By Lori Widmer
Too often in the freelance life we come across client situations that frustrate, infuriate, or serve as life lessons on what not to exclude from a contract. While the majority of our clients are gems, there are some client situations that just don’t work. That doesn’t mean we can’t make them work. Let me explain:
For a number of years I was working on a recurring project that seemed to be a wad of chaos wrapped in layers of stress. The project lead would send me numerous emails in a row – “Where’s this?” “Ohmygawd, what did you do to this?” “I can’t find the file!” “Where are these squiggly lines coming from?” At the worst point, I’d received seven of these in 30 minutes. If I didn’t respond instantly, my phone was ringing. Worse, I would finish project sections according to the lead’s directions only to have another project manager shoot them down or worse, ask for a complete rewrite. This went on for two years in a row. I swore on my mother I’d not take that project a third time.
Then an odd thing happened – the next year, the project lead did get in touch, and reluctantly, I took the project because I needed the work. I decided that if these people weren’t going to organize themselves, it was up to me to devise a process and make them follow it without telling them they were following it.
That’s right – I did some covert communication management. Since there was a high level of control jockeying going on behind the scenes, I knew my suggestions would be shot down or argued over without any decision. So as I received each project section, I repeated back to both leads the expectations, in bullets. Also, I answered their questions before they asked. Anticipating the now-historic overreactions, I trumped them with another bulleted list – this one containing what work was about to be completed and what sections were still in my hands, along with my expected delivery date. The frantic emails practically disappeared, as did the frantic phone calls.
I’m five years into the project that I nearly dropped. Things have improved so much that the project lead no longer sounds stressed. Moreover, one of the leads left the company, which made a huge difference in how the remaining lead and I work together. Last year’s project, which took eight months the year before, took only three.
The point is not all client situations are relationship-ending events. If there’s a way for you to take control of the communications and fix the problem, do it. It goes without saying that you should own your own work process, but some owning of the communications may be in order, too. Sometimes clients are controlling because they don’t understand your level of competence, or your work process. If you sense that, spell it out for them. Look at all difficult client situations in a new perspective. Understanding their motivations and the pressures they face may help you devise a better project outcome for everyone.
Image from http://www.sxc.hu