Don't Be A Nightmare Client

We all have stories about that client. The client who suddenly became an expert in the thing they’ve hired you deliberately to do. The client who revels in screaming, belittling, bullying, and micromanaging you because they believe cutting a check permits them to be indecent. Let’s not forget about the client who refuses to understand that the minor task they’ve asked you to do doesn’t take five minutes because doesn’t everything take five minutes?

While the majority of clients are delightful, every freelancer will regale you with their Rod Serling-level tales. We try to blot out the nightmare project and the client’s torture tactics, and we tell ourselves to watch for the signs. The five-alarm fires and flares that tell you to run, not walk, away from the project. Because there are limits to what one will endure for a paycheck.

I’ve spent half my twenty-year career on the client side, and the remainder in client service and the simplest and most profound lesson I’ve learned is this:when you treat people with compassion and respect, they will go the distance for you. When you demean people, they will deliver the bare minimum: no bells, no whistles, no glinting red blows at the end of the engagement. Instead, the freelancer will collect their check, scream expletives about you into pillows, and move on to the next.

If you want great work with all the trimmings, set your ego aside and take some advice from someone who’s straddled both sides of the career fence.

You Hired An Expert. Stop Acting Like One

The smartest and most successful people know what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. They’re not insecure about the fact that they don’t know how to amortize equipment on a balance sheet or program a website or segment their customer base. Instead, they hire experts to do the work that will move the business forward. From the visionary, Steve Jobs:

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

If you were satisfied with your vetting process and the freelancer’s portfolio and case studies, why would you second guess their work or doubt their competence? If they’ve done the thing that you’ve tasked them to do, repeatedly and successfully, why don’t you trust them?

This is not to say that you shouldn’t challenge your consultant or ask them tough questions. A consultant’s job is to educate you about the process and the solution they’re implementing for your business, and they should provide adequate and informed answers to your questions. But at one point, you need to shut up and trust them. The more you act like you’re the expert (because reading a Wired article or watching how-to YouTube videos does not an expert make) and the more you question and micromanage every aspect of their work, your consultant will spend more time managing you instead of the work you’ve paid them to do. I’ve heard freelancers joke about adding an “asshole tax” to clients they know will be combative and difficult.

If you’re hiring a web designer, your job isn’t to be a web designer. Your job is to make sure that what they’re developing will satisfy your objectives and resolve your challenges. You ask them questions as it relates to your business, goals, and objectives to ensure that they’re on task and on time — not how they do what they’ve done hundreds of times before you. Successfully. For clients who weren’t as insecure.

You Take Forever to Pay Them

How would you react if I told you that your biweekly paycheck was going to be a few weeks, perhaps a few months, late? Mortgage, food and car payments don’t magically take care of themselves, and if you expect work to be delivered on time, freelancers should expect to be paid on time. Don’t treat them like a character out of Oliver Twist.

Your Freelancer Isn’t Your Full-Time Employee or Personal Manservant, Punching Bag, etc.

On the brand side, I’ve worked for terrible people. People who were manipulative, abusive, and abrasive. People who hurled salad bowls — filled with salad — clear across a room. However, that’s no excuse to use your freelancer as a punching bag or a repository for your pain or frustration. Company bureaucracy and politics are not their problems — they’re your problems. You hired an expert to help you solve a problem for your business, not to bear the weight of your professional baggage.

And from a pure decency perspective — why not treat people they want you would want to be treated? Your consultant isn’t a vendor; they’re a trusted partner. And your abuse doesn’t grant you more power — it’s a glaring spotlight on your insecurity and character.

The simple act of respecting and valuing the experts you’ve hired will ensure you get the best out of them instead of the bare minimum.

Also, it’s important to recognize that freelancers aren’t full-time employees. While freelancers are glorious for your P&L, you have to face reality. Freelancers are not available 24/7, on your schedule. Freelancers do not have to adopt all of your systems. They’ve designed and perfected a workflow, communication and systems processes that ensure a standout work product. If they’re spending time learning how to integrate your systems into their workflow and dealing with your desperate need to hop on a call every five minutes — guess what? You’re taking time away from the work you’ve hired them to do because now they’re dealing with the bureaucracy that is your company and the attitude that is you.

Freelance projects are short-term in nature. Respect their boundaries and systems, and you will get the solution you invested in, and they’ve promised. Your work will be delivered on time, on budget.

I learned this while I was heading up online marketing at HarperCollins and a consultant taught me how to be a good client. The result? I got the work I wanted, delivered ahead of schedule with a few extras thrown in for good measure. In a serendipitous twist, years later they would become my client.

The World is Small, and People Love to Talk

Years ago, I fought with an executive at a major cosmetics brand. Even though they were in the wrong, I was a smug, overbearing, annoying asshole. When I became an equity partner in a digital/social agency in New York, our CEO pitched this exact person our services. I had to deal with the ramifications of my bad behavior, and I ended up swallowing my pride and apologizing to this executive. We won the business, but not without telenovela-level dramatics. I learned that the world is smaller than we think, and the people we abuse in our come-up are the ones we report or defer to on our way down.

People talk. Word-of-mouth can crush careers. You may be the smug client calling the shots and cutting the checks until circumstance reminds you that karma always has your direct dial. You never know who will be your boss or who you’ll need for that professional recommendation or job. And you never know who’ll be the person who surfaces in your life in ways you least expect and the way you’ve treated them in a former life haunts you in your present one.

Be kind. Be decent. Be respectful. Because you never know under what circumstances you’ll face your freelancer again.

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