It was summer 2008, just about the time when Barack Obama had finally dispatched Hillary Clinton in his bid for the Democratic nomination. John McCain was running away with the Republication nomination with no one, perhaps even himself, expecting him to name Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
My eyes were scanning the political scene, trying to come to grips with all the changes coming to Washington. No matter who won that November, I knew America was about to embark on historic change by either electing the first president of African descent or the first septuagenarian since Ronald Reagan.
I had just been contacted by someone who wanted me to write three articles each week for the next two months covering premium European automobiles. That’s right up my alley, because at least half of what I write is cars-related.
We discussed the parameters of the gig, negotiated a price, drafted a contract, signed it and got started on the work. Immediately, I began to feel the first wave of resistance.
Case in point: customer initially requests the premium Volkswagen Phaeton sedan be included with my write-ups of the three German brands–BMW, Mercedes and Audi– recognizing that this car competes well with its upscale German rivals. Yes, Audi is a division of the Volkswagen Group, but the Phaeton does (or did) poach sales from that brand.
No sooner had I submitted the Phaeton article when I received an email saying she couldn’t use it, noting that Volkswagen isn’t a luxury brand. Well, no kidding.
Undeterred, I submitted the next article I was working on–covering the Audi A8–and it was immediately accepted as was my third article written on the Volvo S80. I then moved down my list to the Saab 9-7x and was about to complete that article when I received a panicked call from my client saying she needed the replacement for the first article right away.
Turns out her “loose” deadline with me was a hard deadline with her boss and I had just two hours to get the article to her. No problem (at least this time), as I had written about this same Saab model for another client the previous month. I promised she would get what she needed within 90 minutes, just enough time to do quick edits and submit it to her boss.
I should have seen what was coming next, but I was truly blindslided by what took place.
Upon submitting the follow-up article, client calls me back and tearfully says that it was the wrong article. Her boss wanted the article to be about the 9-5 sedan, not the 9-7x SUV. Oh, joy, I thought: this project is really going to be more of a hassle than what it is worth. My notes indicated the next write up was to be about the 9-7x, but I soon realized that she hadn’t cleared those titles with her boss.
Her boss was upset with her which meant she wasn’t too happy with me. When I explained that I was working with the agreed upon titles, she half-apologized and changed the subject.
That first batch of articles had me writing five titles and getting paid only for three. I knew if I didn’t draw the line soon, I’d have seven more weeks of battling through my work. Instead of shopping the two unused articles, I decided to place them on my blog. I then set out to clarify my position to keep this difficult client under control.
Yes, I began to manage her expectations by doing the following:
Stopping my work. I told the client that I would not write another article until she cleared those titles with her boss. There was no way I would continue to allow her problems to become mine.
Establishing kill fees. Though not part of the original contract, I told my client that if a previously agreed up title was changed after I had written it, then I expected to be paid for the title whether she used it or not. No pay, then no work.
Clear changes first. I also insisted that any other changes in our agreement, including the delivery of the articles, had to be cleared by me first. That “loose” deadline was firmed up; I began to get my completed work to her at least one full day before she needed them.
The changes worked or at least they brought some sanity back into what was an obviously stressful relationship. When I completed the gig, I was ready to move on.
Oddly, the client thought that the gig was open-ended despite what was spelled out in the contract, meaning that she could extend it at-will. I put an end to that thinking by rightly stating our original agreement had finished and that I was moving on to a new gig immediately.
Even without a new job lined up, I knew that moving on was the best thing for me. Sometimes the expectations of difficult clients can be too much to manage!