Would you refund the deposit if the client wasn’t happy?

Before I share this story about whether to refund the deposit, I want you to know:

If you hire me for a project, I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to make it a success.

With that said—I’m writing this because it’s relevant to many of my clients who are creative professionals, like me.

A few months ago, I got approached by a prospect for a very large project.

This client posed no red flags at the time—except maybe that it all sounded too good to be true. I knew I could do a good job—and I was excited. And after sailing through my client intake process, the client signed my contract, gave a deposit and we began work.

When I delivered the first round, the initial WordPress development of the site, the client came back saying they weren’t happy. They wanted it to do a bunch of things (that they hadn’t mentioned before). I’m not a mind reader, so I was happy to get more clarity in order to ensure round two was on-point. I incorporated all the adjustments that were asked for.

When I delivered the second round, they said: This looks great. Let me take the weekend to review. Usually a good sign, right?

On Monday, I received an aggressive phone call saying that I wasn’t up to completing the task to their requirements and they wanted me to refund the deposit THAT DAY. I was shocked. I tried to get specifics about what was lacking and how we could make it right. They insisted—refund the deposit! I stumbled over my words and managed to say something like: If you don’t want to continue the project, I need to be compensated for my time. Let me take the night to think about it.

After hanging up, I got an email that said: I don’t think it should take that long to look at your hours and we expect a response by lunchtime.

This was the first time this has ever happened. I was upset. Shocked. And I truly didn’t know what to do.

Now—my contract does state that all deposits are non-refundable, and that all disputes must go through arbitration. (Your contract should do the same.)

With my mentor’s advice, I decided to contact my attorney to double-check my contract.

My attorney said that legally, I was covered. The deposit was mine to keep.

After reviewing the time I spent working on this project, and recalling the way the client treated me during that phone call, I ended up not needing to sleep on it. I stand by my work. I did a good job. And they decided to end the project—not me.

I sent the client an email that I wasn’t going to refund the deposit and didn’t get a response.

I pondered what went wrong and thought of a bunch of different scenarios.

But I think maybe it’s just a reminder that things don’t go perfectly all the time—and we need to have our butts covered just in case.

Want more insight on this topic? Check out what to say (and do) when…the client wants the deposit back.

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16 thoughts on “Would you refund the deposit if the client wasn’t happy?

  1. I appreciate you sharing your story, Jill. I don’t know you at all except through what you share via your newsletter and Marketing Mentor blog posts but you’ve always seemed quite relatable to me–someone like myself who’s successfully been in business for a quite some time, really enjoys her work, takes pride in doing an excellent job, and really cares about her clients. So I’m as surprised as you were about this client’s response and like you, I would have felt similarly. I read your article right after reading Seth Godin’s post about how you can’t please everyone–how apropos! It sounds like you handled this uncomfortable, baffling situation very well. Glad you had your contract dialed in. Like insurance, most of the time it doesn’t seem like you need it until that one time you do and then you’re grateful to have it.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Jill. What I don’t understand even more is the tone they took with you. There just is no need for that. I think them cutting ties was a blessing in disguise. Sounds like they might have been trying to get something for nothing from the get-go and could have been even worse to deal with as you got further into the project.

  3. Thank you, Jill, for sharing. Yes, it is hard when that happens. With this, I feel like I need to have my contract checked by a lawyer. We cannot please every customer and sometimes when a customer does not provide you with all the details of what they want and you finish the work, they do not want. In my contract, past 7 days the deposit is not refundable.

  4. I read this article because I was wondered what situation would merit the question the headline poses.

    I’m still wondering — the experience the article describes is such plainly abusive behaviour by the client, it doesn’t need any questioning at all.

    Even without a contract, I don’t think I would return the deposit. The function of a deposit is so that development can actually begin. The moment the money is transferred, the sales talk is done, and the project plan and goals are implicitly approved.

    A prospective client always has the chance to review previous creative and project results, and perhaps comes to you with peer recommendations as well. This limits room for subjective argument if they don’t like the results (interim results, in this case).

    If the designer is just starting out, the client might have reason to balk (e.g. no similar projects, or the designer is in over their head), but the dynamics in general would probably be different on both sides in that case.

    Most importantly, tangible work was produced; your part of the bargain was met.

    Two explanations for this happening come to mind:

    1) There is a severely dysfunctional chain of command within the client’s organization.

    2) There was an intent (perhaps from the beginning) to “pull a fast one”, by illicitly securing a project starting point that they would complete in-house, or using another agent.

    Neither of these should be your problem. The deposit is the least that can be expected to cover the impact of their actions on your studio.

    It is worth considering that the client might tarnish your reputation for keeping the deposit, but you’ve already had a whiff of their dirty laundry; do you think they’d be willing to wave it around in public?

    1. Thanks, Richard! Not sure if they will air their grievances in public or not. So far I haven’t seen anything out there like that. And, I did think that perhaps they were trying to pull a fast one. Perhaps making a copy of the HTML to use as a starting point? Who knows.

  5. Their loss! You are talented, professional, extremely clear in your communications, fair and honest. I can’t imagine anyone not being pleased with your work and your work ethic.

  6. Hey Jill, interesting story, thanks for sharing. It sounds like a horrible situation for you to have experienced. My only suggestion going forward would be to ensure you have one dedicated decision maker and that they sign-off any work before you commence working on it. Get them to send you an email also, so it’s all in writing.

    Before working on the first round, did you discuss all the requirements the site needed to have in place during your client intake process? Also, did you ever find out why they weren’t happy with it?!

    Keep your chin up, clients like this are rare and it’s usually clients who haven’t worked with a designer before so don’t know how to deal with them professionally.

  7. This definitely sounds upsetting, Jill, but you handled it perfectly, even under stressful circumstances! We’ve all had those Jekyll/Hyde clients, and it’s helpful to know we’re not alone in that regard. As one of *your* happy clients, I can vouch for the fact that you are a brilliant designer and programmer…plus, you’re incredibly wonderful and professional to work with! I’d call this a bizarre fluke and I’m glad it’s behind you. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  8. Jill, I appreciate your work and your sharing this sad episode. I recently had a similarly disappointing (and similarly rare) experience with a new contact representing an established nonprofit client. Unlike my regular contacts, this person was a volunteer, and was determined to micro-manage every aspect of creative development despite having no such experience. The granular level of direction he began offering once design concepts were on the table made me think that he was consulting with a friend or family member with a design background, or at least enough design knowledge to be dangerous. I wonder if that might have happened in your case behind the scenes. In any case, glad you had your contract in place and that you stood strong.

  9. Since I don’t know anything about the client, I can only speculate. But here’s what I envision happened, simply because it’s happened to me:
    1. Your client appears happy by the end of the week.
    2. Over the weekend client shows your work to someone like his cousin or friend who thinks they know something about design, or maybe it was even another designer. Whoever it was, the person is unrelated to the project.
    3. Because Person #2 hasn’t been part of the planning, the creative brief, or your contract, they know nothing about the project and have an opinion that goes completely against it.
    4. Your client isn’t smart enough to realize this and is easily influenced by Person #2.
    5. Your client acts impulsively, maybe even following Person #2’s advice, and demands refund.
    6. When you say you will think on it, your client needs to save face and act tough.
    7. When you hold your own, point out your contract, the client has nothing to go on (and possibly feels stupid).
    8. Given time, and after working with another designer, your client will likely realize his behavior was to his own detriment.

    Your work is awesome, Jill Lynn. You are professional, ethical, and bring success to your clients. This was your client’s loss.

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