Freelancers: it’s not about you

by Tom Albrighton 4 June 2010 Freelancing

‘Pride only hurts. It never helps.’
Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction

A while ago, a long-standing and highly valued client asked me to write a web page for her. As usual, we spoke at some length about the audience, the messages and the tone. I went away, produced a draft and submitted it.

In response, my client produced an entirely new draft and sent it over. ‘What do you think?’ she asked.

Marsellus (Ving Rhames) invites Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) to take a dive

The instant I read her version, I knew it was better. She’d got the right tone, the right choice of words, the right structure. Apart from a couple of minor grammar tweaks, it was good to go. And that left me with two options:

  • Option 1 was to climb back on top of the situation by combing through her text, finding everything that could possibly be changed and mounting a persuasive case for a new version with my fingerprints on it.
  • Option 2 was to step back, accept that I’d missed the target and simply endorse my client’s version.

I went for option 2.

It was less work. It didn’t put me at odds with the client. And, most importantly, it was the right course of action.

Was it humiliating? Maybe a little. But I reminded myself that…

  • I’d done the spadework. On the face of it, it might seem that my client could have just written her version alone, without any input from me. But her version, though very different from mine, still came after it. I’d conducted the initial discussion and drawn out a brief from it. I’d conquered the blank page, allowing her to learn from my mistakes. And, before I even sent my draft, I’d already rejected a number of non-starter approaches.
  • I was still involved. Again, on the face of it, my client could have proceeded to publish the content without me. But she didn’t. She still wanted me to be involved in the process, however tangentially.
  • Approval adds value. A lawyer might read through a contract, confirm that it’s OK as it stands and charge you £1000. They might not have ‘done’ anything tangible, but they’ve still helped you. Without their input, you’d feel much less confident about going ahead. By confirming that my client’s version was OK, I was still adding value to the project.
  • Only results matter. Often, the path to the goal is more circuitous and time-consuming than we would have hoped. Or perhaps it doesn’t allow us to shine as we might like. But the point is that we get there. Better to get something that works for the client – by whatever method – than something that just makes you look good.

It all comes down to a focus on adding value, rather than feeling valued. Ultimately, clients remember outcomes rather than processes. (They’ll only remember processes if you make them more complicated than they need to be.) It’s not all about you.

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  • And the moral of the story might well be, it pays to let go of your ego…..once in a while.
    It’s a well structured argument that is underpinned by the fact that, as well as being the right course of action, there is the added bonus that it also serves to massage the ego of your client.
    Finding clients that can ‘hit’ the brief can be difficult enough. Finding clients that don’t like having their egos massaged is well nigh impossible.
    Ditto copywriters.
    Hope this helped Tom!
    .-= Peter Baruffati´s last blog ..Desperate times call for desperate measures =-.

  • Jeff

    I’ve learned that clients don’t know what they want until they see what they don’t want.

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  • Very interesting and refreshingly honest post. I agree with you and this reminds me of two people I knew who would always favour pride over their paycheck. Working at an agency I let slip that I always tried to ‘teach’ the client as much as possible as (a) it increases trust between us and (b) it means they wouldn’t have to call me with every little problem; saving them money and me time. My boss flipped. He was of the opinion that if we can charge them 2 days work for writing a press release then we definitely should. Also, I worked freelance in-house and another freelancer kicked off when she didn’t get a leaving gift. She’d seen an actual employee get a bottle of wine when she left and then wondered (out loud) why she didn’t! Hello?

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  • There’s a difference between humiliated and humbled. I wouldn’t take an incident like this as humiliation. I like your take that you prepared the groundwork for the client to come up with a good version, and I agree that sometimes we just have to put our own egos aside.