When Web Designers Deal With A Bad Customer

This question was sent in to us today and I felt that I should go ahead and address it because I know exactly what you’re saying because I have been through it before. This question comes from Jason a freelance web designer:

“What do you do when a customer won’t pay you for work that you did over time on a web site for them? Do I just wash my hands of it and how can I avoid this because I put way too much work and time into these sites to not get paid at all. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.”

Well Jason my friend I feel for you. I use to do web design too and that is something I had to learn the hard way a few times but finally learned that I had to:

  • Pre-qualify the customer before I did the website for them
  • Make sure they knew my price per hour or per project
  • Sign a contract or either paid an upfront cost to get started
  • Only send a proof over to them when it’s finished so that they had to pay for it to get the real file
  • Make sure they know that when you quote them a price that may or may not include website updates for life…

These are things I had to learn the hard way so I can tell others like you what to do and what to avoid. First off make sure the customer is someone you can see yourself working with because if you don’t have a good feeling about it at first then most likely that should be your cue. Listen to your gut. Always let them know upfront what you charge and everything that is included with that charge even if you have to tell them 10 times for it to sink in. And this important: make sure they know that you tell them whether or not that total price includes updating the website down the road or your charge by the hour etc. That’s where I see a lot of designers get frustrated because people expect it but it’s your fault if you didn’t make that clear in the first place, so put it out there from the start. Whether you do a contract, get money up front or both just make sure you do one or the other. Usually the best is at least some money upfront so then you at least know you’re somewhat covered and that person is going to be a good customer.

And of course if the customer still “acts up” taking all of these steps then let me suggest our “beware letter.”

Everybody wants a deal these days and many times freelancers (along with contractors) get taken advantage of as the customers says “well times are tough so cut me a good deal (true story).” The best thing you can do for you is to make sure that customer fits with you like we always say here at BB. And don’t ever underestimate communication either because it’s the root of doing business. Hope that helps and thanks for writing in!

For kicks and giggles check out this post on SpeckyBoy called “A Collection of Web Design Horror Stories  and Quote From Bad Clients.”


Words of Southern Comfort,



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The Business Beware Show is the edgy, non-fluff show for business owners and customers that brings you business humor, customer service with a twist, business advice and interviews with small business owners from all over. Hosted by father/daughter duo Robert and Ashley Bodi, who are small business owners that live in the shoes of everyday business owners and know all about the ups and downs of what it's like to own a business. Featured in BusinessWeek, Entrepreneur Magazine, Wall Street Journal, ABC, Business Insider and more.


  1. ecommerce web developers /

    Off course, it just can not acceptable if a customer won’t pay us for work that we did over time on a web site for them. Well, nice ideas to avoid the situation. Thank for your valuable opinions. We do remember all these points when we go to design website for our customers. Thank you!

  2. Ashley /

    Awesome! Yeah it’s crazy to me how many web developers/designers get taken advantage of. Glad you take those steps with your customers 🙂

  3. The Social Tweep™ /

    The aggravating part of Internet based products/services is that the law hasn’t caught up with the technology. And, taking the legal route may only put you deeper in the hole – after all, even if you win, they may never pay.

    I’m about to say something that receives heated debate, so don’t yell at me. It may seem unethical, but (weighing both sides of the situation) what is stopping you from disabling the website until you receive payment? I look at it this way – if you pay a roofer to put a new roof on your house, pay him a deposit and then when s/he is finished, never pay the remaining bill, the roofer has the right to demand payment and then remove the roof (yes, there is case law in which judges have ruled that until payment in full has been received, the roofing material is still the property of the roofer, not the homeowner). In the case of web design, if you created the site, you own the copyright until all payments have been received and you give the website owner an exclusive license. Since you still own the license, you legally own the website. Disable it (if you have access) and see how quickly they make the payment.

    In the future, get a deposit. I require payment in full for small projects and installments for ongoing projects. Do I lose customers? Absolutely! But my customers pay on time and I never have to chase anybody or lose out on the money I rightfully earned.

  4. Ross Felix /

    My first question: Why aren’t they paying? Do they not have the money, do they not like the site, does the site not work, or did you go way over time, budget or did you miss the delivery date.

    Client is broke:
    Unfortunately, there’s not much that you can do after the fact, but there are several things that can be done to prevent this / reduce the odds of this happening

    1) Run a credit check (may or may not be feasible)
    2) Get a retainer, and set up a payment schedule in advance i.e. 1/3 upon contract signing, 1/3 upon design approval, 1/3 prior to delivery. At least that way, you’re not out completely.
    3) For this one: PLEASE CONTACT A LAWYER BEFORE USING THIS — But the suggestion would be something like: You are performing this as a work for hire and recognize that the customer owns the work provided that you are paid within X days from the completion of the project. The customer will receive the full code upon receipt of the final payment (or it could be something like upon receiving 90% of the payment, with the 10% coming upon final upload to their servers and passing QA or something like that). It’s possible that something can be worded that states you have the right to reuse the code if the payment isn’t made by X deadline.

    If the client just doesn’t want to pay:
    This is tougher in some regards as there are so many different reasons.
    1) Make sure that they can’t use the product if they aren’t paying for it. (See # 3 above)
    2) Have your terms very clearly spelled out. What is or isn’t a change request, how are you documenting them, what is your hourly rate for them?
    3) What are your approval mechanisms for proofs? Do you have them first approve the designs, and then have them do QA on the site to make sure it works, and then approve that too? By having them actually sign off on the design, at least you know they can’t change their mind about whether or not you designed what they asked for…

    In general, the idea is to establish milestones, get sign off from the client, and get payments based on milestones.

  5. Ashley /

    Ah very well put! It’s so true though in these types of situations. And I would say I have to agree. You technically can take down that website since it’s pretty much your property. Just spoke with someone today about someone using the logo they made on everything but have still yet to pay them for the work they did. Very well put Social Tweep 🙂

  6. Ashley /

    Good questions Ross. It’s true when you start working with someone you have to ask yourself all of these questions. The problem is that there are some people who intentionally seek out people to do work for them and plan not to pay in the end. And of course you have some bad businesses out there too that give the good ones a bad name.

    Definitely agree with make sure the terms are known from the start and the communication is out in the open from day one. 🙂

  7. Kenneth Stillman /

    The answer is simple – get paid in advance. Them paying you is what is going to secure your time for the project. If they want a mock up, quote them a price and tell them to send a check and you’ll get working on it.

    You’ll always get some people that will say, “Well, suppose we pay you and then when the site is done we don’t like it.” By the time they are ready to move forward they should have seen your work already. They should trust you with the project. Just tell them that if they question your ability to do your job then you aren’t a good fit for them.

    I know it’s hard to walk away from money, but getting customers who trust you will save you lots of headaches in the future.

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