Friday, April 11, 2008

Dealing With Problem Clients: Maybe the Problem is You

I remember when I was first starting out, I had a terrible time with a client who had never worked with a freelancer before. My first drafts never hit the right tone; he was always trying to get me to do more than the contract specified; and we just seemed to lock horns a lot. At the time, I considered him to be a "problem" client.

I just finished a project with another client in a similar industry who also had never hired freelancers before. This client was a little more work than a more experienced client would be, but still the project went relatively smoothly. Thinking about it, however, I realized that the project went better in part because I had more experience dealing with this type of client--and I was able to head off some of the typical problems before they happened.

When you're just starting out, taking on a demanding or inexperienced client can be asking for trouble. Here are some of the ways you might be making the problem clients worse.

You're not clear enough. I definitely had this problem when I first started: I wasn't absolutely clear on what could and could not be done, and this led to misunderstandings. Some of the things I've learned to spell out clearly include the fact that deadlines depend on client response; the more forthcoming they are on interviews the better my copy will be; and vague adjectives like "edgy" or "approachable" need to be more clearly defined.

You don't stand your ground. Your business policies are the way they are for a reason; so are your prices. Sometimes clients put pressure on us to change business policies or prices, but for the most part that's a bad idea. WIth some--especially clients without large budgets or without prior experience working with freelancers--it's important to stay firm. If you do, and if they know what you can and can't accommodate, they can be easier to work with.

You don't realize you need to educate your clients. Some clients don't know that a 50% deposit is the norm or that you need considerable feedback and information from them in order to deliver an effective product. Others see your quote for a single-page press release, and think a single-page sales letter should cost the same. Some don't have expectations that are in line with reality--usually because they haven't worked with freelancers before. You can let it make you crazy, or you could explain as clearly as you can. Some writers refuse to justify their prices or practices, but I've found many seemingly "problem" clients can be reasonable once they understand why you have certain policies or practices.

You're a prima donna. Maybe you have strong feelings about the copy--but in this business, you can't treat it like your Magnum Opus. Everything you write belongs to the client, and if they want changes, ultimately you need to go along. It's important to learn when to take a stand on the writing and when to give in.

You're not asking the right questions. As writers, it's our job to communicate clearly. Many of us complain that we got the first draft wrong because the client's directions weren't clear--but we're the ones who should make sure they are before we start. Your client questionnaire is a crucial tool in gathering the information you need to write a powerful piece of copy. If you're getting a lot of responses from clients dissatisfied with your first draft, you might want to take a second look at the questions you're asking.

You're not picking the right clients. You don't have to say "yes" to every project. Knowing which projects to take on and which to avoid is an instinct that takes some experience to hone. You may be experiencing a lot of headaches from problem clients because you haven't yet learned the signs of a problem project, or you don't realize it's OK to say no occasionally.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Jennifer -

Setting clear and reasonable expectations at the start is key to any project's success. (I think we've all learned that the hard way ...)

Thanks for your great advice!

Anonymous said...

This post reminded me of a recent article I read at .
It isn't about freelance writing but many of the same type of problems occurred between Harris Corp. and The Census Bureau regarding handheld computers for the 2010 census.
The following was taken from the above article to illustrate the lack of communication between Harris and the Census Bureau -

"Cheryl L. Janey of Florida-based Harris Corp. (HRS), the company supplying the computers, told a House committee that census officials failed to adequately spell out the specifications for the computers.

"It was just this past January, two years after the contract was first issued, that we received more than 400 new and altered contract modifications," Janey told the House Oversight Committee.

Janey said the computers will work "in conformity with Census Bureau specifications," but the specifications were inadequate.

Congressional investigators also put most of the blame on the Census Bureau, but said Harris Corp. was also at fault.

"The Harris Corp. does have the responsibility to converse with the Census Bureau to define those requirements more completely," said David Powner of the Government Accountability Office. "I don't think they're completely off the hook here."

Census Director Steven Murdock, who took over just four months ago, said the bureau "did not effectively convey to the contractor the complexity of census operations."

The bottom line is Harris Corp. has a problem client. I wish they had done a better job of educating their client because now we all have to pay for this problem!

Star Lawrence said...

Even when you have a contract and have kicked things around, a client can turn annoying. I try to decide if a prospect will ever be happy with the relationship--if I think they are too bossy-sounding and disrespectful of what I offer, I usually walk. And sometimes I don't call it. I would be too quick to blame it on yourself, though.

Anonymous said...

It's really important to be open to criticism because it can be really helpful. Mistakes are made to learn from, and it really doesn't pay to always blame others.

Unknown said...

Amen, amen, AMEN! It's all true, especially the part about standing your ground. You have to do that from the get-go in order to set the right tone and authority. Not that they don't own their projects, but the process? It's all yours, baby.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Thanks for all the comments--and I can see I'm not the only one who learned this the hard way! Mark, that's a scary article--and it shows that every company has to care about these issues; it's both parties' responsibility to ensure understanding. Lori, this is true too--I definitely have a post coming about contract work vs. full-time employees.