In my last post, I talked about a painful instance in which I knew a project was wrong for me right from the start, but I pursued it anyway. In part one of this three-part series about the value of negative feedback, I talked about yet another instance when I was not able to satisfy a client, and why I think the engagement went wrong.
Here, in part three, I share yet another tale of woe--but this one I really could not anticipate.
Here's what happened.
In this final instance, I really had no way of knowing in advance that the project would turn sour. A client hired me to edit 40 pages of web content, which I did to their complete satisfaction. Then, because they liked my work, they asked me to create inserts for a new, folder-style corporate brochure.
I never could have anticipated the disastrous results.
As I usually do, I turned in one small section of the work to make sure in advance that the voice, style, and format were acceptable. My client replied:
“This is the best content we’ve had in 12 years…continue on just as you’re doing!”
So I went ahead and wrote another 20 or so of the inserts, two pages each, front and back, which the client would insert as appropriate into a folder-style brochure.
I submitted the first draft of the insert content for its first round of edits. As usual, it was returned to me with a variety of comments, notes, and change requests. Nothing major. I made the requested changes, replied to comments, and returned the content yet again for the final revision round.
This time though, the client, who had been giving me kudos all along, sent the copy to another person—or two or three—in the firm, each of who also added their comments and edits. In the end, I received two sets of documents back: One edited by one or two people, the other set edited by someone else.
That’s not a deal-breaker; for a big project like this, I’d have no problem handling multiple levels of edits, even at such a late stage. The trouble was that, this time, the documents had comments in them like this:
Well. This was a troubling development. First, rewriting without the “you” voice would be a major undertaking. I had already submitted one piece in this style, and was told “This is the best content we’ve had in 12 years.” And, all the other pieces, also in the “you” voice, passed successfully through the first round of edits.
Second, what didn’t they like about the entire pages and paragraphs that were circled? The content read well to me….
Third, I can’t really use a competitor’s process to define another company’s process–unless those processes are identical. Besides that–and I had checked–the competitor’s brochure did NOT define my client's process.
Being baffled, and wanting so to please while also being fairly compensated, I typed up an email respectfully explaining that, although I’d be happy to do the extra work, to change the voice on all 40+ pages, at this “final revision” stage, would require an additional charge. I also addressed the other comments by asking them to tell me specifically what they didn’t like about the areas marked “rewrite.” I asked what should be deleted. What should be added. What should be changed. I also explained that their competitor’s brochure did not detail the “process,” and requested that they do so for me so I could complete the work.
That’s when the trouble really started.
I got a call, not from my client, but from his assistant (or partner), who was absolutely livid that I would have the “gall” to request additional money when my contract clearly stated that two rounds of revisions are included in the fee. I gently tried to explain that I had already been given the go-ahead to produce the work as I did, and that no one seemed to mind on the first reading. I told her it would take me eight hours or so to rewrite everything and that I couldn’t do it for free. I also pointed out very nicely that the reason I sent one document before I continued with the rest was to make sure “voice” and “style” were in line with expectations.
That went nowhere. She then started complaining that they already sent me their competitor’s brochure, and that I was to take their process from it. I pulled out the brochure and asked where I could find it…on what page…perhaps I missed it? She said, “I’ve already had to spend way too much time on this. I’m not doing your job for you.”
Really. I am not exaggerating. When I make a mistake, I admit it, correct it if I can, and move on. But this was unbelievable.
When we finally got around to arguing about the entire paragraphs and pages marked “rewrite” (by this time I had lost all semblance of professionalism), I bluntly told her that I couldn’t rewrite forever *hoping* to get it right without some kind of direction as to what was wrong with it. Again, she yelled–YELLED–at me,
“WHY SHOULD I DO THAT? I'M NOT GOING TO DO YOUR JOB FOR YOU!"
Finally, exasperated, I said, “Look. I’m sure you have better things to do with your time than to argue with me. I know I do.” I told her that there was no way I could satisfy her, and that I would forfeit the balance they owed me (about $1,400), so that they could find another writer to do what I was unable to do.
What a nightmare. But I did learn some valuable lessons; hopefully you will, too.
First, I changed my contract so that it reads, “Any changes in the writing, whether it’s a change in voice and style, direction, or other unseen variables, must be brought to the Writer’s attention upon delivery of the first draft. If Client gives the ‘okay’ on a first draft, and after delivery of additional drafts desires changes in voice or style, direction, outline, or anything else, Writer will be paid in full for work performed as agreed upon in this contract. While Writer will make every effort to accommodate late stage changes, Writer will bill at her hourly rate, or issue a new contract, for out-of-scope changes.”
Second, I felt terrible about losing my cool during the call. She had me tied up in knots and angry because I felt she was being so unreasonable. Now, I refuse to argue with an unhappy client, and refuse to give in to my overwhelming desire to try to reason in hopes that they will eventually “see” my side. I will listen to their rants. Instead of arguing “my side,” I will say, “I see. I understand. I’m sorry about that.” I will listen, and ask what they would like me to do to make things right. If they say “nothing,” I will gladly refund what is due them and end the relationship.
And finally, I will ask about “editing by committee” before I begin any such project. If more than one person is in charge of editing, I will request that a single someone be given the task of consolidating and approving the edits and feedback before forwarding them on to me.
What can you learn from my misfortunes? Although I hate to say it, make sure your contract covers things that could go wrong. And when something new arises, take it as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes, and add coverage for that “something” into future contracts. Finally, don’t argue with an unhappy customer, even if they’re wrong and you’re right. Listen to the rant. Apologize. Ask what you can do to make it right. If you can’t satisfy them, say you’re sorry. And then say goodbye.
I wrote this article many years ago–perhaps in 2004 or 2005. It’s now 2014. And I’m pleased to say that I really HAVE learned these lessons! Three incidents came to mind while I was reading and editing.
First, I engaged with a client who, during phone conversations, questioned and or “corrected” almost everything I said. For instance, if I suggested that some readers may appreciate having pdf versions of documents available on the website, he had to explain, in many, many words and excruciating detail, all of the reasons why he felt that approach was wrong. This happened with every little thing, taking up way too much time and giving me a strong sense that the client didn’t really trust and respect me. How could I work like that? So, although he had already paid me a hefty retainer, I severed the relationship and refunded the retainer. It took a week for it to finally sink in that yes, I was really “firing” him. He tried to convince me that I was making a mistake, but I don’t think so. The best business relationships are win-win, right?
Second, a “LinkedIn consultant” wanted me to edit her website content. She was selling videos that told users how to maximize their use of LinkedIn. However, her videos, not to mention her blog and website, were atrocious! I knew that not even the most skilled rhetorician could pull off a coup like that, getting readers to want to stay on the site, much less pay for the content. In response, I sent her an email explaining why I couldn’t do the work. I told her that she really needed to address foundational issues first before I, or anyone, could write content that delivered results. I never heard from her again. I wonder if she ever did fix those videos?
Third–and this one happened just two weeks ago, in mid-March 2014. I was conversing with someone who needed me to write content for an email nurture campaign. It was a respectable product, and I’m good at that type of work, so I quoted him a reasonable fee based on an estimate of hours. Then he wrote me back asking if I could lower my price. BING. My radar went up. No can do. I wrote back explaining that I’m a professional and, as is the case with most professionals, the way to reduce the cost of a project is to reduce the scope of the work–not the hourly fee. I said that moving forward with the relationship wouldn’t be good for either of us: He would think he wasn’t getting a good value for his money; I would feel terrible knowing he felt he was paying too much. Surprisingly, he wrote back, offering to pay my quoted rate. But the damage had already been done. Even though I had time on my schedule that I could have filled with those billable hours, I declined.
Lessons learned–and I’m proud :)
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And speaking of tribes....
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