Precious vs. Professional: Are Your Work Standards Reasonable?

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“Can’t you just do it anyway? Help us out here!” A client said this to me last week, and I did help them. Sort of.

The client wanted me to write content for the company website, which is due to launch in a few weeks. The thing was, they’d only given me content for about a quarter of the site’s pages, and most of those weren’t top-level pages. No more content would be forthcoming before the launch, but they needed “something” to launch with.

I could foresee numerous problems with this scenario — I’m sure you can too — but in the end, the client just wanted these few pages written. Yes, the site would launch with barely any content, and “coming soon” holding pages at every turn — many on top-level pages. But that didn’t matter to the client: at least the company’s internal web team would have “met” its launch deadline.

Every freelancer has projects that go awry. But sometimes it seems like the most difficult challenges are the ones that, while they’re not completely off the rails, require us to compromise our professionalism somehow.

Sometimes, as in this case, freelancers can get caught up in situations where our hands seem to be tied. In the end I felt I was doing the client a disservice by giving them a handful of low-level pages with which to launch the site. By compromising my professionalism, I felt I was compromising theirs.

Precious, or Professional?

At times like this, client discussions can get intense. Before you know it, you’re being heavied — or begged — to do something to “help” even though you know that fulfilling the request will only help your client undermine their own credibility.

Very quickly, you can begin to wonder if you’re just being too precious about your work. After all, writing content (or developing websites, or designing brochures) isn’t exactly brain surgery. My writing these few pages for my client wasn’t about to lead to an international incident; it wasn’t even difficult. In fact, they’d love me for it. And it would earn me some income. Was I being too precious about the job?

The flip side to this argument is pretty clear to me. Firstly, if I’m in the business of professional communications, it seems ridiculous to complete work that I believe runs counter to that basic goal.

Secondly, freelancers are largely in charge of our own work product; our key satisfaction lies in producing good output that exceeds the client’s goals and their expectations. That’s what we build our businesses — our livelihoods — on. By discarding that goal, I remove the most basic, essential potential for satisfaction from this job.

The client’s request also changes the nature of our relationship; it limits its potential. It shifts my role from trusted provider to content vending machine — and that’s not what I’m here for. Although my client might see meeting their launch deadline as the most crucial issue, I see their industry reputation as more important. And I believe that perspective is valuable.

Drawing the Line

It can be very difficult in the heat of the moment to decline requests for “help” from clients who are under the pump and want you to be as happy about cutting corners as they are — even when you have strong reasons for doing so. Where do you draw the line?

For me, the line-drawing usually comes after the fact, when I have a little breathing space to reflect on the experience. I practically never say no to the client’s request at the time. Perhaps I’m just a confrontation-hating walkover, but in tense times, I usually want to help reduce the client’s stress. And, as I said, copy is rarely a life-and-death issue.

But it never ends there. Inevitably, once the moment has passed, I’ll begin to think about whether I should keep working with the client. Perhaps I’ll decide to meet with them to get a clearer understanding about the project, their expectation of my contribution, and my possible role within their future projects. To put it another way, if this client really just needs a content vending machine, then it’s best that I identify that now, rather than keep working with them in the hope that they want something more.

I’ve never been able to turn down a request from a client to do less-than-ideal work in order to help them out of a jam. Have you? How do you handle those kinds of situations?

Image by stock.xchng user Marzie.

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  • e-prodesign

    This kind of issues remind me that the most important view point is the client angle. A freelancer first job is: customer satisfaction.

    • jmansfield

      Surely the most important angle is what is in it for you as a freelancer – is it interesting to me, beneficial to my career or do I need the money? Like Georgina eluded to it, it’s important to recognise why you are a freelancer and that may be to do more interesting and fulfilling work – not just to satisfy clients. Also it’s in no ones interest (the client or yourself) to do something you don’t want to do or don’t agree with.

  • benfrain

    The problem with the ‘Can you just…’ questions asked by clients is they invariably mean doing something the client perceives as simple, although they may not have the faculty to do it themselves.
    They are typically mundane tasks which provide very little creativity. As a web designer/developer, the creativity is the thing that gets you out of bed every day. Too many ‘Can you just…’ jobs lead to despair!
    Like you, I tend to do the job, yet feel disappointed after the event. However, as the years have gone on, I feel I’m quite skilled at knowing which jobs are worth getting involved in, and which are best avoided, as they’ll likely involve a lot of ‘Can you just…’ tasks.

  • Whosdigit

    I have trouble saying no also, that’s why I have a predefined process tacked to the wall.

    Many times the person asking for help is doing so on their own and trying to off load their responsibilities. They take credit for it when it’s accomplished. If it goes sour, it’s my fault.

    If it’s a phone call, I tell them I have to check and I’ll get back to them shortly.

    If you give them an hour of breathing time, many times the situation is resolved on their end, either through their own reflection, or by another team member.

    I then send an email recapping the request. This gives you documentation of the call and your response. I list out the pros and cons of the request. Especially any additional costs. I usually have an alternative that might work. I never make it my decision, it’s theirs.

    I’ve had good response with this approach. You need to always be professional and helpful through the entire project.

  • georgina

    Nice advice, guys :) Thanks for the great comments.

  • J.

    Doing a half-bothered job reflects badly on you as the freelancer in the eyes of the client too. Though they might be in a muddle at the time they ask you to cut corners, when the client has more time to reflect on the project they can also point the finger… and further down the line (after you have vended all you can), they may choose someone else over you. I also believe that way your focus – if you wish to specialise in a particular area of design/coding/whatever is taken away and you may as well apply to be on their payroll (ever see a clause in a permanet job contract that says ‘do anything for the business’ …or words to that effect? That way lie many half-bothered jobs and many half-bothered employees).

  • http://www.idea15webdesign.com idea15

    There have been two occasions when I was asked to do something which so strongly grated against my own standards that I informed the clients that I would be removing my business name from the work.

    This was largely a symbolic gesture, as a client who is asking you do those little extras on the side or is going completely against your professional guidance has already made the decision to devalue you and your professionalism.

    In other words – by the time a conflict like this arises, it’s already too late.

  • http://au.linkedin.com/in/rsearle rsearle

    I think there is tension here between professional integrity and business practice. To some extent I think the response depends on the business relationship.

    If I’m working under contract (which is usually the case) then my view is that I’m bound by the contract to provide services as required. So I ask for a written requirements statement to provide proof of the customer’s approval of the requirement, acceptance of responsibility for the consequences, and commitment to pay for the work. If I have problems with the requirements, I document them as a response to the requirements statement and I ask for confirmation. If the client confirms then I do what they want.

    But if I’m working freelance for a regular client, then my view is that I’m a service provider, delivering a professional service to a standard that I set. If the client gives me requirements that call for me to compromise my professional standards to an unacceptable extent (and I usually have some line in the sand), then I’ll first try to negotiate the requirements. But if they insist then I’ll have to tell them I can’t help them. At that point, in those circumstances, my issue is not about performance standards, it’s about the sustainability and competitiveness of my business. And it’s not in my interests (or my family’s interests) to compromise that. Of course, it’s usually not in the client’s interests either, but that’s actually not my problem.

    The fact is that IT projects go pear-shaped, or crash and burn all the time. None of us are exempt from this. Sometimes it’s somebody else’s fault and sometimes (if we’re honest) it’s ours. So if we stay in business for long enough, all of us will have our share of disappointments and failures. That’s just life. I don’t speak for anybody else, but I got over that sad fact long ago.

    I find it’s simpler to stick to my knitting and just make business decisions about client assignments and requirements.

  • thejackel

    It’s important to keep the client happy but also try and get across your views on requests that don’t sit right with how you work and what you believe to be professional.

    I wouldn’t do something for a client that I didn’t believe in without letting them know where I stand. If you don’t let clients know how you feel about such requests you’re in danger of having them come back in future and ask for the same.

    Sometimes explaining to clients why you consider such and such a bad idea can get them thinking and you can avoid having to compromise on your standards (although this often only works with long term clients who trust you)

  • Ngumbe

    Professionalism all the way! Once you’ve lost your rep as a professional, knowledgable expert, you’ve lost a lot more than being a bit precious. Just look at how DubLi is trailblazing with their professional ethos!