Almost every day, on Facebook or Twitter, I’ll see one colleague or another complaining about a client. Some people post their gripes on Tumblr sites or – even worse – public blogs. I’ve even seen designers create elaborate projects like this one to mock the people who pay them.
I have a few things to say about this.
First of all, it’s unprofessional. Venting, in person, to a friend is one thing; writing something snarky on the internet is something else. Even if the client you’re complaining about is not a Facebook friend, a Twitter follower, or a blog subscriber, you probably have other clients who ARE, and seeing you spout negativity does not give them warm, fuzzy feelings.
To put this in ad-speak, client-shaming hurts your brand. Branding, after all, is just another word for what psychologists call “conditioned response.” Like Pavlov’s dog, who learned to associate a ringing bell with a tasty meal, you want your customers to associate you with success, talent and integrity. Tweeting “Client hates the layout. Told me to make the logo bigger. #facepalm #fml” does NOT reinforce any of those positive associations.
Secondly, don’t expect it to be easy. When I was at SCAD, I met a lot of kids who were there because they thought art school would be easier than a liberal arts college. They were wrong. Working in a creative field is quite difficult, because there are a virtually infinite number of possible solutions to every problem.
Unlike math, where an answer is either right or wrong, the vast majority of photos, videos and designs exist somewhere on a vast and completely subjective spectrum between “fantastic” and “awful.” Your challenge as a creative professional is to make something that both you and your client agree is fantastic.
When in doubt, don’t be a diva; graciously give your customers what they want, even if it isn’t what you would choose. You never know, they might be right.
Now, if the deadline is unreasonable, too bad. Suck it up and get it done. Working late is not the end of the world, and everybody has to do it sometimes. With that said, part of your job is managing your time and client’s expectations. If you’re routinely pulling all-nighters, something’s wrong.
Which brings me to my final point …
It’s probably your fault. If your client isn’t aware of your scheduling boundaries, or they can’t use the technology, or they weren’t clear on how much you’re charging, or they don’t understand your suggestions, you didn’t do your job.
Conversely, if you aren’t sure what your client wants, or how much they’re willing to pay, or when the deadline is, you also didn’t do your job.
I have worked with all kinds of clients in the last fifteen years. There were two or three who didn’t pay their bills, but I can only think of one who was actually an abusive, amoral person. I solved that problem by declining to work with him anymore. As freelancers and independent contractors, we have that prerogative.
The rest of the folks whom I was warned were “difficult clients” turned out to be totally fine. Once I earned their trust, they got over whatever negative experiences they’d had with other vendors, and many of them are my most loyal customers.
I’ll close with a few tips that those of you who find yourselves struggling with “clients from hell” may find useful.
1. Avoid jargon. Your clients are probably specialists in marketing, advertising, public relations or business. If they were experts in your field, they wouldn’t need you. Therefore, they may not be clear on the difference between a “frame,” a “shot,” and a “clip.” They may not not know what a “lavalier” microphone is, the difference between a “storyboard” and a “shot list,” or why a JPG embedded in a Word document is not the best way to send a logo. So, either explain it to them, or figure out a different approach. Don’t be patronizing or hostile, just talk to them the way you’d want someone to talk to you about something you don’t understand.
2. Make Win/Win Propositions. The essence of good business is making everyone a winner. Instead of adopting a confrontational attitude towards the people that make it possible for you to put food on your table, figure out ways for both of you to get something you want.
For example, if you don’t want your client sitting over you while you edit the video or make changes to the layout, suggest to them that they are welcome to check their email or make phone calls while you get the “grunt work” done, and that you will show the work to them as soon as it’s ready for their review. Nine times out of ten, they’ll jump at the chance to get their own things done, leaving you to work by yourself.
3. Put It In Writing. I’m the first to admit that I hate talking about money. The financial aspect is my least favorite part of owning a business. But, you have to do it. So, make it clear, make it concise, and put it in an email. After you meet with a client, send a follow-up email that includes something like this:
“Just to confirm a few details: I’ll be [providing whatever services], and the budget for this project is [$$$].”
If you fail to do this – and I experienced this quite recently – then, once again, it’s your fault. In a meeting with a client, I mentioned that a project would have two charges: the dayrate for filming, and an estimated amount for editing. Unbeknownst to me, he only wrote down the dayrate. Unfortunately, I did not follow up with an email to confirm the total budget, and when I submitted the bill, he was shocked to see my editing charges. I could have pressed the issue, but since this is a good client, I simply ate it, and took the loss.
I’m sure plenty of people disagree with me about this, but I believe that keeping a client happy is more important than getting every penny you’re owed. Obviously, you shouldn’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of, but if you didn’t get agreement on the budget before you started the job, or if you low-balled the estimate and wound up making $3 per hour, you made the mistake, not the client.
There are fly-by-night designers and producers, but that’s a hard road to travel, because it requires constant hustling. It’s much better to take a long-term approach, treat your clients with respect, admit when you’ve made a mistake, and – above all – be grateful that you have the opportunity to make a living doing something creative. Remember: McDonald’s is always hiring.