The simplest questions often produce the most profound answers. I’d like to pass on one that I heard recently. If you find yourself in the midst of a conflict with a client or colleague, ask yourself this one: What am I committed to?
I’ll explain the power of that question in more detail in a moment. But first I want to relate several several sticky situations where “What am I committed to?” would have saved me confusion (and mistakes).
Last year, I was helping a client create a new design template for a brochure, which they wanted to update and print weekly. After taking the design template through several iterations, I received final approval from the primary decision-maker via text message on a Sunday afternoon.
Around the same time, that decision-maker, his head of operations, his office manager, and I scheduled a conference call. When the four of us got on the phone that morning, the head of operations and office manager began sharing their change requests:
- Could you make that font bigger?
- Could you change that color?
- Do you think fonts are good? Should we change them?
I waited for an opening, and then I interjected: “I’m confused as to the purpose of this call. These designs were approved yesterday.”
This statement led to an awkward silence.
I then said something along these lines:
“The situation that is happening now is the type of situation that, in my experience, ends in weak design. I’d really like to protect a positive outcome here and send you all away with design that will be effective.
With that in mind, here’s what I’d like for you to do: Pick one person to be my point of contact. If any of the rest of you need to get in touch with me, that’s fine. But for this project, I’d like to communicate with one person.
If it’s really going to make you happy to take the design through one more iteration, then I’ll willing to do that. Have that person send me a final list of change requests. But after that, let’s move on. Because this design was already approved. I’m going to hang up now so that you all can discuss amongst yourselves who will be my primary point of contact. And I’ll keep an eye out for that email with the final punchlist.
Thanks for your time today. I think the design is going to turn out great.”
Then, I hung up.
I wasn’t 100% certain whether I had just crossed a boundary and pissed everyone off or whether I had just saved the project from a design-by-committee Frankendesign.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wonder long. Within minutes, the decision-maker sent me a text, thanking me for my leadership.
Wow. I wasn’t expecting that.
He went on to explain that, on several occasions, he had asked his team for their feedback on creative projects. He was trying to make them feel heard, but they took that as an open invitation. Unsolicited opinions had been flying freely, and the phone call had created an opportunity for him to reestablish boundaries and explain that he would ask for feedback when he wanted it.
Maybe I was a bit grouchy that day. Or maybe I just dislike how meetings often act as a crutch for poor communication and inefficient processes. Regardless, I am thankful for that particular call because gave me the opportunity to stumble across that one golden phrase: “I’d really like to protect a positive outcome.”
Freelancers, creatives, and consultants often find ourselves in the position of being hired to do a certain job only to encounter resistance from the very people we are supposed to help.
He was no Einstein himself.
Another situation from 2009, my very first year of freelancing, comes to mind:
I got hired to help a resort with their marketing. It didn’t take me long to puzzle out that the chair of the marketing committee and the general manager didn’t see eye to eye.
Anything that I discussed with the general manager thus became suspect with the marketing chair. I tried to be Switzerland and remain neutral. He tried to build an alliance with me (against her). Perhaps he thought we could strong-arm her into doing what he thought was best.
During a one-on-one phone call one day, he uses some acerbic and belittling language that caught me off guard: “If she could get it through her thick skull… .” What was I to do? Defend the general manager’s skull? Point out that the marketing chair was no Einstein himself?
I was getting paid to overhaul the resort’s marketing plan and to increase bookings, but I spent most of my time on personality management.
It’s hard to know how to respond in bizarre and heated situations where clients work against their own self-interest:
- A website redesign becomes the boxing rink where business partners duke out their latest round of frustrations with each other.
- An unfinished logo design gathers dust after the client goes AWOL for weeks or months.
- A client insists on editing your drafts of his web content, and his “improvements” are mud on your freshly painted walls. Why did he hire you to clean up after him if he was just going to make another mess?
Frustrating to say the least.
I was once hired to help a client with a marketing project. The client knew next to nothing about Facebook, so I wrote a glossary of terms and a marketing primer to help explain what I was doing for them.
Going to the trouble to educate them effectively doubled the time I spent on the project—time for which they weren’t compensating me.
Though I fulfilled the contract to the letter and then some, I later received a lengthy email asking me to double-check whether I owed them a credit for unfulfilled items in the contract.
The client’s lack of gratitude the extra time I invested, their disregard for my professionalism and commitment to client care, and their blithely transactional attitude toward the relationship added insult to injury.
I had to defend myself to someone who wouldn’t know good strategy if he stepped in it?
I was furious, yet acting on that emotion would have created catastrophe.
Clients aren’t the enemy.
That is the danger here: Coming to see the client as the enemy. Because they aren’t. They are people like you and me who make mistakes, choose the wrong words, and send passive-aggressive emails when the faster and more respectful thing to do would be pick up the phone.
They lose sight of what they really need.
In weird situations like the three I shared above, you must carefully consider what kind of actions you want to look back on.
It’s so easy to rise up in righteous indignation and pummel your client with logic and blame. But that he-said-she-said combat never ends well. Neither does simply taking the abuse.
So how do you respond with strength and dignity?
I alluded to it in the first paragraph. You ask yourself the question that my consultant friend Jim taught me: “What am I committed to?”
You know better than to scrape and fawn over egomaniac clients. You know better than to stomp around like a petulant child when something doesn’t go our way. Yet, despite your best efforts to vet clients and to be a kind, reasonable professional, you will find yourself in situations that can bring out the worst in you.
You will find yourself in conversations and relationships with people…
- Who hire you then fight you
- Who say the nicest things on Tuesday, then saddle you blame on Tuesday.
- Who tell you that you’re the expert, but don’t listen to a single word you say.
- Who ignore your advice, then ask you why their plan didn’t work.
- Who ask and ask and ask and erupt in accusations and threats as soon as you establish a better boundary
So what are you committed to? Excellence? A positive outcome?
If you accept a project and later discover that unforeseen conditions make success impossible, then you have two options:
- You can calmly explain to the client what must change in order for you to succeed, or
- You can leave.
You owe it to yourself to spend your time on engagement where success is possible.
So what are you committed to?
Here are some things that made my list:
- Ethics – A client doesn’t ask me to lie or break the law.)
- Fun – A client doesn’t cause consistent headaches.
- Transformation – A client wants to grow and change and asks me to help catalyze that process.
- Compensation – A client pays me well for my work.
- Respect – A client expresses sincere concern for my well-being and my needs, listens to my advice (when I am paid to give it), and honors me as a professional and a fellow member of the human race.
I am committed to finding the best fit, not the quickest paycheck. The best negotiators don’t need the deal, and the best consultants don’t stand for disrespect and mediocre results.
Why? Because you can’t keep giving your best to the worst people and stay at your best. Keep capitulating, and you will forget the taste of excellence.
If you find yourself in the room with some smug executive who only knows how to do power plays, then walk away.
You have walk-away power.
If it becomes clear that personalities, politicking, or paternalism will prevent you from making a positive impact, then leave.
If your client makes it impossible for you to do work you’re proud of, then bow out gracefully.
Business doesn’t have to be an episode of Game of Thrones. Eat ramen if you must, but do what you must to protect a positive outcome.
Find someone to replace you.
Give the deposit back.
Click your heels on the way out.
You can avoid the angst and confusion that come from self-sabotaging clients by remembering what you are committed to and keeping that commitment front and center.
The beauty of a hard conversation about your commitment is that you can often have your cake and eat it too. Shocked and a little sheepish, some clients will ask you to stay. And then they will create the conditions that you require to do your best work.
Keep in mind, I’m not suggesting that you act like a diva and make lots of petty demands. You don’t have to be Miles Finch in the movie Elf:
You can simply reaffirm what you’re committed and bring everyone’s attention back to the true goal: protecting a positive outcome.
That’s what happened with the design template. They didn’t kill the messenger. Instead, my client thanked me for my leadership, and we wrapped up the final version within a couple of days.
That client has gone on to refer me thousands of dollars of business.
What am I committed to?
I am committed to truly serving my clients and to protecting positive outcomes. If a client makes it impossible for me to do great work, then I can replace that client with one who values honesty and excellence. I have walk-away power.
What about you? What are you committed to?
Do you want to build a profitable business you love?
Duh. Pony up that email address, and you can learn from my failures. You can laugh at my mistakes. You can envy my success at croquet, slow running, and modest bank accounts. Let’s make good money and leave the world better than we found it.
No-nonsense business advice for content writers and freelancers. Served warm with a side of dad jokes.