On Giving Refunds with Kindness (But Taking No Shit)
April 13, 2021
“Btw, I need your advice on something!”
I knew instantly what she was going to ask me. It's the same thing that all my friends come to me for advice for. Not talking shit to boys, which was obviously my favorite past-time in college 🤷♀️, but rather, a different kind of talk:
How to word hard emails.
So we ordered a round of mango mimosas—as one does on the beach of Costa Rica at Sunday brunch—and my wedding planner friend began to tell me a story about a new client who had engaged her services, submitted a deposit, and then, after several weeks of meetings and planning and phone calls and work having been performed, decided to cancel her wedding in Costa Rica—not because of COVID, but because of a personal change in plans—and wanted a refund in full.
And here's where it always gets sticky.
In the creative world, we have what's called a “kill fee”—a fee that you should have in your client agreement that states how much money your business keeps if the client decides to cancel the project in phase one, phase two, phase three, and so forth. This is because you've already performed a portion of the work, and you need to get compensated for that time. But it's also because, when you take on a client, you effectively block out that time for that client, and therefore need to turn other business away—and that's an opportunity cost. (Especially in a wedding planning scenario, where she would have blocked out a specific weekend for that wedding, and had to turn down other weddings.)
This is why we have a kill fee. 🔪 (In any other context this sounds like the money paid to a hit man, LOL.)
Typically they're either a percentage of the value of the overall project, or a flat fee that's charged, depending on how you work and the length of the engagement.
And my friend's agreement did have some language in there for what happens in the event of cancellation, but unfortunately it wasn't specific. It was something vague and broad to the tune of, “In the event of cancellation, refunds will be given at the planner's discretion.”
So of course, this is subjective. And of course, this creates room for argument.
So OF COURSE, when my friend replied to the client, letting her know she understood and would calculate the value of the work performed and issue her a refund of the remainder, the client wasn't satisfied with that reply. She wanted a refund in full. The logic: nothing had officially been “booked yet,” and therefore, my friend hadn't done any work.
Mistake number two: not documenting—and communicating—the effort you're exerting on behalf of a client.
Whenever I deliver a page of copy I've written for a client, I do so in Google Docs so I can meticulously offer the rationale behind every decision. I'll leave detailed comments in the margins drilling down to the individual sentence and even individual word level, and then provide commentary that explains why I selected a certain message, why I positioned the product this way, why I've written the sentence like this, and even why I've chosen a particular word. I do that because otherwise, what's the deliverable look like?
A piece of paper with a couple of rinky-dink paragraphs!
They don't know that I spent *days* doing research and determining the brand proposition. They don't know that I spent 4 hours on that 7-word headline. They don't know that I spend 2 hours on that paragraph, or the next. They don't know that I engineered every sentence with the kind of precision you might reserve for a surgeon. (And a surgeon doing celebrity tits, at that!)
So I always show my work as a part of the process, and I always keep a thorough record of my work—not because difficult clients are aplenty (most are good!), but because I think it's an important part of professionalism and craftsmanship. And also, turns out, proving your value and nurturing the client/provider relationship.
My friend's next move, then, should be an email that says the following:
I'm terribly sorry to disappoint: due to a portion of the work having already been performed, a refund in full isn't possible at this stage. (See details below.) However, what I can do is get you as much of your financial investment back as possible, while also providing fair compensation for my labor investment thus far. #teamwork
Hours worked to date: X. [And/or Emails exchanged to date / Whatsapp messages exchanged to date / Phone calls exchanged to date. You'd be surprised how quickly they add up and can help show your time investment, even if you weren't tracking hourly.]
Work performed included: X, Y, Z, A, B, C.
Billed at standard hourly rate: X
Your deposit of X, less the work performed of Y, results in a total refund of Z.
[Alternatively, if you'd prefer not to attach your time to an hourly rate, you can omit that section and simply state that “this was your deposit amount, and I'll return X of it as an act of good faith.”]
I hope that feels like a fair and reasonable compromise. Kindly reply to this email to confirm payment details and I'll be happy to go ahead and process a refund in the amount of X right away so you can start applying those funds to your new wedding plans!
We'll miss you here in Costa Rica, and do wish you the very best.
This way, you're not busting out them fightin' words right way—”LOOK AT THE CONTRACT YOU SIGNED, DOTTY!!!!—and you're also allowing for an opportunity for an open and kind discussion. Of course, the keywords here are “fair” and “reasonable.” Appealing to a client's sense of justice can go far in a matter when a client truly doesn't *understand* the work you're doing—they only see the deliverable at the end—so in most cases, it's truly a matter of gently educating them on what work has been performed on their behalf, and then, of course, being paid for that labor. This is the second piece that's powerful: mentioning the investment of labor. That word has weight and it really drives home the point: by not paying me for my labor, you're contributing to a much greater problem. Too many women perform invisible labor, day in and day out, and never get paid a fucking dime. So it's important to stand up for the value of your work whenever you can—particularly in a professional setting where the expectation was compensation. (Sidenote: sometimes I wonder how many clients would be demanding refunds in full, despite evidence of work performed, if they were dealing with a man. JUST SAYIN'.)
Additionally, appealing to the #teamwork angle can be useful because it takes it from “me against you” to “let's work together to find a fair and honest solution” and can help exchanges like this go more smoothly than if you were to, say, send back an angry, bitter email that says, “I'm sorry you feel that way. Please see the agreement you signed. I won't be issuing you a refund.” You sound like a bitter child. (Plus, that's just going to get you a big, fat chargeback request and hurt your standing with your payment processor, and you don't want that, either.)
So three rules here: (a) Don't kill your client—but do include a detailed kill fee 🔪; (b) Always document your work AND show your work, not just the end deliverable; (c) In the event of a dispute, be as kind and generous as you're able to be, but also don't take shit and do advocate for the value of your own labor.
Just because they can't see it, doesn't mean it wasn't worth something.
And just because I can't see my mango mimosa, doesn't mean I didn't drink it. 😉