Sooner or later most freelancers will have the pleasure of working with a client who seems to have forgotten why they hired you in the first place. This client may ignore or overrule all of your recommendations and even dictate decisions on the project that you, as the experienced professional, are certain will be detrimental to its overall success. Despite your objections, explanations and warnings, the client steamrolls the project toward something less than what your normal standards would require, all the while assuring you that they have a better idea and understanding of what their project needs than you do.
How should you handle this situation? Do you refuse to bend and lose or “fire” the client, refunding any payments? Or, do you submit to their demands and hope for the best?
The Client Is Wrong, Now What?
Maybe you’ve experienced this before, or maybe your time is yet to come, but most freelancers eventually have a story similar to the one described in the opening paragraph. I have participated in quite a few discussions with other freelancers about this and have had my own experiences. Ultimately, I believe every freelancer will have their own unique way of dealing with it when their time comes, but I have come up with a formula that incorporates some of the primary elements that contribute to determining what to do.
As I see it, the key elements to deciding your course of action are:
- Your own standards of professional excellence
- How badly you need the income generated from the project
- Your personal patience level and tolerance for the lack of respect for your professional input
Thus, the formula for proceeding would be: Action (a) = Standards of professional excellence (s) divided by your Financial necessity (f) multiplied by your personal Patience level (p), or a = s/f X p.
How Important Are Your Standards of Excellence?
This is probably the first question you should ask yourself. Depending on the project and its visibility, your professional reputation may be at stake.
For instance, I have designed websites that I would not personally consider my best work because the client wanted certain elements included that I advised against. In my opinion, the finished product suffered from their decisions. I had to decide if I would include the work in my own portfolio, as well as weigh the amount of traffic the site could receive. In the end, I simply delivered the project as required by the client, but removed any obvious association with myself so as not to tarnish my professional reputation.
Is that acceptable for you? For my purposes, it has worked fine and, although I may have been disappointed due to the amount of time and effort spent, the client was satisfied. You have to decide for yourself how important your own standards of excellence are to you in every project you undertake.
How Badly Do You Need the Income?
This is always a critical question in determining how flexible you are willing to be. On one hand, no one wants to be thought of as someone who is willing to do any type of work for a quick buck regardless of the quality, working conditions or type of project. On the other hand, we all have financial responsibilities that must be taken care of, and, for many freelancers, turning down a project can be devastating when dealing with the pattern of feast or famine we often endure.
So what are you willing to do or not do in the quest for income? This is a very serious consideration for any business, and one you should definitely ask and answer regularly, as your experiences and methods grow and change. I would suggest even creating a written list of your “open-handed” and “closed-fisted” values. In one column, the things you don’t mind wavering on that you hold more loosely in your open hand. In the other, those things you are absolutely certain you will or will not do that you will fight battles for, holding them firmly and tightly in the death grip of your closed fist. Revisit and update this list often, especially after a particularly trying project.
Next time you are faced with a situation where you need to decide whether you should start or continue a project due to the potentially destructive micro-managing of the client, you can use your list to remind yourself where you stand. I would recommend looking at every project individually, rather than approaching each one with a blanket ruling. Equipped with your predetermined values, weigh each situation on a case-by-case basis and make a well-informed, unemotional decision. Each project is unique, so I encourage you to keep an open mind and make wise decisions toward the best choice for each one.
How Patient Are You? (Be Honest)
This final factor may be the most difficult one to measure, yet it is critical to the formula for figuring out how much micro-managing you can withstand.
Are you short-tempered? Easily frustrated? Or, do you have a higher tolerance than most for criticism and can handle it with ease and grace?
While I am not a fan of being criticized, I am an extremely patient person. For me, this means I may be able to handle a client belittling my knowledge or experience with more poise than someone else. It may mean that I will have more tolerance for my suggestions being argued against and for greater lengths of time before finally calling a project to a halt. I know this about myself and can factor it into the formula to weigh my options when in a situation that merits its consideration.
Evaluate your own patience level, and then use it to create your personal formula to determine your course of action when difficult decisions are dictated by your client.
Apply the Formula
Now let’s take the three elements I’ve described and apply them to our formula. I will use myself as an example.
While my standards of excellence are high, the real question is how important are they to me when considering a job. I believe they are extremely important, but there are very few jobs I would refuse simply because the requirements appeared to be below my standards. Of course, I would weigh the project and its potential for impact on my professional reputation, but ultimately I would probably say that on a scale of 1-100 this element would rate a 65.
When it comes to financial needs, my top consideration is providing for my family. This one is easy for me. Money is not the driving force behind my desire to be a freelance designer, but within the context of the formula I would rate it a 90, leaving room for the few projects that I simply would not do no matter what the price.
As I stated earlier, my patience level is pretty high. I have come to realize that it takes a lot for me to lose my temper, and even on the occasion when I actually do blow my top I tend to remain relatively calm. I believe my patience level would be a 90.
Inserting these numbers into the formula, it would read 65/90 x 90 = ?
A quick calculation brings the number to 65. What does this mean? Actually, it doesn’t really mean anything at all. There is no magic formula. I just made it up. As far as I know, all of these elements cannot be broken down into some mathematical method for a freelancer to determine which projects they should take or which clients they should or should not work with. Yet the fact is that the three elements I’ve listed are essential to important self-evaluation and will equip a freelancer with a solid understanding of their value system and its relevance when faced with a client who demands bad decisions.
Maybe you can come up with a way to make the formula actually work. Whether you can or not, the truth behind it still stands. Take some time to evaluate yourself in these three areas and you will face difficult client situations with more professionalism, more finesse and more productive results.
What Do You Do When a Client Is Wrong?
Do you have some past or present experiences where a client has demanded you produce a project in ways that are against your recommendations? How have you handled it? Be sure to share your experiences (without sharing your client’s specific information) and tips in the comments below so we all can learn and grow in how we handle these types of situations.