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The Client Posse

freelance writing client posseBy Lori Widmer

How often have you worked very well with a client only to have it go sour at the end? How often have those soured relationships had a third party involved? Show of hands – how many of you have worked with clients who, at some point in the process, have introduced another person’s comments or oversight into the final product?

I call this the client posse – friends, relatives, coworkers, or colleagues of clients whose opinions suddenly find their way into projects. Many times the posse’s comments come at the tail end of the project, right about the time you think you’re delivering the final product. And in nearly all cases, a posse’s input can redirect the project, skew the message, or cause any number of problems between you and your client.

My current third-party review/posse rule: I have a no-posse stance I strictly enforce. I’m happy to work with clients and any third party they designate at the beginning of our working relationship. I will not, however, entertain input from someone (or multiple someones) once the project terms have been discussed and the project is underway. My reasons are many and, in my opinion, are good reasons.

Let’s suppose you are being paid by your Uncle Ned to paint his house. After multiple trips to Home Depot with you in tow, Uncle Ned has finally decided on the color. You pick up supplies and you arrange with Ned to get the job done. After taping and preparing, you start painting.

As you finish the third side of the house and are starting the fourth side, you notice a neighbor of Ned’s standing on the sidewalk. Soon the neighbor is trying to get your attention. You realize he’s not saying hello – he’s giving you advice. You’re holding the roller wrong! You’re using the wrong kind of roller! And that ladder – what are you thinking?! For the most part you ignore him because he’s down there and you’re up here doing what Ned wants you to do. But soon Ned comes out to find out what the commotion is. The neighbor pulls Ned aside and soon the two of them are deep in discussion, staring right at you. And pointing. Ned signals for you to come down.

With the neighbor interjecting with every other sentence, Ned tells you that the job you’re doing, according to Bernie here, is sub-par. Bernie thinks your roller size is much too small. Let’s not mention that you have no clue how to hold it! And you’re using a generic ladder when everyone knows Craftsman is the ONLY ladder for painting jobs! Mind you, the color is okay, though Bernie thinks it’s going to look too harsh once the trim is finished. Not to mention he’s never been a fan of Home Depot paint.

Uncle Ned looks worried. Did we choose the wrong color? Are you sure you can get this job done right? Now you’re no longer working for Ned – you’re working to please Bernie, who has never really liked Ned’s taste in paint, and who has never really painted anything other than a piece of trim for his bathroom. So Ned sends you back to Home Depot for the supplies Bernie has indicated, and he takes Bernie off to shop for paint with him, bringing back another color completely different than the first.

Up the ladder you go again (the Craftsman ladder this time – Ned told you to stop at Sears, too). Halfway around, Ned’s other neighbor John comes over. Hey, are you sure that’s not the ladder that’s been recalled for safety issues? And what was Ned thinking with that color? By the way, your roller is a bit thick. Oh, and if it were John, he’d be using brushes on that surface. Again, Ned comes out. Again, he listens to his neighbor. Again, you’re at Home Depot buying supplies and at Sears returning a ladder. John just finished painting his dog’s house, so he has a bit more experience than Bernie, and Ned, who has never been great at making decisions, changes his mind to impress John. John has a boat Ned wants to borrow.

You present Ned with a bill, only now it’s higher thanks to all the changes you’ve had to make and the extra supplies you’ve had to buy. Ned refuses to pay – you obviously don’t know the first thing about painting, according to Bernie and John, and Ned only budgeted for the original amount. Sorry, but you get nothing more. In fact, Ned’s not so sure he should pay you anything since these guys seem to know more than you do.

Posses in the writing and editing process are exactly like that. You don’t know the person making the suggestions and you have no idea what their skill levels are, let alone why your client is so eager to take their advice. Since these people aren’t coughing up any money, they have no qualms about wasting your time and your client’s time chasing their ideas.

Not only that, now you’re working for someone you don’t know. You have to match the voice, taste, and desires of a person who wants a completely different product than your client asked for. You cannot please multiple people with multiple visions and directions on the same project at the same time. You just can’t.

Clients cannot expect you to respond to a third party critique without it costing them extra. Frankly, even then I advise against it – too often, I’ve seen client messages watered down and lost amid waves of friendly advice and editorial. You have to stay true to your client’s goal, even if they won’t. It’s often a no-win situation. You end up out of the picture and the posse takes over. If a posse enters your client’s project unannounced, make sure you have a clause in the contract that voids it at any change in the process, including a new person on that project.

Have you ever worked with a third party after a project has begun and done so successfully?

Lori Widmer has thwarted the posse mentality successfully for over 15 years. She blogs about all things writing-related at http://loriwidmer.blogspot.com.

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Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/3001194041/sizes/o/

{ 25 comments… add one }
  • This is one of the reasons I moved a bit further away from middle man projects (despite their many benefits). I had one in particular who was constantly guilty of this. It wasn’t my direct client, but their client, which made things a bit more complicated. I wasn’t able to see all of the feedback directly as it was funneled through the firm I worked for. Things would seem to come out of left field. Eventually they had me work more directly with the end client, and I got to see what was going on. They had a whole friggin’ team in the office giving input — none of whom were qualified to judge copy. We’d have so-and-so say to edit things this way. I’d do it at the client’s request. Then another person would suggest exactly what I had the first time, and the client would want that — it was as if they wanted both satisfied (not possible). I eventually dropped the firm and all of their clients — had to drop someone at the time anyway, and while I adored the guys at the firm this was enough of an annoyance that they topped the cut list.

    Do you have any suggestions for figuring out when this is going on? Sometimes it’s pretty subtle — the client keeps asking for changes but never admits where the feedback is coming from. The way I’ve dealt with it is to implement a strict 2-edit policy, and I don’t care who they ask anymore as long as they understand that they’re paying extra for any hassle caused by more than 2 requests. It’s rare I get even that many now that I stopped working for most middle-men clients. I really preferred working that way, but this just became too big of an issue when I didn’t get to negotiate terms directly with the end client (I found I’m much firmer than the middlemen are).

    • Jenn, I’ve had that situation, as well. I had one client who handed me the document with “his” changes, yet there were initials all over the place – about four sets of initials. I asked what they meant. Reluctantly, he told me they were his friends’ edits. Right. That ended immediately.

      I think your instincts are strong enough to know when something’s amiss. If the edits come in and make no sense, I would ask questions trying to pin down the change in direction. Include “Is someone else advising you on this?” They need to be upfront with you if they expect you to satisfy them.

      I like your system, actually. It limits the changes (after having gone over 12 edits with one client, who was worrying the word “said”), and it puts a dollar figure on input from others without specifically saying so.
      Lori recently posted..Friday Bread CrumbsMy Profile

      • I like the two edit or two revision rule too… I use it, and sometimes go to three, but for many things if you get beyond two or three revisions, edits, something was wrong with the project to begin with. Another reason clarity in the beginning, plus a written contract is so important.

        • If it were something I legitimately screwed up, I’d make the fix without question. I tend to enforce the limit when it’s more of a “feeling” deal with the client — they feel it should sound like this instead of that (when that is what they originally asked for). I know things can change when you see something concrete. But if you want a full overhaul because you didn’t think things through well enough or because so-and-so thinks something would be a better idea after the fact, then you can pay up.

          • Oh sure, Jenn. My 2 or 3 revision rule isn’t about my mistakes, it’s a way to avoid endless or silly revisions without pay… on the client side. If I blew it, I fix it. Period.

    • One other thing, as well – I have contract language that excludes third-party input. It states that the agreement is for a working between the parties named in the contract and excludes any outside parties. It also states that any input from someone who isn’t approved in writing by both parties voids the contract with payment due immediately. But I add too that third party input is welcomed if the client is willing to negotiate a separate agreement to include such input.

      So far all clients have agreed to the terms and no one has taken me up on that additional agreement.
      Lori recently posted..Friday Bread CrumbsMy Profile

      • jorgekafkazar

        I highly agree with Lori’s separate agreement approach for adding “team members.” It highlights what is happening and makes it possible for the client (and the team) to see what the extra recycling is costing them. The efficiency of a team is roughly proportional to the reciprocal of the square root of the team size. Adding interlopers raises costs, and the sooner the client grasps this, the better.

        • I absolutely hate writing by committee, just hate it. Haven’t done it in ages, nope never to do again.

          • jorgekafkazar

            There are times when writing committees are necessary, e.g., when reworking or creating corporate procedure manuals that affect more than one division/group. These can be hellacious, but they pay huge amounts of money. The key is to first select a document handling scheme, including a transmittal form. That form and a Rev. Number System make it clear what stage of the process the document is in. This keeps the final draft from coming back with, for example, marks that affect the original outline. No going backwards! Duh.

            The complexity of these documents warrants intricate schemes for handling them. There are books available, but usually the client already has a system in force, which you will need to memorize. Don’t let the existence of a system lull you into quoting any portion of the work at a fixed price, of course.

            • Yes, sometimes writing by committee is necessary, and a revision system is an absolute must… fortunately that job, and even that engineering co are long gone.

        • Jorge, great equation. 🙂

          That’s a nice side benefit for the clients if we’re able to show them the dollar cost of committee-driven wheel spinning.
          Lori recently posted..Monthly Assessment- February 2011My Profile

  • i would throw rocks at Bernie from the ladder.
    allena recently posted..More Writing Wisdom from My FreshmanMy Profile

  • Wendy

    Yes. Bernie and John are experts, because they got an A on their watercolor art in the 6th grade.

    That’s probably what I hate the most about the posse. They become instant experts because they regularly write letters to their grandma or something like that. I have learned not to waste my time arguing about the posse team and state what the contract says.

    • LOL!

      Wendy, you point out a pretty common mindset. Too often people with minimal training or practice in our profession feel compelled to be in charge because something they learned in high school now contradicts what we’re doing. The rules of writing and English change constantly, but unless you’re in the field, you don’t know that. In one case particularly, I had a very angry client telling me in spades how disappointed she was with my writing “errors” – there was no way of telling her without embarrassing her or dragging out an already dead project that she was wrong.
      Lori recently posted..Friday Bread CrumbsMy Profile

      • Years ago I had a real job editing for engineers… yikes everyone had to get their hands on it to prove something… and they didn’t want to implement version control. Awful.

  • I’ve got a better one. When a client has two freelancers, with no knowledge of each other, suddenly collaborating because the client thinks you both should combine jobs and costs and prices to make it easier for them because their partner/accountant/wife/grandmother (insert variation) thinks it would be easier. Had this once. Made a clause in a contract that said I deal with only the person who initially signed the contract.
    Bill Swan recently posted..Be Aware When Being PaidMy Profile

    • Bill, that’s nuts! And it’s why contracts are so important. If you’ve agreed to a set rate, your client has to honor that rate – not split it between two writers.

      I will say the majority of clients are great and understand how to conduct business. Not all, however, operate with the same principles of fairness or contractual obligation.
      Lori recently posted..Friday Bread CrumbsMy Profile

    • Isn’t it amazing what shows up?

  • Lauri

    All true and I agree, just wanted to point that it’s hard to object to third-party input without sounding defensive and territorial – two traits clients don’t like in their freelancers.

    But you offer some good tips for not letting it get to that point. Interesting post!

    • Lauri, there is a way to work with third parties and do it well. I certainly have. The objection, however, comes when you’re working for months with the client, then suddenly you’re answering to Carl or Fred, whom the client knows and wants to impress. I’ve had too many instances where at the last hours in the project, people (almost always friends) were introduced and I was then expected to please someone I didn’t know. That’s impossible to achieve AND keep a client happy.

      As I said, third party input is welcome IF it’s contracted. Otherwise, it’s a project killer.
      Lori recently posted..Friday Bread CrumbsMy Profile

    • I don’t think being firm about your terms and working conditions makes you sound defensive and territorial in most cases. And in the end clients who respect you professionally will respect that you work that way and aren’t just their whipping boy or yes man. They wouldn’t put up with you saying “well, my colleague thinks you’re paying me too little, so I’m going to bill you an extra $200 for this project.” And you shouldn’t do the same thing on your end — which is what you do when you put in extra time because of these kinds of requests that you didn’t agree to initially.

      • Totally agree – it’s only professional to be clear and firm about how you work.

  • LOVE the photo, Anne! Thanks. 🙂
    Lori recently posted..Friday Bread CrumbsMy Profile

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