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Two pieces of advice to the harassed freelancer

Andrew Steeds

People who work freelance may be grateful for any advice they can find in these economically difficult times. Lots of people we talk to complain that there is less work around than ever and that what work there is is being offered at a lower rate and by clients who are more than ever insistent on making changes beyond what has been contractually agreed.

In this climate the twin pieces of advice offered in this blog may not be quite as useful as I have found them in the past, but I’ll leave you to decide. The first I owe to Ben Richards, a designer I work with as much as possible. We were talking about managing clients and their expectations, and how hard it was, particularly for freelancers new to this way of working, to rein in some of clients’ more impossible demands. As we were talking, Ben doodled a triangle on a piece of paper, something like this:

The triangle represents the three core ingredients of any client’s demands, and the temptation is for any freelancer to go along with these demands and give the client everything they want. But that way, disappointment and resentment lie – and quite possibly the end of that professional relationship.

What Ben said, and what I found so liberating, was that, when clients now trot out this three-fold demand, he replies ‘I’ll tell you what. You can have any two of these – but you can’t have all three.’ He doesn’t often need to explain the different permutations (good and quick is going to cost you a lot because I’ll have to buy in extra help/pay overtime/incur other expenses such as huge stocks of caffeine to see me through the night; good and cheap isn’t going to be that high on my list of priorities, etc.). More often, after a momentary shock, the client says ‘Fair enough’ and selects the two that are most important to them.

It’s not quite so revolutionarily liberating, but there is another piece of advice I offer you from my own experience. In a related demand to the one that Ben was taking, clients seek increasingly these days to impose deadlines on projects that are, by any reading of the international human rights legislation, unreasonable. At the end of a discussion about an interesting new project, they’ll say ‘There’s just one thing: we need this to go live this week/tomorrow/some other ridiculous time’.

In my first years working freelance, I made it a badge of honour to meet these unreasonable demands of clients, mindful, maybe, that most sensible freelancers wouldn’t. I’m not sure it did me any favours: clients wouldn’t necessarily be appreciative of the efforts I’d gone to to meet a deadline which, after all, was the one that they had put on the table in the first place; and, quite often, seeing that I was able to deliver on that impossible schedule, they’d provide me the next time round with a deadline that was even more injurious to emotional and physical health. So I was locked into a cycle of self-harming obeisance to the unreasonable demands of clients.

More recently, I’ve taken a different stand. Now, when clients ask for something to be handed back to them tomorrow that clearly needs twice as much time spent on it as they pretend, I will say to them ‘Of course, you can have it back tomorrow, if you want. It won’t be that good, and it’ll have more errors than you or I would be happy to see. But you can have it back then if you want it. If, however, you want it to be really good and to go out with no errors to embarrass you, I’ll give it back to you the day after tomorrow. It’s your choice.’

It’s a bit scary, but wonderfully liberating, to be able to say this. And, of course, in the vast majority of cases, clients will say ‘Fair enough. I’m sure we can live with the extra day. The day after tomorrow will be fine.’

The only drag, of course, is that you then have to make sure that the work is really good and error-free!