Working Like a Pro

A while ago I was part of a two-person writing team that the client had assembled. This particular client was just forming a business, so there was a bit of miscommunication on meeting times, call times, etc. In one case, the client had made, and missed, two separate conference calls. Frustrating as it was, we showed up for the third one, as did the client.

The client apologized for his earlier absences. That should’ve been enough. However, the other writer decided it was time to teach this guy a lesson. So for the next five minutes, we were locked into listening to his side of why he doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Ironically, his tongue-lashing kept us all waiting.

A number of things he did wrong – he let his anger show. He copped a condescending tone and launched into a here’s-why-I’m-a-bigger-person speech. He ended with why it was unprofessional for the client to be so unorganized. And again, the irony – his anger was just as unprofessional.

Also, he let the client have it publicly. Okay, three people doesn’t necessarily constitute a crowd, but the point was no matter how justified his words may have been, he needed to speak to that client privately – not in front of me.

Plus, hauling me into it by proxy was thoughtless and disregarded my time – the very thing he was accusing this client of doing.

And that anger? Yea, it never belongs in a client-writer relationship. I don’t care if that client set your house on fire. You stick to the facts. Blathering on like an idiot over waiting 20 minutes seemed pointless. We all know we waited. The client had apologized. Move on.

I was upset too, mind you. I had put aside time for these calls. How I handled it – I contacted the client directly, asking him if everything was okay. Once I found out it was, I reiterated that he missed both calls and that in the future, I’d have to bill for that time as I’d set it aside and couldn’t work on other projects. I ended with “I’m glad things are fine.”

I’m still working for this client. The other guy? Nowhere to be found. The difference in our reactions is what’s been cited to me – indirectly – for why I remained on board and he didn’t. I left the emotion out of it. I stuck to the business impact of the client’s tardiness. No one wants to hear – from their contractors, least of all – that they’re big screw-ups who can’t organize a phone call without a committee.

Occasionally my client will miss a call or forget an appointment. No problem. I simply add that to the next bill. And if that call comes in an hour, or even 30 minutes later, it goes to voice mail. I’m usually in the middle of someone else’s project. I can’t drop everything twice in one day. Most clients get that.

Then there are the clients who haul out emotions and guilt tactics to make their point. That’s your cue – walk away. Anyone who thinks it’s okay to negotiate rates with righteous indignation or with the sappy, “But it’s a labor of love for me! I don’t have the money…” is not your client. That’s an anchor about to go around your neck.

When was the last time you had to forgo the emotions and stick to the facts? How’d that go?

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  • Devon Ellington October 29, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    when you're really upset with a client, the "unsent letter" is a good tool. Pour it all out in a letter that YOU DON'T SEND. It blows off the frustration, and then you can pull specifics in order to have an emotionless discussion with the client about aspects of the relationship that aren't working.

  • Lori October 29, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    Great advice. It helps keep the emotion out of it.

  • Wendy J. October 29, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Unsent letter technique is very refreshing. Okay, I don't actually write a letter, but I do say my peace to the computer screen or the phone after the call has been disconnected, which is pretty much the same as the unsent letter. This way I can have plenty of emotion; they just don't know it.

  • Eileen October 29, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Did you write this post just for me? I am currently really steamed at a client, but to be fair, the problem at this point is mine, not his. I have deliberately stayed away from hasty email replies or phone calls the past couple of days so that I don't say anything I'll regret. When I'm calmer, I'll be ready to handle the situation more professionally and move forward without anger.

  • Paula October 29, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Your best move, Lori, was asking if things were okay and understanding that there might be a good reason for the client missing the meetings – no matter how unlikely. I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but every now and then there are THOSE people, like…

    A showbiz exec who was a key interview for an article for a new-to-me magazine arranged to call me at 6PM my time, well aware that I'm two hours ahead. She called a few minutes earlier to say she had some papers to send out, but she'd call right back. An hour later, she called. I'd already been on the clock 11 hours by then, and was beyond hungry. Instead of respecting my time, she went on for a good 15 minutes telling me how busy she was. She had no respect for my time.

    I only had three or four questions, so I figured we'd be done in 15 or 20 minutes. But she talked so much – and so fast – that I was unable to get her back on topic. When I tried to get a word in, she talked right over me. So I started reminding myself that I could gloss over most of her ramblings when I transcribed. Then she asked to read the article before I sent it in! I said that was NOT allowed. She seemed shocked, and said she'd been badly misquoted by another publication (which I also write for, so I know how meticulous they are with quotes). When that didn't work on me, she started bashing the editor of the magazine I was writing the article for! I said I MIGHT be able to send her quotes for her approval. She reluctantly agreed. The whole time I was thinking, "If you thought before you spoke, maybe you wouldn't be 'misquoted' all the time!"

    As soon as I finished transcribing, I e-mailed her the quotes and left a voicemail saying I'd sent them, and asking her to reply via e-mail (she'd said something about texting, which I am so not going to do with 500+ words worth of quotes and a cell phone with a numerical key pad). I said I would be unavailable by phone that evening.

    My phone rang at 10:15 PM, well past even west coast office hours. I answered, assuming it was a friend calling me back. Nope. It was the interviewee. She hadn't even opened the e-mail! She was asking what my "real" deadline was. In the e-mail I'd told her it was end of my business day, Thursday. She said, "Oh, so that's really 4:00 Friday." I said, "No – I'll need all day Friday to write the article." She said, "You haven't written it? How am I supposed to read it if you haven't written it?" I reminded her I was not allowed to show her the article, just her quotes, and pointed out that it wouldn't be practical to write an article around those quotes if she decided to change or delete them. Then I asked about her title – which my editor apparently did have wrong in the past. I said I didn't want to trust the information the editor had, so I wanted her to tell me the exact title she wanted me to use. She said, "But I sent it to you three weeks ago!" Um, the first time I'd ever even heard of her was about about 10 days earlier, so how could she have sent me anything before then? To that, I simply replied, "You must have sent that to someone on staff. I'd prefer to get the information directly from you, since you said they got it wrong in the past."

    The next morning I found her e-mail with only a few very minor changes. Thank goodness. Of course, the article hasn't run yet, so who knows how she'll react once its in print?

  • Lori October 29, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Oh Paula, you have infinitely more patience than that woman deserved! I've learned that for serial talkers, just cut in and tell them you have another call in a few minutes, so you have to stay on topic. Seriously. They can get as upset as they like – they're wasting time.

    As to her asking to be your new editor, amen that you didn't let her. No one beyond your editor has the right to allow that. I always tell them to take it up with the editor, not me. Usually giving them quotes is enough, but when they insist, I bump it up to the boss immediately.

    Obviously, this is a woman who doesn't value your time or respect boundaries. I'd never use her as a source again. Like that woman who called me Saturday afternoon during my daughter's graduation party, she doesn't get it. Life goes on beyond her own orbit.

  • Lori October 29, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Eileen, depending on what the problem is, there are a number of ways to deal with it. I have one client who sends multiple "urgent" emails in the span of a few minutes. For that client, I let the situation sit. I've found that feeding the urgency creates more of it. Since the issues are usually misunderstandings on the other side, I know eventually that light bulb will come on and all will be well. If it were an actual issue, I'd deal with it immediately.

    The tardiness is habitual with a few clients. I'm okay with that as long as they pay for my time. If they don't want to, they can show up when they first promised. They hold the key to solving that little dilemma.

    Wendy, I hear you! Literally. Stop screaming at your monitor, woman. It's disturbing the peace. ;))

  • Gabriella F. October 29, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Paula, I agree with Lori on two things. One, you're waaaay more patient than I am! I envy your patience! Wish I had it sometimes!

    I also agree with Lori on the quotes. When people ask to review quotes, I say that every publication I work for has a different policy, and I'll pass that request onto the editor. Honestly, I think some people think they can bully the reporter, but they'd never make the same request of the editor.

  • Paula October 29, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Well, I was dubbed "Patient Paula" as a baby (I understand I didn't fuss or cry, I just quietly waited for people to come pick me up and play with me). The name stuck.

    Oh Lori, if only you know how many times I tried to cut in and get back on topic or move on to the next question. She either didn't hear me or simply ignored me. She never stopped yapping and talked right over me. I did lose my patience, but didn't make it too obvious.

    Luckily I stuck to my guns, because a day or two later, the editor e-mailed saying he'd just learned another new writer had let a source read his article before submitting it. The editor said he'd asked that writer, "So who are you working for? The magazine? Or your source?" (I hadn't even mentioned Ms. Pushypants to the editor, either.) He did say showing quotes were okay, if the source insisted.

    But yeah, that woman is off my reliable source list.

    My graphic-designer sister had a fiasco recently. A 20-year client had a rush job just before my sister was set to leave the country. They knew she wanted to finish their 36-page booklet before she left, since it had to be at the printer two days after her return. She only had 6-pages of info, and they actually told her she could work on the plane. So lugged her laptop on a getaway vacation…and you guessed it. They didn't even send her the information she needed! It was supposed to be at the printer last Thursday, but they didn't get her the rest of the information in time, so she had to work all weekend to get it done Monday. Yes, she charged a very stiff "nuisance fee."

  • Wendy J. October 30, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Oops. You could hear me? Sorry about that. Well, for the record, that wasn't about a client; that was just my computer.

  • Lori October 30, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Oh Paula, I have been on that side of it! I had a guy whose call should've been 15 minutes. An hour and a half later, I was still waiting for an opportunity to cut in! It taught me that rudeness (and that's what a serial talker exhibits) should be met in kind. I now just talk right over them and tell them we're off track. But that first time was tough!

    My computer hears a lot too, Wendy. 😉