“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?