Contract Basics: Getting the Client to Sign on the Dotted Line

by Christopher Gee

In the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross" Alec Baldwin's character Blake, in a less than inspirational sales meeting speech, implored a group of underachieving real estate salesmen that "Only one thing matters in this life. Get them to sign on the line that is dotted." While the rest of Blake's speech was hardly uplifting and bordered on abusive, the above statement is not untrue.

Working without the benefit of having a signed contract can result not only in the designer not being paid but also possible litigation after things have gone wrong. Of course, graphic designers are blessed with a number of wonderful skills and talents but unfortunately business savvy is not always one of them. Too many times, graphic designers fear that asking a client to sign a contract will sabotage the air of trust and goodwill between them and the client and result in a losing the project. This fear is sometimes reinforced by actual experiences with reluctant clients who seem perfectly willing to give a graphic designer a project but openly balk at signing a contract.

Here are a few things to remember the next time you present a contract to a client or encounter one who is reluctant to sign one.

Contracts have become a part of daily life for most people, and clients are people too. We sign contracts when we activate new cell phone account, when we open a gym membership, when we lease a car, buy a house or rent an apartment. Signing a contract need not become such an intimidating experience, especially since most of us do it so often that we don't think about it. Perhaps the first way we can put clients at ease when we present them with a contract is to actually be at ease ourselves. If we have to take a deep breath and are physically uncomfortable when we present the contract, that uneasiness is bound to be communicated to our client. The last thing you want to do is cause your client to see the worried look on your face and wonder "What the heck is IN this contract?".

Be prepared to speak about the various provisions in your contract. If your contract is a standard contract, it's possible there may be provisions in your contract that don't apply to every project. If a client asks about the relevance of specific provisions or requests that a provision that doesn't necessarily apply to the job at hand be cut from the contract, you should have a good enough knowledge of what each provision in your contract is designed to do to be able to explain why it is or is not necessary. We once had a client who objected to certain provisions in our contract that limits our liability with respect to damages that may occur to the client's web server due to our accessing the it and installing files and applications to it. After discussing this provision with the client, we had no problem removing this provision since the final delivery of the site would be via CD ROM and would not involve us needing to have any contact with the server whatsoever.

Contracts work both ways. If your client is reluctant at first, explain to them that the contract protects BOTH of you. It clearly states what the responsibilities are for both parties and what happens should problems arise. You, as the designer, will be on the hook to provide deliverables, meet deadlines and communicate effectively with your client. The client will be expected to do things like provide feedback about your deliverables, meet timing milestones and of course pay... on time! The contract will also spell out scenarios that it's likely neither party has considered. For instance what happens if, for reasons beyond both parties' control, the project needs to be abruptly terminated? This can happen in a company if a budget is discontinued, the client company is acquired by another company or the director of the project leaves the company. A clearly thought-out cancellation provision will spell-out a solution that is fair to both parties.

Finally, as designers we realize that presentation is everything. While contracts are typically pretty no-frills, that doesn't mean that you can't print it out on nice white paper and distribute it to your client in a professional-looking folder with your company logo on the front. Of course, in many cases you will probably distribute your contract to a client electronically via email. While many designers might opt to distribute the contract as a PDF document, consider distributing it as a Word document so that if the client has changes they wish to make to the contract text, they can do so and you can track the changes. This can be a huge time saver and speed up the process of getting your contract signed. We have had several instances where a client's legal department requested several rounds of changes to our contracts. This doesn't mean that the client was trying to get over on us. To be sure, some of those clients have turned out to be our absolute best clients. Be reasonable, think about what you would want if you were in the client's position.

Contracts are not there to be set in stone. Your contract is not written in a tablet of stone, it's meant to be a meeting of the minds and a point at which both parties agree and feel comfortable going forward to do business. Don't make the mistake of working without a contract. If a client is completely against the idea of signing/using ANY contract, you are not missing anything by walking away from the project. Chances are they have no intention of paying you anyway!

Be smart, be reasonable and remember "only one thing matters in this life ... get them to sign on the line that is dotted."