You know, if you drop an ice cream cone on the ground, before you can even say, “Sheets of fudge,” there will be 18 ants on it with 600 of their closest friends blazing their way to the party. No five-second rules apply here. All you can do is shell out for another cone. So, too, if you present your customers with a loosely-written contract, will you attract complaints.
You try to avoid those contracts with 1 page of large, readable print and 3 pages of micro-printed legalese, if possible. Yet, after centuries of people finding and exploiting loopholes and assumptions in contracts, it became necessary to write into contracts language against every conceivable twist and turn an unprincipled customer can take against you. Even simple user agreements for software read like the King James Bible. What a sad commentary that is on our society, no?
The Letterista hates it when you lose profits or face. Try not to disappoint her.
Is it possible to create a standard contract that covers all the bases without leaving pinholes for crafty clients to abuse while simultaneously keeping it to a reasonable length? It’s not easy, but for the most part, we believe it can be done. Here are a few tips for creating a readable contract that can even give you a sales advantage over your competitors.
Include ALL the pertinent details of the work to be done
As an honest business, you have no desire to obfuscate your contracts so that you can take advantage of ambiguities against your customers. But what about excluding details that you don’t think are important to your customers because they are technical and of more interest to the fulfillment team? Ignoring those details on your contracts could be a big mistake.
For example, let’s say you are a carpenter bidding to replace half the fascia boards on the customer’s house. You and the customer know that you’re going to replace the fascia only on the front and right side of the house. You could draw up a contract that says, “Replace the fascia on the front and side of house.” (The Letterista has seen contracts written like this by the best and most honest carpenters on Earth who shall remain nameless. You know who you are.) Forty-nine times out of fifty, that would be perfectly sufficient, but it will be that fiftieth customer who, once you are all finished, will claim you were supposed to have replaced the fascia on the other side of the house instead. Can you prove he’s wrong? Won’t that effort devolve into a he-said-she-said skirmish? You could have avoided the whole dust-up if only you had spelled out that one tiny detail in the contract. You can now either fight the customer or lose your profit on the job by also doing to the fascia on the other side of the house. With that detail left off the contract, you have no grounds to reply to a complaint and come out looking like the aggrieved party. Either way, you lose.
Another example: You are a landscaper and are going to install a front yard with sod. Your contract says so, but it doesn’t say how many square feet and, guess what, you or your sales person mis-measured the area. By a lot (pun not intended). The customer saw your stupendously low price, suspected a mistake, but said not one word about it. Had you included the square footage in writing, you would have perfect legal recourse against the customer’s claim that you must cover her whole yard even though the contract price doesn’t pay for even the sod, much less the labor, overhead and profit. Had your contract read, “Install 200 sq/ft of bluegrass sod,” instead of “Install sod over entire front yard,” the client’s claim that you must install 2,000 square feet for the price of 200 can be politely challenged while avoiding any accusations that she is deliberately trying to rip you off. Yes, it’s embarrassing, but it happens. If you’re in business long enough, such things will happen to you, guaranteed.
We know it takes time, and that attention to details of nanometer sizes is not everyone’s forte, but it pays to take a deep breath, consider every detail that could come back to bite you in the briefs if you fail to include it and force yourself to write it in. You may never know how much you save in time, energy and money not having to defend yourself and your profits from contractual polysemousness. And that’s the kind of ignorance that rocks you to sleep at night.
Release the fine print from the dungeon and give it something to eat
But there’s so much of it, how can I do that? you ask with a tinge of annoyance. Here’s an idea: read it yourself and see if you can’t say the same thing in very plain language. Plain language uses fewer words which can then be up-sized for human consumption. Do you really need a whole paragraph, scalped from some pre-fab, generic contract about force majeur? We mean, really, if a tornado rips your client’s house up by the roots and ships it to Timbuktu, you already have solid legal standing to not fulfill your siding contract as it was written. And if the government bans all use of wood products except for the printing of fiat currency, you can’t be held to a contract for building a wood fence. If the feds hyperinflate the currency overnight, the problems you’ll face will be a bit more serious than any pending contract, don’t you think?
We think a good contract distills the fine print like a fine, single-malt Scotch, brings it into the light and allows you to go over it point by point with your clients. Use an extra page or two rather than squeeze everything onto one or, worse yet, the back of the main page. Your customers will appreciate having the legalese explained point by point and will remember that courtesy when it comes time to pick the winning bid.
Personalize each contract
How easy it is to use pre-printed, fill-in-the-blanks forms, in triplicate, for professional contracts, especially for cookie-cutter type work like residential roofing or furnace check-ups? If your business is a franchise, it may even be required. This is fine as long as you don’t mind blending in with all your competitors as the customer’s bids stack up. However, if you want to stand out, contemplate using a contract template on your computer that you can customize for each client and type in the singular details as needed. If your business entails meeting your customers at their home, bring along a mobile printer.
By using your own template, you can design a contract that looks professional and unique, the one your customer will remember and peruse again. But the biggest benefit is using the least amount of handwriting possible which often requires an Egyptologist to decipher, especially for us aging Boomers who are too vain to accept that we need to supplement our hair coloring with cataract surgery.
Make contracts as precise as work orders.
Winning a contract and fulfilling it often employ different sets of people. Once a sales effort becomes a contract, the terms must be related to the crew who will make the dream come true. This means that the crew must know exactly what it is supposed to do, and ambiguity is not an option. As details easily fall through the cracks when your day sustains barrages of interruptions while you are translating the terms of a contract into the orders for the crew, why not make the contract and work order very nearly the same thing?
When the document you and your client sign so thoroughly explains what is going to happen that you can make a copy and give it to your crew as the work order then you, your customer and your crew will each have the same expectations, and this is what makes a run-of-the-mill agreement a great contract.