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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Writers Worth: Handling Client Controversy

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While Writers Worth has been going on, lots has been happening behind the scenes in my writing life and personal life. My one-year anniversary of a successful liver surgery came and went (amen). My daughter's wedding is creeping closer -- less than a month now. I spent Monday working from the kitchen table in a room crammed with furniture (downstairs floors being finished finally). And I managed a good deal of client work both before and during the floor sanding/staining/finishing process.

That my husband concocted a way to dangle the wireless modem from the ceiling so I could work while the floors were being finished tells you how strange the work surroundings were.

One of the more recent projects I'd completed occurred before the madness, but it stands to reason that issues will crop up when you're already in the middle of an odd situation. It's an issue that could escalate, but one in which I know I did what I could to give the client the best product I could given the information provided.

Still, it could go wrong if I don't handle it properly.

It's a situation in which the client has to answer to a third party. This third party had some very pointed instructions for my client, which I believe were passed on to me in their entirety. At any rate, I based my work on the information I received.

Now the third party is doubting that my client hired an editor at all.

You see what's about to happen, don't you? The unseen variable --  me-- can easily become the target and ensuing scapegoat for any displeasure that's being lobbed about.

Part of being a confident writing professional is knowing that you did your job correctly. Still, you are going to face those clients and situations that will have people challenging your skills and questioning your choices. In a case where you're working for one client and suddenly answering to another ---that's a minefield.

Here's how to navigate the minefield and maintain your confidence and reputation:

Answer only to the client. Your temptation may be to start defending yourself to this third party or telling them to back off. Or worse, you might think "I have to make this person happy now." Stop that thinking right now. You answer to the one paying you. The only time you answer to another is when you're contracted to do so. I call it the "posse clause" and it's in my contracts. I answer to third parties only when they're named at the outset. If they aren't and I'm now expected to work with them, that means my current contract is breached, I'm owed money, and I'm now going to work under a different contract if you want me to continue.

Step back. Don't jump automatically into defense mode. Assess the situation, the complaint, and the possible scenarios that could be influencing the entire conversation. What is the main objection or concern? Is that something directly related to you, or are there influencing circumstances? Could something you did be part of the problem? If so, how can you fix it?

Get all the facts. Don't do or say anything or offer any remedies until you know the full scope of the situation. If you're having troubles applying this advice, just imagine that you've agreed to rewrite a book that someone said was "poorly written" and then you find out it was someone who wants to be that person's editor. When responding to things like "He says there are no signs of edits or revisions" do yourself a favor -- ask for the exact copy of the document in question -- not the original or the first revisions, if there are multiples. Then you'll be working from the same information.

Address client's feedback thoughtfully. Drop the emotion right now. I don't care if that client just said her third grader writes better. A) you know better, and B) it's not relevant to the problem, which is your only concern. When giving feedback, keep defensiveness out of it, and don't use emotionally charged words. Explain why you did what you did, and be sure to cite style guides, if it calls for it.

Make sensible changes. Don't agree to a rewrite of the entire project if you know it doesn't need it. Agree to rework one section or revise certain elements if you feel that's warranted. Sometimes just offering to do this will be enough. People want to be heard. People also want to believe they're writers sometimes, so don't take personally those "I found several errors" comments. Usually, they're working off high-school knowledge of rules that have possibly changed. In one case, I was called unprofessional and the client implied I was a hack because I'd started a few sentences with prepositions, a practice that is now widely accepted.

Remember where ownership lies. If it should get really contentious, remember who had final approval over your work. Remind the client, if need be, that you had their final approval and that you thought, as you should at that point, that the project was completed satisfactorily. That's why I always check back to make sure clients have received the project and are putting their stamp of approval on it.

You can't please every client. It will happen that someone will express displeasure, concern, or upset over what you've given them. When you can, work with them to make sure they're happy and you've understood what they want and have delivered it. When you can't, make sure not to shoulder unnecessary blame, especially in the case of a third party giving feedback. You answer to your paying client, not their friends, family members, professors, employers, or networking circles. Your worth isn't determined by people you've never worked with -- it's determined by how you rise to meet challenges and how you wear that professional hat when things get tough.

How do you handle unpleasant client feedback or situations?


Eileen said...

"No signs of edits or revisions"? That's an easy one to address. Use the "compare documents" function in Word. I had a client one time who had that very complaint - that he couldn't see that I did much to improve his copy. So I did the compare documents thing, which lit up all the revised areas in red ... and the client immediately back down and wrote the check.

Lori Widmer said...

My client ended up doing just that, Eileen. Not sure if it helped -- seems there's a hidden agenda at work here (person is fresh out of college and looking to exert some authority). But a great suggestion nonetheless.

Yo Prinzel said...

When editing, I always send two versions--a marked up version showing all changes and a clean version with the changes accepted. That way, there are no questions that changes were made and what those changes were.

A few months ago I had a sort of similar situation with a very big writing project. The client looked in the wrong folder for the content I'd completed and instead of seeing my files, he saw the resource docs his team had originally sent me which were not for publication--just for direction. This resulted in a pretty nasty stream of messages to me about the quality of my work, copyright accusations, etc. At first, I didn't understand what was happening and while I kept my cool, inside I was a mess and it really set me back. Finally, when they sent me some of the files for revision, I saw that they'd edited and critiqued their own resource files and I had to point out that there was a whole 'nother folder that they'd created and asked me to upload my work to--which is where the actual files were. The client's staff apologized to me and raved about the work but the client never did so I stopped working for him even though he paid pretty well. The worst part of the whole ordeal was the self doubt that I allowed to consume me for a couple of months. We are our own worst enemies. WHY COULDN'T YOU HAVE WRITTEN THIS POST IN MARCH, LORI? HUH???? ;-P

Cathy Miller said...

The first step that makes all the rest easier is taking the emotion out of it. Your step back, Lori, is excellent advice.

Ultimately, we decide if we are going to allow emotion to rule response (ours or the client's).

I had a client who hired me for a technical presentation. I offered two options. One in which I handled the technical hand-outs and the online presentation. The second (and the one with the lower fee)was for the online presentation only. I am sure you can guess which one was selected.

The problem occurred when the decision-maker did not relay what the deliverable would be. The third-party wanted a complete re-write. I calmly explained it was outside the scope and would mean an additional fee, which, of course, they would not do.

I was sorry for the miscommunication and lost that client for future work but I would have felt worse if I caved and completed an option they did not choose at the lower fee.

Paula said...

If someone were to tell me they couldn't see my edits, I'd thank them. The best editors I've worked with are so skillful that you don't notice their changes. All you know is your words sound really smart. (I've actually had to compare my copy with the edited copy a few times to see where the edits were even made. I picked up a lot of good tips doing that.)

I'm sure I've mentioned it before: my dad, who was a graphic artist, would add one or two minor things for nitpicky, know-it-all, micromanaging clients to spot just so they could feel good about catching the "mistake." Sort of a twist on the old showbiz adage, "Give 'em what they want."

Lori Widmer said...

Yo, I should have written it in March. I'm sorry. Now I shall doubt myself.... ;)

I don't blame you -- I won't work for anyone who thinks it's okay to act like a total jerk and then not apologize when he/she finds out the mistake wasn't mine. I left a similarly lucrative gig four years ago because he went ballistic when I superimposed my numbers on the page count. Weird, because he was sent the updated file every time, so open it?

Cathy, I like to step back for a few reasons -- one, it forces you to reframe it in a business perspective, and two, you slow down enough to let the situation sort itself a bit before you inject your fears, frustrations, defensiveness....

You were smart to not cave in. You'd have resented it and kicked yourself. Sounds like it would have been a huge amount of work for little compensation.

Paula, I'd say that too, but in this case, the client's person is being smarmy about it.

I love your dad's addition. Great idea for those who need to be on top of whatever invisible mountain they're trying to conquer. :)

Jennifer Mattern said...

Yo, I remember hearing about that client of yours. I don't know how you got through that without blowing up at the end. How any client can be so incompetent that they don't remember what they gave you in the first place is just beyond me. I'm glad that's over and you got it all sorted out, even if the client didn't respect you enough to apologize personally.

Lori, great post. Maybe you already have and I just missed it, but if not, you should consider sharing your "posse clause" so other writers can add something similar to their contracts. It's a great idea to limit your contacts from the get-go. I usually mention it when discussing edits. They get two rounds, period. So if they want to get feedback from a dozen people, they better do it on their own and come to me with one set of requests -- none of that X says they want to change something, and then Y sees the edits and wants to change it back BS. I was burned ones like that early on, and thankfully I've never let it happen again.

Ashley said...

I've learned to step back emotionally but also physically. What I mean is that I don't necessarily respond to such an email immediately. My knee jerk response is to reply and get the situation resolved so I don't have to worry about it anymore. But often if I just wait a while, even just an hour or two, I'll have a better, calmer, less emotional response. Usually I'll go ahead and write my response immediately and save it as a draft. I can always revise it later!

Lori Widmer said...

Two rounds per project should be enough, Jenn. I agree. And while I don't mind answering to a committee, I have to know about it ahead of time so I can adjust the fee and the work hours needed to accommodate more people.

Great way to handle it, Ashley. You're right -- even just a few hours can give you the emotional distance you need to respond appropriately.

Lori Widmer said...

Jenn, I'll make the posse clause a separate post because it bears repeating, but here's what I have in my current contracts:

Third Parties. This agreement is made between the Client and the Contractor and all decisions and discussions of the project described herein will be exclusive of any third party not expressly named herein. Any review or input of a third party directly or indirectly in the writing process by the Client without the written consent of both the Client and the Contractor prior to the start of the project will void this agreement and all fees contained in this agreement will be due the Contractor in full and immediately. The Contractor and Client can then opt to enter into a new agreement at an additional, agreed-upon fee, to include said third party(ies).

KeriLynn Engel said...

Potential issues like this are why I'm so thankful for blogs like yours, Lori :) Thanks to reading warnings like this, I've added a standard clause to my contract, too. I call it the "Sole Point of Contact" clause and name the one person I'll be dealing with, and that if I receive communications from other parties they'll be ignored and forwarded to my contact.

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