“Doors closing!” Or why you shouldn’t send your client that umpteenth reminder email.
I have a love-hate relationship with elevators. On the one hand, I get claustrophobic easily, especially when I’m in one that makes strange thumping and clicking noises for no apparent reason. On the other, I’m both lazy and severely lacking in upper-body strength, which means that anytime I come back to my apartment with a boot-full of shopping, I thank the engineering gods for giving us this wonderful contraption.
The elevator in my building is a particularly eager and overachieving specimen. “Doors opening!”, it announces, in case I couldn’t tell. “Going up!”, it cheerily confirms, as I hit the button for the first floor, one of only three in the entire block. I usually run up the stairs in less time than it takes my groceries to make the same journey (hey, I said I was claustrophobic), and wait for the doors to open up and reveal the haul I’ve brought home.
There’s just one problem: I’m never fast enough to take all the bags out in one go. Inevitably, and in my opinion, far too quickly, the exclamations of “Doors closing!” turn from cheery to downright menacing, as the doors slam into any limb that is still retrieving bags from within.
What the elevator does not know in these repeated attempts to shut the damn doors—because it can’t know, because it is not a sentient being—is that I will not tire, I will not be put off, and I will not stop getting in the way of “doors closing” until I achieve my own ends. Ultimately, the elevator is engaging in what we call the law of diminishing returns.
As I went through this bi-weekly experience again this morning, it occurred to me that client relationships in the creative industries can sometimes work this way as well.
Tell me if this situation sounds familiar. You’re a creative, sure, but in the market you are positioned as a freelancer, or a small business owner. You get hired by a big shot client, one that usually assures you if they are happy with your work, they will send more your way.
You do your work diligently and on time. And then—crickets. The client goes quiet, for reasons unknown.
But you persist.
You send polite emails, you ring up, you ask for updates, for feedback. You’d really like to move things along now, so that you can finally close out the project.
Or maybe they do respond, and ask for some changes. Fair enough, that’s part of the process. Then you are told, actually, the CMO or the head of HR hasn’t had a chance to give their opinion. Turns out, they also have some suggestions.
By this point, you’re already several rounds of feedback in, and the client hasn’t reached a consensus as to what they want. You consider pulling your hair, reaching for the whiskey bottle, or calling your dad to apologize for not looking at chartered accountancy instead of pursuing this career.
We’ve been there, friends. In fact, on bad days, we’re still there, because such is the life of a creative, and new clients are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. That said, there are steps you can take to make your professional life run smoother.
Our advice boils down to this: Do your project prep. What do we mean by that? Simple. Before you launch into a new project, make sure you do this first:
1. Find out where the buck stops
Sometimes the person at the end of the line is not the same person who will be signing the proposal or cutting the checks. In a big company, you might get feedback from multiple team members, but their opinion might not ultimately count. The head honcho’s does. So save yourself some time, and figure out who you should really be communicating with.
2. Specify rounds of feedback the client is allotted
Let’s put it this way: You’re less likely to get scattered and contradictory feedback on your work if your client has been made aware that they will have only one or two chances to ask you to revisit the content you’ve produced.
3. Show the client flexibility, but make it worth your while
Sure, things won’t always go as planned. The client may forget about an entire section they wanted on their website. That’s another X number of hours of work for you. You’re happy to do it. But make sure you’ve outlined your hourly rate for any extra work that comes after a proposal is signed. This will show the client that you're willing to go the extra mile as long as you're being fairly compensated for it. Setting this precedent early in your working relationship is key.
4. Be clear about milestones and payment scheduling
Set your own bar as to how big a project should be before you invoice a percentage of the fee as a deposit, and apply the rule consistently. Likewise, be clear as to which project milestones tie into payment installments. For example, for a website, specify dates for project start, delivery of the first draft, and project end. This not only gives the client a clear outline of how long you’re expecting the project to take, but also ensures a steady cashflow on your end, so you never have to worry about not seeing any money until the whole project has been signed off.
This list is clearly not exhaustive, and it’s not a panacea. But if you take the protective measures above, and are disciplined about applying them—happily, many can be built into your proposal template—then you won’t find yourself on the back foot so often. You’ll send fewer chasing emails—the electronic equivalent of trying to close doors through brute force—and more time doing the work you love.
Lara is the resident editor at Storyline Creatives. She specialises in academic texts for publication in journals and has a weakness for unusual loanwords and strong coffee. She holds many strong beliefs, for example, you shouldn't have to choose between being a 'cat person' or a 'dog person'. Also, she can't prove it yet, but inanimate objects have it in for her. She's a cat person. Talk to her before she's set upon by a bunch of supermarket trolleys here.