Cut your client some slack

by Tom Albrighton 9 August 2010 Freelancing

Recently I’ve been working on some web designs with a very talented and experienced designer. I’ve been given some authority over the project, so I am effectively in the position of the client.

I have commissioned freelances before, but not so much since becoming one myself. Naturally, my freelancing years have seen me acquire and, yes, perhaps even cultivate, the standard gripes about clients. So it was enlightening to see the process of working with a freelance from the other side of the fence.

At one point, the designer had produced some first layouts that looked great. But I felt they lacked a little something. So I asked him to go back to the drawing board and add in some more colours and graphics – to add some ‘movement and life’ to the design, or so I thought.

The result was complete rubbish.

Thankfully, he put up with all this with grace and tact. He understood the situation and had no doubt experienced similar ones many times before. But why couldn’t I accept that he might have found the best way forward? Why did I feel things would automatically get better with my input?

Seeing is believing

From my point of view, I wasn’t trying to steamroller or humiliate the designer – I just needed to see my ideas on the screen before I could evaluate them. To some extent, the problem was down to my own skillset – strong on words, weak on images and layouts. Lacking the visualisation skills to foresee the way things would pan out, I had to force a detour to a dead-end just to make sure it didn’t go anywhere.

On a psychological level, we could put my intervention down to illusory superiority, a decision-making bias that leads us to overestimate our own positive qualities and abilities and underestimate our negative qualities, relative to others. For example, 93% of US drivers rate themselves as having above-average driving skill, yet by definition only 50% can be above the median. Parents who raise a child together know the phenomenon very well, and from both sides of the fence (‘you’re doing that wrong!’).

From my point of view, my ideas felt ‘right’ – even though objectively, as I later realised, they added no value. We may know, on a rational level, that we’re dealing with an expert who knows more than us. But that doesn’t stop us from questioning them.

Of course, this is familiar to me from the freelance side of the fence. Many are the times I’ve been asked to try a rewrite, restructure or copy concept that I already know won’t work. But from the client side, I realised that asking for things to be reworked flows from a desire to improve things, however misguided.

Praise you like I should

Another thing I’ve realised, while writing this post, is that I haven’t complimented the designer on what he’s done, even though it’s fantastic. While reviewing his work, everyone else on the project has been raving about how great it is. But I haven’t yet conveyed any of that to him.

I’m really not sure why. Perhaps I’ve just forgotten, or I feel a need to be ‘all business’ when we discuss the project, or maybe I unconsciously fear that giving praise somehow weakens my hand. Whatever the reason, I intend to rectify the situation – because I know how much positive feedback means to freelances.

But I’ve also come to realise that clients who don’t give praise aren’t necessarily displeased – in many cases, it really is a case of ‘no news is good news’. If you’ve hit the target, and nothing needs changing, you hear nothing – but that doesn’t mean the client isn’t pleased. For myself, I’ve learned to interpret complete silence as rapturous delight.

Cut ’em some slack

My takeaway from all this is that freelances have to learn to give their clients a lot of slack – even more than they do already. A lot of the much-maligned ‘client behaviour’ can be put down to clients’ anxiety over the need to get it right. Attitudes that might seem pushy, tactless or self-regarding are just the manifestation of a deep concern that the project delivers what the client needs.

And I do mean ‘needs’, not ‘wants’. After all, what might be a ‘bread and butter’ project to you or me might be the only creative project they handle this year – or ever. It might be a website that’s going to be the basis of their livelihood, or a brochure that their boss has delegated to them for the first time ever. Small wonder that the freelancer’s delicate feelings aren’t at the forefront of their minds. 

True professionals know how to deal with their expertise being questioned. If you want to sell your advice for cash, you have to expect to make a case for it. Expecting clients to fully understand copywriting, or design, or any other discipline, is naïve and probably a bit self-centred.

And if you need to approach the goal by a circuitous route, so what – the point is that you get there, and (crucially) that the client is still with you when you arrive. And at that point, you might get a little bit of praise – but don’t hold your breath.

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