A Lesson To Share

I have to admit that I am writing this article out of a bit of irritation as this is a lesson I shouldn’t have had to learn, but it is what it is.  I want to share this experience so that hopefully other designers reading this will be a bit more intelligent in approaching this type of situation.

I have been running my own business in graphic design for 6 years now and I have to say this is really the first disappointment I have experienced with a customer.  But I knew better, so it was just as much my fault.  Here’s the gist and a little advice to follow.  As most of you know I am a Texas girl living in Georgia.  Since my move here a year ago, I really have been blessed in that all of my customers stayed with me after the move and even more that I have gained an even larger client base from Texas and surrounding states.  Georgia however remained an untapped resource for many months after my move.  In six years, I have gained all of my business by word of mouth not needing to advertise my services.   So with this being said, I didn’t feel the need to go out and get local clientele. Then it happened, a string of events that started out at my bank and landed me in this irritated seat at the coffee shop where I like to write.  As I was making my normal deposit, I was approached by one of the branch officers (very sweet lady) asking me to come visit a “referral” group that she was a member of here in the suburbs of Atlanta.  At first I thought, “nah I really don’t have the time”, but after a few invitations, I decided it wouldn’t be a bad thing to get my name out there and extend my services to another state.  So I went to a meeting.  I was like a piece of red meat hanging above a pack of hungry dogs.  It seemed like everyone needed a graphic designer to do some sort of work for their companies. My business cards were flying out of my bag and I have to admit that I left there pretty excited about joining this group. The first contact I followed up with was a local “Marketing Firm” I put that in quotes as that is what they called their selves, not what I would call them. I will not use their name as that is unprofessional and not the point of this article.  My relationship with this company was casual and started with conversation of our love for coffee and out children.  Once we got to know each other the first job opportunity came about.  Now, let me back up and remind you that this company sought my services rather than the other way around.  The client gave me a job that was ultimately for the City (A whole other lesson altogether) it was a simple magazine ad that I was given exact copy and photography direction.  The budget was ridiculously low and not something I would ever take on my own. BUT I saw this as an opportunity to do a “favor” and get in with this company, which would in turn provide future, more lucrative jobs. Enter mistake number one.  I learned a long time ago to always, always send estimates for time and a work agreement when dealing with a new customer.  My main clientele is so steady and loyal that it is not required with each job I do for them. It is however, always a good idea to start off a new relationship letting them know not who wears the pants, but who ALSO wears the pants.  I have never had a client NOT follow though with the bid agreements so it has worked well for me.  However, as I said, mistake number one, I did not have this client sign a bid agreement.  Not sure if it was the fact that the job was so miniscule or of the naive side of me just felt like we had already built a small bond and I could trust her.  Moving on. The job was done, with time more than the budget allowed spent, as I do not HALF do anything.  The artwork was sent to the publisher and ran in the next issue of the publication.  Client very pleased with the work.  Humm…  This would normally mean that an invoice would be sent and paid.  Not the case.  First it was the City’s fault and they were slow to pay, then the customer admitted that she was paid, but I am still yet to see a check for actually doing the work.  So the customer not only claimed my work as her own, but also then didn’t pay for it. Let me backtrack again.  Shortly after the first job was sent off and still within reasonable time of getting paid for it, I accepted another job from the agency again without a bid approval.  This time is was a brochure.  Again, I was given explicit instructions on how the customer had already pre-approved the direction of a very SAD document that I was sent.  I was told to “clean it up” keeping the same style and layout.  Hummm?  We’ll okay.  Again, not a job or budget that I would ever accept from a customer coming directly to me, but she was a broker and had to make something off the job, so I took it. Still living in LALA land thinking that this would bring future business.  The really sad thing was that I really didn’t need the business at all.  With a very heavy workload with Arnold Graphic Design as well as the time it was taking to market and get my photography business off the ground.  I had no time for this.  But I did it anyway.  I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth again thinking of future possibilities.  So, I took the job, “cleaned up” the brochure and again spent more time than was in the budget to try and salvage this sad, sad piece of marketing I was given.  The job was provided to the marketing firm who said all I was to do was alter some copy and to send her an invoice.  So I did. I noticed a few weeks later that I hadn’t received a check or word from the customer.  I found this strange since I was asked to turn an invoice in so she could get me a check.  So I emailed.  I was then told that the payment for the first job was in the mail (this was three weeks ago and no check) and that she was “in a bad situation” with the second job of which she didn’t know what to do.  She proceeded to tell me that unbeknownst to me, the client didn’t like the layout and she had to hire someone else to “fix” it. Lets review, the client gave me explicit instructions to not change the layout, as it was pre-approved, but to “clean it up” and add better photography (which was also pre-approved). I wasn’t even given the option to present a creative layout.  So I took this as I was getting punished for her really bad direction.  See folks this is what happens when an inexperienced person thinks it would be “FUN” to start a marketing firm.  No creativity or business ethics just decided it would be a good idea one day.  Then using anyone they can find (and I’ll be the first to say it) STUPID enough to do the work so they can slap their name on it and then even worse not pay the person that did the work. Now although it felt good to get all this out, the point of this article is to share some hard lessons learned and here they are. ALWAYS get a signed bid approval from new customers NEVER take a job for less than what it is worth. All that is saying is that you take mediocre jobs so you must be a mediocre designer. Don’t sell yourself short Do a background check on the company/client you are working for. The only thing I knew about this customer was that she was part of this referral group.  Little did I know she shafted those that were referred to her! If you can survive without the business, NEVER take a job from a broker.  This should be a last resort; After all, they will be putting their name on your work as if it were their own. You never get contact with the customer yourself therefore not knowing what the true story behind the job is. This is the only thing I did right in this case.  Keep ALL correspondence between the broker and yourself.  That way if you do get stiffed on the job, knowing it was published, you can go directly to the customer and show them that it was your work.  In this case this broker was so mom and pop that the measly check I would get wouldn’t even pay for a month’s work of Starbucks so I don’t know that the fight is worth it. BUT having the option to expose her unprofessionalism in this small town is nice! ? Don’t take a job based of what it may produce in the future.  If a client or broker thinks you are worth it, they will give you the business up front not make you “work for it” In most cases the “jackpot” they refer to that you will get from your hard work doesn’t exist.  They are manipulating you. Good luck!  Okay- this is the most unbelievable thing ever.  THE OWNER OF THIS “MARKETING FIRM” JUST WALKED INTO THE COFFE SHOP I AM IN. Humm, this is a new subject altogether.  Guess this is to be continued…

Comments

  1. Britt Stokes says:

    I, too, have gotten screwed over on payment… once, on a very large job of photographing artwork for an artist for book reproduction, I delivered the job on disk and was given a check. I took the check to the bank and deposited it, and then found that the customer had stopped payment on the check! This was a $3,500 job. Free-lancer, beware. I ended up finally being paid about 1/3 of the agreed upon price, and that after threatening court action. Right on about checking out clients before committing, and if you don’t get a bid contract signed (I’m a photographer, so I own the rights to all photography until paid) I put on the invoice that image rights are not released until full payment is received. That way if they use the images and stiff me, an attorney will eat them up. Please follow up with more installments about this saga! Britt