July 17, 2011
Due to my position as a warning to others I am increasingly the Josef K of web development. Following threats of violence over design work and being sucked increasingly into a vortex of beuracratic chaos with an enormous ever growing unwanted project I feel that web development may have finally broken me.
I intended to write a wry article on identifying who your good clients are, I still might, but I have been distracted by the absolute horror of the last few months during which the stresses of work have increased to an all encompassing degree and had a huge detrimental effect on many aspects of my life, included my mental health. So that’s nice, it should make for an entertaining blog if nothing else.
Around the middle of last year I identified the direction I wanted to take my business based on it’s (any my) strengths, advice from associates and general consideration of what makes us the most profit based on the least stress and gives us the widest scope for creativity. The general idea was to aim for smaller high quality creative projects and start to cut out the large scale pure application programming jobs, mostly because they were just not profitable but also because they tend to be incredibly dull with no opportunity for creative input and drag on until everyone involved hates each other. You get the work you do. The plan was to outsource the work we were not specialising in and over time expand enough to bring in staff to cover it. This was to be beneficial to our regular clients as it meant more time and attention for them.
The majority of our regular clients are brilliant. Lovely people with good businesses who are great to work with. We do sometimes have clients who will make life difficult for us or projects that get a little out of control and eat more time and resources that expected but it’s rare that these things are of such a scale that they have a noticable effect on the business as a whole, we just have to work a few more hours a week and spend a bit more time swearing at the internet. Last year three hit at the same time, the aftershock is still battering me.
The first of the triad of hellish projects was just unfortunate, and as such I’m not going to talk about it, it was bad planning on the part of the client but it was sorted out without any unpleasantness, I only mention it as it exploded at the same time as the other two horrific situations, which were as follows…
I should have seen this coming a mile off, but I didn’t because I’m an idiot. A previous client approached us to do a couple of new websites for his business and a business he was involved with. I was initially very wary as he has been a little difficult in the past (nothing major) and had been very slack about paying invoices, in fact he still owed us for a job we had done 18 months previously. After allowing myself to be talked round to working for him we presented initial costs, which were fairly low for the sites he wanted. Not happy, he wanted to pay half what we were asking. This is the point I should have really walked away. I didn’t, I am a sucker. We agreed that although we wouldn’t drop our costs we would work out how to do the work to the budget he required (not something I would usually consider as it becomes near impossible to do a decent quality job) by cutting out parts of our service such as copywriting, photo sourcing, etc. The most important part that would be cut out (at his request) was design options. He decided he wanted a single style put together for the site and was insistent that he would be happy with it regardless. My designer was wary at best. I should have walked away. So, in summary the client had pushed for and agreed for a cut down service, he was fully aware of the level of service we could supply for the budget he had. We agreed that we would not start the work until he had paid outstanding invoices for all previous work and a deposit for each of the new sites. This was agreed fair by both parties.
So, we waited and got on with other work. A couple of times the client contacted us to ask how it was going and I’d explain we hadn’t started and wouldn’t do so until he had paid up as previously agreed. Things started to get a little tense, there were some important dates for his business coming up which required the website to be online and he was getting pressure from the other business he was involved in as to where the hell their website was. Eventually the payment came in and we got started. Communications by this point were pretty tense. To make the situation worse the client was now overseas somewhere with a minimal internet connection and pretty much no phone signal. He was clearly having trouble understanding emails but there was no other way we could communicate, contact essentially consisted of demands to get the work done by the important dates, which were very close. One of the sites had a fairly complicated structure due to the business having two not quite complementary sides to it, trying to get this across and a sensible solution worked out proved a challenge.
We managed to get the designs sorted and over to him before any of us had a full on breakdown. The design for the ‘other business’ was signed off instantly with a fairly complimentary email. The second he was more unsure of, although not entirely negative. Sensing he was unhappy with the design we suggested we consider an alternative (regardless of having agreed to a single design per site only), this was declined as the project was now ultra-mega urgent. Both designs were signed off to be built.
We went away and built the sites. The ongoing communication issues made this a little tricky but not impossible. The sites were now up. We could relax.
We could relax, for about three hours. This is where the bad really started. A day or so later I started getting seriously worrying emails from the client late at night about how massively unhappy he was with his website. Long, scary emails telling of how we were ruining his website and what “shit” we had given him, what awful people we were for daring to supply this dreadful service. Nothing specific, no information about what he didn’t like about his website just that he hated it and all his friends hated it and it was shit and awful and he was despairing about what to do. What to do? What should he do? Ah, that’s right, return to this country and get a bit threatening. Soon enough the emails were joined by their dear friends, the passive aggressive phone calls (with the balance more on the aggressive).
Some context. At this point in time I was already overwhelmed with the other problem client who I shall get to soon, also my lovely son had just been born. Things were pretty strained and I was exhausted.
After a fair amount of what by now was just outright bullying my tired brain could take no more and I agreed to completely redesign and build his site from scratch for no extra charge if he would just stop it with the heavy phone calls. I had a quick discussion with him over what he expected and put together a generic design and applied it to the website (we use an in-house website framework so we can just drop a new design over the top of an existing site). To get him out of my hair I had completely re-arranged my schedule to get this turned around in a day. Phone rang, assumed it would be a relatively grateful client. No. It was time to yell at me over how the hell could we charge so much for websites when I had just created one in less than 8 hours. Tried to explain that it was because the new one was not designed to requirements, it was just a generic template and that most of the heavy lifting had been done when we had put together the first version. Failed to explain the concept of templates to the client because I was FUCKING EXHAUSTED by this point. He wanted to know why he couldn’t have some money back since it clearly only took us a couple of hours to create a website from scratch.
Now we were not only “shit” we were also “cowboys” and “rip-off merchants”. So that was nice. He was now happy with both websites if not how much he had paid for them. Should have left it there? Probably. Didn’t though. As part of the service he had asked us to supply a regular review of the performance of his site (I would like to state we did not sell this to him, he asked). The service is a standard monthly report, you get the first one a month after site launch. Five days into site launch he’s on the phone asking where the damn monthly report is. This confused me. The demands for the report to be supplied NOW continued over the next few days until we gave in and just supplied it half a month in.
Here’s where the wrongness stepped up a level. In the report we identified a couple of areas of the project that could be improved on. Nothing mission critical, things that would generally be picked up prior to launch but hadn’t been as launch had been rushed through. This is the purpose of a report, to pick up on how the site is doing and how it can be improved. Nothing in the report indicated that we would charge for fixing the MINOR issues (we wouldn’t have). Another shouty phone call later about what awful fucking shit cowboys we were, with suggestions that we had deliberately added problems to the site so we could charge to fix them.
See, I don’t need this shit, I’m pretty good at my job and as explained above have enough good clients with good relationships to make a decent living. This client had insisted he wanted to use our services and no-one else’s – I had at least twice suggested he go to cheaper agencies and supplied him with a list. I had decided weeks previously that we would absolutely not be working for him again, I had already let him know we would not be able to do another project he had sent our way – which confused the fuck out of me, why would you continue to send more work to the shit cowboys who are apparently fucking you over? Really? We of course had some ongoing ties to him through updates to the website plus hosting/domain names, we had canceled the monthly reports. It was going to be a challenge to shift him entirely to another agency and I just didn’t want any further contact. But then…
A ray of light? Maybe? He was so sick to death of us and our horrific rip-off service he had decided to get a “mate who is a professional web designer and will do the site for free” to take over. Well done that mate. Would this make things better, would he go away and stop intimidating me? Would he fuck. I spoke to his ‘mate’ who seemed a little guarded about the whole deal but agreed (with a bit of persuasion) to take over control of all of the client’s hosting accounts and domains. Relieved I emailed both the client and his ‘mate’ to finalise everything, explained how the mate now had control of everything and we could no longer access anything so couldn’t be held responsible for any problems.
Peace and relief at last. No more threatening calls no more emails. For a couple of days. Turns out the mate hadn’t been quite the experienced professional he claimed and had managed to take down one of the websites. Not our problem? Remember the email explaining we couldn’t access anything and no longer had any responsibility over the websites? Well the client didn’t. Turns out mate decided to cover his own arse by pointing the finger at us saying we had taken the website down and he couldn’t do anything about it (he had broken the DNS records). The reaction..
THE REACTION, the reaction, the reaction to the website going down? Reasonable? Polite phone call? No. This was a saturday so wasn’t answering the phone first thing, what with new baby and a fairly unpleasant few weeks I had a lie in. I think that’s fair. No. No it isn’t. The reaction was to leave a voicemail (and and accompanying email) which consisted of shouting my home address followed by an indirect threat to send round someone to sort me out. At my home address. Client was aware of new baby. Did I mention this was Christmas week? No. This was Christmas week, with a new baby in the house and client was leaving voicemails threatening to send round unpleasant men to have a “discussion” with me. Made my own angry call back at him during which when asked if by “send people round to have a discussion” he meant “commit acts of violence against me and my family” he confirmed that was exactly what he meant and that was “how he does business” (don’t forget this was all over a FUCKING BUDGET WEBSITE). So, anyway, he refused to believe that we hadn’t killed his website as an act of malice and that it was the fault of his idiot friend but we came to the (incredibly angry) agreement that if I fixed his website he would go away and never contact me again in any form whatsoever. Website was fixed and barring some minor shitty emails he has now gone away and will hopefully never return. I did phone the police immediately after the phone call to him and they were incredibly supportive and helpful and took the whole thing very seriously (I have a harassment case against him which is suspended unless he ever contacts me again in which case I will absolutely be getting it moved forwards).
In short. Client unhappy with budget website makes serious threats of violence. Ridiculous situation and almost funny (will probably be fucking hilarious in a years time). Took me a while to regain composure and was generally unhappy about leaving nearly-wife and child alone for a good few weeks afterwards, not that I’d be fuck all use as anything apart from a meaty shield. As part of the “never contact me again” agreement I have agreed not to name the client, and I won’t, more for my own safety/sanity than anything else.
Christmas over, unpleasant man gone away time for some rest?
No, resting not allowed. At the same time as the unpleasant situation above was rolling to it’s unpleasant finale another project was going from being ‘a bit tricky’ to ‘fucking hell’ but in a very different manner.
In a perfect world I’d get to pick and choose which projects I/we accept and would never have to work on projects which I knew would be painful from the outset. It’s not a perfect world. Sometimes a client will come up with a project that is a little outside of our area and definitely on the list of jobs we would rather avoid, but we will be given the option of accept the project or lose all their business. Also, sometimes a client will insist that a project is carried out by us and not outsourced or handed over to people they have no prior experience of. This project covered both of these situations.
The project itself is a large, incredibly complicated application for a company who’s industry is notorious for strict and very complicated legislation. We were first brought in to discuss it a couple of years back, following which there were a couple of days consultancy here and there to look at how long it would be likely to take and what would be involved. After the last consultancy my advice was that it would need about six to nine months to complete, assuming that nothing major changed and that we were given fair warning to clear some space for it. For a while we heard nothing more. Then around about August we were called in to see the client and given until the end of December to complete the project. For another month or so we couldn’t start as we were waiting for information and sign-off from the client. By the time information, contracts and sign off were supplied we had four months to complete a (minimum) six month project including testing while already dealing with a heavy workload. Not helped that it was holiday season so we had extended periods where people involved were unavailable for a couple of weeks at a time.
The scale of the project was not what turned it into a Kafkaesque nightmare (although it didn’t help). It was the mind numbing circular horror of it all that drove me to a point where I felt a minor accident would be light relief. Firstly it was the number of people involved, we all know that design by committee is generally a terrible thing to be avoided, but design of a relatively complex financial application for a complicated industry by committee takes things to a new level. The actual client was generally ok and had a single person heading the project who could make final decisions on anything coming from within their organisation (and did so very very efficiently), it was the mass of government bodies and associated organisations all of whom had a say in the project but none of whom apparently communicated with each other in any form who made it difficult going. Often we would finish a chunk of the project only to be told we had to roll back and start again because some chap from some legal department somewhere had been on holiday when that aspect had been discussed and had since returned and introduced some additional layer of legal complexity to how it was managed.
Despite clear explanation that we did not have an encyclopeadic knowledge of the client’s industry and as such would need to be informed of anything that may possibly affect how we put it together we increasingly discovered that this was ignored and that again, after completing a large section of work we would need to either roll back entirely or make major adjustments due to some minor bureaucratic technicality which we had been utterly unaware of but the client had known all along and had assumed was obvious – as is often the case when you know a subject so well. This happened a lot.
The client had some troubles with the development process as well, perhaps in this case we should have clarified the importance but we didn’t and we made the assumption that everyone involved understood the purpose of signing off and testing. As there was a fair degree of R&D in the project (something the client & extended agencies also had trouble understanding the nature of) we didn’t have a single overriding spec (well we did but it was killed within the first fortnight), so we would spec up particularly important or complicated parts of the project and get them signed off before we carried them out. This could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, it would generally involve us discussing the aspect at length, writing out a spec explaining in English exactly what we would do, sending it to the client, discussing it with the client, asking them to read and review it and get back to us. Generally the client would sign off very quickly with no changes, which seemed nice, until it became clear the client was just not reading them because they didn’t have the time or couldn’t understand the purpose. The byproduct of this was of course roll-back and rewrite large chunks of project (again).
I have no problem with a long term R&D project, I’ve been involved in a few and the end result has generally been pretty good. I don’t think anything mission critical should be rushed, it should be developed within a sensible timeframe and carefully tested. Of course the problem with this is that someone needs to pay for the process. A couple of months past deadline now things were starting to go a little wonky, the project was eating all of our time to the detriment of work for other clients. We decided we couldn’t afford to continue to dedicate the time we had been to it any longer, bear in mind that at this point the majority of the work was scope creep in the form of new requirements and constantly redoing previous work in view of the problems described above. We were going to go to the client and suggest we dedicate a certain number of hours a week to their project so that we could work for others and not destroy our business. The client had other ideas and had concluded that we were too far over deadline and that we needed to step it up and work harder. Regardless that the reasons for the timeline were out of our control it was now our problem to deal with (there was a fair degree of internal politics involved here which I’m not going to discuss). To make things a little worse they also stated they they didn’t feel they should pay outside of the original cost which we were now well over (this is still in discussion).
Things switched pretty much overnight from being trying but amiable to cold and distressing. The calm lack of concern over deadlines was replaced with comments about how unhappy they were with how they had failed to meet their deadlines (bear in mind at this point that according to the timeline I had proposed we were not over deadline, we would have been pretty much dead on schedule). There were no specific threats but plenty of suggestions of repercussions if we didn’t hit the deadlines of the new timeline that the client defined (without any input from us). A decision was also made that we now had to submit twice weekly progress reports to the client explaining exactly what we had done over the last couple of days, attempts to explain that this would just slow down the process even more were met with indifference. Thus, rather than cutting back on time to allow for other clients we ended up having to pretty much cut out all other work and concentrate solely on this one constantly shifting project.
It’s nearly over now. Assuming the client doesn’t pull out any more major changes we are done aside from a handful of minor fragments of functionality we should be able to walk away in a couple weeks, well nearly, we’ll need to support the product for it’s life, so that will be lovely for all involved, considering faking my death. I am aware that it could still go mental again but hopeful that it will not.
The net effects of the last year have not been great. The effect on my business has been pretty awful, an understandable loss of faith from the majority of clients which is going to take some effort to win back. We’ve missed the opportunity on some really good projects. We’re currently about two to three months behind on pretty much everything that’s not related to the hellproject. Fortunately, as mentioned before we have some truly lovely clients with whom I’m been absolutely honest about the situation and as such they have been very supportive, which is hugely appreciated.
The effects on my mental health have been far worse. From a general shitty depression to intensifying paranoia it’s been a hilarious ride. Times usually put aside for personal creative projects have been replaced with lying down unable to consider my poor abandoned sketchbook & camera. Anxiety attacks when the phone rings or I need to check my email, coupled with obsessive email checking (even at 3 in the morning). Fluctuating insomnia which in turn beats the depression in that little bit harder. Recently (hilariously) I’ve found that any contact with anyone with the same first name as anyone on the hellproject team has made me stupidly twitchy. My social life has flatlined, although I am very grateful to friends who have been supportive. I did pick up a slightly odd habit of buying toys for a few weeks, I have an office full of action figures, fortunately this appears to have stopped again now.
It’s all been a bit poor overall, I think my inability to work on anything of my own has been the most upsetting outcome of the whole bucket of cocks.
There is a positive outcome to all this nonsense in the form of a harsh learning experience. I’m fully aware that this has been entirely my own fault, I was aware at the start of both of these projects that we should absolutely not be touching them but in both cases I allowed myself to get talked into doing them. I’ve been woken up to the reality that in many ways I’ve been doing it wrong. I’ve already made some major changes to how I do business and there’s more to come. Primarily I need to be more assertive, not just with jobs I don’t want to accept but with any project which is not going in the right direction, there’s no long term benefit to putting out below par work, it gives no job satisfaction and acts as a shitty advert for my services, if I’m in a situation where the client or another team member is putting the quality of the project at risk I need to be making major noise. Making time for friends and family must become a priority, alongside ensuring I have time for my own projects and for keeping up to date with the industry and current techniques. One irritating side effect of the last few months is I’m fairly out of date with social media and web development. Making time for my own projects has always been an important part of the creative process, it’s during these that I generally learn new tricks and get a chance to improve my skills without a deadline or a budget.
I’ve had the opportunity to seriously evaluate my career and how I deal with people to ensure I never get in this situation again. The phrase “it’s just business” has been repeatedly forced on me, it’s bullshit and I’m not going to accept it. There’s no solid argument for me accepting work that will detriment the quality of my work as a whole, it’s bad for my existing clients and it’s bad for me in that the quality of my portfolio will drop. As Spock said, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, I’m not sure he had web design in mind but it works.
I verge on the cautious when vomiting my inner daemons onto the internet, it’s all too easy to open the door to a whole range of horrors, there’s a chance I may delete this within minutes of uploading it. I wanted to write this for a few reasons. Firstly as an attempt at catharsis, to help me move on from the bullshit and clear my head. I thought it might be sensible to put it down to point friends towards when the somewhat regular question of “where the hell have you been and why do you look like a recovering crackhead” comes up. Mostly as a warning to others, I’ve seen friends and colleagues get into similar situations, I don’t think without the benefit of foresight that many people are aware of quite how badly a freelance job can go, and the awful situations you can end up in. Not all jobs are equal, if you really think a project is going to go badly from the off it’s best to run away, a ‘bad’ job can be incredibly damaging.
Moving on, hopefully the worst is now over and self-repair will start to kick in properly soon. I’m going to draw stuff, photograph stuff and write awful industrial hip-hop, or I might just sleep for a while.
If you have found this moderately entertaining, can I recommend you visit Clients from Hell it will come as no surprise that many people have sent me there in recent times.
I am Bob. This is my blog. It is an outlet and a substitute for real life. It contains my art, photography, illustration and thoughts on mental health (I deal with anxiety on a pretty much constant basis).
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