protected, but that you put your best foot forward at every step of the sales process.

Jennifer Bourn is the Creative Director and Digital Strategist for Bourn Creative, a full service design company based in Sacramento, California that specializes in custom, lead generation WordPress sites. With more than 15 years in the design trenches, and 9 years as co-owner of Bourn Creative (with her husband Brian Bourn), Jennifer is an award-winning designer with a penchant for writing, marketing, chocolate, and Legos (yes, Legos not logos). She built her first WordPress site in 2008, fell in love with giving clients the ability to make their own content revisions, and went all in with WordPress pretty much the same day. Now with more than 300 custom WordPress sites under the belt Jennifer now shares her expertise and lessons learned as a dynamic speaker, an avid blogger, and a co-organizer of the Sacramento Meetup Group.