Should I ask every client to sign a contract? In other words, does it show professionalism or does it turn people off? Should I ask for a contract if the job is a certain length or certain importance?
To me it varies based upon the customer. If its a valid reputable company I don't ask them to sign my own agreement. They will have their agreement which they want me to sign. In that case I use that document as an agreement. If its a smaller client I will provide the agreement. If its a smaller client and I am unsure if they will pay I also ask for a upfront deposit.
So to answer your question it depends. There should always be a document which is signed by both parties which spells out the work. The document could be provided by either side. In some cases there is an additional deposit. If a deposit is used it is mentioned in the signed document.
Yes! Yes! Yes!
I rolled my eyes when I read your question... sorry... but I did.
The contract is there for both of you and if you read questions elsewhere on freelancing, you'll read several who cut corners and found themselves with headaches.
Contracts set expectations.
Your expectations: Do you expect to be paid? How much? When? For what? If your client is late paying, what happens? If you are late delivering, what happens? If you under-deliver, or miss-deliver, what happens?
Your clients expectations: They expect you to deliver a product or service. Your interpretation of the product or service is more than likely different than your clients expectations, and worse, both of you will differ the result.
Your client expects a bushel of apples, you deliver green, they expected red. Their idea of a bushel contains larger apples, your bushel idea contains many smaller apples.
So now... you have paid workers to pick those green apples, you don't know anyone else who wants green apples so you hope your customer will still take them off you.
But they wanted red apples.
So... who decides on a compromise? Who decides that they pay you 80% of what you expected? 50% of what you expected? Who decides they pay you anything at all?
Let's say one of your apples is bad - too much weed killer sprayed, it kills someone. Your customer of course should have washed the apples, but they thought you washed the apples. Who is liable? The courts will decide. And without a contract that makes clear on where responsibility lie's, you'll be at the mercy of the court.
Every bus or train ticket you ever got, every rental car, every hotel room, they all came with a contract even if you did not know it. Its there to protect you, and them. It sets limits/boundaries.
Best of luck!
A contract is like a seat belt in a car.
You don't need it.
Until you need it.
Well.... it depends....
Quite honestly I don't bother with contracts for small jobs. But I'm also aware that I assume the risk when doing so. I know that without a contract it's entirely possible I get stiffed and have little recourse. But in some cases the trouble to go file a claim, appear in court/arbitration, and then pay collection fees just isn't worth it. Be aware, US courts do not collect money for you if you win. You still have to collect yourself. That may mean hiring collection agencies, etc. Winning in court just gives you legal right to collect (garnishment, liens, etc). No one has to give you a check when you leave the courthouse.
If someone wants something quick and easy for $100... I'm not asking them to sign a contract for that. I just need anything in writing that states they agree to pay what I've told them it'll cost (generally email, but texts in some cases). But I do this far more for discussion points later than any legal reason. If they refuse to pay me the $100, I'll point out that they agreed to pay. But chances are, I'm not taking them to small claims for $100. I'll just make it known that "CompanyX/PersonX" doesn't pay their bills.
I use contracts with new clients for projects of generally high 3 figures or more. Or for any project which has complex deliverables, scope, and reoccurring payments. If a project is very involved and deadlines are dispersed or milestones are necessary.. a contract is really a wise choice to put in clear writing what everyone thinks is the agreement. The more detailed a project is the more a contract becomes mandatory.
For repeat clients I tend to waive the contract more and more. Once trust has been established I rely on that. Sure I could get stuck in some of these cases, but in my experience, if a client pays without issue once or twice, chances are they will always pay and taking an extra day to deal with contract signing is often more delay than is necessary. I get them to agree to pricing/deadlines via email... then see that as enough.
I'll never tell anyone to not use a contract. But there are cases where a full-blown overly detailed, 3 page contract may be a bit much.
I use three documents. Standard terms and conditions of service, schedule of work, and quotation.
The quote says it will cost this much, with this deposit and this much due on so and so etc. It also has on it that this is a quotation for work detailed in the schedule of work, and that you agree to our terms and conditions.
The schedule of work also has reference to our standard terms and conditions. This document outlines the work covered in the quote, what will be done, by when, who signs off etc.
The standard terms and conditions are on the website, and cover all the 'No refunds. Work is mine until paid stuff'.
In the last ten years barely a single customer has ever asked for the terms and conditions. They pay their deposit, I start work. If they want to add something into the schedule of work they get a separate quote, a schedule of work for the amendment, and if they want to include it, they can.
I do not ask anyone to sign anything ever. There is simply no need when the quote and the schedules all say you agree and are bound to our standard terms and conditions of service.
I know a lot of people will bemoan this attitude. The only time I have come unstuck was when I agreed to start work without a full deposit, and that customer duly disappeared. I learned my lesson and moved on.
PS You should never be out of pocket during a project. The deposit should at least cover any initial outlay and a big % of your time that you have invested in the project. If it is a big project, you have payment points along the way to keep the project rolling. If the customer bails at any time you are covered and have not lost anything, except the nice profit margin you were expecting as the final payment.
Yes you should always use contracts for all jobs. It isn't a question of turning off clients it's a question of defining the legal relationship between you and your clients, the expectations and deliverables that the work encompasses and how disputes will be remedied. It also helps you define when work will be considered done and how pay will be allocated. It also gives you the opportunity to discuss these issues before work starts and or you and you client fall out of love with each other....
I don't always make clients sign contracts for small tasks (I do always for all the rest), but I should, mainly for these very important reasons:
Declaration of release on ownership of digital and physical materials that the client provides to me (brands, photos, texts, etc).
Acceptance of privacy and sensible data treatment policy (in EU is a big issue in terms of bureaucracy and high penalties).
Explicitly fix limits of your service to what is written in the contract and nothing else. This may sounds obvious but more times happened to me that if you set up an ecommerce, or else, the client naively assume that is included that you must provide courses on how Internet works, how to use the scanner, fix issues with antivirus interacting with the email client, fix broken printers, clean the office and bring coffee. If that happens and the client is stubborn or trying to take advantage on you, you have your contract that he/she signed. I added that to my contracts specifically after a couple of times that people started to ask me anything and call me at every hour for any computer related problem, assuming that I had to provide assistance in things that I couldn't care less and totally out of the work that I had to do. (I'm open to give advices or solve some problem once in a while, but not on a regular basis or client pretending me to do so).
Anyway I have a 4 pages contract (one page front/back with job specs and data, another page front/back with standard legalese stuff) and during all these years only one time happened that the client got to read it and asked me for clarification. For other hundreds contracts everyone signed it on pure faith without even watching it (they sign a declaration that they fully read and understood it!). But where I live is normal because people are used, if you open a bank account, an adsl or a telephone line you sign like 15 times on contracts big nearly as a 20-30 pages with legal texts impossible to understand even if you try (unless you are a specilized lawyer then you can try an interpetation).