Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Oi, clients.

This is not a rant. This is a cautionary tale.

I have done all my ranting about this issue in private conversation; ranting in public would do nothing to help it. I will not be naming names, and I ask that anyone familiar with the situation refrain from the temptation as well. I am not writing this to attack any individual, but as a general warning to others, and a reminder to my future self.

Over the past month, I have been working with an individual, "X", to thrash out the design for a large-scale building project. We went through several iterations of the design as I began to understand what X wanted. Finally, X was satisfied with the direction I was taking the design, and asked me to submit a formal bid—how long it would take to build, and how much I would charge to build it.

I mulled it over for a couple days, and sent my bid to X: estimates for what work I would be doing, how many hours each part of the work would take, when I would start construction, and when construction would be complete—along with my fee (regardless of how long it actually took to build). Given the number of hours of work estimated, I was charging about US $15/hour for construction, texture treatment, and scripting (my design allowed for the layout of the building to easily change with the client's needs).

It was, from my point of view, a fair offer. Given the scope of the project and the skills involved, I could have asked for much more than that. However, I am not a big-name well-established builder, so there is some amount of risk, from the client's viewpoint, that what I deliver would not meet the client's expectations. I took this risk into account in my fee, among many other risks on both sides. Confident that my offer was reasonable, I sent my bid to X.

To put it nicely, X was not prepared to pay what I asked, and rejected my bid.

To put it accurately, X snidely accused me of charging an excessive amount for my services and dismissed me without any further discussion.

X, it seems, would not pay more than a certain amount which, given the number of hours I had estimated as necessary, came out to less than US $3.50 per hour. Upon hearing this, I (trying to remain civil) asked X for verification of that rate, and asked if the number of hours I was estimating was, perhaps, more than would be necessary to achieve X's vision. X refused to discuss it.

Now, X had been a difficult client to work with during the design phase. X's "requirements" were vague, and in some cases contradictory or simply impossible given the realities of three-dimensional space. (On the other hand, if I were building for four-dimensional space, such pithy concerns as distance and volume could be ignored). I was warned by another builder who had worked with X. I had no reason to expect X to act rationally, but hope springs eternal.

The lessons I have learned (or had reinforced) are:

  1. Make sure the client knows what he/she wants before you begin, and can communicate it to you. Otherwise, you are trying to hit an unknown and possibly moving target, which is quite frustrating! It also increases the likelihood that the client will pull something new out of their hat halfway through the process.
  2. If you are designing a build in addition to constructing it, treat them as separate processes, and charge separately. Planning the design before you build is good on general principle, of course, and treating them as separate processes helps enforce that. On top of that, it ensures that you will be paid for the design work, even if the client changes his/her mind about hiring you for the building. I also recommend charging as-you-go for each revision of the design if possible, for the same reason.
  3. If the client is full of drama before you are working for them, they will probably be even more full of it while you are. If drama, headaches, and frustration are what you are searching for, this is good news. On the other hand, if you value your sanity, pass up that client.
  4. Contracts protect both sides. Write up contracts for every step of the way, outlining the expectations of both parties, and what should happen if those expectations are not met. Have the client sign/agree to each contract, then stick to it.

1 comment:

Kieres said...

In my first life, I help people put together contracts for construction projects and construction-related services (among other things). After reading about your experiences it sounds like there's a need for that sort of thing in SL. Maybe we can come up with something.

One of the first issues that comes to mind is that SL contracts would probably be hard to enforce in-world. I don't see the Lindens rushing to put together a system to adjudicate residents' disputes (maybe while we're at it we need to come up with some kind of dispute resolution system). We could set a contract up to be enforced in the conventional RL ways, but I'm not sure that would make the contract realistically more enforceable for most people. But even if we don't have a way to enforce the contract in the same ways that we would in RL, there would at least still be a documented record of the agreement so that (if we wrote the contract well) a party with a complaint could at least feel justified in publically saying she or he was wronged.