Most of us have been involved in an argument or two (or six or a hundred or whatever) at some point during our childhood. Or even every day – sometimes multiple times. Life with five younger siblings was difficult during the best of times growing up and harrowing at worst during these spats. More often than not each side had their version of events, no proof to back it, and an aggravated mediator who had to discern fact from fiction.
What I wouldn’t have given for Phoenix Wright, a surveillance system, and a file cabinet of contracts during some of these feats of sound and fury. “He said, she said,” arguments have little substance to hold them together other than mutual outrage. And if my siblings thought I was a harsh mediator, I’ve got nothing on some of the judges out there.
As a business owner, customer frustration is going to be a part of your operations. While it usually won’t be a daily occurrence, service-based industries in particular have to tread carefully with what they say and do. Customers in today’s age are looking for every ounce of value they get can get from you – and this can include compensation for “mistakes” they perceive with your service.
Knowing this, one of the very first things I did when founding Midwest Websites was prepare service contracts. There were several reasons I started with this step, and today’s post is going to outline these in detail. While only some of these pertain to your reputation, I feel the other areas are important to break down and examine, as well.
This is especially true since taking this step can definitely help to save you some long-term grief.
Contracts make “he said, she said” cases crystal clear and will smooth legal proceedings
After crafting rough drafts of my service contracts I took some time to consult with an attorney on each (I recommend Legalzoom for this – they’re affordable if you’re willing to put in some of the work yourself). We made sure the language was clear, specific, and outlined critical legal terms, leaving me with superb templates for clients.
A good contract is broken into a few different parts. The first is your scope of work. I outline this in two ways: a written description, and a timetable.
The written description explains precisely what I’ll be doing for each step of the process, that judgment calls are at my discretion, and what a customer’s responsibilities are.
My timetable section outlines where each step of the process falls in the overall project, and outlines any billing due dates, project due dates, or customer due dates for any actions they are required to complete. This can be formatted in Microsoft Word fairly easily, so you can still include everything in one document.
The second is a billing breakdown. This is pretty straightforward, but ensures there isn’t any quibbling over prices once you’ve invested the time and effort to complete a customer project.
The third is an area for both you and your client to sign the document. Full names, titles, and company names should all be present here, and you can use electronic services like DocuSign or SignRequest to handle signing and dating paperwork electronically over a distance.
The last section is your legalese. This will usually be terms and conditions, term definitions, limitation of liability, and damage limitations. These last two are bolded because they are critical protections for your company should a case escalate to the legal system, limiting the costs your company can incur if you have a client that thinks they are entitled to damages because of your work.
I’m not an attorney, so I will not be advising you on how to put something like this together in your contracts beyond these broad strokes, but there are plenty of online resources that can help you get started. It’s far less expensive to have an attorney proofread your work than it is to have them draft it, so plan to spend some time learning about this process if you’re on a budget.
Your scope of work is designed to set expectations specifically, yet clearly.
Seriously, I cannot stress how important this section of your contract is for stopping a conflict before it starts. This is placed first in my contracts because I want it to be visible, and ultimately read.
Even if your customer skims this section, you’re fulfilling three major goals before they’ve even signed on the dotted line.
The first goal is to give your customer a way to process the information you gave them during your initial conversation. Whether this was done by phone or by email, you’re outlining their project in a clear, organized fashion that is designed to ensure both of you are on the same page.
In reading this, the two of you can resolve any questions that were forgotten or newly discovered before the project starts. This is your second goal, and an opportunity to clarify details and smooth out potential rough edges before they have the opportunity to tear at the seams and integrity of your project.
This ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the instrument of your last goal – preventing conflict with your customer (as well as the courts). While writing this section of your contract isn’t always going to be easy and certainly isn’t fun, the constant revisions are easily worth the investment of your time because your customer’s experience – and YOURS – are on the line.
Laying your cards on the table and keeping your word translates well to reviews
If you’ve worked with a business that leaves you in the dark, makes multiple mistakes on a project, or changes the prices/timetables each day then you already understand the feelings of dread, foreboding, and concern you don’t want your customers to experience.
Being up front about what you will be doing through your contracts, then fulfilling (or exceeding) your promises is not only easy, but also the key for maintaining a positive relationship with your clients.
The only reasons for businesses not to do this are laziness, greed, and incompetence – three terms you want NOTHING to do with whatsoever.
An easy way to score some bonus points with many clients is similarly simple – just keep them up to speed with your progress as the project reaches milestones. Blindly trusting someone you hire is not easy, but your customer has made that leap by hiring you. Think of each step in the process as an opportunity to build rapport and help your customer feel secure – they’re worth it.
This is especially important when something goes wrong. While the first instinct of many is to try and sweep an issue under the rug, honesty is always the best policy here. Very few projects go perfectly according to plan, but if you tell your customer what happened and what steps you have taken or are going to take, they’re going to take it a lot better from you than if they find out on their own.
These simple actions of respect will also give life to your verbal and written words, and while customers won’t forget anger, they also won’t forget good experiences either. If you ask them to review you on Google, they’ll do it more often than not if you wowed them with your performance.
This translates to good press (and better search rankings) for you – simply by doing your job.
Word of mouth has evolved in the digital age
While word of mouth is still an important concept in the traditional sense, the depth it has taken on in recent years is nothing short of considerable. Your business contracts may seem like an extra headache at first, but the foundation they create for positive interactions has a tendency to well up in unexpected ways, including:
• Tweets about how comfortable the house is with a new air conditioner
• Answers to Facebook recommendations for plumbers
• Instagram photos of a beautiful landscape
• Facebook photos of the newly finished basement bar
• Text messages about how to work with another web company that is dragging their feet
While I picked a few service industries at random, many of these examples are applicable in some degree to your business, as well. People are always connected, for better or worse, in this day and age, and failure to remember that simple fact will set you up for a fall in the long run.
Fortunately, your business contracts also exist to protect you from slipping up. A well-designed contract serves as a checklist that is tailored to keep you on point, maintaining accountability from both your customer’s perspective and yours. Properly executed ones ensure an amazing experience your customers will remember the next time your industry comes up in their conversations.
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