When it comes to client care, you pride yourself on a flexible approach; on being able to tailor your service to meet the specific needs of your clients. But is it possible to be too flexible? Your service contract is a case in point. Deviating from your standard terms merely to get the client on board can be a risky business – especially if you are being asked to assume duties or liabilities that you wouldn’t ordinarily take on.
Here are some points to bear in mind…
Bowing to pressure on key terms: what message does it send?
Most of us have been tempted to bow to commercial pressure from time to time: to deviate from our preferred way of doing things with an eye on the bigger prize. So does it really matter if certain clauses in our service contract are ‘tweaked’ – or if the entire agreement is jettisoned in favour of one drawn up by the client?
Bear in mind that each of the terms and conditions set out in your contract is likely to be there for a reason. A fit-for-purpose client contract is likely to reflect the stipulations and recommendations of your profession’s governing body or association.
Finally, and by no means least of all, the contract should reflect your preferred way of working. It should stipulate what your clients can expect from you and equally as importantly, what you expect from your clients. In short, how you word your contract can go a long way in helping you to manage client expectations.
When a client requests that you depart from your standard contract, ask for their reasons. If they are unfamiliar with your particular niche, it may be simply a case of explaining problematic terms.
In other cases, you may be asked to depart completely from your own standard form and use a contract drawn up by the client. If this is simply a case of the same industry-standard terms set out in a slightly different format, you may not see any problem with this.
Tread carefully, however: especially when it comes to seemingly innocuous slight changes to the wording. If in doubt, seek legal advice before signing the contract.
Scope for confusion
In most professions, standard service contracts have evolved over time to cover the issues that typically arise in provider/client relationships. Where specific terms are used widely, they are generally well understood, resulting in fewer misunderstandings.
As well as making it easier for parties to know where they stand, industry-wide terms can also make it easier to resolve disputes in areas such as payment and the standard of work expected. In the event of such a dispute, courts or arbitrators can refer to previous decisions concerning the same terms to consider what is “reasonable” in the circumstances.
Using unfamiliar wording can create an unnecessary hurdle, requiring the court to decipher what the parties may or may not have had in mind when they entered into the contract.
That’s not to say, however, that you should be a slave to your standard templates. If a particular job requires a slightly different approach to the norm, your contract may need to be modified. If in doubt, seek advice before making those modifications and make sure both yourself and your client are on the same page before you enter into the agreement.
Stepping out of your comfort zone: the dangers
Are you proposing to amend your contract to slash your standard estimated time-frame for completion of a project? If so, have you carried out a detailed assessment to determine whether the work is achievable within that window?
Similar considerations apply if, for instance, you intend to reduce your usual price for a particular job or if you intend to ‘dabble’ in a niche that is slightly outside of your main area of expertise and you need to amend your contract accordingly.
Stop and think before you depart from a standard term contract: is what you are promising reasonably likely to be achieved – and what are the consequences if you fail to deliver? This consideration should form part of a broader risk management process, which professional indemnity insurance brokers such as Bluefin Professions can advise on.