Working With “Challenging” Clients: Expertise For Designers, Copywriters and Creative Professionals

Being a creative professional means more than getting paid to conceive and produce top-notch creative work. It also means managing the creative business process and the varied -sometimes “challenging”- client personalities and situations that come with the territory.Here are a few common challenges and how designers, copywriters and other “creatives” can learn to manage and resolve them to keep everybody happy.CLIENT AS CREATIVEFrom years of experience writing copy and designing, I’ve learned to recognize the client who IS creative, yet doesn’t have the skills to execute. This client doesn’t want your creative genius even at the table. He wants to do it himself and get the credit. What you’re creating is HIS creation. You’re merely a vessel to carry out his instructions. This client knows his business and is passionate about his vision for it. In some cases, his process is to have you create something from which only to pick apart or completely tear down and rebuild. If you can’t serve him in this capacity, you WILL be replaced.The good news here is, while you might feel “used” working this way and you probably have been to a degree, the only thing actually hurt is your ego. Change your thinking. Once the project is complete, this client can be the happiest on the planet, sending you endless referrals because you successfully collaborated and interpreted his vision as few have ever been able. You’ve not merely made him look good; you’ve brought his dream into reality.With this type of client, less experienced creatives will continue to fail where you’ll now succeed; these providers don’t recognize or understand how to work with -and enjoy- this client profile.TASTELESS TYRANTAnother type is of course the tyrant with poor taste, who is really a bully with a need to “misuse” and intimidate you, and everyone else around him, into submission. If you’re able, be patient and realize you must stick to your guns if you’re to help this person and his project. Never allow yourself to get baited into over-heated arguments with this type; you have to show rather than tell. In the end, once you’re able to educate him on the difference between what you can produce and what he’s insisting upon, this client will respect you and possibly experience an epiphany.It’s in these cases where you’ve made a world of difference. This type is actually frightened of failure and uses aggressive behavior to mask that. He REALLY needs your help; his personality type demands tough love for you to give it.If you fail to deftly take the lead with this client, remember, when the work you’ve created goes out into the world and it’s, crap, you WILL be the fall guy because you produced it. If you can’t help the “challenged” client be better, why are you there? Again, this does take SKILL. If you know you don’t have the personality to work with this type, do them and yourself a favor; refer them to one of your colleagues who can. No shame in that. I admit, I’m not always up to dealing with those I call, “the creative illiterate,” but I do understand HOW they need to be ‘dealt with’ and thus, served.COMMITTEE CREATION CHAOSAs for creative “taste by committee,” for designers, copywriters and other creatives, this can be the WORST possible situation! I experienced a PAINFUL -yet unforgettable- lesson featuring eleven stakeholders that took several months to get on the same page and loving the final work, only to discover one “boss” who had been left out of the mix. His exclusion from the initial process resulted in a complete, back-to-square-one, do-over!!!! This made the whole nightmare last over four months. Anyway, that was my lesson about SUPER ego overriding rationale; great creative; democratic process or anything else. I’ve since seen these situations again and have known how to handle them.When dealing with actual committees, I usually attack -I mean- approach, each individual and bond with him or her one-on-one. The ego nightmares happen when there’s an audience. People seem to behave and respond differently when they aren’t “performing.” Yes, this is time-consuming and not always worth it.When it isn’t feasible to relate one-on-one with each individual, identify the key influencer or influencers and work with and through him or them. This influencer is not always the final decision-maker. There are situations where someone other than the boss holds the stronger influence; to whom the boss listens. Your not-so-difficult challenge then becomes, identifying the right persons to successfully complete your creative effort.SECOND OPINION; SECOND THOUGHTSSometimes you’ll find yourself working with that client who at first seems to love everything you present before him. It won’t be long before you realize this person is the chronic, script-flipper. Things will keep changing, AFTER everything was, “all good.” This is because he has other people, who you typically know nothing about, kindly sharing opinions. Add to this that your client is a, second-guesser, never quite confident with his own choices. This is another type who unless managed could lead to disaster.Implant The “Process of Elimination” by Letting Everyone Weigh InIn general, outside of committees, associations and other group scenarios, you must control the otherwise uncontrollable outside opinion phenomenon. My solution on creative projects has been to determine any and all possible stakeholders, supervisors, and members of the peanut gallery not just at the beginning of the project, but all along the way. I embrace them and invite their feedback. (I’ve discovered I’m ‘gonna’ get it anyway, right?)My strategy includes spouses, in-laws and the mailman. I encourage feedback from the most to least qualified. This way, it’s like having an informal focus group all the time.When my client shares negative feedback we discuss it. I get my client to ‘consider the source’ through questions. What does this opposing person do for a living? Does this person buy what you sell? Has this person always been supportive of your business or just the opposite? How old is your target market; does this person fit that profile?This method is almost sinister as I make the client THINK, educate him and point out who is and is not his target demographic and why the work might not appeal to that source. We gain insight and learn together along the way. This helps the client begin to recognize who is and who isn’t qualified to weigh in.Using this “consider-the-source” strategy makes your client see you as the expert and begin to recognize and dismiss, irrelevant outside forces. It’s psychology of course. But as creatives, particularly when writing copy, our calling is to persuade, influence, reach and produce the desired response, right?Well, simply unleash in person with your clients, those powers of persuasion you usually use on screen and on paper.HURRY UP and WAITThis client comes to you with a deadline looming large, or worse, they’ve already missed an important date and bring their assignment to you under stress, thus causing YOU, the need to perform under (figurative), duress.As a creative person, this is a dangerous game to get into. Many things can go terribly wrong and in the end, they’ll ALL be your fault from the client’s point of view.Here are your options in a “rush”:1. Don’t do it. You’re not available.2. Charge a rush fee of at least double your regular rate, because you’ll more than likely need to alter your creative production schedule, work extra hours and/or bring in additional persons to successfully complete the assignment.If you choose option number 2, make sure you have certain things in writing, including the rush fee; non-refundable deposit and/or cancellation fee and a clause that states the work you create -copyrights and all- belongs to you until it is paid for in full. If the assignment is graphic design or photographs, watermark all digital files as the work progresses.3. Don’t promise what you may not be able to deliver; instead, refer this client to a colleague and offer to stay in the loop as support or backup. The client as well as your colleague will appreciate this. You and your colleague can privately work out a referral fee or other arrangement if appropriate. The point is to remove yourself from the lead position and the responsibility if you suspect you won’t be able to deliver or don’t want the potential headaches.In any case, use e-mail and don’t delete any of your correspondence. You want these as documentation for your records especially if there are any “miscommunications.”What can happen in the high-stakes pressure cooker of the “rush job” is that being the creative soul you are, you over-empathize and in essence make your client’s dilemma -whatever it is- your own. This may result in you so passionately wanting to get the job done and delivered… that you do that before receiving your full payment.So, be careful.False Alarm PolicyThe rush client may also come to you with urgency, get you on board then inexplicably drag his feet, allow an unreasonable amount of time to lapse to where you finally realize the “rush” was not real. Or, he may simply disappear when it comes time to submit your deposit. RED FLAGS, all.This client typically returns with one of the following two scenarios:1. More urgent, URGENCY!!2. No worries. No real rush now.Now you must enforce, “policy,” because although you may not have started the assignment, you may have altered your creative and production schedule to accommodate this client. If you did not make accommodations or begin, you’re good.Either way, you need a “policy” for this. Will you maintain the rush fee if there is now, actually no rush? What timeframes and dates for delivery did you promise and how must they now be changed? Was there an agreed upon deposit and has the assignment changed to the point of changing the deposit?You must also determine why things changed, so you’re prepared, in the event of a repeat episode of, “Hurry up and wait.”IN CONCLUSIONAs a creative entrepreneur, you’re in business to serve. There are challenges. Practice your creative-persuasive skills in your client relationships and interactions in addition to, in your work. For the sake of your creative work, simply remember that you do have skills to overcome client-based, creative and business challenges.Accomplish this by remembering that clients are people too. Their needs come in all sizes, shapes and colors, metaphorically speaking.First, identify the type of client and client challenge you’re facing; know that no matter the challenge; those you encounter with your clients are their challenges, too. As the creative professional, strive to have the expert stamina and strategy to meet and conquer each challenge not only for yourself, but to best help and serve your clients.